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December 4, 2016

Lessons from a by-poll


December 4, 2016

After three years of General Raheel Sharif, there was a change this week in the command of the Pakistan Army. We now have General Qamar Javed Bajwa as the chief of the army staff. And we have this reassuring sense of continuity in the conduct of the counterterrorism operations initiated by General Sharif. Yes, but what is changing in the affairs of the state and in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis?

We understand why the appointment of a new army chief generates so much interest and excitement in our country. There was this suspense about a probable extension in General Sharif’s tenure and about the choice of his successor against the backdrop of the tension at the Line of Control. Eventually, it came down to a nail-biting finish.

Hence the big splash. There is ample justification for the coverage that this story has received in the media and the public discourse. But I intend to make a diversion and pick up another report of this week as the focus of my column. Incidentally, this report has a direct relevance to the spirited exertions of our civil and military authorities to contend with the dark forces of terror and militancy in the country.

In any case, my peg is the Punjab Assembly by-election held on Thursday in the Jhang constituency. It was naturally an important story for the media and was reported widely. Still, it did not make big, flaming headlines and apparently it did not attract the attention of the talk shows.

This was the single-column headline I read in an inside page of one English newspaper on Friday: “Candidate backed by banned party wins by-poll”. We are informed that independent candidate Maulana Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi won the PP-78 by-election with a margin of nearly 13,000 votes, according to unofficial results. He was supported by the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).

Masroor Nawaz is the son of the slain Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi who founded the now defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba. His closest rival was the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz candidate. The other major national political parties, the PPP and the PTI, had also fielded their candidates who fared poorly. The unofficial tally shows that Masroor Nawaz got more votes than the combined votes of the three national parties.

It may be argued that this is an unusual constituency and that there are valid reasons for a banned party to command such popular support. Be that as it may, this is what has happened in the heart of Punjab more than two years after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and nearly two years after the induction of the National Action Plan.

As for Zarb-e-Azb, it has dealt with terrorists on the ground and its victories in the northern areas have appropriately been commended. It was the National Action Plan that sought to deal also with the social aspects of our fight against terrorism and sectarian militancy. Besides, this task was primarily assigned to our political leadership. We may recall some comments made in this context by the military leadership.

This does not in any way mean that the present military leadership can be absolved from any responsibility in these matters. After all, it is the military that tends to define our national interest and set the direction of our strategic policies. In that sense, it is directly involved in the battles that are to be fought in the minds of the citizens of Pakistan.

I do not believe that in the midst of all other distractions, our rulers had any time to look at the outcome of a by-election in a provincial constituency. These things happen all the time. There is so much else to worry about. What does it matter if we have one more evidence that religious militancy is alive and well in our broken society afflicted with intolerance and toxic obscurantism.

Perhaps I am overemphasising the significance of the message that is delivered by the Jhang by-election because, as Bob Dylan had told us a long time ago, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Those of us who are struggling for social justice and democratic advancement often feel helpless in the face of the winds that are blowing.

But the point here is that the establishment too had vowed to wipe out terrorist outfits and has given sacrifices in this war. Yet there is this ambivalence about where these terrorists and militants come from. There is little appreciation of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the terrorists and the overall religious orthodoxy that is sometimes openly promoted by our authorities.

With reference to what I perceive in the mirror of this week’s by-election in Punjab, I would like to refer to the massacre of our schoolchildren in Peshawar on December 16 two years ago. It is hard for me to imagine its impact in a human context. We called it a game-changer but that would be an understatement. It would be valid to expect everything to change after that – including the ideas that have governed our national security.

Did this happen? I am not so sure. Yes, the nation got together in its resolve to root out the enemy within and that is how the National Action Plan was framed with its professed intent to deal with the sources of terror in our society. We can be sure that the military establishment was also shaken by the tragedy. It may have induced a comprehensive review of what had gone wrong and how could the damage be repaired.

We have seen some action during the past two years but the true measure of the success of the national campaign against terror is the influence that it has cast on the popular mindset. Are the people less supportive of religious extremism and more tolerant now than they were two years ago? Is there a genuine change in our collective social behaviour? Is something happening in the minds of the people to become more receptive to, say, sectarian harmony and emancipation of women?

One way to answer these questions would be to conduct some social research and evaluate the trends that are manifest in the reality that exists on the ground. Since I have suggested the example of this by-election, I am wondering what it would have been two years ago. That would only be a guess. What happened on Thursday is a fact. It is saying something that we can only ignore at our peril. 

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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