DEATH of a well-known Urdu fiction writer kicking up a debate about her legacy and her role during Gen Zia’s period. Cricket. Killing of popular policemen. Again cricket. Spring festivals. Valentine’s Day restrictions. News about an impending crackdown once again leading to an exercise in dividing the province of Punjab into real and imagined geographical zones.
It has been that kind of a week. The poise has been broken. The terror has returned with a loud, horrific bang. Lives have been lost and once again a need has been felt to issue a strong rebuttal to the militants.
One of the most expected consequences of the blast at Charing Cross has been the silent declaration that there shall be an operation. This would be in addition to the action that the Punjab government claims to have already taken. The ‘enough is enough’ chant is back at its most vociferous and it is once again a ‘now or never’ situation.
The old refrain brings forth not so new allegations. Invariably the qualification of ‘southern’ is added to identify the part of Punjab where a crackdown is most urgently required. This leads to protest and politics of its own. For the umpteenth time caution is sounded about the necessity of avoiding all kinds of stereotypes. Examples are quickly provided how an obsession with the southern Punjab model of terrorism could lead the campaign astray.
On occasions when the city has been hit by terrorism, there is an immediate desire to pin it on the ‘other’.
A journalist working in Lahore, who hails from the south of the province, recalls a telltale incident from last year’s Easter bombing at the city’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park. For quite a while after the explosion, the security people considered as a suspect a man who had died in the blast and who unluckily had a southern Punjab identity card. Later it was ‘revealed’ that he was only guilty of visiting the park at the time of the blast along with some members of his family. The correction was eventually made but it took your average onlooker in Lahore time to shrug off such an easily available suspect from his mind.
On other occasions when the city has been hit by terrorism, other suspects have been around to fulfil an immediate desire to pin it on the ‘other’. The Pashto-speaking man, a rag-picker or just a wanderer, has been quite handy in such situations. This time also, there has been emphasis on identifying the point from where the bomber might have started off on his deadly mission. K? — Good. Afghanistan? Even better. All we needed to do was to prevent their advance on Lahore, to make any sleeper cells or collaborators that may be present here ineffective. After all, the problem has to be dealt with at the roots.
That is the million-dollar question. What does constitute the roots of the problem? For many, it has spread so much that a simultaneous operation all over Pakistan is essential to root out this menace. There may be zones created for efficient official function but care has to be taken to leave the formula-minded with as little ammunition as possible to work with against any specific ethnic group. Even if such racial profiling was justified under some old, 18th-century rule, it has led us no closer to a solution than we were before we pointed our finger at the other on the basis of his ethnic background. If it were so easy, we would have ensured the safety of Lahore the first time we rounded up the Pakhtuns who live and work in this city.
The issue cannot be resolved by applying simplistic exclusionary theories designed to absolve ‘people like us’; it cannot be done with the ‘barhaks’ or the challenging roars that some on our side let out from time to time. The timing has got to be right to guarantee the right kind of popular response. Those who are upset by an internet magazine’s sustained jibes at Pakistani leftists may be fully within their rights to criticise the same site’s devotional submissions to a departing Bano Qudsia, a crafty writer they blamed for promoting Ziaism and resignation.
These critics appeared to strike all the right chords with their comrades who suspected the site to be going a few extra yards to establish its relevance to the times. But it was unclear whether their own analysis immediately after her death helped them to win any new supporters. The important thing was to convey the message far and wide and if it was thought it could get a wider audience after a respectable delay then those saying it could have waited for a while — especially when there were hardly any new ‘allegations’ in the message that was sent around.
The same can be said about those who were in a hurry to use the beautiful game of cricket as a balm for Lahore’s and the whole country’s wounds. It was rushed, an act of defiance, a statement of the people’s desire to live by their own preferences. To many sensitive souls it had the opposite effect. They found the insistent stress on the Pakistan Super League, about plans to stage the PSL final in Lahore, repulsive, just when the city was reeling under the latest terror strike.
Not just that, but when the very edifice of the game in the country was under attack once again amid fresh allegations of fixing. These frequent fixing scandals are bad enough to put off even those having a long love affair with the game. Coming at a wrong moment, the loud, but confused vows by the cricket board’s overzealous bosses must have made some wonder if it was all worth it. The timing was terribly off, even when those harping on the final-in-Lahore refrain must have felt vindicated by the assurance and backing that they got, especially from the military leadership.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017