By Amir Zia
October 29, 2013
Jinnah Road – Quetta’s main commercial hub – and its nearby areas boast nearly half-a-dozen bookstores, but not one has put Malala Yousafzai’s biography on sale. The reason: warnings – direct and indirect – from shadowy Taliban militants, who see this teenage activist as a potent challenge to their political and religious narrative and mindset. “Even the police officially advised us not to sell her book for our own safety”, said a veteran bookseller with a wary smile on his face.
The cautious approach of booksellers in Quetta is understandable. It often proves a deadly bargain to defy the local or Afghan Taliban and their allied groups in Balochistan’s capital where suicide bombings, target killings and kidnapping for ransom cases remain a routine. Religious extremists belonging to various groups make their ever-lurking presence felt in more than one ways in the political and social fabric of this garrison city.
From the large-scale sectarian killings – mainly of the ethnic Shia Hazaras in recent times – to the bitter opposition to the vaccination drive against polio, the extremists are challenging and defying the state at every level.
And in this overall scheme of things, booksellers’ inability to keep the Taliban-banned book, ‘I am Malala’, on their shelves is just another small, but glaring, sign of the weakening writ of the state and its institutions. All the pickets, iron-spikes, barbed wires and alert soldiers and policemen on the roads of Quetta underline the abnormality of the times and the gravity of the situation rather than inspiring confidence.
These heavy fortifications and snap-checking of vehicles and citizens alike hardly stop militants from kidnapping their targets and getting out of the city to the safe-havens of Afghanistan from where they demand and negotiate millions of rupees in ransom with victims’ families, the authorities or their employers. The list of kidnapped victims includes politicians, tribal elders, aid workers, doctors, businesspeople etc.
Similarly, the death squads of militants also manage to carry out assassinations and terrorist attacks at will, though the provincial authorities say that such cases have been on the decline since the coalition government of the moderate Baloch nationalist leader Dr Abdul Malik came into power in June this year. But a period of barely five months, which witnessed a number of bombings, killings and kidnappings, is not enough to underscore a trend in the mid- to long-term.
However, in the overall scheme of things, it is the religious extremists who are on the offensive all over the country, including Quetta, while the state and its institutions appear as mere sitting ducks – in their defensive posture. Guarding every important building and employing a wait-and-see approach is certainly not a winning strategy.
Just like Peshawar’s proximity to the Afghan border makes it more prone to lawlessness and terrorism in the north-western part of the country, Quetta’s closeness to the Afghan city of Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban movement in the mid-1990s – contributes to the serious, but particular, law-and-order challenge in south-western Pakistan. But then who can fight the dictates of geography – especially when the federal government’s chosen path for now remains appeasement of these non-state actors rather than establishing the writ of the state?
Whatever the spin doctors of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the security establishment would like us to believe, the existence of the Quetta council (Shura) of the Afghan Taliban is not a fantasy made up by imaginative minds. The Afghan Taliban remain embedded in the vast network of Islamic seminaries and mosques of this volatile region and often it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the local from the foreign element.
For many of the local militants, the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain the main motivating force. They both support and supplement one another. The common wisdom on the streets of Quetta is that our security establishment wants to run with its ‘favourite’ hare and hunt with the hounds – a tactic that is only making the situation more complex.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government’s keenness and desperation to hold talks with the Taliban have emboldened the militants and put the state institutions further on the back foot.
Although all the major Pakistani cities have borne the brunt of terrorism and extremism during the last one decade or so, Quetta’s case is distinctive. Here along with foreign and local religious militants, the small, but heavily-armed and financed active cells of the Baloch separatists are also putting in their bit to keep the kettle on the boil. And compared to the challenge of religious extremism, the security establishment apparently appears more focused on taking them on.
The tortured bodies and the long list of missing persons underline this raging conflict which is hardly showing any signs of abatement. Balochistan Chief Minister Malik does not seem to have control over this issue, though he says that the incidents of ‘extrajudicial’ killings have declined considerably. But it is the fate of the missing persons that has become a test case for Dr Malik’s government.
Will he be able to persuade the federal government and, more importantly, the security establishment to play by the book on this issue? Will Dr Malik be able to bring the disgruntled Baloch separatist leaders onto the negotiation table and pave the way for their return to mainstream politics? This is easier said than done.
The key to many of the thorny issues is not with Dr Malik and his National Party. He will have to perform a high-wire balancing act to snatch a fair deal for Balochistan and its people from the hawks within the establishment and the separatist Baloch nationalists.
With many foreign players – from India to Afghanistan and even some of our friends in western democracies – having a direct and indirect share in the problem of Balochistan, the stakes in this game could never have been higher given the fact that many of the moderate Baloch nationalist leaders, who wanted to work within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution, have systematically been killed by the separatists. The list includes some of the veterans of the Baloch nationalist movement – from Raziq Bugti to Habib Jalib Baloch – who were murdered for defying the small, but hard-line separatist element.
While the Sharif government may opt for the policy of appeasement of the local and Afghan Taliban and other Islamic hard-liners, it is showing a slightly changed attitude towards Balochistan – which should give hope to Dr Malik and all his moderate nationalist friends.
Attempts to bring separatists on to the negotiating table sometime in 2014 and halting extrajudicial executions and other high-handed actions against activists by the security forces could be the first necessary steps on the way to achieving the goal of lasting peace in Balochistan. The bigger challenge, though, would be to ensure the economic and political rights of the people of the province.
Dr Malik has a long, long way to go to do the undoable for his people – not just by snatching peace from the Islamic and nationalist militants, but by creating an environment where booksellers can keep book titles that are available in the rest of the country. Is that too much to ask for?
Amir Zia is editor The News, Karachi.