This cancer is in Punjab

Published: March 28, 2016
The writer is a barrister and columnist. He is an Advocate of the High Court, and tweets @AsadRahim

The writer is a barrister and columnist. He is an Advocate of the High Court, and tweets @AsadRahim

In his younger, angrier days, Iqbal wrote: “Justice is an inestimable treasure; but we must guard it against the thief of mercy.” Some hundred years later, justice is long dead; courtesy the kind of mercy that flows from fear.

Fear that thrives off the sectarian swamp in southern Punjab. There’s no other way of putting this and — let’s be honest — everyone’s been saying it for years. In columns and cable television, in academic theses and wall-chalkings: this cancer is in Punjab.

There are two parties here: the mutants in the south, and their apologists in the centre. Takht-e-Lahore has militancy down to a science: listen to bomb blasts in the distance, buckle down, and look away. If it’s not here, it’s not anywhere.

Sure, Hazaras are cleansed from Quetta, and college kids are shot at in Charsadda, and there is sectarian violence in Abbas Town, and bad things happen in badlands far and away.

But Punjab, to quote another insipid right-winger, is a shining city on a hill — the ‘roshan’ in Roshan Pakistan. If it happens in Karachi, punch them in the face. If it happens in Fata, whack them back to Nuristan. But if there are tremors in Punjab, kick it under the carpet.

Forget the south, the Muslim League wasn’t even taking on the north. The year 2013 was proof of as much: talk to the Taliban. Dilly-dally on North Waziristan. Watch them blow up the district courts in Islamabad. Professor Ibrahim may yet cut us a deal.

But Waziristan happened. Zarb-e-Azb happened. And as the operation concludes in Shawwal, it’s time we held on again.

By mid-2013, there were three flashpoints: Karachi, Fata, and southern Punjab. The fact we’ve gone so hard in the first two, and left the third untouched, sums up the centre in a single sentence.

On Easter Sunday, Gulshan-e-Iqbal became a nightmare. Those who’ve seen the rides, who’ve seen kids run in the grass; who’ve breathed the air of Gulshan-e-Iqbal; lack the faculty to say more. What kind of sick idea is this meant to achieve — to murder children on swing sets?

“Contemplation without action is death,” Iqbal once said. There can be no more hemming and hawing. The suspected bomber reportedly hails from Muzaffargarh, where sectarian hate finds fertile ground. It’s time to flush out militancy from Punjab. And at the risk of repetition, it’s now or never.

That’s for the short run. In the long run, when you let your backyard become a violent snake pit, it tends to explode out front. What we now have is three provinces outsourced to the military and Rangers, and the state refusing to take the brunt in Punjab or Islamabad either.

So, while an operation in Punjab needed to happen yesterday, the civilian project is even more vital: madrassas, with all kinds of cruel and unusual curricula, operate with impunity. The nexus between charity drives and banned outfits has been entrenched for decades.

Education, welfare, volunteerism; this kind of extremist ingress can’t be fought with strikes and strafing. Ideas are fought with ideas: national action plans, press campaigns, economic incentives. Instead, we have mass deprivation on our hands.

And it wasn’t always this way. According to the Institute of Public Policy (IPP), “Multan and Rahim Yar Khan were ranked 4th and 6th in Punjab” around the 1970s. According to the IPP report, “southern parts of the province were massively neglected later on in the provision of economic infrastructure and public service delivery, resulting in the steep decline in their development ranking”.

Today, of Punjab’s 36 districts, it’s the South that shows up dead last in development indicators. The budget remains a fraction of what’s actually spent on Lahori white elephants, and what’s allotted isn’t used — for an effective disbursement of funds to happen (i.e., the kind that makes for grassroots improvement) you need an effective local government. Without the second, you can’t get the first.

Yes, the jury’s still out on whether poverty is a cause or correlation of militancy. But it’s not as if the state’s set about disproving it: southern Punjab remains one of the hottest, poorest, angriest places in the land.

This is a long-haul project: it requires army operations, and subsequently, civilian surgery. To pretend otherwise is what we’ve done since 2009, Punjab Police style: hammer a ringleader or two, filter the second-tier guys, and talk to anyone that’s reasonable.

But that’s too little, too late: without cutting out the cancer in the south, everything else is window-dressing.

Meanwhile, the real deal-breaker was, is, and always has been the police. The current counter-terror strategy relies on ‘special units’: elite forces; a crew of James Bonds fully-equipped to take on terror. But that’s not the answer — it’s the humdrum of regular police work: investigation; evidence collection; forensics; case building; that needs upgrading.

And from proper evidence collection flows proper prosecution, which may mean our courts actually convict terrorists than acquit them on sight.

The justice system; service delivery; sectarian groups; policing — when it comes to southern Punjab, where to start?

Perhaps there’s no place to look but the beginning. We celebrated March 23 with enthusiasm. But let’s remember what actually happened on March 23, 1940: Mr Jinnah declaring “full religious liberty, i.e., liberty of belief, worship and observance” to all communities, and protection of minorities’ “religious, cultural, [and] economic’ rights” in Lahore.

What we call Pakistan Day, is the anniversary of the Quaid painting our green banners white. A week from then, we watched as sick-hearted men ostensibly targeting Christian women and children — and all Lahore came out, giving their blood, shedding their tears: Muslim, Christian, Hindu.

And while gardens named for Iqbal are bombed, ideas cannot be undone. “The message of love,” he wrote, “when I can no longer keep it to myself, I come and tell it to your shining stars.”

The heart of this country is good. And it will be reclaimed.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Right province wrong region
    Mar 29, 2016 - 12:06AM

    While it is true that most foot soldiers are from southern Punjab, the planners, leaders and the ’cause of this cancer’ as you have put it live in Lahore. The government will arrest a few Molvi-looking poor people in the south, but the real culprits, who hold massive rallies and are in charge of madrassahs in Lahore and other parts of central Punjab will remain free and will eventually find another poor neighbourhood to recruit from. So, the Saraiki people — who are already told and taught that they are the other Punjabis will pay for this with their lives and the Punjabi molvis will win once again.Recommend

  • Rahul
    Mar 29, 2016 - 12:13AM

    The idea of Pakistan was first seriously formulated by neither a cleric nor a politician but by a poet. In 1930, Muhammad Iqbal, addressing the All-India Muslim league, made the case for a state in which India’s Muslims would realize their “political and ethical essence.” Though he was always vague about what the new state would be, he was quite clear about what it would not be: the old pluralistic society of India, with its composite culture. One can say that Pakistan has become the state Allama Iqbal wanted.Recommend

  • Jawad U Rahman
    Mar 29, 2016 - 12:27AM

    The terrorists probably think they are lucky to have a target like Pakistan, whose PM went on the air after the horrible attacks asking the terrorists to not take our ‘leniency’ as weakness. Where else will they find a lenient enemy after killing 60,000 of them?Recommend

  • Malveros
    Mar 29, 2016 - 5:01AM

    Utter Rubbish. CTD has already been active in Punjab for over a year now. The operations are being conducted silently in Punjab. It’s just that militants are choosing soft targets in the heartland of Punjab to remain visible and relevant.Recommend

  • Mar 29, 2016 - 6:27AM

    agree, our country is going deeper and deeper into the menace of religious fanatics and liberal fascists, looking at the mob gathered in islamabad and their mentality is what we are actually upto in punjabRecommend

  • Nadir N.M Mahmood
    Mar 29, 2016 - 9:22AM

    Hypocrisy! Hypocrisy! Hypocrisy! This single word defines us as a nation!Recommend

  • Asif Ali Khuhro
    Mar 29, 2016 - 11:35AM

    The repetition of atrocities are indicators that our leaders are reactive, not proactive. We need to be serious and wipe out this from every corner of country. Recommend

  • Feroz
    Mar 29, 2016 - 4:05PM

    Dear Brother, it is not geography but Ideology which has created the mindset that has brought forth militancy and extremism. Sure in one geographic area the problem may be more acute than another, however we need clarity to ensure that issues do not get confused or muddled. Everyone may also agree that the most virulent and deadly terror groups are based in south Punjab, while the theater of operations and hideouts may have been in FATA.

    Without clarity of mind, policy can never be sound, neither can action taken on those policies be productive. The first issue that needs to be resolved is the Taliban issue, are they good or bad, do they breed love or hate. This group has been slaughtering innocents across both Pakistan and Afghanistan mercilessly now for years. Pakistan believes that TTP and Afghan Taliban are different, Afghans believe they are the same because neither believes in borders, both subscribing to violent and non democratic means to take over their country and impose their ideology. They have hideouts in both countries where they protect the other. Where they play out their violent games, separately or jointly, does not matter.

    While the rulers claim there is no good terrorist or bad terrorist, on the ground everyone can see that some are protected while others are hunted and prosecuted. There is enough material and evidence with the Intelligence Agencies to prosecute and put away all of them. There is absolutely no need to ask foreign countries for proof, a charade that has brought only ignominy and humiliation with dishonor. Forget about neighbors, what Pakistan needs is peace which it can never get while hosting such groups.

    The solutions are very clear, what is lacking is will caused by entrenched biases. Without a change in mindset whether ideological or otherwise, the biases will not be eliminated and progress will not be made.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Mar 30, 2016 - 12:17AM

    That was bold of you…..and brave of you…..well said.Recommend

  • Adnan
    Mar 30, 2016 - 10:31AM

    Unless Pakistan has an equal representation from states other than Punjab, there will always be fingers pointed. The military high-command is dominated by Punjabis and most of the development budget is reserved for Punjab. This bias has to be addressed.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Mar 30, 2016 - 11:19PM

    The heart of this country is good. And it will be reclaimed. currently

    This is very true Sir, but this is precisely the reason why two opposing forces are struggling for. Your solutionss are extreme and have so far not worked and will never work in the future as well. If the Sharifs were to follow what they did in the rest of the country, it will be the exit from politics for all those Punjabis who are in power today? Masada has never been the specialty of muslim folks.

    Rex MinorRecommend

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