The attack on the shrine of Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh has again given rise to the tension between Punjab and federal government over the use of the phrase ‘Punjabi Taliban’. For some incomprehensible reason, the Punjab government is denying the presence of militants in the province.
The situation is so confusing that after every incident in Lahore, the commissioner blames RAW while the chief minister denies the existence of any militants in his province. Nawaz Sharif’s line is to express dismay at the use of the words ‘Punjabi Taliban’ and blame militancy on the policies adopted by the state after 9/11. This, coming from a leader who survived a roadside bomb in Lahore as early as 1998, should surprise many.
For the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the word Punjabi Taliban is not new. It has been in use for more than a decade now and there is a reason and logic for that. The nomenclature used does not have any ethnic connotation per se as a derogatory marker but is simply an acknowledgement of reality. The Taliban are generally considered as those from the other side of the Durand Line. When Talibanisation started in Pakistan, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the late 90s, the word ‘muqaami’ (local) Taliban came into use. And all this happened well before 9/11. For instance in various cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, local Taliban resisted the laying of cable television lines. In Nowshera cantonment, the laying of cable in my neighbourhood was delayed for months because of the same reason.
The origin of ‘Punjabi Taliban’ dates back before 9/11 as well. During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the mujahideen fighting in Kashmir were given training in camps run by the Taliban. And that was when the phrase began being used — and its intent was purely to distinguish these people from the ones that were already there. Recruits of the Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba trained at these camps and were commonly referred to as Punjabi Taliban. The Zahwar camp in Khost province was a major training facility allegedly run by Osama Bin Laden and Jalaluddin Haqqani. In 1998, after the USS Cole was attacked off the coast of Yemen, the US fired missiles on these camps and the deaths of several people from Punjab at these camps were widely reported.
In Fata, the local Taliban originally started the militancy from Darra Adam Khel but this was taken over by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and many sectarian murders occurred. Then, everyone in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would say that the Punjabi Taliban were behind this. With this background, the claim by the Punjab government that use of ‘Punjabi Taliban’ will give rise to provincialism is difficult to digest. We have a problem at our hands. Everyone may have a different solution for solving it, but outright denial of existence of militants in Punjab is not going to help or achieve much.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2010.