From the canvas of consciousness
24 July, 2007
By Nasim Zehra
It is hard to recall another event in Pakistan's non-war days which captured the hearts, minds, time and attention of the entire nation, as did the 10-day-long Lal Masjid siege and operation. It was one event which suddenly flared up so much around us and within us. There are countless questions. What are our values and principles as a nation, where have we journeyed, who is managing us, where are we headed, our we destined to be divided, who is the enemy, was the one that killed 45 innocent people in Karachi less deadly than the one inside Lal Masjid, why do we insist on calling these armed militias Islamic militants, why don't we see their politics as an extension of the failure of our politics, why don't we understand the processes by which these militias were eased into the power fray in our public spaces by all those who now want them extinguished, can we extinguish the 'other' let alone our own? No matter how dangerous and deadly they were we cannot deny that they were our own. Yes we punish even our own too when they go astray, but we must be cautious in the application of force when they are our own.
Will we ever know the extent their deadliness beyond the completely illegal vigilante actions they had taken turning the mosque into a small time arsenal and keeping many boys as hostages. Standing outside Lal Masjid on July 7, a group of four men from Peshawar, Taxila, Mardan and Dir said their sons had told them on the cell phone that they wanted to come out but feared the men inside Lal Masjid would shoot them. We will never know how deadly the men inside were. The ferociously bulleted insides of the Lal Masjid and Madressah Hafsa only tell us about the weaponry and the attacking force used, not what those inside used.
There was never any doubt that the Lal Masjid group seemingly led by Marhoom Rashid Ghazi had to be reined in. For far too long they had been given free rein. Ghazi sahib was a stubborn and finally a self-destructive man. In the narrow and correct definition of law he qualified as the enemy of the state. What remains unclear is if all this blood had to be spilled to get him. Did it have to end this way, could he not have been defanged, de-weaponized and de-linked from his group and his base? Perhaps mindful of all these questions the state had opted for negotiations -- as if a Waziristan kind of accord was underway. Shujaat, the man of peace whose instinct was overruled like earlier in the case of Bugti, was against the final assault. He wanted a settlement. Finally what was a hasty retreat from the negotiations seemed incongruent when the state backed by three cordons of varied but lethally armed forces had been so wisely patient for all those days. The death of a commando officer and maybe the fear that the Supreme Court would issue stay order on the operation the next morning triggered the haste.
The media brought as much transparency as it possibly could in this combat. Maybe even too much. If Marhoom Ghazi was being elevated as a brave rebel, if not a hero, through television interviews it was because the government was ok with it. Why else would the government not jam Ghazi's cell phones? Those attacking the media must ask the government what its rationale was for letting the dialogue carry on till the last day.
Meanwhile we were never shown the deadly tribe inside. Throughout the seven days we were told about the 'wanted foreigners' inside. Figures ranged from 40 to many more. Some "terrorists" with even head money were inside. But now the foreigners seem to be missing. The two earlier identified by the state have been claimed by Pakistani families. Some tunnels earlier identified have also disappeared. How long did the operation last no one knows. We were told almost 48 hours.
Many untruths had come from Marhoom Ghazi. From July 9 onwards, he was claiming there were almost 200 dead bodies inside. It is unlikely that those were found. He said there were hundreds of women and children. While we don't know how many bodies disappeared or were burnt in the ghastly grenade shower, not too many parents came to claim their lost, certainly not the numbers that the opposition was claiming. But equally, there is no doubt that some collective burials in haste and in secret were also done. We will never know too many facts too soon. But many will speak from all sides.
The journey of the men inside Lal Masjid and the women and children inside Hafsa leading them to this end will have to be traced, truthfully. They could not have defied nature's most fundamental rule. You must reap what you sow. Apples don't grow when mangoes are planted. Peace, tolerance and compassion don't flow from lessons in intolerance, self-righteousness and exclusive piety. But what caused these original inputs into their minds and hearts, what caused the lovely young girls to lose their childhood to that tough and harsh worldview? The apartheid in Pakistan between the rich and economically disadvantaged extends across the entire spectrum of existence; from respect and dignity, to basic amenities, to job availability, to access to food, the exposure to art and culture, the list is endless. Lal Masjid will not go away easily. It will symbolize the worst-ever manifestation of the saying that 'chickens come home to roost.' But they were our people on all sides. The most frustrating of all is the realization that some of this, if not all, was inevitable.
The Supreme Court did well by intervening to ensure that Ghazi's sisters go for his funeral, that the state return the mother's body to the sisters and, even better now, it will stay its course on overseeing the human rights situation of whatever is left of the Lal Masjid case. The moral authority of the state, that is drawn from justice and fair play, has been on the wane for a while. And now in the non-compartmentalized, all encompassing consciousness of the Pakistani citizen many scenes play in her/his mind and heart: the orchestrated killings of May 12, the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Waziristan accord with Nek Mohammad, the release of many Al-Zulfiqar fighters by Zia and Nawaz Sharif's exit after having been convicted by the Supreme Court. All these are different instances in different circumstances, so the comparison may not hold. But how do stop the mind seeing the hypocrisy of the state, its double play.
For long the margin of error has not been available to the Pakistani power players. Every error extracts its own cost. The action, however tragic, against Lal Masjid was inevitable. In the minefield of contradictions and controversies this too will extract its cost. We can only pray that it does not go beyond what we have already witnessed. Lal Masjid has let out many messages. One, the state means business. Two, in its language the state confuses religion with politics (Lal Masjid was in fact a challenge to state authority by militias, originally patronized by the state. In Pakistan militias have been allowed to challenge the state and society in the name of justice, religion, ethnicity and national security). Three, it has deepened the suspicion between the state and the people and the state can no longer take its authority over the society for granted; it is lost and has to be reclaimed, on the unfolding canvass of the Pakistani consciousness.
In Pakistan the attempt to label society as good Muslim and bad Muslims will prove to be the country's undoing. Neither the society, nor the army, nor other institutions of the state will find this acceptable, no matter who authors this divide, w Marhoom Ghazi sahib or the top general in the maze of challenges. The only valid divide is the lawful and unlawful Pakistanis, those who live by the law and those who live by breaking the law. This alone is the touchstone that a diligent Supreme Court must promote and protect.