Something’s rotten in state of Pakistan
The problems underlying some conflicts are so simple that one tends to overlook them while laying out a resolution plan. It is the same with Pakistan authorities who have vowed to beat “terrorism” in a week, a problem that has been created over a period of nearly three decades. And instead of looking at the root causes of the present mess – militarisation, radicalisation and alienation; the whole of Pakistan is unanimously rallying around the Pakistan Army that has decided that fighter jets bombing a part of their country is the solution to resolve the problem.
Sprinting to give a knee-jerk reaction the Pakistan state, which has always been represented by the Pakistan Army, has completely sidelined the reason that the militants, who conducted the killings in a school in Peshawar. The militants did it in the name of avenging the deaths of their near and dear ones during the air strikes that the Pakistani forces have conducted in the region since June this year. The air strikes have apparently left 1700 ‘suspected militants’ dead and the figure of people dying as collateral damage has seldom come out. In the chest beating that followed, the issue of innocents, including women and children, has totally escaped being discussed in the public domain in Pakistan or elsewhere.
The collective public clamour for revenge reminded me of a conversation that I had with a friend from Pakistan. I told him that pounding your own population with fighter jets is not a good idea, in reference to the air strikes launched by Pakistani forces since June this year in their own country. My friend responded saying the operation is for snuffing out ‘terrorists’ inimical to Pakistan’s interests. And I asked him if he has ever heard any other country deploying fighter jets against its own people and what about the innocent killed in the strike as fighter jets are not precision weapons. Like a firm believer in the Pakistan Armed Forces he replied “our army knows how to handle the situation, the fighter jets are designed for precision bombing”.
For the starters, in the paucity of an apt analogy, the situation is akin to if India had deployed fighter jets in Kashmir at the peak of insurgency. Fighter jets are not meant to kill a person; they destroy neighborhoods and regions all together. But the blind faith of the Pakistan’s population in its Army and a consistent disdain towards its elected representatives is the symptom of the grave problem afflicting the country. The three main problems of Pakistan at the moment are militarisation, radicalization and alienation of its population. The future of Pakistan does not depend upon its Army, rather on sending the Army back to its barracks, institutionalising democracy, cessation of religious intolerance in all forms and giving more power to the federal structure to give representation to its diverse population groups.
Within first decade of its inception, Pakistan faced a military coup that saw General Ayub Khan taking over the power in 1958. Since then Pakistan has come a long way experiencing a slew of military coups and periods of martial law. The result has been the general militarisation of day to day life. Today, there are very few Pakistanis left who would raise an eyebrow when the all-powerful Pakistan Army would dictate terms to elected government and would meddle in all affairs – whether domestic or otherwise.
The level of militarisation can also be gauged from the fact that two Nobel Laureates from Pakistan – Abdus Salam and Malala Yusfazai – do not enjoy the status of hero in the society.
The former, a physicist, belongs to Ahmadiyya community of Pakistan which was through a constitutional amendment in 1974 were declared non-Muslims and in 1984 under the rule of General Zia ul Haq further restrictions were placed on their religious freedom. Malala, who had been shot by the Taliban militants for championing the right of girl education, received ire of Pakistan masses for bringing ‘disrepute’ to her country in international arena.
At the same time Zia ul Haq, who took over Pakistan in 1977 and is one of the longest serving head of states of the country and has to his credit the ‘Islamisation’ of the society and its foreign policy, is revered as the country’s hero. He consolidated the strategy of supporting extremism as a tool of countering India is well known. His famous quote of “bleeding India by 1000 cuts” referring to the proxy war, has often been quoted by the proponents of the use of extremists against India. General Parvez Musharraf, who led Pakistan into the botched up military operation in Kargil against India in 1999, is also hailed as hero.
Militaries’ job is to secure the borders against external enemy and not to govern. But majority of Pakistanis continue to be oblivion to this truth. And there is no soul searching on how the decades of military rule has debilitated the social fabric of the country and the Army has also replied by pandering to the public’s emotions of revenge in response to the Peshawar Attack and presents itself as the savior of Pakistan as a nation.
The education curriculum in Pakistan, which has been shaped by years of military rule, promotes a ‘muscular’ national identity through falsification of historical facts, political use of religion and encouraging xenophobia. The generation of Pakistanis born and raised since the rule of Zia ul Haq do not have any influence of liberal thoughts. The education system fosters religious intolerance through a distorted narrative, based on hatred of imagined enemies, local and foreign; and is unable to prepare youngsters for job market.
According to the latest report of International Crisis Group in 2014, Pakistan’s public education system “needs to foster a tolerant citizenry, capable of competing in the labour market and supportive of democratic norms within the country and peace with the outside world”. A decade prior, Crisis Group had come out with a report that had raised caution against the Pakistan education system radicalising young people. And since then little has changed and Pakistan continues to have lowest education expenditure in the region. According to the Crisis Group’s latest report the country has second highest number of out of school children in the world.
Here is an extract from the report, describing the radicalisation of Pakistan’s population through education – “An over-emphasis in textbooks on Islamic interpretations, not just in religion classes but also in history, literature and the sciences, has been used to create a discourse on national identity that validates the politically dominant military’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. Control over the curriculum by military and military-backed governments has been used, for instance, to galvanise popular opposition to their main adversary, India, and support for jihadi proxies in Indian-administered Kashmir and Afghanistan.” The Peshawar attack should have acted as a wake-up call for Pakistan if its decades-old strategy to counter the “Indian threat” has paid off or pushed into an abyss. The need of the hour is a proactive zero-tolerance against all forms of religious extremism.
Since its origin the Pakistani state has laid a greater emphasis on national cohesion, crowding out religious, regional and linguistic minorities from the public sphere. The military operations can assuage the public anger in the wake of the Peshawar attack, but they cannot provide long term solution for this problem of alienation that population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan face due to the imposition of the culture of Urdu-speaking Punjabi community that dominates practically all spheres in Pakistan.
Rising mob violence against minorities, that form 3.7 percent of Pakistan’s population, cases of alleged blasphemy, forced conversion of girls from minority community is a grim reality that has furthered the alienation of the minorities. The heightened sense of religious identity among the majority population is the challenge staring the Pakistan state in face. A briefing note presented by Pakistan Dalit Solidarity Network to UN Special Procedures mandate holders summarized the situation like this : “The level of violence and the extent of threat to their identity, culture, religion, to their life and property have reached a point where the minorities are pushed to live a life in perpetual fear and anxiety of an impending disaster.”
The Shia-Sunni divide and cleavage between Muslims and non-Muslims has reached a critical level. All of these point towards institutional indifference or discrimination against certain regions or religions. The Pakistan political authority needs to take a call and have zero tolerance towards all forms of religious extremism – whether directed towards a sect, religion or a particular region.