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Saturday, June 05, 2010
The simultaneous attacks on two places of worship of the Ahmedi community in Lahore, which claimed at least 95 lives, and the subsequent attack on the Jinnah Hospital to free an injured suicide attacker were perhaps not enough to wake the provincial government from its deep slumber. Despite the gravity of the situation, there is a state of denial and a pervading sense of complacency. The PML-N leadership is simply not willing to concede that the province has become a hub of terrorism.
On the night of the attack on Jinnah Hospital, a dishevelled, visibly shaken chief minister of Punjab was seen at the scene. Until then Mian Shahbaz Sharif had been hiding behind the vituperative statements of his law minister, Rana Sanaullah, who attacked anyone who even remotely suggested that the provincial government should get its act together and go after the Taliban sanctuaries spread all over southern Punjab.
The callous disregard towards a minority that is perceived as anathema to the obscurantist vote bank that the PML-N so assiduously cultivates, is evident from the fact that Mian Shahbaz Sharif chose not to visit the site of the massacres in Model Town and Gari Shahu. Nor did he bother to meet or offer compensation to the bereaved families.
The saddest part of this most unfortunate incident is that it has become a subject for point scoring. The war of words between Governor Salmaan Taseer and Rana Sanaullah, bordering on their use of abusive language against each other, has gone beyond ridiculous.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik visited Lahore on Sunday. Instead of meeting the chief minister to discuss the grave situation and the measures necessary to tackle it, he decided to go public about his own perceptions on the matter. He said that it was no disclosure, nor was the fact sensational, that terrorists from southern Punjab had now become active. He hinted to a section of the media that there was a possibility of army action in southern Punjab on the pattern of operations in the tribal areas, for which he drew a sharp reaction from the provincial government.
The very next day, the interior minister came up with the ludicrous statement that he was not aware that the terrorist Muaz was under treatment in the same hospital Mr Malik had visited a day earlier. Unless Mr Malik was suffering from another bout of Orwellian doublespeak, it was the job of the interior minister to inquire about the whereabouts of the injured terrorist.
The Punjab government’s attitude towards the sharp increase of jihadist activity in the province is a mixture of naiveté, ambivalence and opportunistic politics. The ruling party in the province is willing to go to any length in its eagerness to be the sole beneficiary of the perceived vote bank of the religious parties.
To say the least, it was criminal negligence on the part of the government to house the terrorist in a public hospital. They might as well have put him in a five-star hotel of the city, where at least security is better and more reliable.
On the very day of the terrorist incidents in Lahore, Rana Sanaullah, who was participating in a discussion with this writer in a programme on Geo Television, vociferously defended his party’s politicking together with members of the leadership of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba in the recent by-elections in Jhang. He was simply of the view that if such elements have the right to vote, why should the PML-N not bank on them?
What the foulmouthed Rana and his bosses conveniently overlook is the fact that Sipah-e-Sihaba was declared a terrorist organisation and banned under the Anti-Terrorist Act legislated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself in 1997. His claim that the PML-N by hobnobbing with such elements is bringing them into mainstream politics sounds hollow.
To claim that the problem lies not in southern Punjab but in North and South Waziristan where terrorists receive training is a travesty of truth. The cannon fodder, the militants, come from Punjab, and go on to receive training and indoctrination in Fata.
Not only are a large number of madressahs based in southern Punjab, but the origin of many jihadist organisations can be traced to the province. For example, Sipah-e-Sihaba, which is based in Jhang, was a reaction to the proxy war between Iran and the Gulf countries in the seventies and the eighties. Along with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, it has become a mainstay of jihadist elements in Punjab.
Similarly, the founder of Jaish-e-Muhammad is Maulana Masood Azhar, who hails from Bahawalnagar. He was released from an Indian prison in 1999 in a prisoner swap as a result of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar. Interestingly, it happened on Gen Musharraf’s watch, the hero of Kargil who at that time was willing to go to any limits in pursuit of his anti-India agenda.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, under the tutelage of Hafiz Saeed based in Muridke, was formed in 1989 to replicate the Afghan jihad in occupied Kashmir. Thankfully, the LeT believes only in state-approved jihad and is Kashmir-specific
The Tablighi Jamaat headed by Bhai Abdul Wahab is based in Raiwind on the outskirts of Lahore. Ostensibly non-militant, over the years it has become the largest congregation of jihadists from all over the world. VIPs like Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, followed by then-president Farooq Leghari, would regularly visit its “Salana Ijtamah” (annual congregation). Interestingly, according to Rana Sanaullah, the terrorists who attacked the Ahmedi worship places lodged themselves there.
Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, a stone’s throw away form the ISI headquarters, belongs to Rajanpur. The mosque was besieged during Musharraf’s rule and the operation launched to lift the siege resulted in massive casualties inside the mosque, including that of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Maulana Aziz, his brother managed to escape.
It is high time the Punjab government recognised the grim situation, instead of sharply reacting to anyone critical of its policies, and got its act together to tackle the problem head-on. Admittedly, there is no quick fix solution to the problem. The jihadists cannot be eliminated in a day.
Talk of an army action in southern Punjab is certainly premature. It is neither desirable nor feasible. The terrain does not require an army action on the lines of operations conducted in Swat and South Waziristan. However, if things go completely wrong in this area, a military operation there will have to be contemplated because there will be no other option left.
The PML-N has decided to form a special anti-terrorism war cell to deal with the problem, instead of spending its meagre resources on training, equipping and improving the existing police force. This is tantamount to creating another tier of bureaucracy. The proposed setup could result in further lowering the effectiveness of the police and provincial intelligence network without creating a better alternative.
Socioeconomic measures must be taken to improve the lot of those who live in abject poverty and have no recourse but to send their children to madressahs for education. There is the need to beef up the intelligence and security apparatus. But the political will to take these actions is lacking.
The Elite Force was formed with a lot of fanfare by Mian Shahbaz Sharif in his previous stint as chief minister. The bulk of these smartly-turned-up and well-trained policemen are now being used to protect the political elite and their families.
The PML-N leadership needs to end its ostrich-like attitude. The stark reality that there must be no nexus with those who want to undo the system needs to sink in sooner than later.
The writer is a former newspaper editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org