“No room will be left for extremism in any part of the country” — said one of the 20 points of the National Action Plan (NAP). So when the military moved in an apparent haste to initiate a long-awaited operation in Punjab (after the deadly attack in Lahore on March 27, that left over 70 people dead), was the military not aiming to implement one of the 20 points of NAP to counter extremism in the province?
Taking the initiative to respond swiftly and forcefully, the military didn’t wait for the provincial and the federal government’s approval on the NAP-sanctioned ‘military missions’ that it considered were important, as long as they carried an element of surprise, were swift and sudden and were militarily beneficial by culminating into arrests of some hardcore suspected militants in various parts of the province. These targeted operations created an impasse of sorts between the government and the military. Had the Panama Leaks not suddenly surfaced, the government would not have ceded in to the military as easily as it seems to have done now.
That impasse seems to be over now as ISPR on April 6, 2016, confirmed the launching of a coordinated and much-awaited targeted operation against militant outfits in Punjab. The Punjab Police and its Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) were obviously conducting occasional operations against the militants in the province, but these operations were of little consequence as they were not giving desired results. The military’s stated goal of dismantling all militant sanctuaries in Punjab cannot be achieved if all that the provincial government does is buy time and go soft on the militants. There is availability of actionable intelligence and concrete information on the existence of networks of not only the Punjabi Taliban, but also some of the most dangerous sectarian terrorist organisations in the province. Had such information not been available, the military could have hardly rolled out unilaterally, the series of operations in such a quick time frame, immediately after the Lahore attack.
Despite the announcement of a ‘coordinated operation’ in Punjab by ISPR, the operation will not be able to overcome the ‘technical and legal’ itches unless the Rangers are given policing powers in the province. As in Sindh, the military will seek these powers not through repeated appeals and petitions to the provincial government, but through the military operation-generated deliverables that it will showcase to the suffering people of Punjab and through them, to their government. The political interpretations — and not the outcomes — of these operations by the people of Punjab, will set the tone, time and space for the conduct of the military operation in the province. People do not directly participate in military operations, but it is their popular will that guides these forward and if the military is able to seek that and ride its tide, many, including the targeted enemy, will stand by as mere onlookers.
The effects of this operation are also likely to spill over from the battle landscape into the political landscape and like in Sindh, may compel the provincial political masters to shuffle their political deck as well. We might just see the provincial government finally putting a few of its cards (closely held to the chest) on the table — something it has, so far, been reluctant to do. Let Punjab be ready; unlike Sindh, it’s not the political parties there that kept militant wings, but militant wings that kept a hold on politics, thus preventing the much-awaited crackdown against them. But now that the operation is to finally commence, what are the hurdles it is likely to face?
Southern Punjab has long been considered a breeding ground of extremism. Out of 1,764 people on the government’s most wanted list, 729 are from southern Punjab and an estimated 44 per cent of Pakistan’s over-23,000 madrassas are also located there. Three out of the nine provincial divisions — Multan, Bahawalpur and Dera Ghazi Khan — which are considered part of southern Punjab, have districts (Jhang, Mianwali, Chiniot, Bhakar, Kushab, Sargodha, Layyah, DG Khan, Muzzfargarh and Rajanpur) that are spawned with madrassas, many of which are unregistered. The districts also have sectarian education schools that have pure sectarian curriculum and are run by sectarian organisations themselves. If there are known terrorist sanctuaries in these districts (banned militant organisations such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad have roots inside some of these districts), they have not been targeted due to reasons of political expediency — the right-wing constituencies make up a huge vote bank and upsetting the existing order, no matter how radicalised and damaging the order may be, is a political risk that the political masters have not been ready to take. Ideally, the military operation in Punjab must start by nabbing the organisational leadership that has, over the years, fanned sectarian and religious hatred and radicalised the youth of these districts.
The Sindh government has, lately, been moving positively to address the concerns of the minorities in the province. It passed legislation allowing Hindus to register their marriages, it declared a public holiday on Holi, and all these are actions that seek to integrate minorities into mainstream society. Punjab too, has a two per cent population of Christians. They have been under attack for long. A Christian neighbourhood was burnt down in Gojra. Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi were burnt alive in Kasur and besides these incidents, the latest suicide attack in Lahore also targeted this community. It is hoped that the Punjab government would also do everything within its powers to look after the interests of this community. Successful and result-oriented military operations against those militant organisations that target this community may, if nothing else, give some much-needed relief to this community.
Unlike Sindh, which has criminal militants of all shades, Punjab is infested with religious and sectarian extremists that have now grown into militant organisations. Before the army chief bows out, a military operation in Punjab needs to roll out — and fast. That should be his parting gift to the nation.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2016.
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