THE NEWS, May 27, 2009
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.
The huge military operation launched in Malakand region in late April was meant to decisively defeat the Taliban militants and restore the writ of the state in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir districts. One doesn't know how long the army action will continue in view of the fact that the federal and provincial ministers and the military authorities have been giving conflicting timelines for its completion. There is also noguarantee that militancy will be defeated once and for all as a result of this unprecedented undertaking by Pakistan's armed forces within the country.
There is no doubt that the militants forced the hand of the government and the military to take action against them due to their unreasonable actions and strong-arm tactics. The militants' strength has certainly been diminished following the military operation and it will take them a while and another period of government non-performance, inaction and mistakes to recoup and regroup. Despite the government's claim that the Malakand military operation was initiated under strategic planning, there is little to suggest that it was ready for it.
Something that is far more obvious is the emergence of new problems and challenges for our already beleaguered nation. One is the issue of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) that is threatening to overshadow all other priorities of the state. The massive displacementof people caused by the military action wasn't properly foreseen by those who planned, executed and backed the operation. It is,therefore, hardly surprising that all of them are now finding it difficult to cope with the situation. This is a man-made disaster that will require divine intervention because our governments have a poor record of helping people in need. Every uprooted family has suffered so much for no fault of its own that it will be impossible to compensate it for its loss, whether it is physical or emotional.Unknowingly, or rather callously, a humanitarian crisis has been created without having the foresight to realise its magnitude and understand its consequences.
The military operation and the large-scale dislocation of hitherto well-knit rural communities have also raised valid questions about the concept of nationhood and the federation of Pakistan. Already, two province-wide strikes called by rival groups of the ultra-Sindhi nationalists Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) have been held against the arrival of IDPs in Sindh. The JSQM and other Sindhi and Urdu-speaking nationalists may have strong reasons to oppose the influx of ethnic Pakhtuns in Sindh but the timing of their protest and the targeting of Pakhtun transport and other businesses during the strike carried a disturbing message that cannot augur well for the future of relations between the ethnic entities that make of Pakistan. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which despite the change of its name still operates as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, enthusiastically backed the first call for strike and withdrew its support for the second one on the request of its ruling coalition partner, the PPP. This also helps explain as to why the first strike on account of MQM's active support on May 23 was more widespread and violent with two people, including a 50-year old woman who was burnt alive, getting killed and a lot more vehicles owned by Pakhtuns being torched.
By backing the recent anti-IDPs strike, a powerful MQM-linked segment of the PPP-led Sindh government became involved in the unconstitutional act of denying entry to genuine Pakistanis, that too uprooted and suffering households coming all the way from unliveable places like Swat, Buner and Dir, into a province with a substantial Pakhtun population. No thought was given to the repercussions of such an ethnic-based approach to the problem of displaced people in NWFP,from where they came, and also in Balochistan, home to a considerable number of Pashtuns. Also, there was no appreciation of the fact that the Karachi-bound IDPs weren't going to be a burden on the Sindh government. They were heading to Karachi to live with their Pakhtun relatives and friends and seek means of livelihood in a city that is the obvious destination for most jobless and shelterless Pakistanis.
This is not to say that the PPP leadership, which we all know is dominated by the Sindhis, wasn't supportive of the move to keep the IDPs out of Sindh. President Asif Ali Zardari, who is still the PPPco-chairman, and some of his party colleagues have been for quite sometime advocating registering and controlling the IDPs coming to Karachi and the rest of Sindh. The MQM on its own could not have forced the Sindh government to take this decision. It needed sympathisers in the PPP to make the move and support the call for strike that was basically against its own government's inaction for not stopping theIDPs from entering Sindh. The ruling PPP cannot absolve itself of the blame for blocking the trucks and buses bringing the IDPs to Sindh at the border town of Kashmore and for insisting that they go back totheir native NWFP or stay in not-yet-ready tented camps there in the middle of nowhere. It was an insensitive act that added insult to injury and contributed to the pain suffered by the IDPs and felt by all Pakhtuns. More pain was inflicted on the Pakhtun psyche by certain PPP leaders, including its blundering spokesperson Fauzia Wahab, when the IDPs were equated to the Afghan refugees. If this isn't a slip of tongue, then it obviously means that many politicians and also other likeminded people from different walks of life in Punjab and Sindh have come to believe that the Afghan refugees too are primarily Pakhtuns and all of them need to be kept out of Pakistan's two biggest provinces to avoid harm.
The PML-N despite its praiseworthy relief work in support of the IDPs also damaged its growing reputation as a party sympathetic to the cause of smaller provinces by hesitating to allow setting up of IDPs camps in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif too backed the military operation in Malakand division after having pleaded earlier for a peaceful political solution of the issue of militancy and he cannot absolve his party now from the responsibility of the army action's consequences.In fact, it was the PML-N's backing for the military solution of the Swat issue that changed the course of the debate on the pros and cons of using the armed forces to solve a problem that emerged due to the unresponsive system of justice and governance and deteriorated when politicians failed to tackle it politically.
The apathy of some of the Sindh- and Punjab-based political forces to the woes of the IDPs looks all the more glaring when one compares it to the unparalleled generosity shown by the common people all over thecountry. In particular, the way the people opened their hearts and homes to the IDPs in NWFP was heart-warming to say the least. Nowhere was this magnanimity more visible than in Mardan and Swabi, the two districts that have received most of the displaced persons coming from neighbouring Swat, Buner and Dir. Villagers with little means have accommodated IDPs in their homes and hujras and those with a room or house to spare are still busy registering their names to show their willingness to take in the displaced families. Every village in Mardan and Swabi has become a camp for the IDPs. Little or no relief supplies have gone to these unknown IDPs' village camps because most of thegoods are going to the designated camps. In fact, almost 80 per cent of the IDPs are living outside the relief camps with relatives,acquaintances and even with strangers.
If ordinary Pakhtun villagers with few resources could do this on such a massive scale and lessen the burden of the government, is it asking too much from politicians who are in and out of power and are supposed to show the way to the nation to be sensitive to the plight of the IDPs instead of rubbing salt on their wounds? Or according to their interpretation the IDP issue should be a matter of concern for NWFP and the Pakhtuns only? If that is the case, then one should be worried about the damage this attitude could cause.