It is a test for the state and the political parties of Pakistan as to how they can deal with a narrative that is fast capturing political space as well as prime time on TV.
Last week on a television show I had a chance to interact with Maulana Sami ul Haq while he was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was the day when the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had announced a month-long ceasefire (March 1). Maulana was ecstatic about the news and offered a bagful of platitudes on how important was the so-called ‘peace process’ and negotiating with the terrorists. When I asked him that despite the peace talks, outfits close to TTP had carried out dozens of attacks killing soldiers and civilians the Maulana’s mood changed. In a fit of anger he accused me of ‘sabotaging’ the process and before he could take the argument forward by calling me an agent of Hanood-Yahood, my guest – another Maulana – Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi intervened and rescued me from a live declaration of being an enemy of the peace.
The false and utterly bizarre packaging of accepting terrorists within our fold as ‘peace-agents’ has assumed a life of its own. Appeasement or terrorist outfits is turning into a mainstream political ideology. The right wing parties – bearded and non-bearded – are busy selling the merchandise that Pakistani state had earlier branded as means to bolster ‘national security’. Militant groups aiming to liberate Kashmir are legitimate, those planning to fight the imperial US and NATO are ‘good’ and the foreigners operating from Pakistani soil are ‘guests’ of proud Pakhtuns, we are told. Any divergence from these labels is akin to being unpatriotic, parroting the United States and feeding on dollars as the charismatic Imran Khan has said time and again.
Militant groups aiming to liberate Kashmir are legitimate, those planning to fight the imperial US and NATO are ‘good’, and the foreigners operating from Pakistani soil are ‘guests’ of proud Pakhtun, we are told.
Immediately after the spurious ceasefire, sections of media which peddle the extremist narratives have been back in action. Mullah Fazlullah, once a Shariah loving Pakistani, is now a stooge of the Afghan intelligence. The ‘peace talks’ will be successful even when the TTP has demonstrated its lack of control over all the groups that are part of the umbrella network. The ghastly attack in Islamabad courts on March 3 and the attack on security personnel the same day in Landi Kotal are attempts to ‘sabotage’ the peace process, we have been told. On March 5, when these lines were being written, six more security personnel were martyred in Hangu. Once again, sabotage by Pakistan’s enemies is the simple answer that can befool a baffled public opinion. Such obfuscation has become the norm and a grand narrative which informs the public mind, absolves state of its wilful negligence and reinforces the villainy of outside word. Each terror incident feeds this narrative and in a perverse way keeps everyone happy.
Take the Islamabad attack which killed 11 people including a judge and lawyers. Instead of focusing on the more-than-obvious Lal Mosque connection, the debates have focused on how the Afghan intelligence would not let our dialogue with the TTP succeed. Since the peace talks started, the Lal Mosque cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz has time and again referred on national TV on how our Constitution and legal system was unIslamic. In one of the TV discussions he even referred to Islamabad courts where he could not find holy scriptures or their reference in the legal proceedings.
It is not just a polemic. Lal Mosque affiliate Ghazi force has been around for some time. The Force, led by Niaz Rahim, was formed in 2007. It later transformed into a militant cell with the aim of avenging the deaths of the Lal Masjid ‘victims’ (in effect suicide-friendly insurgents). The group was later reorganised to target former Gen Musharraf, who had authorised the operation against Lal Mosque ‘miscreants’. In the past, Ghazi Force has been working under the umbrella of militant networks operating in Swat and FATA and in 2013, Lal Mosque clerics admitted that Ghazi Force had training camps.
Similarly, after the Islamabad incident, there has been little debate on why hundreds of madrassas are operating in Islamabad with thousands of students. The capital city over the years has been encircled by these outfits some of which are linked to Al Qaeda and TTP. When the world raises concerns about the security of the diplomatic community we immediately respond with a hypernationalist zeal and weave another conspiracy.
Ahrarul Hind, an off shoot of Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for killing the judge and lawyers in Islamabad. This is a group that opposes talking to the upholders or beneficiaries ‘infidel’ constitution. Who will testify that it has broken its ties with the TTP?
The self-anointed identity of ‘Ahrarul Hind’ is quite symbolic. The historical Ahrar movement opposed the creation of Pakistan and found Mr Jinnah not a Muslim enough to lead an ‘Islamic’ nation. Later, it also spurred the violent anti-Ahmadiyya riots in 1950s which resulted in the first ever imposition of Martial Law in the country. While the Khaksars – affiliates of Ahrar – accepted the creation of Pakistan, the ‘ideal’ of a borderless Ummah and its Caliphate is what binds the past and the present. Pakistan’s existence as a modern nation state is at variance with the Islamists’ imagination of Pakistan as a subsidiary of world Caliphate. It is therefore a test for the state and the political parties of Pakistan as to how can they deal with a narrative that is fast capturing political space as well as prime time on TV.
The future of peace talks now hangs in the balance. There are contradictory signals from the government side. Khwaja Asif, the defence minister, has said that the current timing as opportune for a decisive military operation while other ministers of the government seem to be favouring continued negotiations.