A Lost Watershed Moment? Back to pre-Peshawar Pakistan

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Photo Courtesy of Reuters

By Alena Sadiq.

Monday is the two-month anniversary of the Peshawar attack, as it has come to be known in Pakistan—the day when 141 people, including 132 innocent schoolchildren, were shot dead, and more than a hundred were seriously injured, at an Army Public School. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and said it had avenged the military’s offensive against it that had begun in June 2014. The brutality of the attack shook Pakistan, a country that has unfortunately become accustomed to terrorist attacks. The ‘resilience’ that Pakistanis often pride themselves with seemed to have been shaken. Vigils and protests all over the country revealed grief, anger and a seemingly hardened resolve against terrorists and their abettors. But two months later, the only thing that seems to have changed noticeably is the increased power of the military.

In the direct aftermath of the attack, the death moratorium was lifted and a string of executions of convicted terrorists followed. Critics were quick to point out that the anti-terrorism laws are used to try a broad range of cases and the chances of misuse are high. After initial reservations from some political parties, the political and military leadership reached a consensus on creating military courts for two years to speed up convictions of terrorists while avoiding the inadequacies of the civilian courts. Human rights activists expressed concern that such a system might be abused, especially given the history of three decades of military rule. Moreover, the lack of any steps taken to strengthen the civilian courts, so that they can resume responsibility after two years, is worrying.

The Prime Minister’s address indicated that Peshawar might have brought Pakistan face-to-face with its watershed moment. Nawaz Sharif announced the National Action Plan (NAP), which included the enactment of military courts, the regulation of madrassas, new efforts to tackle banned militant groups and a blackout of such groups on media. For the first time, he also acknowledged the flawed ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ doctrine and rejected it outright. The short speech was welcomed as a promising start to the fight against militant groups.

Although Sharif declared the government would ensure regulation of the media when he announced his NAP, airtime continues to be given to extremists and their supporters. Initially after the attack, Abdul Aziz, of Lal Masjid fame, had come on TV and refused to condemn the Peshawar attack. A group of Pakistanis, led by Jibran Nasir, protested outside the mosque for consecutive days. Due to strong public opinion at the time, the government did withdraw Aziz’s security, and although the protesters managed to get an arrest warrant for the cleric on the grounds of criminal intimidation, he has not been arrested to date. Sectarian and extremist organizations continue to use social media to recruit followers and incite violence. A little more than a month ago, a TV show host, who in the past has hosted so-called ‘scholars’ who called for the killing of Ahmadis, gave airtime to clerics who offered conspiracy theories that identified this marginalized minority community as the ‘enemy of all of Pakistan.’ The news channel later issued a loosely worded apology, after uproar among Pakistanis on social media.

Ultimately, it is hard to judge the National Action Plan without the details of what the plan actually contains in itself. The lack of disclosure of information gives the citizens little on which to judge the coherency of the government’s strategy. As pointed out in an editorial in Dawn, apart from the occasional spurts of statistics provided by the government, there is little clarification of what is really going on.

The political parties of the country have also not shown much promise beyond the initial verbal unity.  While the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) sits on the government benches, the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) occupy the majority of the opposition benches in the National Assembly. Despite the PPP’s enduring verbal opposition to terrorists and their supporters, their provincial government in Sindh recently failed to take concrete action against the outlawed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The organization was allowed to march through Karachi in broad daylight while a handful of civil society members, led by Jibran Nasir, were simultaneously detained for protesting against the government’s lack of action. Although no real action has been taken in the other provinces either, the failure of the only major party that has long opposed terrorism came as a disappointment.

On the other hand, soon after the attack, Imran Khan ended his months long sit-in in the capital—a good sign—but refused to return to the National Assembly. A string of politically unsound decisions have followed. Less than a month after the attack, Khan got married. Although there were no elaborate ceremonies, the timing was seen as insensitive considering the attack had occurred in the province where his party was in government. Some days after the school reopened, Khan and his new wife went to visit the students and were met by protesting parents. In an insensitive political gaffe, a provincial government minister snubbed and dismissed the grieving parents as ‘politically motivated’. Khan has long been sympathetic of the Taliban and pro-peace talks, but he appeared to have hardened as a result of the attack. However, he too, failed to capitalize on the momentum and to energize the public for concrete action against the Taliban – it is worth nothing that his party was perhaps the only one popular enough to do so in urban areas.

Thus, the watershed moment, it appears, never came. A tight-lipped government with no evidently coherent strategy, a weakened judiciary, a quarreling political class and a public whose outrage has more or less evaporated— we are now back in pre-Peshawar Pakistan, only with an even more powerful military. Interestingly, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Raheel Sharif, visited the school the day it opened and his visit went much more smoothly than Khan’s; meanwhile, the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen. Not only has the army managed to take control of the judiciary from the civilians, its COAS also often overshadows the Prime Minister when the two are seen together. The Economist has referred to these developments as the signs of apostmodern coup’. As someone said to me, if the army takes over tomorrow, you will not hear more than a whimper of protest in Pakistan.




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