Friday, 16 December 2016

QK Archives: APS two years on

By Zalan Khan
Originally published by THE NEWS
31 December 2014
My friend was grief-stricken when we spoke, "We are now used to seeing death, but this was savagery we have not seen before”. The 21st century in particular and the last four decades in general have been unkind to the people of Peshawar.

The once quiet little town, which largely escaped the violence of Partition, is a place that you could once drive through from one end to the other in thirty minutes. It was the birthplace of many famous Bollywood stars like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, squash stars like Jansher Khan and has been home to both local Hindko speakers to Pashto speakers from nearby villages.

The city has hosted six major waves of refugees, first from Afghanistan in the early 1980s with people fleeing the Russian occupation and the ensuing fighting. The second and third wave were people escaping the factional fighting between the ‘victorious’ warriors over Kabul and then again by those escaping the rule of the Taliban.

Today, hundreds of families from Peshawar grieve the loss of over 140 young children murdered so brutally at the Army Public School. As one scans TV, social media and newspapers, a recurring theme seems to be that this event is an aberration and that somehow this will become a turning point for Pakistan. This argument assumes that there was something especially inhuman about the targeting of children. This reaction is understandable, but it avoids looking at what we can learn from other countries like Russia.

The facts tell another story. While much is made of the Afghan Taliban’s condemnation of the attack on APS, in their country last month 45 people were killed (many children) and over 60 others were injured following a suicide attack in the Paktika province. In another attack almost 300 young school-going girls were by poisoned along with their teachers. Like most of these attacks, the perpetrators did not hide their role and used the pretext that it was against westerners whom they find guilty of implementing an ‘intellectual and cultural invasion’.

Closer to home, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010, a tiny village in Lakki Marwat experienced devastation when a car bomb exploded at a local volleyball tournament, killing 128 – mostly young boys. The numbers lost were so high in proportion to the small village’s population that visitors even now notice the absence of children on the streets.

Over 3000 people have been killed in Peshawar at the hands of terror attacks over the last eight years. There was the bombing of the Meena Bazaar in which 107 innocent women, men, women and children were killed. Then there was the attack on the All Saints Church in which over 127 people were killed of which at least 37 were young children. So when we express our horror at this recent attack, we are confusing ourselves into thinking this attack was an aberration and not a logical escalation of a brutal trend. As we have become desensitised to attacks, the attackers have used more brutal means to send a message.

As far as this event being a turning point, this is more a natural human instinct – to seek solace in hoping that things will change and our own innate desire to seek to make sense out. For some others, crises like these provide opportunity to raise their own profile and ingratiate themselves with new organisations and individuals.

Perhaps recent history has warning signs for us. This refers to Russia’s Beslan attack ten years back, a little town in the south of Russia, where there was a brutal attack by Chechen and Ingush extremists and in the course of events 334 perished, including 186 children.

The aftermath of that attack is informative. There was little attempt to change the state’s approach towards a peaceful resolution of the Chechen issue or changing the state’s approach to the Caucasus region. Instead the president (former intelligence chief Vladimir Putin), in a move backed by widespread public support, lifted the ban on the death penalty and made arrest and imprisonment laws more severe. These moves were in turn followed by an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and Russian nationalism. These laws and this sentiment helped secure Putin’s position. Over time the increased state repression changed its focus to a new set of enemies – political opponents and the media.

Many of these events have now been mirrored in Pakistan. Executions have already started and depicted with much fanfare by the media. We have the push towards military courts over pushing for rapid reform of the judicial services. We have also seen the familiar attempts at scape-goating neighbours for what are home-grown problems.

So the truth is something simpler. Tragedies that evoke national sympathy are often used as a pretext to secure political power and erode civil liberties. Once eroded, those same laws and sentiments are used against ‘others’, whether that means refugees in Pakistan like the Afghans or the over three million internally displaced people. Or whether it is the media and political opponents that the state has been looking to silence.

So perhaps this is a turning point for some people, but December 16 will forever be a pivotal time for the 200-odd families whose lives have been changed for now and forever.

It will likely remain to be seen as an aberration and not an extension of a pattern, thereby comforting us falsely that what happened till now did not cross any ‘red lines’. In fact those lines were crossed a long time ago. We have only just noticed.

The writer is the founder of the website: www.qissa-khwani.com

Twitter: @qisskhwani