The lesson of Peshawar


It’s humanly impossible not to be revolted by the killing of 134 innocent children in Peshawar by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This barbaric attack galvanised unprecedented solidarity demonstrations by citizens in many Indian cities. It even impelled Narendra Modi to suspend his hard-line policy towards Islamabad – only temporarily, alas – and tell Nawaz Sharif that the attack was directed at “all of humanity”, and offer him all possible assistance.

Soon, however, New Delhi seemed to be slipping back into the old mould of hostility. It protested against the bail granted to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ‘mastermind’ of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Second, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval demanded that the post-Peshawar tough measures being taken against the TTP be extended to LeT. And third, India refused to grant visas to Pakistani delegates invited to a seminar planned by the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) in Delhi.

Lakhvi was granted bail not by the Pakistan government, but by a court. The government said it would appeal against the order and has detained Lakhvi on other charges.

A similar legal process prevails in India, under which scores of people charged with or convicted of serious offences have been granted bail, including policemen charged with killing 40 Muslims in Meerut-Maliana in 1987, and more recently, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Amit Shah and Maya Kodnani (sentenced to 28 years), not to speak of the Gujarat policemen named in the ‘encounter’ killings of Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin. The remedy against a bad bail order lies in legal appeal, not political condemnation.

LeT is of course a nasty terrorist group, whose head Hafiz Saeed absurdly blamed India for the Peshawar attack. But it is the TTP that owned responsibility for it. The two groups cannot be equated at this juncture. By making an India-specific demand, Doval shows himself to be insensitive to this context.

Denial of visas for the December 19-21 PIPFPD seminar on ‘Understanding Pakistan’ was deplorable. PIPFPD has played an excellent role over 20 years in promoting a cross-border citizen-to-citizen dialogue – something that should be unhesitatingly encouraged today.

The Indian government’s latest actions are a retrogression to the pre-Peshawar policy followed under Modi. Thus India-Pakistan foreign secretary-level talks were called off in August on the ground that Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit didn’t cancel his meeting with Hurriyat Conference leaders. India suddenly took offence at what has become routine over many years.

In October, Modi chided Pakistan as “the enemy” which has been taught a “befitting lesson” through firing at the border. Home minister Rajnath Singh reminded Pakistan that “the times have changed” with the BJP having won 282 seats.

In December, concerts by the highly-acclaimed Sachal Jazz Ensemble in Mumbai and Bangalore were cancelled. So were performances by two Pakistani sufi qawwals at the Press Club of India and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club – under official pressure. A delegation of Pakistani MPs visited Delhi, but didn’t get to meet Modi or even Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.

What of the recent ceasefire violations? The Modi government deludes itself that it can prevent these through a calibrated military response which can deter Pakistan by threatening it with unaffordable costs. The existing strategic balance simply doesn’t permit such deterrence.

On the ground, both sides routinely violate the 2003 ceasefire agreement – Pakistan probably more frequently, to ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir issue – and then blame each other. They don’t follow the Geneva Conventions, as evidenced by the beheading of each other’s soldiers.

Given this, all solutions to India-Pakistan problems must necessarily be peaceful. These do work. An example is the Indus Waters Accord of 1960, which has held despite recent hiccups. By contrast, when left to military leaders, problems (eg. Siachen or Sir Creek) become intractable.

The shock delivered by Peshawar to Pakistan’s civil society and state has created the ground for what could hopefully become a turning point in Pakistan’s policy towards terrorism, which has permitted jihadi terrorists to work in collusion with the army and its secret agencies and attack not just India, but also Pakistan’s Shias, Ahmadis and Christians.

Pakistan’s policymakers have learnt no lessons from these attacks. Nor do they ask how Osama bin Laden could find refuge in Pakistan. They continue to shield jihadi groups that kill innocents but pose no immediate threat to the Pakistani state – with disastrous consequences. The government has failed to seek an extension of the detention of Malik Ishaq, the chief of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, involved in anti-Shia pogroms and the 2009 assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

Peshawar stands out among terrorist attacks because its victims were primarily children of army personnel, and the attack came in the midst of a strong anti-TTP military campaign. There are hopeful signs that this might strengthen the army’s will to fight the Taliban.

Islamabad has, for the first time ever, repudiated the distinction between the ‘good Taliban’ and the ‘bad Taliban’. After Peshawar, army chief Raheel Sharif visited Kabul to demand the extradition of TTP’s Mullah Fazlullah. The government has hanged several convicts. But a primarily military, ‘kill-them-all’ response won’t do. Vacillations, as in the Ishaq case, will damage the anti-extremism cause.

There must be a resolute campaign to break the nexus between the Pakistani state and Islamic extremists, which has created a frightening jihadi apparatus in Pakistan. This campaign must be based on an analysis of the root-causes of the culture of extremism, and lead to a radical transformation of public discourse.

This means acknowledging that the Peshawar killers aren’t ‘outsiders’ or ‘misguided’ people – anymore than the Hindutva goons who want to terrorise and kill non-Hindus in India. Both are equally fanatical and equally dangerous. Like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban too have a clear agenda – to transform Pakistan into an Islamist state that practises Shariah law, where pluralism and tolerance have no place. This agenda must be opposed without ifs and buts.

India can contribute positively to de-Talibanisation if it resumes the bilateral dialogue with Pakistan and talks to and cultivates its pro-peace constituency, which New Delhi has never done because it equates Pakistani society with the state, and considers both implacably anti-Indian.

India must actively engage with liberal and tolerant voices in Pakistan’s civil society, which uncompromisingly oppose the Islamist ideology and want the nation to evolve into a modern, tolerant, pluralist and democratic state. This entails rejecting the gratuitous advice from some ‘realist’ (read, cynical) quarters that India should directly talk to the Pakistan military, just as the United States does. India’s government is civilian and must deal exclusively with and strengthen Pakistan’s civilian leadership and its peace constituency.

Peshawar has created a unique moment in Pakistan, when de-Talibanisation can be put on the agenda. India can make this a unique moment for peace in all of South Asia by reaching out to Pakistan with earnest proposals for cooperation – in fighting terrorism, promoting trade, and stabilising Afghanistan.

If the Modi government is not to squander this valuable opportunity, it must stop regarding Pakistan as an enemy to be vanquished, but see it as a potentially friendly neighbour. Above all, it must crack the whip on Hindutva extremists. The time has come to isolate all extremists.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.


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