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Costly appeasement

February 20, 2013

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THE past week has left the Pakistanis grappling with two serious issues: they cannot protect the Hazara Shias of Quetta, nor can they resist the armed extremists. The result of the failure to resolve these issues cannot be contemplated with equanimity.

On Jan 10 more than 100 Hazara Shias were killed in an area dominated by them but where people belonging to other communities were also living. Barely five weeks later, the terrorists attacked them in their exclusive settlement — Hazara Town — and caused the death of over 90 innocent citizens. The beleaguered community was again driven to despair, delaying the burial of the dead and staging sit-ins.

As usual the latest outrage has been strongly condemned by the government and leaders of political parties. Their cliché-ridden rhetoric carries little force because they only condemn the foul deed and lack the guts to unmask its perpetrators beyond describing them as terrorists. They refuse to come out of their make-believe world.

They know the reason why the Shias are being killed and yet they keep pretending to be ignorant of it. They are aware of the identity of the culprits and yet they keep organising missions to find out who they are. The naivety of the country’s ruling elite is matched fully by the Quetta Hazaras themselves when they ask for their city to be handed over to the army.

After the January bloodbath, the Raisani ministry was sacked. That the Hazara Shias have fared no better under governor raj proves that the culprits are stronger (or enjoy the patronage of elements that are stronger) than elected ministers and the bureaucratic apparatus headed by the governor. That confirms that a mere change of guard is not going to end the Hazara Shias’ plight. The stark reality is that those who can deal with the culprits do not wish to do so.

The anti-Shia pogroms in Quetta raise many critical questions and somebody has to answer them: how has Balochistan been captured by forces of religious intolerance? Why did all those engaged in hunting down the Baloch nationalists not notice the mushrooming of religious seminaries across the province or were these centres encouraged as an antidote to the Baloch yearning for autonomy?

Are the Hazara Shias of Quetta being punished for not being landlords or for being more interested in education than others, or for holding somewhat liberal views on women’s rights?

Do these Hazaras have any jobs or businesses and enterprises left with them that their less capable rivals covet? Has any serious effort been made to find out why a large number of Hazara Shia young men have tried to seek asylum in Australia and elsewhere? Has Punjab’s government done anything to stop the export of terrorists to Balochistan? Besides targeted killings there are several aspects of the Hazara Shias’ ordeal that need to be addressed.

Some people might not see any nexus between the killing of Shias in Quetta, or in Gilgit-Baltistan, Fata and Karachi, and to some extent even in Punjab, and the extremists’ challenge to the state of Pakistan in the tribal belt and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A brief reflection will be enough to find that the two issues are interlinked. Also it will be realised that the decision of last Friday’s all-parties conference to negotiate with the Taliban will increase the threat to the country’s democratic premise and the pluralist complexion of its society.

This conference was not sponsored by the state but its call for negotiations with the militants carries as much weight as state policy because it enjoyed the backing of the parties in power and in opposition both, and they have, unwittingly perhaps, helped the forces that are battling the state. Any appeasement of the extremists now will inevitably lead to a costlier surrender by the state.

The factors that impelled the ANP to convene this conference as well as its need for a safe playing ground during the general election can easily be appreciated. It might also be under pressure to heal the intra-Pakhtun split. But it is extremely doubtful that it will gain anything by embracing the Taliban at this point in time.

This does not mean a rejection of the principle of solving all problems through negotiations. A time may come when talks with militants could be mutually beneficial but as matters stand today Pakistan will only court disaster by entering into a dialogue with the militant forces. The reasons are many.

There is an open disagreement between Islamabad and the Taliban on the timing for cessation of armed confrontation and terrorist raids. The former’s demand that a ceasefire should precede negotiations has been turned down by the latter, which has declared that a ceasefire could only follow successful conclusion of negotiations. More importantly it is difficult to see what the Taliban can offer.

The authors of the conference declaration apparently believe they have acquired a safety cover by stipulating that any settlement with the Taliban will be within the limits of the constitution. The Taliban will agree and argue that they only want the constitutional requirement of enforcing the Sharia to be honoured. None of the leading political parties in the country today will contest this.

The sticking point will be the militants’ claim that they alone have the right to interpret the Sharia. But to accept any group’s monopoly over interpreting the Sharia will be as contrary to the Sharia as anything else.

The militants have repeatedly declared that they have a religious duty to kill all renegades and heretics and they cannot stop attacking the Pakistani state and anyone who is aligned with their enemies because that would amount to abandoning a duty ordained by belief. Their minimum demand could be a revival of the Zia regime. The only party that has to yield anything is the hapless state of Pakistan.

Negotiations with militants will mean making Pakistan’s constitutional order subject to the outcome of a theological disputation. How will the concept of Pakistan as a federal democracy, governed by elected representatives, survive?

It is possible that some politicians think they will be able to manage the militant hardliners by giving them inconsequential concessions. They will be as thoroughly disappointed as the authors and defenders of the Objectives Resolution have been. The policy of appeasing the obscurantists has never worked throughout the last six decades and will not work now either.

The pressure on the state in the north and the killing of the Hazaras in Balochistan constitute a pincer movement against the Pakistan state by a force that begins by claiming custodianship of the true Islam and goes on to call for a theocracy as an unavoidable consequence.

There can be no peace in any part of the country unless all energies are directed towards raising the bulwark of a pluralist democracy and leaving the people free to follow their beliefs in private life.