The fate of Swat
By Khadim Hussain, Dawn, May 20, 2008
ACCORDING to press reports, the government is mulling over the promulgation of an ordinance — the Sharia Nizam-i-Adl Ordinance 2008 — in Malakand division. This may bring about drastic changes in the judicial system in Swat, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Buner, Shangla and Chitral.
The draft ordinance proposes ‘muaavin qazis’, selected from the clergy of the area, who would assist the civil courts in deciding cases according to the ‘tenets of the Quran and Sunnah’.
District and sessions judges, according to the draft, would be called ‘zilla qazis’, additional sessions judges ‘izafi zilla qazis’ and senior civil judges would be ‘aala qazis’. The advice of the ‘muaavin qazi’ would be binding on the courts. Appeal against a judgment would not be made in the Peshawar High Court or the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Instead, an appellate Sharia court would be established at the divisional level. The said ordinance was first promulgated in 1995 after the stand-off between the security forces and the defunct Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), revised again in 1999 and now — for the third time — being promulgated in 2008.
It seems that the hardliner TNSM under Fazlullah has put forward two major demands during recent talks after government circles announced a ‘breakthrough’.
The first demand seems to be the withdrawal of troops and the second the promulgation of the said ordinance. The other demands include compensation for the dead, allowance for carrying weapons and release of arrested so-called militants. Intriguingly, the ‘breakthrough’ might easily be gauged by the unabated targeted acts of the militants who have allegedly shot dead a pesh imam, picked up another person from his home and lately marched in the streets in the restive parts of the Swat valley.
Ironically, the people of Malakand division voted for secular and liberal parties in the hope that the influence of the clergy would diminish if these parties were elected because the MMA government had previously allowed these outfits to grow and become strong. Those who know Swat (and Malakand division) would bear witness to the fact that an overwhelming majority of the people of the area never supported the clergy in their quest for sweeping influence in the valley and its surrounding areas. The government seems to have acquiesced in to the demand of the armed militants in its attempt to strike a peace bargain in the area. There are several shortcomings in this approach.
Firstly, the situation in Swat (Buner and Shangla) is peculiarly different from the situation in the tribal areas. The people of Swat formed and ran a state long before Pakistan came into being and have a surprisingly mature attitude to the state and its institutions. They would not like to be treated in a manner that is discriminatory vis-à-vis the rest of the country. Bringing peace in this manner might lead to a wave of restlessness and despondency among the people. This in turn could result in civil war and warlordism.
Secondly, the ordinance, even if we assume that the people support the move, might practically impact, in a positive or negative way, on only one per cent of the people who are involved in litigation. The rest of the people in the valley and in the adjoining districts are probably more in need of comprehensive and holistic planning for participatory development than a misconceived interpretation of the Sharia.
Thirdly, the particular ideology of a minority group under the influence of the Wahabi version of Islam might hold the moderate and open people of Swat hostage without their consent. An ever-growing class of professionals, including urban businessmen all over Swat, might see the promulgation of a vague judicial system as a threat to their interests and worldview.
This might even prompt them to start migrating from the valley — probably from Malakand division itself — in large numbers, leaving a vacuum that may not be filled for decades to come. Different groups of civil society in Swat have already started expressing their concern about the recent developments in the valley in particular and Malakand division generally.
By acquiescing in to the demands of the militants for the promulgation of the Sharia Nizam-i-Adl Ordinance 2008 in the Swat valley and other parts of Malakand division, the government has indicated that it might give larger space to the extremist minority there than what it deserves.
Some quarters have already started pointing to the future shape of the present developments. The militants might get emboldened to start intervening in the private affairs of the general population and take action such as banning television, closing down Internet cafes, shutting down girls’ schools, forcing barbers to stop their business and preventing anything that is modern to be accessed by the enlightened population of the valley. One may observe this phenomenon in the demand of the hardliner group led by Maulana Fazlullah that the land of the area be redistributed.
Where will the state stand? How will the ancient and rich culture of the Swat valley survive under these circumstances? How will those foreign powers who have fundamental interests in the region respond? How will the majority population respond to this move by the government? How can peace be ensured through the promulgation of a controversial judicial system?
Will the promulgation of this system solve the multitude of problems stemming from the actions of the groups presently engaged in a dialogue with the government? These questions are of immense importance for understanding the actual situation on the ground.
The immediate loss that the people of Malakand division in general and Swat in particular might incur would be the drying up of sources of income-generation through tourism-related activities. Probably, this season might see the closing down of thousands of hotels along the length and breadth of Swat, thus having a huge adverse economic effect on the lives of the people there. Probably more people than the number of individuals aligned with all militant groups put together will become jobless.
What is the alternative to such a situation? It would amount to leaving the jobless at the mercy of circumstances, and thus ensuring that far more militants would be roaming with their Kalashnikovs in the urban centres of the Swat valley than one can see at present. The long-term impact of the promulgation might be the depletion of natural resources, Talibanisation of the entire valley, warlordism, shrinking space for civil society and the stigmatisation of a whole culture.
The writer is coordinator, Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. firstname.lastname@example.org