The rise of extremism in Pakistan’s Swat valley needs a nuanced and democratic response.
[This is the draft for the editorial I wrote on the Taliban takeover of the Swat and the Pakistan Government’s deal with them. The final revised version will be published in the EPW 28 Feb – 6 Mar 2009 (Vol XLIV NO 9) edition.]
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On 16 February the Government of Pakistan entered into an agreement with representatives of the Taliban for a ceasefire in the Swat valley of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and further agreed to enforce Sharia based laws in this region. This agreement comes in a wake of a two year conflict in the Swat valley where the Government forces have fought a losing battle with the local Taliban to control the region. As of the end of last year, the forces loyal to the local Taliban leader, Maulana Fazlullah controlled the entire Swat valley and had been imposing their version of the Sharia. This included destroying about 200 schools and banning the education of girls. They have also destroyed government offices, police posts and tourist infrastructure. While cable television was banned, Fazlullah himself became well known as “maulana radio” for his FM broadcasts through an illegal transmitter which became the chief means of enforcing his dictat in an area where regular communications had been badly disturbed. The barbarity of these fundamentalists has been matched by the ferocity of the Pakistan State’s armed interventions which included carpet bombings, artillery shellings, cutting off of electricity and blocking roads. The people of Swat, crushed under this pincer attack, have been left defenceless. There are some estimates that almost five lakhs out of its 12.5 lakh population has left Swat and become refugees in other parts of Pakistan.
Given this context, it is no wonder that this peace deal has caused public jubilation in Swat and its neighbouring areas. Outside of Swat and the NWFP, the reaction to this deal has been uniformly adverse with most commentators stating that it would strengthen the fundamentalists and provide the terrorists with a safe haven. Even within Pakistan, many commentators have reacted negatively to this deal pointing out that it strengthens the Islamic fundamentalists and forces the people of Swat to live under medieval barbarity.
While the danger from the growing hold of the Taliban cannot be minimised and neither can there be any doubt about their utterly reactionary agenda, it is also important to understand the reasons why the deal is being welcomed by the people of Swat. One reason, no doubt, would be the war weariness of those caught in the crossfire. But the growth of the Taliban is not merely a function of an effete State. There is evidence of a growing acceptance, even popularity, of the Taliban in the contiguous Pashtun parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The most common explanation for the increase in the political strength of the Taliban revolves around the weakness and complicity of the Pakistani State with these groups which have been used for Machiavellian purposes in Afghanistan, Kashmir and also to quell progressive movements within Pakistan. The active role of the Americans in creating, funding and arming these fundamentalists for the past three decades is also well known. Moreover, in the current phase, the exclusive reliance on military means by the Americans in their “war on terror” has killed and maimed thousands of civilians and destroyed many more livelihoods in these regions. All of these have contributed, in no small measure, to the rise of the Taliban.
But the events in Swat can only be understood when placed in the context of the history of the post-colonial state in south Asia. Swat was a part of the tribal areas of British India where colonial laws and administration rarely entered. Even after 1947, Swat remained a largely independent territory, ruled by its king and administered by its own set of laws. Though the people of Swat claimed that these were based on the Sharia, this customary code was rather loosely related to Islamic jurisprudence. Adultery, murder, sodomy and theft were all punished by simple fines and not by executions or amputations. Justice was quick, inexpensive and substantive. Village and clan assemblies, composed on male representatives from each family were empowered and active. This ended with the incorporation of Swat State into Pakistan and the imposition of the Pakistan’s administrative machinery, personnel and legal codes on the area. Given the class character, corruption and incompetence which has marked the south Asia’s post-colonial States, it was but a matter of time that the people of Swat, whose popular memory recalls their having fought Alexander two millennia ago, would rise in revolt.
It is important to recall that the call for the restoration of Swat’s Nizam-e-Adl has been a popular demand in that valley ever since its incorporation into Pakistan. Even the present agreement is to restore this Nizam-e-Adl in Swat and its neighbouring regions. In a context where progressive, secular and leftwing movements have been systematically decimated by the Pakistani State, it is but natural that fascistic elements will give voice to this popular demand and couch it in their own ideological straitjacket. While the people of Swat have lived with low levels of literacy and employment, with loss of control over their resources to men from the plains, the region became the playground for the elite as the “Switzerland of Pakistan”. The close parallel with Kashmir – the “Switzerland of India” – with its same story of political mismanagement and oppression, low economic development and the rise of extremism, should not be lost. The rise of fundamentalisms in south Asia is surely a common threat but the solution cannot be only military but has to be found in democratic governance which addresses the basic demands of the people.