I REMEMBER the day when the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team happened. I remember watching the live coverage as the events unfolded, and then the channels cut to Raiwind where Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was getting ready to hold a pre-planned news conference. Everybody waited to see what he had to say about the event which was still unfolding on the streets of Lahore.
But when he started to speak, it was all about the judges and the restoration of the judiciary and what a huge crime it would be for the country if we did not right this wrong immediately. His tone was indignant and angry. The channels cut to a split screen, with one window showing him talking about the judges while the other showed the attack under way on the streets of Lahore.
When he was done speaking, one reporter asked him about the events happening on the streets of his own city. “What can I say about that?” he demurred, with an embarrassed grin. His whole demeanour broke and he seemed to look left and right for someone to say something that would let him off the hook.
That attack had come at a time when the PML-N was on the warpath against the PPP government for its failure to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry to the position of chief justice. In speech after speech, and in all their talk-show appearances, the PML-N leadership made it appear as if this was the only issue in Pakistan, and all other problems could only be solved once the chief justice was restored.
The attack on the cricket team happened on March 3, 2009, only two weeks before the ‘long march’ was supposed to take place to hold a sit-in in Islamabad. The attack caught the PML-N leadership completely off-guard about how to spin it, how to link it with the restoration of the chief justice. Failing to find a way to fit the terror strike into the campaign for restoration, they decided to give it a couple of days of lip service then let it drop off the radar forever. It wasn’t the first terror attack in Lahore, and as subsequent years would show, it would not be the last.
The fragile unity shown at the conference will need to be held on to through a series of gruelling tests.
I’m reminded of those days today because I fear something similar is happening again. For months now, the PTI has been running a campaign centred on a few demands, and presenting its grievances and demands as the central problem facing Pakistan. Nothing else moves forward in this country until this one issue is sorted out, they say. Just like the campaign for the restoration of the chief justice, the demands of the PTI have become a political obsession eclipsing every other problem in the country.
The heinous acts of terror that hit Peshawar on Tuesday are a jolt to this TV-generated reality the party has been basking in for months now. Meanwhile, the central problem facing the country remains alive and well in our midst despite almost half a decade of mass casualty attacks on innocent civilians.
Watching Imran Khan as he addressed the terror attacks on Tuesday, I was reminded of the demeanour of Shahbaz Sharif as he spoke while the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team were still under way. There was the embarrassment, the tension, the painful thought: how do I connect this to my campaign? How do I prevent it from draining attention and energy away from the protests? How do I play this situation without becoming a player in the same politics I’ve been vilifying all this time?
It’s to his credit that he eschewed politicising the matter and emphasised unity and a strong response. It’s good that he chose to attend the multi-party conference, even if it took him most of the day to make up his mind to do so.
But it doesn’t end with this. To fight this menace, the fragile unity shown at the conference will need to be held on to through a series of gruelling tests. It’s not enough to simply vilify the TTP. It’ll be necessary to call out their sympathisers and apologists too.
Then comes the hardest part of all: keeping the narrative alive. Recall how there was a similar groundswell of indignation following the Abbottabad raid. Remember how that tide turned; from asking ‘did they know he was there?’ we went to asking ‘how could they violate our sovereignty?’ within days. The public relations machinery of the jihadi underground had gone into overdrive, and successfully changed the discourse.
Now watch carefully as something similar happens again. Already hints are flashing around the public space, on the channels, on social media, that neighbouring countries are behind this event, that foreigners are involved. Whatever it eventually becomes, the outrage as it stands today — blind rage of the lynch mob variety — cannot last, and will soon morph into a form more agreeable to geopolitics and the requirements of simple minds that want everything in black and white, with good guys and bad guys.
This is why it is crucially important for the political parties to hold on to what they built at the multi-party conference. But to do so the politics will need to mellow out, the grievances will need to take a backseat, the mutual slandering and vilification will need to become muted, the perpetual questioning of the government’s mandate and legitimacy will need to end. Once the inevitable backlash to the outrage comes from the jihadi establishment, the unity expressed at the conference will face its biggest test. The real fighting is yet to begin folks, and the fog in this war is thick and heavy. Hold on to your heads, for the sake of the little lives we have lost, and even more so, for the sake of the little lives still entrusted to our care.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn December 18th , 2014