This month nine years ago, the world watched in awe as the Lal Masjid brigade terrorised Islamabad citizens and shopkeepers, including Chinese business owners, before being smoked to death on July 10. This day is a grim reminder of how things can spin out of control if state institutions ignore, promote or condone violations of law by non-state actors. The government had dithered for months before going for the kill. The residents of the Lal Masjid had refused to submit to the writ of the state, taking up arms, assuming the role of moral vigilantes and thereby not only harassing local and foreign individuals but also challenging the state’s authority and refusing to surrender.
This is what necessitated Operation Silence after nearly six months of soft-peddling a group of clerics led by Maulana Aziz and his brother Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, both of whom had challenged the state’s writ. Both the ruling elite as well as the populist former chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, pandered to these non-state actors. By doing so, a dangerous precedent was set for years to come. Operation Silence was an unavoidable, though delayed, need of the hour in view of the rebellion by Ghazi and Maulana Aziz. Timely action — enforcement of the rule of law — coupled with political foresight probably could have prevented the bloodshed, and most probably the backlash that the country suffered in the aftermath of the operation. Ideally, nothing beyond police action and the arrest of the clerics and their followers would have been needed if the authorities had acted in a timely manner — a purely law and order issue against a couple of hundred baton-wielding youth who had become symbols of defiance to the state.
The post-operation circumstances were even more detrimental to the state. While Abdul Aziz was detained initially along with more than 600 students, they were all released on bail in the following months. These were people who had been considered rebellious enough to deserve a full-scale military operation. The operation not only gave birth to the Ghazi Force, named after the reticent Abdul Rasheed Ghazi to avenge his death but also provided legal succour to those who had revolted against the state in the heart of the capital. A case in point are the ongoing court cases against General (retd) Pervez Musharraf for the July 10, 2007 assault on the Lal Masjid.
There is a need to remember that Jamia Hafsa’s expanded complex is in contravention of laws of the Capital Development Authority. Islamabad is home to nearly 300 mosques/madrassas, which have been built on state land without formal permission.
The entire Lal Masjid episode continues to haunt us for its deadly consequences. One must remember that it is state institutions which hold the legal authority over the use of force, and not any other entity. Those of the Lal Masjid brigade who were released should have remained under strict vigilance of the security agencies rather than being free to not only foster the ranks of other militant groups but also form their own militant groups. The undeniable lesson from Operation Silence is that unless the state creates demonstrable, credible deterrence through the application of the rule of law, non-state actors will keep challenging its writ. Agreed that the law is blind, but those whose responsibility it is to enforce it aren’t. They know what happens around them. They are also citizens of a country facing multiple threats from within and outside. Is it wise to just follow the law in cases that stand on an obsolete legal regime called the CrPC? This precisely is the mother of all challenges that Pakistan faces in the struggle against terror and extremism.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2016.