Swat today, where tomorrow?

Kamal Siddiqi

The government “operation” in Swat comes after months of delays by an administration unsure about how to deal with the rise in religious extremism. The manner in which things come to a head and result in needless violence and loss of life can be avoided if the government has a policy to deal with such matters. Unfortunately this has not been the case. The Musharraf government has to be given credit for making heroes out of obscure, irrelevant and two-bit religious leaders thanks to its blunders, confusion, delays and mixed signals. One can only ask why is it that the government has specialized in making heroes of obscure religious figures and turning peaceful areas into hot spots? Possibly one reason can be that it is unable to rise to the occasion when need be.

But there are those that work against the government from within. Part of the blame for making things go from bad to worse in Swat goes to our closet extremist brigade headed by Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and ably supported by Ejaz-ul Haq, our religious affairs minister. They seem to have specialized in causing confusion when it comes to dealing with situations that involve religious elements. And yet, they are part of the “A” team of General Musharraf who claims that he is not only moderate, but also enlightened as well. One can wonder.

The pattern seems the same. Let us take the Lal Masjid debacle and then compare it to the events in Swat. In both instances, the government allows some unknown religious cleric to deliberately provoke and challenge the state and its laws. In the process, the cleric and his band of merry men earn a notoriety of their own. They take over the functions of the state. The government does not respond. They start to attack agents of the state, and in some instances kill or kidnap them. Our commando-led government continues to slumber. They then start a pattern of attacks on people of the area to browbeat them into submission. The easy targets are shops selling CD’s and videos, as well as barber shops, women tailor shops and others that are seen to be selling things that are not in conformity with their medieval ideology. People are killed, threatened, kidnapped but the local police, which is otherwise very efficient when it comes to collecting bhatta or beating lawyers and journalists in demonstrations, suddenly becomes helpless. Police don’t even register cases, so scared they are.

Then finally after months of challenging the state, sometimes the cleric then decides to take on Islamabad. In the case of Swat, Moulvi Fazlullah wanted to declare “independence” and only then and after a change in government in the NWFP that notice was taken. But the farce does not end there. In jump our closet extremists from General Musharraf’s “A” team. They claim to try and solve the problem. Instead they make it worse. Then when things are beyond control, the government sends in the troops who do a good job of making a messy situation bloody as well.

There are many questions that one needs to ask the government on Swat. For one, who is Moulvi Fazlullah without his illegal FM radio station? Why was that illegal radio station allowed to function for over three years while the government looked the

other way? Where was PEMRA in all this? In the past, when asked about illegal FM radio stations operating in the Tribal Areas and places like Swat, the information minister of the time laughed it off. One word of warning here. There are more such stations functioning in sensitive parts of the country. Will they be allowed to continue spreading disinformation?

The operation in Swat is particularly worrisome. Swat was one of the country’s most peaceful areas, now it is one of the most troubled. Over a passage of a couple of years, local Taliban supporters have gradually taken over parts of the valley. Local journalists say that apart from the big towns, of which there are few, the rest of the valley remains in the control of these militias especially after dusk. People traveling in night time are stopped and challenged by the religious fighters. And this has been happening for some time now while the government looked the other way. One should ask the former CM of NWFP why he let things deteriorate to such an extent that now the government has to go in to “establish the writ of the state.”

Mullah Fazlullah has been spreading his message over the airwaves for over three years. His father-in-law declared the imposition of Shariat in roughly the same area where the Moulvi now holds sway. Moulvi Sufi Mohommad misguided hundreds of young men into fighting the good war against the Americans in Afghanistan. Most of these men died as a result. Now Moulvi Fazlullah is also misguiding another batch of men. When will this end?

Where is the government when all of this is happening? Why was no action taken when the recruitment drive was in progress? What happened to the government when Moulvi Fazlullah collected millions of rupees in one day for his Madrassa after his brother died in a drone attack in another part of the NWFP. Like most parts of the country, Swat too is neglected by the center. No effort has been made to bolster its local tourism industry. The criminals who tried to destroy and partially succeeded in defacing the face of Buddha on a rock surface in Swat remain to be arrested. A major tourist attraction blown to bits. The valley’s natural beauty and historical importance as a site of great Buddhist importance remains underplayed. Local hotels complain of fall in occupancy rates. The government has done nothing to check the environmental degradation that is being witnessed here. The poor remain poor. And they remember the time of the Wali, when roads were smooth as silk and bridges were meant to last. And there was peace.

Now there is trouble. Along with Swat, there are other hotbeds in the country waiting to explode. Whether it is parts of the NWFP where clerics are whipping up a storm or the Northern Areas where the nationalist elements are flirting with the religious parties, the situation is turning grim. And yet the government has been unable to see into what the future holds based on current trends.

One needs to understand what the problem is. The main issue is not religion, it is poverty and unemployment. It is government neglect and corruption. It is the abuse of power by government functionaries and a lack of accountability. It is the inability of Islamabad to connect with these areas and the belief that center knows best. It is a deteriorating law and order situation and a decline in quality of social services. The lack of water, power, health and education. Without a long term strategy in place to address these issues, clerics and other forces will continue to exploit the sentiments of the people and use them to their advantage. Disinformation and violence will prevail. And we will sit, watch and wonder.

Email: kamal.siddiqi@thenews.com.pk

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