This cancer is in Punjab

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Arif Ali

In his younger, angrier days, Iqbal once wrote, ‘Justice is an inestimable treasure; but we must guard it against the thief of mercy.’ Some hundred years later, justice is long dead; courtesy the kind of mercy that flows from fear.

Fear that thrives off the sectarian swamp in Southern Punjab. There’s no other way of putting this and, let’s be honest, everyone’s been saying it for years; in columns and cable television, in academic theses and wall chalkings: this cancer is in Punjab.

There are two parties here: the mutants in the south, and their apologists in the centre. Takht-e-Lahore has militancy down to a science: listen to bomb blasts in the distance, buckle down, and look away. If it’s not here, it’s not anywhere.

Sure, Hazaras are cleansed from Quetta, and college kids are shot in Charsadda, and Shias are bombed in Abbas Town, and bad things happen in badlands far away.

But the Punjab, to quote another insipid rightwinger, is a shining city on a hill – the ‘roshan’ in Roshan Pakistan. If it happens in Karachi, punch them in the face. If it happens in FATA, whack them back to Nuristan. But if there are tremors in Punjab, kick it under the carpet.

Forget the south, the Muslim League wasn’t even taking on the north. 2013 was proof of as much: talk to the Taliban. Dilly-dally on North Waziristan. Watch them blow up the courts in Islamabad. Professor Ibrahim may yet cut us a deal.

But Waziristan happened. Zarb-e-Azb happened. And as the operation concludes in Shawwal, it’s time we held on again.

By mid-2013, there were three flashpoints: Karachi, FATA, and Southern Punjab. The fact we’ve gone so hard in the first two, and left the third untouched, sums up the centre in a single sentence.

On Easter Sunday, Gulshan-e-Iqbal became a nightmare. Those who’ve seen the rides, who’ve seen kids run in the grass; who’ve breathed the air of Gulshan-e-Iqbal; lack the faculty to say more. What kind of sick idea is this meant to achieve – to murder children on swing sets?

‘Contemplation without action is death,’ Iqbal once said. There can be no more hemming and hawing. The suspected bomber reportedly hails from Muzaffargarh, where sectarian hate finds fertile ground. It’s time to flush out militancy from Punjab. And at the risk of repetition, it’s now or never.

That’s for the short run. In the long run, when you let your backyard become a violent snakepit, it tends to explode out front. What we now have is three provinces outsourced to the military and Rangers, and the state refusing to take the brunt in Punjab or Islamabad either.

So while an operation in Punjab needs to happen yesterday, the civilian project is even more vital: madressahs, with all kinds of cruel and unusual curricula, operate with impunity. The nexus between charity drives and banned outfits has been entrenched for decades.

Education, welfare, volunteerism; this kind of extremist ingress can’t be fought with strikes and strafing. Ideas are fought with ideas: national action plans, press campaigns, economic incentives. Instead, we have mass deprivation on our hands.

And it wasn’t always this way. According to the Institute of Public Policy, ‘Multan and Rahim Yar Khan were ranked 4th and 6th in Punjab’ around the 1970s. According to the IPP report, ‘southern parts of the province were massively neglected later on in the provision of economic infrastructure and public service delivery, resulting in the steep decline in their development ranking.’

Today, of Punjab’s 36 districts, it’s the South that shows up dead last in development indicators. The budget remains a fraction of what’s actually spent on Lahori white elephants, and what’s allotted isn’t used – for an effective disbursement of funds to happen (i.e. the kind that makes for grassroots improvement) you need an effective local government.  Without the second, you can’t get the first.

Yes, the jury’s still out on whether poverty is a cause or correlation of militancy. But it’s not as if the state’s set about disproving it: Southern Punjab remains one of the hottest, poorest, angriest places in the land.

This is a long-haul project: it requires army operations, and subsequently, civilian surgery. To pretend otherwise is what we’ve done since 2009, Punjab Police style: hammer a ringleader or two, filter the second-tier guys, and talk to anyone that’s reasonable.

But that’s too little, too late: without cutting out the cancer in the south, everything else is window dressing.

Meanwhile, the real dealbreaker was, is, and always has been the police. The current counter-terror strategy relies on ‘special units’: elite forces; a crew of James Bonds fully equipped to take on terror. But that’s not the answer – it’s the humdrum of regular police work: investigation; evidence collection; forensics; case building; that needs upgrading.

And from proper evidence collection flows proper prosecution, which may mean our courts actually convict terrorists than acquit them on sight.

The justice system; service delivery; sectarian groups; policing – when it comes to Southern Punjab, where to start?

Perhaps there’s no place to look but the beginning. We marked this 23 March with Cobra choppers and Khalid tanks, all martial bells and whistles. But let’s remember what actually happened on 23 March, 1940:Mr. Jinnah declaring ‘full religious liberty, i.e. liberty of belief, worship and observance’ to all communities, and protection of minorities’ ‘religious, cultural, [and] economic’ rights’ in Lahore.

What we call Pakistan Day, is the anniversary of the Quaid painting our green banners white. A week from then, we watched as sick-hearted men killed Christian women and children – and all Lahore came out, giving their blood, shedding their tears: Muslim, Christian, Hindu.

And while gardens named for Iqbal are bombed, ideas cannot be undone. ‘The message of love,’ he wrote, ‘when I can no longer keep it to myself, I come and tell it to your shining stars.’

The heart of this country is good. And it will be reclaimed.