The Taliban phenomenon was erroneously, and rather dangerously, projected as a herald of a new dawn
The Pakistani state policy of nurturing jihad factories over the decades is staring back at its architects, supporters and sponsors. Zafar Hilaly, a close aide of the late Benazir Bhutto, recently divulged in his memoirs that BB had confessed how the support to the Taliban was perhaps her most regrettable mistake. She could recognise it was more of a function of being out of the power ambit for nearly a decade. The compulsions of exercising power and playing it by the rules set by the national security obsessed state are perhaps germane to Pakistan’s creation as an insecure postcolonial state that was neither prepared not committed to reverse the colonial modes of governance.Power and its fountainhead, the grand security apparatus, is a self-perpetuating reality in Pakistan. Its reproduction in mainstream politics, academia and public opinion is now a process that has assumed a sophisticated level of proficiency. Voices of dissent, be it the anti-nuclear stance of pacifists or the anti-fundamentalism stance of liberals, until recently were construed as unpatriotic and somehow a threat to the ‘ideological’ frontiers defined by Gen Zia-ul-Haq and his coterie. Unfortunately, even two decades after Zia’s death, his legacy survives and, dare I say, flourishes.
It is not an abstract legacy but an institutionalised reality driven by taking pride in being a US frontline ally, using sectarianism and jihad as policy tools, and above all promoting an education system that has xenophobia and paranoia at its heart. From Jews to Hindus and from internal traitors to malevolent politicians, we are a country forever being sabotaged by ‘enemies’ of the state. As things have crumbled, including the efficacy and capacity of the state, it is increasingly clear that the state might be the strongest enemy of its own interests.
This is why the Taliban phenomenon was erroneously, and rather dangerously, projected as a herald of a new dawn. Led by the urban Taliban and a cabal of media ‘mujahideen’, this view gained currency to an extent that even the foreign media picked up such stories and started to paint the Taliban as a movement poised for delivery of social justice, and redistribution of land in Swat and other areas, and as a collective expression of resentment against the state. There is no question that the state offers little hope to the Pakistani underclass, but that does not automatically translate into a violent struggle of the Wahabi-Salafi variety. At best, this is a misnomer; at worst, a propaganda tool of the erstwhile benefactors of the militias posing as the neo-deliverers.
What is even more surprising is that sections of intelligentsia, especially in Punjab, have expressed a similar view. A casual scanning of opinion pieces prior to the military operation launched in Swat and Buner would testify to that. If the problem of backlog in the formal courts was an issue, then the more likely demand for Taliban justice should be in Punjab where the performance of the courts remains the worst.
In any case, many studies have shown that the formal court system is hardly used by the poor and the marginalised for redress of grievances across the country. The majority of local disputes do not reach the courts because the process is expensive and there are other fora, not always the best functioning, available to the poor.
It is indeed a matter of shame that a couple of lead stories in American newspapers became an oracle and certified version of sociological truths on Pakistan. This is why the much quoted stories from abroad have figured in discussions, writings and the articulations of the chattering classes. The stories from the field, however, are altogether different.
The mass migration of affected people, admittedly smaller in scale, had started to take place much before the launch of the military operation in Swat. Our friends from Hangu had to leave their hometown because they were perceived as protectors of Shias, while the Taliban roamed the streets under tacit protection of those who were supposed to safeguard the lives and liberties of the local population.
A milk-herding family from Swat tells The News on Sunday how they delivered milk to the camps of the Taliban in the valley via security check posts of the official ‘state’. And a resident of Buner, now living in Islamabad, narrates the harrowing tales of harassment and crime by the Taliban. I have tried in the last few weeks to unpack this myth of Taliban ‘agenda’ and ‘programme’, and not a single Pakhtun — across the class divide — has been able to confirm that. But, of course, the ‘thinking’ sections of our society still believe and naively argue that it is a movement for ‘justice’. Who can disagree that the big Khans and the traditional political class of the war zone has to give way to a more egalitarian system? But then what about the Sindhi peasantry and the poor in other parts of the country?
The resistance to US imperialism argument is the next (il)logical refuge of the intellectual. Why the resistance is targeted against the shrines of Pir Baba and Rehman Baba? And against Sufi Islam, Barelvis and other strands of religious belief that are at variance with the puritanical fascism in the name of Islam? Why is the anger at US occupation of Afghanistan directed at the musicians of Swat and the girls’ schools? Are they US agents as well?
There is no justification for the prolonged Nato presence in Afghanistan after it has failed to deliver on the security, reconstruction and development fronts. That eviction has to take place, but it is not certain what Shias, Sikhs and other sectarian and religious minorities have to do with that. The truth is that the Wahabisation agenda in Pakistan is very much a domestic project aided in full measure by the monarchy of the Middle East.
The reaction to drone attacks, as overplayed by the media gurus, is also not as simple a story as painted by the prejudiced worldviews. The truth is that they are loathsome, but it is also an undeniable reality that many tribal leaders and tribesmen are now aiding the drone-wallas in terms of intelligence sharing. After all, who wants groups of self-styled al-Qaeda troublemakers; Chinese Islamists lounging about with a band of mercenary killers in their fold?
We have no choice but to confront these realities and wage a war on all fronts, including that of the military. Why is there such uproar by marginal but insidious voices that are bent upon cracking the consensus that has emerged around the military operation. However, military phase is just one small beginning — the next phases are more complex; they deal with federalism, rights, entitlements and social justice. But that has to roll out in the context of the federation and all its units. And it has to take place within the folds of the 1973 Constitution. The abandonment of the only agreed Constitution will mean that a new consensus will be almost impossible to effect, thereby leaving Pakistan’s political space open for capture by militias and mafias.
The official recognition of different identities and constituencies, in the hope of acknowledging the multi-ethnic and complex diversity of Pakistan, would also serve well for social integration within the nation-state of Pakistan. The colonial inheritance of the NWFP needs to be transformed into Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas need to be acknowledged as an integral part of the Pakistani mainland, and not as repositories of a postcolonial state’s game plans for adventures and misadventures.
More importantly, a consensus and impetus for reform of state organs and agencies, postponed for decades, needs to be forged at the earliest. The social change agenda has had some positive beginnings in the shape of mobilisation around the judges’ issue, but in its next phase it ought to broaden its scope by focussing on citizenship and a new social contract. Otherwise, we will remain hostage to an ineffectual and callous state’s propaganda of foreign interference being the primary cause for our own follies.
(The author is a Lahore-based development professional. He blogs at www.razarumi.com, and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama