Punjab is under scrutiny once again after the deadly terrorist attacks on the Ahmadis in Lahore. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has been trading barbs with Governor Salman Taseer over extremism and militancy for quite some time.
The latest entrant in the verbal boxing ring is Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who has said that the recent attacks were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. He also initially hinted, but later backtracked, some sort of government operation would be carried out in the southern parts of the province. Mr Sharif is, understandably, upset at the increasing cast of characters who doubt what he still considers his legendary administrative skills. He considers any criticism on his ways of governance to be politically motivated meddling into his turf. That said, south Punjab continues to make headlines after each terror incident. These districts have remained dismally impoverished with an abundance of madrassahs and outfits like the Sipah-i-Sahaba, the LeJ and the Jaish-i-Muhammad have strong networks there.
However, Mr Sharif’s gripe over the nomenclature of the militants is rather trivial though he is half right in stressing that south Punjab is not the only hotbed of militancy. A military style operation there would only complicate and further exacerbate the issue. But that does not mean that for reasons of political expediency a state of denial should blind those at the helm of affairs.
Militant networks of all stripes and their nexus with local groups exist all across the province.
The Punjab of 2010 is different from that of the 1990s and Mr Sharif seems to have lost the magical touch through which he controlled the province in that decade. He should fast come to terms with changing ground realities. Sectarian outfits continue to operate openly and the writ of the provincial government is weak in the backwaters. The militants are emboldened and highly motivated. In these circumstances, appeasement or co-opting the extremist elements would further give them opportunities to further their agendas and occupy more public space. Both the PML-N and the PPP are guilty of relying on clandestine support of extremist groups to garner electoral victories. PML-N managed to woo Sipah-i-Sahaba in the by-elections in Jhang. This is thanks to the pragmatism and financial incentives offered by Rana Sanaullah, the provincial law minister. Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhyanvi, the chief of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, in an interview given recently to a TV channel has already stated that his workers supported Jamshed Dasti, the PPP candidte, in Muzaffargarh. Sipah-e-Sahaba is now lending support to PML-N candidate Nighma Mushtaq in Jalalpur Pirwala district by elections.
If Mr Sharif is concerned that a tough clampdown on these militant groups would result in throwing the province down the inferno, he might also consider the fires that are already raging and spreading fast.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 5th, 2010.
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