Pakistan: The blood price of Faustian bargains

Pakistan’s political and military elites have been closing their eyes to extremist violence for way too long.

Pakistani mourners gather around a coffin during the funeral for a victim of an attack by Taliban militants [AFP]

A single and extraordinary image from last year: Hazaras, an ethnic and religious minority in Pakistan, maintaining a night vigil by the coffins of their slain kin in a street in Quetta. The previous evening, at least 80 Hazaras had been slaughtered in twin bomb blasts in the capital city of Baluchistan. It remains a dark, disturbing scene, as though the dead seemed scared of being interred or did not want to be buried in protest against the cruelty shown to them when they were alive – and when they died. 

It is unusual for people to keep their dead waiting for that final journey, even more so in Islam where it is required to bury the dead as soon as possible. That a group of Muslims refuses to do so means something basic has been wrenched from their world: The fundamental right to a life of dignity. There were night vigils in many cities across Pakistan, protests and mournful pleas by a besieged and desperate people asking their rulers to at least appear to attempt to protect lives.

The families of the dead remained on the road with coffins for nearly 70 hours before the government of Pakistan acceded to some of their demands and sacked the province’s chief minister and imposed direct rule.  

Peshawar attack survivors hang on for life

Nearly two years later, another image that will forever remain etched in our consciousness: Mothers from Peshawar wailing by the coffins of their children who had been slaughtered by the Pakistani Taliban. Some of the children’s heads were partially severed, Newsweek Pakistan reported.

As the world watched, the corpses of schoolchildren were lined up in the school auditorium in Peshawar, and Pakistanis once again seethed with anger and a sense of powerlessness in a country with the sixth largest army in the world. More coffins, with passport photos of the children plastered over them, were paraded across media screens, breaking hearts and, more devastatingly, the hope and promise of a new generation.

These two massacres – and there have been more in between – sum up both the extremist onslaught against ordinary Pakistanis and the near-total abdication by the state’s primary duty, namely, to protect the lives of its citizens.

The Pakistani Taliban, sworn to revanchist mass murder, claimed it chose to kill 132 students to avenge the killings of its men and their families in the Pakistani army’s ongoing offensive in North Waziristan.

If, in some kind of perverted moral frenzy, one were to accept that, one would then also ask the TTP, what did they or their affiliates – many of them birthed and nurtured by sections of the Pakistani security establishment – avenge when they massacred the utterly powerless Hazaras in Quetta?

Or when they blew up a church in Peshawar, killing scores of hapless Christians who as far as I know were neither drone pilots nor spying for the Pentagon; or when they flogged a little school girl in public; or beheaded those who did not understand their interpretation of religion during the time they were allowed to administer Swat; or…? The list is depressingly long and goes back to the time when there were no evil drone assassins on the prowl over the skies of Pakistan.

The answer may lie in the creed of violence the TTP and its splinter or franchise groups have made their motto and gone so far down the route that there seems no turning back possible.

How did Pakistan get here?

Pakistan finds itself in a vicious and endless cycle of violence because, in addition to historical reasons and geo-political fault-lines, the country’s main political forces chose to watch from their boardrooms when Salman Taseer, a sitting governor of Pakistan’s most powerful province, Punjab, was murdered by his own security guard four years ago. The guard now publishes religious sermons from his prison cell.

In spite of the vast resources of a security state available to it, the country’s leaders chose to look the other way as armed groups began to roam freely, looking for innocents to kill. While sectarian and extremist killings are by no means new in Pakistan, one can possibly trace the start of this new open season of killings to the public celebration of the murder of a governor who had merely sought legal redress for a powerless Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Seldom before had the Pakistani political elites so wholeheartedly emboldened the politics of hate.

Political and religious parties in the country seem to be paralysed by an acute moral crisis, which impels them to rise vociferously against a terribly made, devious film denigrating the Prophet of Islam, but not when Pakistanis, their own kin, are butchered in a ritualistic performance of violence week after week.

Taliban loses support over Peshawar attack

Nearly all political formations, whether secular or religious – although there is hardly any left of the former – claim to be capable of organising a million people to march, mostly against something and almost never for the ordinary Pakistani.

Even that relatively adolescent political formation, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf claims so, and has done so in the past when it organised a well-attended rally against American drones which often kill civilians, including children, in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But none of these powerful parties seem to want to risk being in the bad books of the extremists. Even as they condemn the killings they make sure they don’t name the perpetrators too often or too loudly.

The many Faustian bargains that the security establishment has over the years signed up to, by nursing various militant franchises, seem to have gradually found favour with the political classes as well. Therefore no one, neither the centre of all power in Pakistan, the military, nor the political parties which want Pakistanis to stand by them in their struggle to keep democracy alive, seems to be in a position to challenge the groups whose primary occupation seems to be the murder of the meek.

The military and political elites of the country have other bargains to honour too, and they do so by relentless bombings of areas controlled by the extremist groups. But we seldom hear or read accounts of what happens in that theatre of war. How many civilians are killed, how many children? All we know is hundreds of thousands of people are displaced from these areas and turned into tent-dwelling refugees in their own country. The steep blood price of these bargains continues to be paid by the people of Pakistan, not by those who script them.

Apologists of violence

It is perhaps another measure of the deep schisms in Pakistan’s body-politic that apologists for such openly hostile groups go into conspiracy-theory mode every time the former commit an atrocity. Very soon, the Pakistani Taliban and their affiliates may have to distance themselves from their defenders in TV studios and on social media, because even when the Taliban triumphantly claim responsibility for murderous attacks, the apologists seem to say, “No, you didn’t do it, bro.” That evergreen excuse, the foreign hand, is invoked even as leaders of extremist groups openly address rallies in Pakistan’s cities, threatening more murder. 

There is outrage against these wanton killings – every day. But the thinking, writing and speaking classes of the country are often reduced to expressing outrage on social media, or an exceptionally brave few venture out with candles in solidarity with the victims. It is perfectly understandable, for it is one thing to express outrage and completely another, to face up to people eager to empty their AK-47 clips.

The people of Pakistan are simply trying to live, to survive, in a milieu where many people seem to have decided that the easiest way to deal with difference, with diversity, with the other, with those whose main concern in life is the education of their children, is to announce an instant death sentence.

The time has perhaps already arrived when the country’s military and political leaders are fearful of their own security detail. But if the Pakistani state continues to watch this murder of the innocents from the headquarters in Rawalpindi, or the presidential palace in Islamabad, there may come a day when those persecuted or the kin of the slaughtered will declare enough is enough. We are tired of being murdered, they might say.

One hundred and thirty-two children were massacred in Peshawar on what’s being termed one of the darkest days in Pakistan’s history. These are gruesome and brazen acts of mass murder carried out by men who speak proudly of the death tolls they score. Nothing more shocking has occurred in recent history. We ought to be more shocked, repulsed, than we are, so that those who can do something about it will do so.

Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel The Collaborator was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhat Prize, and long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize.