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December 16, 2015

The pendulum of grief


December 16, 2015

For over a decade, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have been systematically killed by religious militancy. For ten years, we embraced the cliché of ‘national resilience’ and carried on with compromised military operations and failed peace-deals with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). And we talked a lot – on the airwaves, in our drawing rooms and more in cyber space.

Then, on December 16, 2014, the Taliban’s mass murder of 144 students and faculty members of the APS in Peshawar dropped a chilling effect on the country. There followed a momentary national suspension of words and narrative – a silence borne of disbelief and palpable grief.

Even the usual right and left-wing spinners of conspiracy theories toned down their apologia – a factory they had built on the graves of victims of the Taliban’s routine bombings, mass murders and brutalities.

A winter of deliberate Death replaced the autumn of dubious Dharnas. But regrettably, this was not to be an opportunity for considered decisions. Instead, the flood of grief became a deluge of anger and terror fatigue. The silence was replaced by national outcry. Sitting on the fence of a would-be dharna-coup, the military establishment swung into full revenge mode.

Representing the other end of the blind spot, a few opportunist voices objected to the exceptionalism of the bloody massacre of the APS children en masse. A select elite of Pakistanis (who were children themselves when civilians became regular fare of terrorism in 2005) condemned any military operation post-APS. Their call for no military response was as absurd as the notion that a revenge sentiment will resolve militancy. Drafted through the fog of historical amnesia and on the back of a bloody loss, such a proposal offered a return to the state of ambiguity that had been driving the national narrative so far and a prevaricating military establishment.

This reverse apologia is the same that followed the assassination attempt on Malala the year before APS. Then too, they deflected; what about the children killed by drones in Fata? What about the other Malalas killed by drones in Fata? What about the children who died by famine in Thar? Are all Pakistani children not to be equally valued in death?

But they did not take these questions to their logical baseline. To standardise all deaths and define them as a simple and indiscriminate end-to-life, reflects the same logic that argues, “What about foetuses that are aborted…aren’t they children who are murdered?”

How far can the juxtapositioning of deaths be stretched? There is no way to bring a life back but if we strip the circumstances, causes and motivations that lead to the end of a life, we are silencing the victim’s right to justice and preventing a measured resolution.

All lives are equally valuable and their loss may be mourned equally but we cannot expect empathetic grief over all deaths simultaneously. The target assassinations of Hazara or Ahmadi children in their ghettos and the extremely high child mortality rates in Balochistan and Sindh cannot be grieved in the same moment. When a missile deliberately targeting Palestinian children is launched into Gaza, is it possible in that moment to humanely recall the image of some Israeli child who happened to die in some Palestinian suicide bombing?

Strangely, those who preach equality in empathy are the same who begrudge the Pakistani girl Malala for surviving a Taliban attack but mourn how imperialism killed the Syrian infant boy, Aylan who drowned seeking asylum. They uphold his exceptional image that has been immortalised as symbolic of the refugee crisis, although at least 15 other children have since drowned in the Aegean Sea and millions others around the world die from other atrocities.

One is not sure what it means to say that Pakistan has survived a decade of religious militancy except that when we see Syria, we don’t have to imagine a worse fate. But we have not learned any lesson from the torturous and painful deaths of our people. The pendulum of grief has swung right back to where the military establishment continues to play ‘good’ and ‘bad’ jihadi games on different borders and, the civilian debate remains driven by opportunism and is self-congratulatory and limited to social media heroism.

In Dec 2014, the military decided that this was, after all, ‘our’ war. They did so with no soul-searching, no discomfort over the Osama bin Laden operation, no intention to offer accountability to civilian leadership. Instead, one more amendment was extracted from parliament, as if the political representatives have been responsible for the entire mess that started and sustained the terror. Predictably, the military has gone into overdrive as judge, jury and executioner, rather than just serving as defender of state borders and corrector of its own historical wrongs.

Beyond a sense of temporary hollow vengeance, excessive force will not erase the permanent grief of families of the victims. Nor does it serve justice to restore the death penalty and hang juveniles and paraplegics who are caught in the wave of this brutal punishment. The act of execution is simply mimetic of the Taliban’s own practice of it.

The civil society’s tiresome resort to the obvious, and by now ineffectual, blame game that ‘the state is responsible for all deaths’ – road accidents, disease and murders by weapons – has not helped analyse the causes or redress them. To equalise casualties of war or neglectful policies with genocide and terrorist mass murder is to entomb the separate root causes and solutions in an analytical graveyard.

The state should be subjected to every scrutiny under all circumstances, including in conflict zones. But to pretend that the deliberate murder of trapped schoolchildren is an act equivalent to a fatality by a drone strike or car accident or lack of nutrition is reckless analysis.

On the one hand, we watch helplessly as well-funded banned terrorist outfits across the country enter unchecked into mainstream power through electoral politics. On the other, we see the under-resourced, anaemic response to the legitimate demands of families of the APS victims. Both responses deny the justice that the APS victims and Pakistan’s future generations deserve.

Hanging jihadis will not solve militancy…but ending state patronage and the infiltration and influence of all organised religion on state institutions may mitigate it. Muzzling social media will not secure Pakistan…but preventing hate-speech and religio-political propaganda will save lives directly.

Propping up civilian charlatans who pose as fake patriots will only discredit the military establishment – not make it popular nor the nation more democratic. Continuing with opportunistic conferences on ‘violation of sovereignty’ drone warfare while the tribal agencies are bombed will not serve justice to the people of Fata... but hearing the latter’s own opinions in a safe and trusting environment, may.

Something did turn with the APS moment, even if it was a humbling realisation of the years wasted in the echo of self-important hollow words and the shame of deliberate inaction. But this sobering insight in itself did not deliver justice. Pakistan’s collective grief weighed its heaviest toll last December… unfortunately, a year on, the pendulum of grief seems to have unburdened itself only to stand still again.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]



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