IN the beginning this appeared to be a scoop. A national identity card was found at the site of the bomb explosion in Gulshan-i-Iqbal in Lahore. It gave details about a young man hailing from Muzaffargarh. He was in his 20s, beard, a madressah education and all. He had been living in Ichra, Lahore, for some years. It was reported that he now gave religious lessons to children for a fee.
There was something odd about this suspect. History tells us that suicide bombers — and it was quickly established that this was a suicide bombing — are usually brought from outside. Using an asset who had lived in a big city for many years to carry out a suicide attack would be a bit of a waste considering that he could be so much more usefully employed in other activities in future, such as facilitating a bomb assault. A suicide bombing could best be left to an outsider tutored to take the plunge.
Yet there was something about the revelation that made it credible: Muzaffargarh. Apparently the refrain about southern Punjab being a hotbed for militancy has come to be accepted here and has given us all another option to blame our current afflictions on.
For long our friends in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would be frustrated with the Lahore-based for plainly refusing to recognise the dangers bred close to them. They were often angry over the Lahori- or Islamabad-based journalists’ insistence on treating militancy as a north-western disease, a media tendency that augmented the narrow official view about terrorism being a KP-specific issue.
It seems that we are finally prepared to concede that all is not well in southern Punjab.
The news is that we in the Punjab capital have been shaken out of our old belief and in the process we have overcome the north-south divide. It seems that we are finally prepared to concede that all is not well in southern Punjab.
The young man from Muzaffargarh who later lived in Ichra has since emerged as a lesser suspect. The famous Punjab minister Rana Sanaullah has come up with a list of operations — meaning raids — carried out in the province in recent times and people detained and released. The ever-confusing Fourth Schedule which is a most befitting synonym for ‘the usual suspects’ has made its expected appearance. Amidst all this, the new overpowering wish in Lahore is to somehow see militancy contained within the south Punjab areas.
Whether or not this wishing-the-problem-away technique succeeds is another matter, but there is clear evidence that some people are not shy of trying it out yet one more time. The very same official voices that have been constantly protecting Punjab from any imaginary divisions of north and south etc are at work elaborating and assuring their support that if by chance there is some land being used for cultivating extremism in the province that exists at a distance from the power centre in Lahore, in southern Punjab.
That is of course a myth confronting those calling for and wanting curbs on militancy in Punjab. An even more significant attempt at self-deception is made by those who think that the mere mention of the word ‘operation’ would mark the start of a true campaign against militancy and terrorism in this province. The line ‘the operation is now on’ does not mean that the war has begun in earnest especially when it is not clearly known what the term ‘operation’ here stands for.
‘Operation’ quite clearly doesn’t mean raids, for raids, Rana Sana has just confirmed, have been going on for quite a while — even if without too great or debilitating an impact on the militants. Operation then would be a code word for something that has been lacking in the effort so far. Could it be a non-discriminatory approach to dealing with suspects?
Now if this is what is being hinted at by the repeated resort to the word ‘operation’ the audience must note that non-discrimination during an operation of any kind is impossible. It is as unconvincing as the argument that a military can overcome a domestic law and order challenge without the police or with help from a police force whose morale is low.
The campaign that we call an operation has to include an exercise in enabling the police department that can still offer some deep insights and meaningful leads into militant areas. That it has been unable to efficiently control militants doesn’t mean it doesn’t know where the problem lies.
Even with a more enabled law-enforcement front, there will be exceptions to the rule of indiscriminate drive that some are longing for. It may be an unpopular, even preposterous thought in the circumstances but let there be no doubt that this is not a whole that can be demolished by one big bomb. There have to be some who are seen to publicly repent and are then rehabilitated to cut the supply of fresh seeds for the next crop.
Pragmatically, as some of the more vulnerable and more impressionable are carried away by the sounds of a grand, in-earnest operation the government on its part will not be unaware of the need to build proxies in the ranks of those it must reform, after the removal of some amongst them. Call it preposterous if you must, but the old rule designed for pacifying dissent within remains. It will be futile to think that those who are so keen to be selective about which territory to comb for militants will not be ready to make similar exceptions for certain useful individuals.
In this context, the government should be worried about how the latest dharna in Islamabad has played out. Whereas initially some of us thought that the pro-PML-N elements close to the protesters would be able to control the protest within manageable limits, eventually there were just too many groups and leaders to be tackled easily. The message for the ‘right-wing’ PML-N is that there is a far greater variety today that is posing greater challenges of engagement than used to be the case in the past.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2016