Brewing storms

 Raza Rumi laments the tragedies of our times, and says that the state cannot be absolved of its responsibility to protect citizens against terrorism (The Friday Times)

Lahore has finally been encircled by the layers and tremors of violence. If the events of March 2009 were not enough, there is now a concerted effort to create panic in the city. In the past few weeks, girls’ schools have been threatened that they would face the music for educating girls and promoting co-education. How can children and their middle-class urban parents survive these gruelling times?

I have been naively protecting my children from the gory news. This is an age of violence. If a news channel displays human limbs and heads and the shrieks of a flogged girl, the cartoons present extensive violence and deadly, sadistic stunts for entertainment. Indeed, these are strange times to live in anywhere, especially in the land of the pure. Violence is a commodity; each news item carries an advertised price tag, and of course the cultural experience gets brutalised in this maze of uncertainty and confusion.

Lahore’s Police chief said in March that those who caused carnage in Mumbai created havoc by attacking Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore. With the change of government, a city police chief has shifted the blame to the favourite nemesis of the Pakistani state: India. Surely, there can be foreign involvement, but what about those whom we saw escaping with impunity in a rather relaxed, Hollywood style escape from the terror scene? They were not alarmed or afraid of being caught. Has anyone been ‘captured’, to use the term repeated on TV screens for days with little results? No, we the silent spectators, called citizens elsewhere in the world, are interested more in where the terror-boys disappeared, rather than which regional power caused this incident to ‘destabilise’ an otherwise stable, well functioning society called Pakistan.

Islamabad is already gloomy under a besieged Presidency, innefective parliament and its woeful citizenry is clueless as to what is happening. Barricades stare at you everywhere you move, and there is an unprecedented level of uncertainty everywhere. The state announces that there is a terror threat and the Capital shuts down. Schools, colleges, shops and offices are locked, and so is the bruised public imagination that stops questioning in the need to survive. The question is that if the mighty state cannot protect its citizens, what good are the nuclear weapons, missiles and layers of security and administrative apparatuses?

Such questions become even more pertinent the moment you cross the Attock and see the waters of the Indus and the Kabul speak of the gruesome blood-letting in the northwest. The proud Pakhtuns have been betrayed by their elected representatives and their state agencies for capitulating before carefully crafted Frankenstein[s]. Peshawarites have already given up and are bracing themselves for the inevitable – as some would put it – ‘takeover’ or covert control as has happened in Swat and more recently in Buner. My friends in Peshawar are petrified, for they might just live with a sectarian version of Islam, but they cannot risk the destruction that might precede that eventuality. But what can people do, especially those who have to live here?

It was Rehman Baba’s shrine the last time, and now it is Pir Baba whose tomb is locked and under the unholy control of the Taliban. Hazrat Sayyed Ali Tirmizi, or Pir Baba, was a 16th century Sufi whose family migrated from Afghanistan to Delhi when his father joined the army of the Emperor Humayun. A travelling sage like most Sufis, Pir Baba in the last years of his life, settled in Buner permanently. This was during Akbar the Great’s reign.

Pir Baba’s shrine is now closed to visitors

Centuries later, Pir Baba’s shrine became the fulcrum of resistance against British imperialism. This was the time when nationalists of the secular and religious variety co-existed and fought for their rights. Pir Baba’s name runs across the geography and culture of Pakhtunkhawa. Following the importance of the shrine, the host village is also known as Pir Baba. This peaceful mausoleum is visited by thousands of people each spring. There is hardly a Pakhtun who does not know of Pir Baba, whether he/she believes in miracles or not. A friend tells me that the inhabitants of the southern districts of Kohat and Bannu believe that a prayer offered at Pir Baba’s shrine for marriage is almost always fulfilled. Many dejected and yearning lovers frequent Pir Baba to gain solace or pray for a union. This has been a space for love, fulfillment and hope for centuries. Today, it is locked shut. Love is on trial in the state of Pakistan.

Earlier, a few weeks ago, the marching hordes moved into the Buner valley situated on the north-eastern side of Peshawar. At first, the Talibs agreed on April 9, 2009 to leave the valley. But they reneged on this commitment and by Friday afternoon on April 10, they had captured main Buner without any resistance from the law enforcing agencies. The people of Buner say that the Taliban and their troops are roaming in the valley scot free, while the police and the Frontier Constabulary are prisoners in their check-posts. It is now an old and familiar story.

The unfortunate road between Buner and Swat
Photo: DAWN

Buner is not far from Mansehra and Abbottabad, the latter an important outpust lovingly created by the British Raj. The colonial experience, despite its destructive patterns, ushered in the forces of modernity. God forbid, if these cities and towns, the verdant villages of Pakhtunkhawa, keep on falling, Islamabad is not far away. This is what most of us fear. If this was the Islamism of the Turkish or Algerian variety or a result of a democratic process, the cause of worry would have been different. This is about losing civilisation, of negating modernity and Pakistan’s bright chances of progress and integration into a twenty-first century globalising world.

Above all, it is about our children, their lives and future. They cannot be residents of a polity without hope, where mosques and Imambargaahs are bombed, Sufi shrines are locked, public spaces become opportunities for violence, and where panic and fear permeate our consciousness. It is about keeping Jinnah’s ideals alive. It is Jinnah’s war against theocracy. It is Pakistan’s war for survival. A battle of hope against despair. Of love against hate.

This is the land where Buddha lived and where Nanak spread his message of love. It is also the garden where the Sufis weaved their songs of tolerance and inclusiveness. What a shame that we have come to this pass – straddling a tunnel and searching for light. And all we find are more tunnels of darkness, conspiracies and confusion.

Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar are directly and indirectly in the grip of extremism. This is the writing on shaky Pakistani walls. Let those who took oath under the Constitution, the legislators and the rulers, read the Articles where citizens’ life, liberty, property and freedom to worship are guaranteed by the state. No excuse, no foreign hand and grand narrative of a Jewish conspiracy will do. We want peace and our nuclear-armed state must deliver it to us. Or else, it should take a sombre view of its capacities and correct them before the enemies annihilate its writ altogether. There is no other way out.

We cannot afford to fail. Thirty eight years ago, we lost half the country. This time around we might lose it all. Let us hope not.

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