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A clichéd column

January 23, 2016


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

WHEN one starts writing a weekly column, admittedly the first several months are torture as each week the approaching deadline fills one with self-doubt and a fear of failure. You are confronted with a number of what-ifs before the column starts to take shape and is completed.

Then, as you get into the stride, your confidence grows, even arrogantly so. You aren’t sitting before the keyboard with no ideas or thoughts or without homework on the final day of the deadline anyway. You have actually spent many preceding days absorbing news and analyses from multiple sources and then formulated your own thoughts for the week. So you sit and write.

Till of course an Army Public School happens. That’s when the struggle begins. You understand that you aren’t alone in being paralysed by the horror, the scale of the tragedy. What can you say to the parents of over 130 students who bid farewell to their children in the morning, thinking they would have lunch together that afternoon?

As in the APS tragedy, the heroes of Charsadda didn’t have a choice either.

What can you say to the loved ones of those who dedicated their lives to educating and bringing enlightenment to others but were asked to place their own frail bodies between their students and the brainwashed terrorists’ bullets? What can you say to anyone at all for all that it counts?

Neither the students nor the teachers were soldiers and neither had opted to live by the sword. Pens and books in hand they embarked on a knowledge quest but in under an hour were forced to become ‘martyrs’; hailed as heroes and heroines. They had no choice in the matter.

As in the APS tragedy, the heroes of Charsadda didn’t have a choice either. The state failed them too and miserably so. One heard on TV of the chemistry teacher who tried to defend his students and fired at the terrorists with a small handgun but was felled by a hail of bullets.

Then there were two students in a hostel room who are said to have killed a militant before being hunted down by the remaining murderers. In both cases the martyrs and their valour were rightly hailed. But who placed them in that situation?

There was very little discussion again how we got here; perhaps, because there was no point. I am filled with such despair that composing each word seems like a Herculean task. I am not ashamed to admit I am all but paralysed. Can’t think straight, what kind of writing am I capable of beyond the clichéd column.

My own paralysis is being replaced with seething anger though. Famously, most TV analysis and many newspaper columns continue to find fault only in the shortcomings of the implementation of the National Action Plan by the civilian government.

Under the circumstances wherever there are slip-ups, these are unpardonable. There can be no two opinions on that. Side by side we also need to acknowledge that the roots of the malaise are much deeper than mere slow implementation of a plan.

From the Salmaan Taseer murder to how his killer was hailed by officers of the law (aren’t lawyers considered and addressed as such all over the civilised world) to the young boy who stuck his own hand in a fodder-chopping blade and severed it as he was given to believe he had blasphemed by raising that very hand in response to a prayer leader’s question are all indications.

What was then an ideology, systematically introduced by the Zia regime, alien to the land of the mystics has now snowballed into an intolerant and toxic system of bigoted beliefs that is ripping the social fabric to tatters.

As if that ideological shift weren’t enough, our state’s long association with and use of non-state actors in its pursuit of foreign policy-cum-national-security objectives has given such teeth to the adherents of that ideology that even a single day that passes uneventfully brings sighs of relief and gratitude all round.

For years, we invested in the Afghan Taliban. We hosted the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network and what not. We did this because rightly or wrongly we thought these entities would further the cause of our national security.

However, now that we are attacked by militants who have fled our land and crossed over and set up new bases in Afghanistan we complain to Kabul. We demand action from the government there even as we advise it to share power with a mighty fighting force called the Afghan Taliban.

Why can’t we ask the Haqqani network, which has the means to strike at will in the deepest part of Afghanistan at the drop of a hat, to sort out these killers of our children, of our students and teachers whose only fault was that they assigned a top priority to education?

No, I don’t live in denial. I won’t be surprised if Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies have a hand in harbouring some of these terrorists and using them to pressurise Pakistan, to make us bleed. Why is it impossible? It isn’t.

We only need look at the tit-for-tat actions of the security services of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ during the Cold War to know how these games are played. The important thing is not to overplay one’s hand.

Pakistan’s soft underbelly appears exposed because it may have overstretched itself. The sacrifices of thousands of our citizens, of students and teachers and of our soldiers should be enough. It is time to regroup, to think or sink. Mere slogans, brave words, pointless reiterations of the whole nation being on the same page won’t keep us afloat. A lot more needs to be done and now.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2016