The Challenge of Change
By Ayesha Siddiqa
January 29, 2015
It is good to see the state take some action in Punjab. Apparently, members of some militant groups are being picked up. Even more heartening is the fact that the police, which were considered useless till a few months ago, have begun to do some tidying up of the place. Resultantly, in some parts of south Punjab, people have even begun to talk about reduction in the overall crime rate. Members of certain groups are now worried.
More importantly, there isn’t even a reaction from both good and bad militants which means that controlling such people in Punjab was always doable. I remember many seasoned journalists often arguing that since a military operation was not possible in Punjab, it was a better tactic to ignore these groups and fight other battles. No one heeded the fact that Punjab could always have been cleaned by combined efforts of the intelligence and the police. It was always just a matter of allowing them to proceed and not hold back their reins. Surely, this also means that if the state develops a will, it can be assertive against militants.
But before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that people were picked and locked up before also. They would get released after a few months, if not weeks. Every district maintains a list of suspects who get rounded up every time the temperature went up as far as security is concerned. One wonders if this pattern would be repeated again. The police will have to develop the capacity to watch over these people even if many of them are to be set free eventually.
The task of surveillance becomes doubly hard not just due to the lack of capacity, but also due to the continued operation of some militant groups. Many argue that the government and the military have not clamped down on some groups because they were not creating any trouble for the state. More importantly, we are told the best approach is to tread carefully and go step by step. So, the plan is to first eliminate all the bad groups and then extend the definition to others. This is not what has explicitly been said but this is what the civil society has interpreted. There are several loopholes with such a plan.
First, it is well known that in the past, individual militants would get restless and leave parent groups to join those that could promise action and an uninterrupted show of violence. There has to be security against such leaks from these so-called safe groups. After all, people were promised jihad and recruited for that. Second, ideologically there is little difference between those who are picked up and others who are left behind. These groups are rational players and would not antagonise the state if there is a better way for them to survive. However, their pragmatism will make them consolidate themselves in a manner that would enable them to survive and regroup when the need arises again. Let’s not forget that their mainstay is their ideology, which remains fairly intact.
The safe groups which are not targeted as yet have already begun to recreate themselves. Going through their material on social media, as well as printed material, it is visible that they can adopt options that will seemingly not threaten the state, yet keep them relevant amongst the people. The issue of blasphemy and the ongoing Charlie Hebdo issue have been picked up by most of these organisations. Looking at their publicity, they have successfully mingled with religious groups that are termed peaceful. For instance, in the context of condemning Charlie Hebdo, the position taken by the Pakistan Ulema Council and these groups is similar. Socio-politically, you can find nothing wrong with their position. However, this means their relevance remains and they will continue to impress ordinary people.
The civil society movement is right about people being shocked by the Peshawar attack and has condemned the killings. Nevertheless, it is also possible that many still buy into the narrative of militant organisations because their narrative still makes sense. We have to be very clear on one thing: radicalism is more dangerous than even terrorism because it can survive longer and remain undetected due to the fact that it does not necessarily result in any immediate act of violence.
Similarly, it is also a fallacy that these groups can ever get mainstreamed. Allowing groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and others to expand their welfare infrastructure does not help. Such activities assist the groups to hide their real intent and not change. In any case, the entire episode of the Foreign Office announcing an older ban on the Jamaat ud Dawa followed by Hafiz Saeed denying the claim and later suggesting that the asset freeze had just affected him personally as his pension funds came into the account, indicate that he or his organisation feel perfectly intact and undisturbed. In any case, the other components of the organisation were not even touched. Nor was any mention made of other outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Al Rehman Trust.
Lately, some analysts have also come to Hafiz Saeed’s defence citing the lack of evidence as a reason behind the state not disturbing him. However, there is sufficient material available within Pakistan or other parts of the world, indicating the LeT’s involvement on other war fronts and links with al Qaeda. Let’s for a minute sympathise with the argument that some militant networks have to be kept as a guarantee against troublesome neighbours. The counter-argument is that with regional and global dynamics changing rapidly, it may become increasingly expensive for Pakistan to use or keep such militants. The plan for their disposal thus has to be made now. Remember the ideologues catch on faster. They have the ability to take on sensitive issues and build a narrative around them that will neutralise the ground the civil society and the state think they have gained lately.
There are no simple recipes. Even if the state does not take two fundamental actions — putting a distance between religion and power politics, and admitting openly that the militants are not foreign, but our own and have to be fought — it must find ways to neutralise the militants’ narrative, which finds them support in society.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc.