Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was published in Daily Times on December 17, 2012. I’m pleased to cross-post the article on my blog from Daily Times without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
Any government can remain in check if the opposition played its role vigilantly and the ruling party’s lapses are reported by the media. However, when media fails to report on sensitive but rampant cases, and the opposition is no better when they come in power but do only lip service to make their position look intact to voters and justified to their critics, it is the responsibility of society to make a note of the ongoing political, social and economic atrocities. For instance, more than 475 Shias have been killed this year in Pakistan to date, with this number increasing every day. The opposition is nowhere to be seen and the indifference of mainstream media to the gravity of the issue is making matters worse. Whilst I hold the federal government responsible for the law and order situation in Pakistan, I cannot give a clean chit to the provincial governments, which ought to provide security to their citizens.
A few days ago, my friend Raza Rumi wrote an op-ed titled, ‘Shahbaz Sharif and his admirable running of Punjab’ that was printed in a national daily. Apart from admiring Mr Sharif for the good things done by his government, he expressed his concern about the rise of extremism and militancy owing to the fragile implementation of law in the province in the following words: “There is a perception that the PML-N is soft on extremist and sectarian groups, due to reasons of electoral adjustment and perhaps, ideology as well. This is a serious omission, which might haunt the party if it comes to power in the next election, as there will be no excuse of a ‘hostile’ federal government and its failures to curb terrorism.” I, strongly but respectfully, disagree with the notion that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) leniency towards groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (now working under the label of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat [ASWJ]) is a mere perception.
The ‘lovey-dovey’ liaison of the PML-N and ASWJ/SSP is nothing new. The PML-N has time and again sought the SSP’s support to contest elections and the latter has rarely disappointed the former. In the recently concluded by-elections in which Punjab saw a thumping win for the PML-N, the ASWJ announced to support the PML-N’s candidate, Haji Nawaz Chohan, in Gujranwala’s constituency PP-129. The announcement came from the ASWJ’s district president Arshad Hameedi at a religious seminary as the latest display of public affection between the two parties. Electoral alliances are not aimed at charity; these alliances are established as a trade-off between two parties and they are motivated by a shared ideology. In February 2010, the provincial law minister, Rana Sanaullah, visited Jhang on a by-election campaign for a provincial assembly seat. He was seen interacting with Ahmad Ludhianvi of the ASWJ as he took the hardliner cleric to a drive in his open top jeep with official patronage. Is it appropriate for a provincial law minister to take a radical cleric with him on an election campaign? Did Mr Sharif take any action against his law minister for giving an unprecedented protocol to the head of an organisation that considers Shias as infidels?
In an interview expressing his biggest concern, the slain former Punjab governor, Shaheed Salmaan Taseer said, “I worry about terrorism. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)‚ which is in government in the Punjab‚ has old linkages with and a natural affinity for extremist organisations like Sipah-e-Sahaba‚ Lashkar-e-Jhangvi… Let’s face it: terrorists need logistical support from within — somebody funds them‚ somebody guides them‚ and somebody looks after them — and that support is coming from the Punjab… You can’t have your law minister [Rana Sanaullah] going around in police jeeps with [outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba’s] Ahmed Ludhianvi‚ whose agenda is to declare Shias infidels and close down their places of worship‚ and then say you want harmony in this province. You can’t have the chief minister [Shahbaz Sharif] who is also the home minister‚ standing at Jamia Naeemia pleading with the Taliban to please not launch attacks in the Punjab because he shares the same thinking against the US as they do. What message does this send out to the local magistrate and police officer?”
As per the report, ‘Pakistan: The Militant Jihadi Challenge’ by the International Crisis Group published in 2009, “The recent upsurge of jihadi violence in Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, demonstrates the threat extremist Sunni-Deobandi groups pose to the Pakistani citizen and state. These radical Sunni groups are simultaneously fighting internal sectarian jihads, regional jihads in Afghanistan and India and a global jihad against the West… The Pakistani Taliban, which increasingly controls large swathes of FATA and parts of the NWFP, comprises a number of militant groups loosely united under the Deobandi Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that have attacked not just state and western targets, but Shias as well. Their expanding influence is due to support from long-established Sunni extremist networks, based primarily in Punjab, which have served as the army’s jihadi proxies in Afghanistan and India since the 1980s. Punjab-based radical Deobandi groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) provide weapons, recruits, finances and other resources to Pakistani Taliban groups…The SSP and LJ are also al Qaeda’s principal allies in the region.”
Mr Sharif’s government needs to see the writing on the wall. Promoting, appeasing and pandering to such extremist outfits can win the PML-N an extra seat or two in the next elections but in the long run, it will be devastating for the fabric of our society and the law and order situation in the province. According to another media report, the PML-N and ASWJ has struck a deal on electoral adjustments in the provincial and National assemblies in the upcoming general elections. It is just a matter of time before the two parties end up contesting elections together. I agree that the good things being done by the government must be appreciated but at the same time, we must not condone government officials festering extremism this or that way.
On the other hand, in February this year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan expressed its resentment over the performance of the Punjab government when the court was told that several water filtration plants had not yet been completed in the province despite being started many years ago. Non-existent or insufficient infrastructure for clean water and sanitation poses serious health risks. In countries like ours, up to 80 percent of all environmental diseases are because of lack of clean and safe drinking water. Less than 50 percent of Pakistan’s most populous province Punjab has access to piped drinking water. Less than 30 percent of the rural population has access to safe drinking water. Assisting the apex court on polio and hepatitis, Professor Dr Faisal Masood and Professor Dr Javed Raza Gardezi informed the court that the poor and unprivileged class is bound to drink contaminated water because this is all they are being offered. The absence of clean drinking water is resulting in increased infectious diseases like polio and diarrhea.
Punjab government is far from being an admirable one. CM Shahbaz Sharif and his running of Punjab can be best described as the old adage goes “Among the blind, the squinter rules.” Instead of dumping billions of rupees running a parallel education system (Danish Schools) Mr Sharif could have made the existing system more viable. We must appreciate the positive steps being taken by the incumbent government but we should avoid going over the top in praise of a government that has many serious questions to answer.