Hardliners, moderates, liberals and the state
Thursday, February 26, 2009
It is a telling testimony to the plight of Pakistan that a man such as Maulana Sufi Muhammad Khan, who broke away from the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1989 to form his pro-Taliban, pro-Jihadi Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) is now seen as a relative moderate by the political forces who have negotiated a truce with him in Swat.
Sufi Muhammad believes: “Those opposing the imposition of Shariah in Pakistan are Wajibul Qatal (worthy of death).” He is also fervently opposed to democracy, and declared when he set up his TNSM that “There is no room for vote in Islam and the concept of democracy, which some religio-political parties are demanding, is wrong.” The TNSM has used violence to further its cause since 1994, when it first made its demand for the imposition of Shariah rule in Swat, blocked highways to press this forward and abducted and killed a sitting member of the provincial assembly. The distinct, camouflage waistcoats and sinister black turbans of the TNSM have since become a feared symbol across Swat.
But there are hard facts to be faced in the Pakistan of today. Compared to his wild-eyed son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, who assumed growing influence and power after Sufi was imprisoned following his return from Afghanistan in 2002 where he had taken a force of 10,000 young fighters to stage jihad, the TNSM chief remains a relative moderate. Fazlullah has been eager to overtake his father-in-law – who in May 2008 in fact publically disowned him. Sufi had been freed from jail by the ANP at the time in an initial effort to broker a truce in Swat. That effort floundered. Direct talks with Fazlullah, who is said to be strongly inspired by the examples of inhumanity set by the Afghan Taliban – apparently aiming to improve on their performance when it comes to beheadings, whippings, rape and terror – quickly gave way to renewed violence.
The latest peace deal, to which Fazlullah has, over the illegal radio station he continues to run, given a perhaps reluctant ascent, has come under fierce attack – with good reason. Striking accords with militants is a dangerous and highly undesirable business. In the past such truce agreements have been used by them only to regroup and launch new, more powerful assaults on state control. Giving in to their demands encourages others to emulate their example and use similar tactics to drive the government to its knees. In the agreement on Shariah, we do not know what, if any, provisions are contained within it to safeguard the basic rights of people. This is especially relevant in the context of women, who have suffered the most severe atrocities under militant command. There is also no word on whether militants who committed numerous acts of crazed depravity are to go scot free or whether any plan is in place to bring them to justice. Moreover, a dual system of law within the same state is simply unacceptable, leading to all kinds of problems. It also sets a dangerous precedent – with militants in Bajaur now too demanding a similar settlement.
The problem though is that politics, in practice, deals with realities and not ideals. It had become apparent that the military was unable – or unwilling – to win back Swat. The reasons why a force of over 12,000 should have been so completely overwhelmed by some 5,000 militants are for tacticians to ponder. The issue of commitment and will have all been raised at many levels, in Swat, in Peshawar, in Islamabad and in Washington. The NWFP government’s decision to arm 30,000 selected villagers and create an elite police force of 2,500 seems to be a bid to break free of complete dependence on the military. But given that, for whatever reason, the militants had won the war in Swat, seizing control even of Mingora with no prospect of their being pushed back, the question is what options remained open to the government. Surely no democratic set up can be expected to allow helpless people to be bullied, bludgeoned, maimed and killed at will or watch silently week after week, month after month as blood flowed in what had become known as ‘khooni chowk’ in Mingora. What are the options for a government when the military fails against armed insurgents? What does it do when people plead desperately for help? The horrors of life in Swat under the militants are easy to forget in Lahore or Islamabad or Karachi. They are impossible to put aside or reduce to the abstract in Mingora, or Saidu Sharif or Miandam or Besham. The truce has been welcomed by people across Swat. Their opinions cannot be ignored, nor should endless resilience be demanded of them. Sometimes pragmatism, for the sake of people, must over-ride passion.
But principle must not be neglected or shelved indefinitely. It must remain at the centre of strategy. The deal, advocates say, has already driven a wedge between the fanatical forces of Fazlullah, and the TNSM of Sufi Mohammad Khan. The emphatic welcome for Sufi as he arrived in Swat from his native Dir is said to have forced Fazlullah to give in and agree to a ‘permanent’ truce, apparently after a series of hectic consultations at the expansive madressah complex in his native village of Mamdheray. It seems unlikely that the agreement will hold. The question is if the government can move swiftly to follow up what must be a time-winning strategy with concrete measures to win back Swat. The fact is that, for all the claims made on their behalf, people there do not seek Shariah. Had they done so they would not have voted so overwhelmingly for ANP candidates who virtually swept polls in Swat just over a year ago. In many ways the truce with the TNSM is then a betrayal.
Confusion is created by the constant, strident orders issued to Islamabad from distant capitals. The advice is not based on the interests of the country or its people. But the fact is that even Washington seems to be realizing indefinite war cannot win back Afghanistan. There is talk of truce with the Taliban. The question in Swat is how periods of calm can be used to win back the loyalties of people who have no regard for a state that they believe has consistently failed to offer them anything at all. These feelings in that region are exacerbated by the deep rooted belief that militants work in close cooperation with agencies. The tragic death of journalist Musa Khankhel, in an area controlled by militants, is thought by many to be an attempt by this unholy alliance to dampen the impact of the welcome for Sufi Muhammad.
There are many complexities. The agreement on Shariah rule is terrifying in terms of the implications it has for the rest of the country. It is also an outcome of the failure to bring tracts across the country into the mainstream of nationhood and offer them the same rights offered – at least in theory – to the majority of its citizens under the Constitution. Till 1969, Swat, under it’s Wali, was ruled by a code that incorporated elements of Shariah. Failed by a system that has been unable to deliver even basic justice, it is this era that people seem most nostalgic for. The PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas) regulation in Swat, struck down in 1994 by the Supreme Court, also contained aspects of Islamic law.
Dichotomies exist everywhere. Seven out of 24 districts of the NWFP are situated in PATA. These include Upper and Lower Dir, Swat, Chitral, Buner, Shangla and Malakand. There are seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). Absurdly, laws that protect people elsewhere do not extend to these territories. One example is the 2005 law banning ‘Swara’ or the handing over of women to settle a dispute between two parties. The unjust and dangerous precedent of permitting different legal codes to operate in different parts of the country is set by the state itself. The practice must be ended, people all over the country brought into a whole as equal citizens and an effort initiated to win back Swat as a part of Pakistan, not just in terms of control over its territory but also in terms of the loyalty and confidence of its 1.8 million people. (The News)
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor