Lull before the storm

The News, June 22, 2006
Lull before the storm
Kamila Hyat
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

The distance between Lahore and most other parts of the country sometimes seems to span vast oceans of ignorance and indifference. The sense of removal from many national events, some at least with potentially far reaching consequences in terms of the country's future, appears almost surreal -- as though the people of the city, and indeed the wider province of the Punjab, are living on an island across which no winds from other parts of the nation drift. It is astonishing how little is known in centres of urban privilege, including both the Punjab and the federal capital, about the situation in other provinces -- treated, as they are, like a distant realm within some colonial power about which the rulers have little care or concern.

Whereas this is only occasionally reflected in almost accidental snippets of news in the national press, there is at present a state of great turmoil across growing swathes of the NWFP; a simmering condition of conflict rages on in Balochistan, where mysterious explosions hit the capital, Quetta, almost daily and there is a question over the degree of federal authority over some parts of the country.

Over the last many weeks, a bitter war is being fought in Bannu, Tank and other regions of the Frontier between Taliban-backed militants seeking to take control of growing tracts of land. The extent to which they have succeeded is evidenced in the extreme sense of fear that is reported to be prevailing across the NWFP, with citizens terrified of making any comment that could be construed as critical of the extremist militias that have remained on the rampage now for the last many months. Reporters from overseas, hoping to cover the situation, have often found it impossible to enlist local stringers to assist them or even to find people ready to talk openly about the conditions on the ground and the growing control over lives of extremist groups.

The tools these groups use are terror -- with unlicenced FM radio stations, targeted killings and threats to all those seen as opposing militancy forming a part of their formidable arsenal. More ominous still is the fact that as these forces of obscurantism close in around Peshawar valley from both its north and south, the country's authorities remain either unwilling or unable to bring under check the threat they pose, despite the many claims made of a relentless war being fought on terrorism.

Meanwhile, according to some websites managed by extremist organisations, Waziristan has been declared a separate entity, controlled by the forces whose formidable opposition to the Pakistan army has already cost dozens, possibly hundreds, of lives. Whereas this declaration of autonomy is obviously not realistic, it reflects the perception that prevails. Scores of people living in Waziristan have been forced to flee. Others have had homes bombed or destroyed in the fighting that has continued now for well over a year, with no immediate sign of any kind of end in sight.

Yet most of these developments hardly ever figure in the discussions or debates on at the national level. Whereas in the case of Waziristan, this is at least in part a consequence of the deliberate official policy of secrecy, it is uncertain why more attention is not being paid to the increasing extremism sweeping across the NWFP. After all, it hardly augurs well for confidence in any government's ability to enforce its writ across a nation when, in more and more portions making up the whole, a state of anarchy prevails.

The break down in law and order, the license given to individuals to make threats over illegally established radio stations, to order henchmen to mow down opponents or to send off letters warning artists, writers, musicians and others of imminent death is after all proof that this writ of state no longer exists for many citizens. More and more regions, more and more territories, including those making up the mainstream of the country, have in fact drifted out of the control of any authority with assorted militant 'lashkars' locked in battle for control.

The situation is obviously a frightening one to be in. There is a limit to the length of time for which it can prevail without putting the very existence of central control and authority at jeopardy. This is all the more true given that more and more alternative forces of authority are cropping up everywhere. New verdicts delivered by tribal jirgas, across Sindh, Balochistan, the NWFP and the Punjab come in regularly. The judgments appear to hark back to some particularly dark period in medieval history, with the rape of women, the giving away of children to settle feuds or the torture of men all among the 'punishments' awarded by such bodies.

Rather than a reduction over the decades in the number of such extralegal forums, the frequency with which they are conducted has increased.

This in turn is of course a result of the decline in the state-organised system of justice, the corruption of the police and the lack of confidence in the ability of authorities to grant any form of redress from grievance to citizens.

Inevitably, the rule of 'jirgas' and of other similar bodies is most entrenched in areas that seem to have pulled themselves away from central control. In Waziristan, according to some reports that filter through, there have been instances in which individuals have been murdered in cold blood on suspicion of disloyalty to militants, or simply for any display of dissent from the views of those who hold sway there. In areas such as Dir, people have had television sets and cassette players burnt; anyone resisting the destruction of their personal property has faced severe beatings or other violence.

The fact of the matter is that today, vast tracts of the country are in fact outside the control of any central authority. Police lack the power to enforce the law in these parts and the state is unable to perform its central duty of protecting the life and welfare of people.

In many cases, journalists attempting to report on the situation have been warned to stop or abducted and threatened when they have failed to follow orders.

The fact that this state of affairs is barely thought to be worthy of the attention of the rest of the country is still more alarming. Various portions within the federation seem to be drifting off on their own individual paths, amid growing mayhem and chaos. There is no sign of any attempt to bring the situation under control, or to create the kind of firm federal integrity that could perhaps stop the drift -- and this, of course, can only mark still more dangerous times ahead.



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