Planning for a nation

Published December 7, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

IS there anything left to say about Sialkot? Condemn it more? Express outrage even more loudly? Use more adjectives than the last person who wrote on it? Rail against the leaders who have failed us, at present or in the past? And if one wants to appear more thoughtful than others, there is always the remark about how soon the outrage will be forgotten, come the next story or crisis.

In between, there is the demand for justice or punishment — they are interchangeable in our conversations — while the government officials are feverishly announcing the number of arrested to show the state is hard at work, as if an arrest in Pakistan is a guarantee of anything much.

So what next? Agreed that swift punishments are essential in such cases but are they enough? We thought we were headed in the right direction when the killer of Salmaan Taseer was tried and punished. But it appears that we simply cut off one head of the hydra and are now battling multiple ones which have appeared since.

Perhaps it is time we returned to the blackboard to figure out what needs to be done. The last time such an effort took place — at least as far as we, mere mortals, are aware of — was when our political and military leadership together unveiled the National Action Plan (NAP) after the APS tragedy.

Firmer state action and better implementation of the law is only the first step.

It seems, though, that its fate was to be little more than a New Year resolution left to gather dust despite good intentions. This is not surprising given its ambitious sweep without any details on implementation. From fixing the judicial system to eradicating militant groups, 20 short sub-headings covered it all.

But, did we not need some detail on how this was to be achieved? Consider one point: “Ongoing operation in Karachi will be taken to its logical end.” What is the logical end? Did any of those putting this document together envisage or describe what this ‘end’ is? Was it simply the completion of military operations in Karachi or was there more? Or is it that the details were discussed but not made public?

Read: 'Time to take action': Govt to review counter-terrorism strategy after Sialkot lynching, says Mazari

Similarly, too little attention is paid to why certain actions have to be taken. For instance, the plan speaks of registering and regularising madressahs. We have been speaking of this since the time of Musharraf but do we really know why? Is it because their curriculum is breeding extremism or is it because they are used by militants for networking and recruiting? Do we need to curb their criminal activities or their thinking? Or is it both? In short, the crossing and the dotting has to be done.

But there is more to it; this is where the hydra keeps growing more heads, as some of us try to battle on. NAP approaches the problem as an administrative one — stopping militant organisations, putting an end to hate speech, regularising madressahs, curbing terrorist funding and so on. Mull over it a bit and it seems as if firmer state action and better implementation of law is the answer we need.

Undoubtedly, we do. But, this is simply the first step — and not an easy one. For even here, we will need to address political issues, including but not only the civil-military relationship. But even if we miraculously give izzat to the vote, our problems will not end.

Indeed, we need to take a long, hard look at the rise of the TLP, the court scenes during Mumtaz Qadri’s trial, the death of Mashal Khan and the crowd in Sialkot and ask ourselves if we simply see this as an administrative problem and one linked to our political setting. And if not, how are we going to describe it and then address it.

We need to define this crisis and its causes before we can even begin to find the answers. For instance, if it is linked to our education system, we need to ask where exactly the problem lies. For clearly, no one in power seems to see it. Not only was it not mentioned in NAP, it did not come up during the recent mass-scale revision of the curriculum either. This revision was prompted by the PTI’s belief in ridding the country of the economic divide in the education system as well as (according to some views) the NAP agenda about madressahs.

In the latter aim, it seems the underlying assumption was that if madressah students are as equipped as mainstream school students and can compete for the same jobs, they will not opt for violence and extremism. But, Sialkot has put paid to this notion, if the lawyers who came to Qadri’s support hadn’t already. And it also needs to be asked if we have enough jobs for the young people who graduate from mainstream schools and madressahs. And what happens if we don’t.

But because there is no information available on whether these questions were asked and how or why the madressah education reform was made part of NAP, the PTI’s Single National Curriculum was used to ‘bring’ the madressahs on board but in the process, many think the quantum of religiosity in the curriculum was increased. Many now worry that the school system will not prepare more open-minded citizens. But then, this was never diagnosed as a problem and it wasn’t supposed to be addressed either by NAP or by any of our political parties in their manifestos.

That is not all. NAP also spoke of curbing hate speech and glorification of terrorists in publications, media and social media but not masjids. Is it because the lower level clergy does not add to this problem in the view of those who sat down to finalise NAP?

Indeed, it is time we came together for a lengthier and open discussion on extremism (instead of in camera briefings on Afghanistan) — a discussion which doesn’t just moan about the Objectives Resolution, Bhutto or Zia or our strategic depth policy. We have to now begin unpacking the social forces at work, along with administrative reform, if we want to learn from Sialkot.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2021

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