I A Rehman



Pakistan is on trial. It is being tested for its capacity to overcome the threat from religious extremists/terrorists without losing sight of justice and its ideal of peace in the land.


The Peshawar carnage has awakened the government and political parties to their foremost duty — protecting the life and liberty of citizens. This may not be the time to question them for their failure to see the terrorists’ threat earlier. At the moment, the people must concentrate on ensuring that the response to the terrorists is sound, just and effective. A national consensus on denying any quarter to terrorists is welcome but what matters more is the kind of action plan this unity produces. Sadly enough, the signs so far are not wholly reassuring.


The dominant sentiment throughout the country is a mix of grief and anger and excess of both interferes with one’s ability to produce the right response. What has been done so far is that: a) the military operation will be intensified; b) all terrorists on death row are to be executed; c) the anti-terror laws are to be tightened; and d) creation of military courts to try terrorists is under consideration. Let us look at these steps one by one.


An excess of anger and grief interferes with one’s ability to produce the right response to tragedy.


That the military operation should be adequate the army high command alone can ensure. The public only asks for greater transparency, safeguards against non-combatant casualties, and even-handed treatment of all terrorist formations. The interior minister has referred to consideration shown for women and children in Miramshah. This record must be maintained. However, nobody can believe that the military operation alone will rid Pakistan of the terrorist threat. This is the most important lesson of the US-led coalition’s war in Afghanistan and it can hardly be ignored.


The decision to hang a large number of condemned prisoners is a tricky affair. Besides the well-known arguments against death penalty two points need to be considered. First, the world, especially the European Union, does not like resumption of hanging. They may accept exception from the moratorium in a few cases but they will find several hundred executions hard to stomach. Will Pakistan gain from antagonising friendly states and further brutalisation of society?


Secondly, the hangings are unlikely to bring the terrorist groups to their knees. Those on the death row have been out of action for a considerable period. Has their absence materially reduced the terrorists’ challenge? Pakistan is unlikely to match the pounding the militants have received from the US-led coalition. What is the guarantee that the hangings will significantly affect their capacity to recoup and regroup that they have amply demonstrated?


As for tightening of anti-terrorism laws no opinion can be expressed till concrete proposals are advanced but the move for military tribunals to try suspected terrorists is unlikely to find favour with the legal fraternity or the general public. Apart from other standard objections to military trials and the long history of the judiciary’s resistance to encroachments on its domain, the whole idea is derived from an arbitrary conclusion that the judicial system has failed to deal with terrorists.


The judiciary may have created some space for critics but for the failure to tackle terrorism the administration is more to blame than courts. The judges cannot convict terrorists or endorse their leaders’ detention if the administration does not produce the necessary evidence before them. If the shortage of courts is removed and the administration stops protecting its favourites the normal courts can effectively deal with cases of terrorism.


It is worth noting that all the steps taken or under consideration replicate the US plans under the banner of ‘war on terror’. But no western power has won credit for making laws that deprive its citizens of the right to due process. Besides, the US was dealing with alien enemies living far away from its territory. We are facing an insurgency from militants who describe themselves as a Pakistani movement.


Pakistan should hope to reclaim the large body of people at present living under the control or influence of insurgents/terrorists not only in the areas of conflict but across the length and breadth of the country. Islamabad has to find its own path to safety.


Many voices have been raised in support of devising an effective strategy that goes beyond military operation and pakar-dhakar (general round-up) in cities, villages and camps. But first the state actors and civil society both need to replace emotionalism with reason. Only a sharp line separates solidarity with the military from jingoism and crossing that line will be dangerous for all. At the moment all initiatives seem to be coming from the military side.


It is unfair to the defence forces to put the entire responsibility for saving Pakistan on their shoulders, however broad and tested they may be. The civilian part of the nation must play its part in steering the ship of state out of the storm.


The media has a clear duty to bring down the temperature of debate. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan is right in advising the media to avoid making terrorists popular though the ministers and politicians also need a dose of this medicine. The media has certainly invited censure for displaying pictures of dead and mangled bodies and hangings, in violation of all codes of decency and propriety. Such aberrations further brutalise society and have an extremely harmful effect on children’s minds.


Above all, the media should set the stage for a sober, intelligent and humane discourse on terrorism and the factors contributing to its birth and rise. It must keep warning the people in command that nothing can be achieved by anger alone. (This article was published in  Dawn, December 25th, 2014).

(December 27,  2014)

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