You have to stand guard over the development and maintenance of democracy, social justice and the equality of mankind in your own native soil. [Mohammed Ali Jinnah]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Swat accord is not surrender

By Kunwar Idris . Sunday, 22 Feb, 2009
Supporters of Maulana Soofi Mohammad peace march on the street of in Mingora, outskirts of Swat valley.— Reuters
Supporters of Maulana Soofi Mohammad peace march on the street of in Mingora, outskirts of Swat valley.— Reuters

A day after President Zardari conceded in an interview with an American television channel that the Taliban had established their presence across large swathes of Pakistan, the government of the NWFP, with his approval, recognised the presence of the militia in Swat - one which could not be eradicated even by military action.

Only time can tell whether this recognition will work to advance or check the aim of the Taliban which, in Zardari’s words, is ‘to take over the state of Pakistan and our way of life’. The instant merit of the agreement between the provincial government and Maulana Sufi Mohammad, however, lies in bringing to an end the sufferings to which the people of that once idyllic valley have long been subjected.

The jubilant crowds on the streets of Swat were celebrating not the advent of Sharia law but the return of normality — let there be no mistake about it. The ovation given to Sufi Mohammad was not because of recognition of him as a harbinger of a new order but as a messenger of peace.

Even if he is unable to persuade his Taliban son-in-law Fazlullah to lay down his arms and abide by the agreement, Swat’s worst nightmare, it seems, is over. If the political administration now acts sensibly and promptly, Fazlullah’s marauding men will no longer be able to raid music shops, harass women or burn down schools.

The reaction of Pakistan’s allies — the US and Nato — quite predictably has been sceptical. Both would have preferred Pakistan to press on with its military campaign. They suspect that the ceasefire would only provide a respite, giving the terrorists time to regroup and mount their assault again.

The allies, however, have conveniently overlooked the ground reality that the army operation was alienating the population without exterminating the fanatical fighters.

Thus even if the agreement fails to take hold, the ceasefire provides an opportunity to the government to muster popular support more than it does to the terrorists to refurbish their armoury. The loss of life and earnings that people of all vocations have undergone seems to suggest that they would rather put up with the present system howsoever corrupt or unjust than suffer all the more while waiting for an elusive Islamic order.

In any case the agreement between Maulana Sufi Mohammad and the NWFP government stipulates no more than a judicial system based on the Sharia laws to be introduced in the former princely states of Swat, Dir, Chitral, the protected area of Malakand and Hazara Kohistan.

The executive authority and all other regulatory and developmental functions will continue to vest in the provincial and federal governments under the same laws as are applicable to the rest of the country.

The judicial system envisaged in the agreement is hardly any different from what was in vogue in the former princely states before they were made districts. It was informal, inexpensive and expeditious even if harsh and not always just. Such was the experience of this writer as resident political agent and adviser of Chitral state as also of his colleagues in Dir and Swat.

The formal introduction of Sharia courts now that the states have become districts must not be viewed as Talibanisation of their society or institutions. For all purposes other than the trial of criminal cases and adjudication of civil disputes they will continue to administer justice as is done in other districts of the country.

It needs to be clearly understood that the three states and other parts of Malakand and Hazara divisions are not tribal societies nor wild territories in the sense that next-door Bajaur and Mohmand or further Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai and North and South Waziristan are.

It was wrong to have grouped them as Pata, i.e. provincially administered tribal areas, for they are not tribal as are the federally administered agencies collectively called Fata. Between Pata and Fata there is little affinity or communication. Even the language and social norms differ. Swat has cultural and lingual links with settled Mardan but none with the Mohmands, for instance.

Likewise, Sufi Mohammad’s Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi predates the Taliban phenomenon and had no connection with it — until recently. It was the agony caused by the expense, delay and corruption inherent in the operation of the unfamiliar and complex laws of Pakistan that persuaded him to launch a mass campaign for the enforcement of Sharia law in Dir much before 9/11. As the campaign dragged on, Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law Fazlullah from his base in Swat established contacts with the Taliban and the movement took a violent turn.

Despite this connection which surely brought the TNSM arms and money, it remains essentially an independent movement confined to Dir and Swat. The occupation of Pakistan and the destruction of America do not appear to be its goal.

It would not have gathered the momentum it has if our local councils instead of indulging in politics had attended to the needs of the common people and had spared them the torture of prolonged litigations. The provisions of the local government law relating to the care of the poor and settlement of disputes at the village level had all along remained a dead letter.

Pakistan stands much to gain and its allies in the ‘war on terror’ have little to lose if the Sharia courts bring tranquillity and tourists back to the Swat valley and the mountains beyond that are among the highest in the world. Sharia law is not new to the area but violence is. As political agent in the 1960s, this writer presided over both Chitral’s Sharia system and its secular judicial council only to wonder now whether the people living under Pakistan’s elaborate judicial system could ever be as law-abiding, tolerant of dissent and content in poverty as were the Chitralis then. Swatis were not much different.

Given a just and non-intrusive but firm administration they can be the same again. Advice from Ijlal Hyder Zaidi who had long served in the region and was later Benazir Bhutto’s adviser should help. Talking to the mullahs and militants undoubtedly has its risk but it is one worth taking for the survival of Pakistan and peace of the region. The liberals and militarists will surely live to fight another day.

DAWN.COM | – NWFP | Swat accord is not surrender

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