No place left to hide

April 03, 2014

The News

By Nadir Hassan

Raza Rumi should be the most harmless person in the country. He may hold dangerously secular views that are increasingly unpopular with those who conduct political debates while their opponents are staring down the barrel of a gun and he may be repetitive to the point of mild irritation but neither of those qualities should have seen a man who incessantly talked about peace, love and understanding marked for death.

Raza managed to escape but his driver Mustafa was not as fortunate, being gunned down by terrorists – and yes, that is exactly what they are. Mustafa would have been marked down as ‘collateral damage’ by those who sanitise murder to justify their actions. Keep that in mind the next time militant groups opportunistically cite the civilian casualties of drone attacks. Certainly the US, and by extension the Pakistan government, should not be punishing civilians but the other side is much worse.

The most obvious casualty of the attack on Raza is the freedom of the media to do its job. Already the media organisation that employed him had scaled back its coverage of topics that might be considered controversial – such as clearly denouncing those who carry out barbaric acts as barbarians. We shouldn’t expect too many people in what is misleadingly called the journalist fraternity to stand with their brother.

When one’s own skin needs protecting the bodies of others scarcely seem to matter, no matter that any protection offered by silence is only for the short-term. In the end everyone will be less safe through their collective silence.

The biggest mistake Raza made was to say what he had already been saying for years – but now from the vastly more influential platform of an Urdu-language talk show host. We in our enclaves of English print newspapers can type furiously on our word processors and be lucky if we reach a total readership in the five digits.

The benefits of such utter inconsequentiality is that we need not fear for our lives every time we decide to go out for a samosa. Raza had the courage to seek a wider audience and now he has paid a price and those around him paid an even steeper one. Such is the cost of pleading for peace in your country.

The only people to blame for the attack, obviously, are those who ordered and implemented it. But when we have a government that seems so uninterested in finding out who is behind such attacks and then apprehending and jailing them, one can’t help but speculate. The most noteworthy aspect of the attack, other than the identity of the target, was that it took place in Lahore. The Punjab-centric PML-N has deluded itself into believing that its fortress would be spared while the lands beyond bore the brunt of the attacks.

Just recall Shahbaz Sharif, after a rare attack in Lahore, pleading with the TTP to spare his province since they had done nothing to incur militant wrath. The fiction that Punjab could be blissfully immune to the disease afflicting the rest of the country was never going to be maintained for long. The only question now is if the government of the day is yet to reach that obvious conclusion.

Attacks in the heart of Punjab also reveal an uncomfortable truth about the ongoing negotiations with the TTP. Let us be overly generous to the government and assume that peace talks yield exactly that: a promise from the TTP to be peaceful and lay down its arms. Leave aside what price we will have to pay in land and treasure to extract such a promise, it does nothing to tackle the problem of the myriad militant groups that operate with autonomy from the leadership of the TTP.

Many of those groups originated from Punjab and maintain bases there. They do not obey the commanders in Fata and are used to operating freely with the government and military looking upon their actions with either disinterest or outright support. The PML-N itself has often flirted with such groups come election time, with its candidates seeking to tap into their deep well of support. We may never know which group was responsible for the attack on Raza but a betting man would take the low odds on it being a militant group from the province.

Everyone will have their favoured scapegoat, from the mindless assertions of Imran Khan who claims to believe that the TTP does not want to impose its interpretation of Shariah on the country to a military which still seems unsure if militants attacking the country are still useful proxies to be put to use in Afghanistan. Maybe a government that vacillates between talking and warring can be blamed.

Ultimately, though, there is more than just a cast of villains toying with our leaves. The rot runs much deeper and has infected every institution in the country. There may be a world of difference between the Council of Islamic Ideology advocating for child marriage and a group of gunmen attacking an innocent journalist but both operate from a similar mindset that makes them feel like they can impose their views on everyone else.

If even Lahore isn’t safe for a person with a liberal mindset then there really is no place left for us to hide. Any action that the government takes, be it negotiations or military action, will only grant brief respite and delay the inevitable reckoning. Such pessimism is supposed to be poisonous for the soul but then no one knows how much of Pakistan’s soul has been left un-shattered by years of poundings.

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