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Daily Times Editorials – 29th March 2016

Operation in Punjab

In the wake of the horrific terror attack in Lahore on Sunday, Pakistan army initiated an operation in South Punjab to target militants, their facilitators and their hideouts to counter possible threats. After the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park suicide blast, a military crackdown has been launched against banned terrorist outfits across Punjab. The army spokesperson informed the media that a number of suspected terrorists and facilitators have already been arrested during the five raids, which were conducted in Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan after the Lahore suicide explosion. What has come to the fore, however, more clearly than before is the reality of the involvement in terrorism of militias based in south Punjab. Reportedly, over 60 banned groups are active in Punjab, and the provincial government has failed to check the spread of such outfits. In the past Nawaz Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has been suspected of striking deals with various sectarian jihadist outfits in south Punjab, which is also being widely seen as a factory that produces hardcore militants, and is known for their sanctuaries.

The army operation in Punjab is a long-awaited decision. The anti-terror military action should continue relentlessly and with full force to root out the menace of terrorism from the country. It is time for all of us to stand together demonstrating our national resolve and strength to defeat terrorism once and for all. It was a long overdue step that should have been taken much earlier. The dangerous mindset that promotes and enables extremism is becoming more and more vicious. Certain banned outfits in the country are responsible for the propagation of extremist narrative. These self-styled militant organisations have the sole agenda of brainwashing the youth to use them as a tool for their agendas of exploitation and hegemony. No amount of governmental measures to stop these brainwashed young people from blowing themselves up in public unless the process of re-radicalisation starts at a young age. Investment in education, employment, sports, recreation, poverty-alleviation, population control, healthcare and other social sectors would also be a great way to minimise the effects of radicalisation in Pakistan.

Government needs to step up intelligence-based operations against terrorists with a goal to eliminate the terror infrastructure as well as the extremist mindset. However, there is a question as to who is going to lead this operation in Punjab. It has been stated that the operation will be similar in nature like the one going on in Karachi. The civilian government’s inefficiency is responsible for the military to take things under its control. The civilian government needs to wake up and lead the operation against all militant outfits in Punjab and elsewhere in the country.

Islamabad under siege

More than 25,000 supporters of Mumtaz Qadri — a former Punjab Elite force commando executed last month for the self-confessed assassination of the then Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer in 2011 — have besieged Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the last two days to commemorate Qadri’s chehlum ceremony. The protestors, largely buoyed up by Sunni groups, the Sunni Tehreek and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool, have even resorted to breaching Islamabad’s high security Red Zone, according to a tweet by the ISPR spokesman, General Asim Bajwa. The federal government requisitioned army on Sunday to disperse the increasingly aggressive demonstrators, following various episodes of violence, which caused injuries to at least 42 security officials and 16 civilians, in addition to damaging public properties, including the newly-constructed metro bus station at the China Chowk. Although diminished to approximately 3,000, the protesters are still sitting outside the Parliament House, determined to continue until the government accepts their ten demands. Some of their demands are: rejection of any amendments to the blasphemy law, immediate execution of the alleged blasphemer, Aasia bibi, and bestowing of the title of martyr on Qadri.

The abolition or reform of blasphemy laws is a highly controversial debate in the Muslim-majority Islamic Republic of Pakistan. However, in the wake of an overwhelming population — largely under the influence of religious clerics — endorsing the law codified in the 1980s, as an outright derivation from the Quran, an extensive resistance could be easily predicted.

The current situation presents a pertinent question: why has the federal government not succeeded in the restoration of order yet? Clearly, a few thousand dissenters cannot hold either more authority or firearms than the law-enforcement agencies. Hence, even if the protesters were allowed access to the Parliament House after gaining safety assurances from Mufti Abid on behalf of the protesters, swift action needed be taken when they had revoked their word. Moreover, dispersing the current frenzied mob is not the only solution that this deep-rooted problem requires.

The escalating sway of religious clerics over local population is the main motivation behind an extensive politicisation of every social issue. The vigour with which holy doctrines are used to justify radical behaviour serves no religious agenda other than the one posited by these religious leaders themselves. A disturbing example of that was witnessed on Saturday when a group of people crossed security check-posts at the Benazir Bhutto International Airport to assault the singer-turned-televangelist, Junaid Jamshed, on accounts of a year-long controversy that had targeted him for passing blasphemous remarks about Hazrat Ayesha (RA), one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Thus what is really needed is a thorough transformation of the public mind-set regarding both the origin as well as application of religious commandments so that the distinction between religion and culture can be fully understood. The responsibility of federal government to ensure that anarchy be avoided at all costs cannot be undermined. If the protestors succeed in prevailing upon the lawmakers, Pakistan might bear the brunt of a prevailing culture of mob justice. Hence, how the administration reacts to the few thousands sitting at the D-chowk will be crucial to test the credibility of law-enforcement agencies in the country.

The Lahore tragedy

With the horrific suicide bomb attack at Lahore’s crowded Gulshan-e-Iqbal park on Sunday evening that killed more than 72 people and injured at least 300 others, all illusions about ‘breaking the back’ of terrorists in Pakistan have been shattered. While it is true that 2015 saw the incidence of terrorist attacks drop significantly, during the first three months of 2016 Pakistan has seen an alarming rise in the capacity of terrorists to strike back. Ever since the state reaffirmed its commitment to go after terrorists and their militant hideouts in North Waziristan, there were fears of deadly repercussions that targeted major cities of Pakistan. For a while, however, it seemed as if the army had dealt the militants a decisive blow, reducing their operational capacities and relegating them to haphazardly targeting minor towns. Unmistakably, the downturn in attacks led to complacency in the security forces as threats levels were perceived to be down and vigilance was relaxed. It can be surmised therefore that rather than being defeated definitively, the various militant outfits in Pakistan have been biding their time, regrouping and revising their strategy while on the run.

The location and timing of the attack cannot be ignored; on March 27 Christians around the world were celebrating the Easter, and Christians of Lahore were no different as they too were out enjoying their holiday. As many Christians of the country belong to the working class, their choices of leisure are limited to a few public parks across the city. Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park happens to be one of Lahore’s biggest and most famous, thus being a favourite of many working and middle class families from all over the city. By all accounts, the park is usually full on any given Sunday, but with the added factor of Easter, it was packed more than the norm. Given that Christians are an already vulnerable community, and keeping in mind that the last bombings prior to the latest attack in Lahore also targeted the Christian community in Youhanabad, it is fair to criticise the failure of the police and intelligence agencies to anticipate such an eventuality and take preventive measures. At the same time, one has to contend with the regrettably limited capacity and lack of training of the police forces to monitor and secure a park as crowded as the Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Another factor that needs to be addressed is the group behind the attack, as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was also behind the Youhanabad church bombings last year and therefore should have been on the radar of the security forces, especially around a major Christian festival. The spokesperson of the group gleefully claimed this attack and explicitly mentioned Christians celebrating Easter as the motivation behind the attack. So while it is true that a suicide bombing kills and maims all those in its vicinity indiscriminately, and a majority of the casualties were indeed Muslims, the rationale of the attack cannot be dismissed if the deeper problem has to be combated.

The fact remains that in Pakistan there is a disturbing trend of glorification of religiously motivated violence. The problem of terrorism cannot be solved by military operations alone, since it is a matter of deeply ingrained mindsets. Violence against perceived ‘infidels’ or supporters of the said infidels can be initiated and justified at the drop of a hat. Millions of children across Pakistan, from a very impressionable age, are exposed to unfiltered hateful demagoguery that warps their attitudes towards non-Muslims in a harmful way. The demonisation of Christians is particularly perplexing, since as the Ahl-e-Kitab and followers of Prophet Isa (PBUH), they have a special status in Islam. The state, absolutely, has to get to the root of the problem that lies in the thousands of madrassas spread across the land. It will be a long arduous road but it must be taken.

Moreover, let us not forget that on the same day as the bombing, Pakistan’s federal capital was besieged by thousands of fanatical supporters of an executed convicted terrorist, who were threatening to set parliament on fire if their demands of imposing Shariah in Pakistan, officially declaring Mumtaz Qadri a martyr and the prompt hanging of Aasia bibi were not met. One can understand why a state and its forces can fail to prevent a suicide bombing attack since it is the kind of a random act of violence that is hard to predict or prevent, but letting a bunch of enraged zealots take over the capital hints at a fundamentally weak state.

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