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Do we really remember?

December 19, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

HASHTAGS such as #NeverForget dominated social media on Dec 16 as Pakistan marked the second of two grave national tragedies, the mind-numbing terrorist massacre of nearly 150 schoolchildren and teachers at the Army Public School, Peshawar last year.

The first, of course, was the surrender of our armed forces to the invading Indian army in a stadium in Dhaka in 1971 and the halving of the country.

As a parent, I can’t even begin to fathom the pain of those who lost loved ones in Peshawar. But despite saying #NeverForget, do we remember all that we need to remember? I am not talking of some insensitive, over-the-top, coverage to mark the day on the ratings-driven TV channels.

Criticism of the army is now rather deviously being equated with disrespect to the hundreds of our soldiers who have fallen fighting valiantly

Some such gestures/coverage did not appear to be more than a caricature of the tragedy or at best trivialised it but let’s not waste your time. For, there are other gems to focus on this week such as the statement by our defence-cum-water and power minister Khawaja Asif.

Asked by journalists about the security of the much-talked-about Tapi gas pipelines particularly on its section which will pass through Afghanistan for which work was formally launched by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India this week, Khawaja Asif said: “We’ll use our influence with the [Afghan] Taliban.” This gem came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani defied an influential section of opinion in his government and country to come to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference where he described the spurt in Taliban violence in his country as an “unintended consequence” of Zarb-i-Azb because terrorists based in Pakistan had been dislodged and had moved to his country.

Almost simultaneous with Mr Ghani’s Pakistan visit, the terrorist group which Pakistan defence minister says his country has influence over attacked Kandahar Airport, killing some 50 people including a large number of unarmed civilians.

You’d recall it was this very airport where a hijacked Indian Airlines plane landed this very month in 1999. On the demand of the hijackers those released from Indian prisons included one Maulana Masood Azhar, the leaders of the Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group, and Omar Sayeed Shaikh, a militant who would later be convicted of kidnapping and murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.

On that occasion too, Pakistan had used its influence with the Taliban to negotiate the release of the hostages on board Flight IA 814. Those released by India and swapped with the hostages were handed over to plainclothes Pakistan security officials who, eyewitnesses then said, took them away in white Toyota Land Cruisers. They resurfaced in Pakistan a short while later.

Ever since then, Pakistan’s ‘influence’ over the Taliban has been widely-known. After 9/11 when the US, with its Afghan Northern Alliance partners, dislodged the Taliban from power in Afghanistan many of its top leaders made a home in Quetta. Side by side one of its key military wings better known as the Haqqani network also moved into Pakistan’s tribal areas (Fata).

Given this backdrop, would the leaders of Afghanistan not be within their rights to expect their neighbour to use some of the influence with the Taliban it boasts of to ask the militant group to quell its violent attacks aimed at the overthrow of the elected Afghan government? And if such an expectation is being aired and such demands being made are these unreasonable or are Afghan lives infinitely less precious than gas passing through a pipeline or for that matter loss of Pakistani lives which prompted Islamabad to crack down on militant groups here.

Till we resolve this inconsistency, our own fight against terrorism — against those who murder our unarmed women, men and children and wage war against our civil and armed forces — will be piecemeal and thus doomed to achieving nothing more than temporary relief.

While the Nawaz Sharif government has come in for severe criticism in terms of its snail-paced implementation of the National Action Plan to tackle terrorism, most of the responsibility must rest with the lead player, the army.

However, criticism of the army is now rather deviously being equated with disrespect to the hundreds of our soldiers who have fallen fighting valiantly against the terrorists in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.

It isn’t clear who is responsible for this but try and even obliquely be critical of the khaki policy on social media and it’ll be difficult to count the number of people, some real and some with patently fake identities, who will jump down your throat.

And on our influential electronic media we have a systematic undermining of the civilian institutions. In some cases, the views being expressed by the ladies and gentlemen in charge of the microphones bear amazing similarity to those expressed by social media accounts seen as representing the thinking of the intelligence setup.

This isn’t to say that the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate run by the ever-eager Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa is not doing an excellent job. The general’s remit is to ensure the armed forces are seen in a favourable light and he is achieving his goal with consummate ease.

But is this efficient endeavour giving us ascendancy in the fight for the so-called narrative where the militant propaganda is concerned or is most of it directed at carving more and more elbow room for one national institution at the cost of other equally significant ones is a question that needs to be answered.

Saying all organs of the state are on the same page in this existential fight is one thing, walking the talk altogether different. ‘Never forget’ slogans will be just that unless we have concrete manifestation. Unless our today and tomorrow are informed by the memory of yesterday.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2015