THE enemy within has been nibbling away at Pakistan’s vitals with vastly increased ferociousness and there is little evidence to suggest that the monster is being tamed.
The latest wave of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan has been going on for more than six weeks. On the last day of February, 18 people belonging to the territory were brutally shot dead after being forced out of buses in the Kohistan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
After the victims’ identity had been established with the help of their national identity cards they were lined up and gunned down by a firing squad whose members were wearing military uniforms. The grisly operation had obviously been planned well in advance and bore the stamp of professionalism. The authorities made some noise but failed to nab the killers and eventually took refuge under the excuse that the culprits had crossed over the national frontier.
They were proved wrong on April 3 when the monster of intolerance raised its head in Chilas. Again a large band of armed militants stopped several buses on the Karakoram Highway and picked out members of the Shia community for slaughtering. This time the authorities chose to display their armed might. The army was called in and a nine-day long curfew was imposed. Whether this had any effect on the perpetrators of the sectarian strife is not known; what is known is the unbearable hardship caused to the curfew-bound population.
Referring to the “terrible condition of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan”, a student wrote on April 15: “…[T]he two million people of Gilgit-Baltistan are hostages in the name of security for the last 12 days. The transport system was closed down from the first day and that has caused shortage of food. There is no medicine left in hospitals. They blocked the cellular services and that cut the links among relatives. We don’t know what is happening to them.
“The government has failed to maintain law and order. Instead of taking serious action it only makes statements. The trouble is within a five-kilometre area of Gilgit. Four forces were operating in the area — the FC, Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts, Rangers and the police. Now they have called in the army. No improvement yet. We are a peace-loving people. We want peace at any cost. For that we are ready to support the government and all law-enforcing agencies. At the same time we are human beings. We need food for our survival. We need medicines. We need your support.”
The young student’s cry of anguish is without art or labour and must carry greater weight than the empty rhetoric of professional politicians.
Now peace is reported to be returning to the trouble spots in Gilgit-Baltistan. But for how long? There is no use pretending that successive eruptions of sectarian violence in that territory are of local origin or are caused by stray incidents. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been the target of discrimination and oppression because their majority subscribes to the Shia faith. For this reason, they were denied elementary legal and political rights for decades.
Now their strategic location has become a source of their misery. The new breed of militant hard-liners is apparently determined to subdue the local population by any means, including a forced change in the territory’s demography. Thus, the sooner the government stops treating the periodic bloodletting in Gilgit-Baltistan as a routine law-and-order matter the better it will be.
But Gilgit-Baltistan is not the only place where Pakistan’s worst enemy is seen in action. At the other end of the country, it is targeting the Hazara community of Quetta in what is looking more and more like a sectarian-motivated pogrom. Two dozen Hazara Shias were cut down within three days.
The victims have done everything possible to remind the government of its duty to protect them. They have curtailed their normal activities and have been disposing of their property at throwaway prices — this is perhaps one of the objectives of their tormentors. Here too the perpetrators of violence are believed to be the extremists from outside Balochistan who have set up regular militias with the purpose of challenging the existing order in Pakistan and the neighbouring countries.
This enemy can be seen elsewhere, too. In Karachi the, same hand is targeting Shia professionals. Recently, it displayed its handiwork in Chenab Nagar where it assumed the form of a few policemen. They tortured an innocent teacher to an extent that he could not survive. Torture to death in custody is quite common, but since the victim in this case was an Ahmedi citizen they lost all sense of human mercy.
Unfortunately, this enemy within has been allowed to grow stronger and stronger over the past many decades. The state tolerated him as an ally in its confrontation with the advocates of a democratic, egalitarian order. The military rulers nourished him and pampered him as a key figure in their strategy to conquer the land and the people of Pakistan over and over again. Now he is openly challenging the constitution and the laws of Pakistan and has established his monopoly as the sole interpreter of the official religion of the state.
At the moment, this enemy is targeting only the communities vulnerable because of their belief or the parties in power. But he will not spare the opposition parties either. The religio-political parties’ turn may come last of all but they too will fall under the axe. It is becoming increasingly clear that Pakistan can somehow scrape through the many crises it faces today but it will not be able to survive the drift towards a capitulation to the demons of religious intolerance.
The ubiquitous enemy we are talking about has certain advantages over the state gendarmes. He can easily melt away in any congregation. He is disarmingly modest, does not appear to be materially corrupt and the corruption of his mind is too subtle to be evident to ordinary citizens.
Also, unlike the mercenaries in state service, he believes in his mission and is keen to die for it. It will not be possible to defeat this enemy unless all parties and people of goodwill come together, sink their differences and establish all Pakistani citizens’ equal right to the freedom of belief. That is the only route of salvation and we do not have much time to cover it.