Pakistan School Killing: South Asia’s killing fields

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Photo: AFP

The tragedy in Pakistan has few parallels. It is nothing short of a South Asian holocaust. Even animals would hang their heads in shame for what we do to our children. But the most horrifying nightmare is for those children who witnessed their dear and near ones dying in the most reprehensible slaughter in the history of Pakistan.

The military-run Army Public School in Peshawar became the target of the Taliban’s revenge attack for the army offensive in North Waziristan. However, the day chosen for this brazen attack — 16 December — may not be so comforting to many in Pakistan. On this day in 1971, the Indian Army registered its final victory on the question of Bangladesh. But the carnage in Peshawar has nothing to do with this. Rather, it is a grim reminder that Pakistan has become a country that does not remember its own history of betrayals and pitfalls.

The rise of terrorism and fundamentalism in Pakistan has to do primarily with the emergence of an oligarchic power structure (civil-military-religious nexus) way back in the 1960s. It got accentuated in the ’70s after the Zia-ul-Haq regime came to power. A critical factor in the current situation has surely been in the making since the time of the Zia regime — the proliferation of madrasas throughout Pakistan. They have been receiving liberal foreign funding, not least from Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia. The madrasas have sufficient ideological and organisational apparatuses and their pupils (the Taliban) have been transformed into fanatics and militants, willing to die for what they are taught to believe are “sacred” causes. It was during the rule of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s that the Taliban branched out, even assuming power in Afghanistan.

An important factor that has significantly assisted their enrolment is the making of a vast number of jobless families, people without any means of existence and without expectations, as a consequence of lopsided policies in agriculture and industry. As sociologist Hamza Alavi wrote, every tractor displaced at least a dozen families of sharecroppers. Hundreds of thousands of them were without a source of livelihood. Under these circumstances, the advent of the well-financed madrasas, who took over their children, gave them free tuition, accommodation and food, appeared to be a great miracle.

The Taliban were taught to recite the Quran. They were also indoctrinated, their minds filled with distorted and intolerant ideas about what Islam is and what it prescribes. The Taliban have thus emerged from these potential factories of fundamentalism and terrorism. Most of the Taliban were also given military training for jihad, initially against the Soviets, then for the liberation of Kashmir and subsequently, in the post-9/11 scenario, against the NATO forces. But Pakistan itself has already been facing the predictable consequences. The armed groups, many of them with battle-hardened Taliban, are in the forefront of a sectarian carnage in Pakistan, which have been on the increase — killings of members of rival sects, Sunnis vs Shias, Deobandi Sunnis vs Barelvi Sunnis, etc.

Over the years, these militant bands assumed new forms and carried new nomenclatures. According to Awami Workers’ Party leader Farooq Tariq, militant outfits such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammed are various forms of new fascisms in the making. They all seek to take over the State by military means, mainly relying on the discontent of the middle class. On the part of the State, there are obvious lapses. Instead of thrashing out a workable policy designed to deal with such militant groups, successive governments have pandered to them. The price of this great lapse is that Pakistan has become the killing fields of South Asia.

In Pakistan, the State’s monopoly of force is dented by a variety of armed religious extremists groups that have schemes of their own. The State does not yet recognise that the more they try to acquiesce to these religious fanatics, the harder and more uncompromising they tend to become.

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