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And then they came for us

Updated January 25, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

WHAT’S with Imran Khan and Sahiwal? The two have crossed each other’s path a few times either side of Mr Khan taking power in the country, and the unions have threatened to extract some serious costs from Kaptaan.

The latest instance was rather hastily dubbed as a serious challenge for Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar — as if the gentleman had been guilty of doing anything on his own to be held responsible in the event of something going wrong.

That moment has apparently passed. There have been a few suspensions made within the Counter Terrorism Department over the most horrifying daylight killing of four people, including a mother of four and her 13-year-old daughter. These early punishments, which Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat says have been handed out in record time, are quite remarkable in themselves.

Let the dust settle and the security gurus will tell you that there are always bound to be small mistakes and big fiascos involving the law-enforcement agencies. They are all the more common with respect to organisations created over and above your usual security apparatus to deal with emergencies.

The CTD is one such organisation born of special circumstances. It may have accomplished some of the most difficult tasks which the original police force was thought incapable of carrying out. Nonetheless, this is a significant moment since Sahiwal could lead to calls for a review of how the CTD has gone about its business overall.

The roots are important. Identity matters. Typically, as the news first comes in, the hope is that the targeted people are not from amongst ‘us’.

Also, the CTD censure, popular as it is, has come without there being any real effort at clarifying the events as they culminated in the shooting in Sahiwal. All that has been on show is the footage provided by amateur cameras, which is of the most frightening quality, but which has to be complemented by other sources of information for a clear picture to emerge.

Meanwhile, Lahore’s Ferozepur Road, a bylane of which was home to the four victims, continues to be blocked five days after the incident. The residents have heard about terrorists going down in encounters before, but the characteristics of a terrorist given in the current case do not quite match with their own understanding of the person of Zeeshan Javed — the man who is now officially sought to be established as a suspect with links to militants.

Zeeshan was driving his friend, Mehr Khalil, and his family to a Burewala wedding when four members of the party met with an abrupt end to their lives.

According to one version of the events, their car was being tailed right from their point of departure in Lahore, which would suggest that those in pursuit took a while to intercept the suspects. Questions surrounding some other (albeit still sketchy) accounts of Zeeshan’s life ask whether he actually needed to take this trip on GT Road to make it to the CTD’s hit list.

Whatever information there is in circulation strives to paint Zeeshan either as a terrorist aide, an activist sworn to hard-line ideologies, or an innocent man, who unfortunately is not here to answer these most serious allegations against him. Broad official hints cast him as a person with a rather long and formal association with some extremist outfits.

Zeeshan’s neighbours are proof of just how adept and well versed Pakistanis today are in various aspects of the terror situation they have been at the centre of for some years now. As some others express their surprise at the firmness of the protest generated in and sustained by the neighbourhood after the Sahiwal shooting, the people who lived next door to Khalil and Zeeshan have their own pointed questions to ask. Such as: why did the CTD brains not arrest Zeeshan earlier if they already had such a clinching dossier on him?

Another point raised in the effort to counter the ‘malign-Zeeshan’ effort is about the long years he, along with his family, lived in the area. This is not usually how terrorist organisation members go about it. It is generally thought they must change places quickly to avoid raising suspicion.

Ask the people in the area what is it that distinguishes the Sahiwal killing from any other instance where a law enforcement agency has exceeded its limits, and there will be many who will dispute that there were any forces which were trying to artificially blow the incident to proportions bigger than it merited. Expectedly, the first reason cited for it quickly transforming into the most important issue on the national map is the image of the three children of Khalil who had narrowly escaped the firing.

At first glance, the son relating his story on television could well have been a model for any newsreader desirous of conveying the message across without any emotion. In time, the echo of his voice got louder as the tape was played again and again. In his own quietly devastating manner, Khalil’s son has done more to get justice for his family than all our hoarse voices put together. But the fact that the families of the victims had been living in this Ferozepur Road area for long did greatly help in establishing a bond with the residents around. There may be a pattern to how a particular area, say in Lahore, reacts to the news of an instance such as this.

The roots are important. Identity matters. Typically, as the news first comes in, the hope is that the targeted people are not from amongst ‘us’. That they are of Pakhtun extraction. Or that they are from among the maulvis. But not us. The shock is overwhelming and the grief quite unbearable when it is realised that they have hit one of our own.

Explore: Understanding the new militants of Pakistan

True or false, one reason why people seem to have been already sold on the story of Zeeshan’s innocence is that it reinforces their sense of security, their belief that they are not among the usual suspects.

Tariqabad, off Ferozepur Road in Lahore, is currently confronted with this reality.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2019