In an unprecedented move, students at schools across India observed a two-minute silence on December 17, in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the barbaric attack on an army-run school in Peshawar. Immensely moved, Pakistanis have responded with gratitude for this humane gesture that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed for. There is also gratitude for the hashtag #IndiaWithPakistan on social media.
A Pakistani friend remarks on the “irony that our so-called arch enemy’s sympathy and voice seem more comforting in this time of need then our pious apologists”. The dominant narrative perpetuated in Pakistan traditionally posits India as the enemy. Former army chief General Pervez Musharraf is on record saying he is “proud” of the Kargil operation that he masterminded “in revenge” against India for 1971. The Peshawar attack came on December16, commemorated in Pakistan as a “black day” to mark its army’s surrender to the Indian army in Dhaka in 1971.
Musharraf is the last military dictator to have ruled Pakistan, but even after he stepped down, the military establishment continued to call the shots in Pakistan. This could change with a continuation of the democratic process that will eventually correct the imbalance. Pakistan embarked on the democratic electoral process when an elected government transferred power to the next for the first time in the country’s history.
When Benazir Bhutto was elected to power the first time in 1988, following the death of the previous military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, she was not allowed to take oath as prime minister until she agreed to keep off three key policy areas — defence, economy and foreign affairs. Over the next decade, a constitutional amendment imposed by Zia, which allowed the president to dismiss parliament, was used to prematurely topple three elected governments — Benazir Bhutto’s, then Nawaz Sharif’s and then Benazir Bhutto’s again. When Sharif was again elected to power, Musharraf overthrew him in 1999 in what journalists like to call a “bloodless military coup” (all coups in Pakistan have been bloodless).
Then Musharraf ruled the roost in Pakistan for the next decade. During this time, he tried to mend fences with India and even came close to resolving the Kashmir dispute. However, the matter ended when he was forced to step down. Surprisingly, Musharraf was quite popular among Indian intellectuals, some of whom look nostalgically back at his stint as some kind of golden era between Pakistan and India. They seem to forget that he was a dictator and they are willing to overlook Kargil. As a one-man band, Musharraf could take whatever decisions he wanted. His “boys” unquestioningly obeyed his orders because that’s what soldiers do. Not so the “bloody civilians”. Democracy is a messy business. An elected head of government must obtain the consensus of elected parliamentarians before making policy decisions.
For far too long, the security establishment in Pakistan has made major policy decisions. So why, argue Indians, should they bother talking to an elected government? For one thing: only an elected government can legitimately make policy changes. It has taken more than 60 years to make this mess. It will take decades more to fix it. But with the 2013 elections, at least Pakistan is on the right track. The biggest blow to the terrorists, besides the military operation, would be India and Pakistan uniting against them.
Over the past few years, a political consensus has developed in Pakistan among all key stakeholders that peace and good relations with India are essential for Pakistan. This consensus has always existed at the people’s level and at the level of artists, activists and intellectuals. Now, all major parties and the business community also support this view. Pakistanis who insist on clinging to the outdated pro-jihad, anti-India narrative are to be found among the security establishment, extremists and their protégés — the religious groups the army once nurtured in order to gain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and the upper hand over India. This brings us to the confusion created by the “good Taliban, bad Taliban” narrative. As long as they didn’t attack Pakistan, the “good Taliban” were seen as “non-state actors” that served as “strategic assets”.
The Musharraf that so many Indians admire for his “forthrightness” played a duplicitous game here. Pakistan was the last to cut off diplomatic ties with the Taliban who ruled Afghanistan, and that too when pushed by Washington after 9/11. Musharraf went along with the US when it came to casting off Pakistan’s erstwhile allies the Taliban in Afghanistan, but looked the other way while allowing homegrown groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) to function. The LeT is known to be behind the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. Pakistan has banned it but allows it to function as a “charity organisation”, the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which openly holds rallies in major cities like Lahore and keeps the anti-India narrative alive.
When Indians ask why Pakistani courts keep acquitting people like Hafiz Saeed, the JuD leader, they forget that our court systems are, after all, much the same. To obtain convictions is not that easy. Pakistan also has no witness protection programme. This, coupled with poor forensics and prosecution techniques, makes it quite easy for criminals to literally get away with murder.
Certain Pakistani “analysts” (several in the pay of the security establishment) also perpetuate the anti-India narrative through op-eds, television talk shows, and social media. As soon as something horrific happens, their spin doctoring goes into overdrive to push the view that India is behind such attacks or that it’s a Western conspiracy.
Will the jolt administered by the Peshawar attack change this? Will Taliban apologists and conspiracy theorists move aside to let the nation get on with what needs to be done? Pakistan must treat every single criminal act as a criminal act and move to punish those who perpetuate it, whether in the name of religion or under any other pretext. Let not those precious lives have been lost in vain.
The writer is a Pakistani journalist and filmmaker