December Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

It is 2004. A FM radio station starts in a hamlet called Mamderhai, located just beside Mingora, the main business hub in Swat Valley, along the banks of the River Swat. Maulana Fazlullah initially gives radio sermons about the practice and principles of Islam. Residents, especially women, are instantly attracted and find themselves compelled to listen. After a few months, the maulana starts lecturing against polio vaccinations, television and education for girls. The local administration is alerted and asks the maulana to close down the radio station. The maulana refuses to comply. A traditional jirga intervenes to hammer out an agreement between the administration and the maulana. Meanwhile, the maulana establishes a huge madrassah, apparently with donations from locals. His circle of influence widens, encompassing the neighbouring hamlets on the right bank of the river.

After gathering enough strength, the maulana reportedly starts writing threatening letters to girls’ schools and women’s colleges ordering the students and teachers to put on head-to-toe veils. The next target is CD shops and Internet cafés. Locals start resisting the maulana in their own way. Nonetheless, terror continues as a CD market in Mingora and a secondary school in Kabal are blown up. By August 2007, bomb blasts and suicide attacks become the norm in the previously peaceful tourist resort known as the Switzerland of Asia. Fear and terror envelop the whole valley.

The district coordination officer instructs citizens to abide by the orders of anonymous warning letters. Schools, colleges, markets, government offices and the offices of NGOs are closed down. The political parties, traditional elites and influential section of the society turn a deaf ear to all these happenings. Socio-political activists make some efforts, but without any impact.

Meanwhile, the MMA government in the NWFP resigns and an interim government takes over in Peshawar. The caretaker chief minister of NWFP calls a grand jirga. The jirga seems to have unanimously advised the chief minister to start a targeted operation in the valley, and henceforth paramilitary forces start actions in October 2007. But the paramilitary forces fail to rein in the militancy. In the first week of November, the federal government of Pakistan announces a military operation in the valley. Tanks, armoured cars and heavy artillery of the Pakistan army roll in to curb militancy. The common people of Swat seem to be initially stunned. It is something absolutely unusual and unnatural for them.

swat-2-dec07The mesmerising music of waterfalls, the green, flowery landscape dotted with sprouting fountains, the snow-capped mountains and the fast-flowing River Swat have witnessed numerous epochs over the last several thousand years. Since the Aryans, who migrated to the valley in the 14th century B.C., till the merger of the valley with Pakistan in 1969, the valley has seen the diverse lifestyles, different worldviews, numerous cultural traditions and distinct state institutions of its many inhabitants. Traditionally, the people of the valley remained peaceful, liberal and open in all cultural, social and political aspects. Khurshid Khan, a lecturer in history at Government College Mingora says, “Mela was the main component of cultural ceremonies in the valley. The state-sponsored mela on the bank of River Swat was the most famous event. The Wali (of Swat) would visit the mela. Dances, circus and many items of entertainment were integral parts of the mela. Elders always talk about those bygone days. During Eid ceremonies, besides men, women also used to gather around the tombs of saints. They used to spend a day in shopping and singing. The Pakhtun code and state authority gave protection to females attending melas in Swat.”

On the other hand, the religious class of the valley would behave like Buddhist monks. Khurshid Khan elaborates: “The people of the whole valley were the followers of Imam Abu Hanifa. The religious class had no concern with worldly affairs. That class was only responsible for leading prayers five times a day, funeral prayers, nikah and khatm. A maulvi used to spend his life on the income of Sirai land and charity. He would not be a member of the jirga and lakhkar.”

Political structure was balanced too. “Traditional elites, divided into two prominent social groups, had to give space to the religious and the marginalised groups because of the politics of social grouping,” says Shaukat Sharar, an architect based in Mingora. A 60-year-old farmer in Spalbandai village, Mingora, says, “There was a network of roads across the whole valley. Schools, both for boys and girls, were constructed across the length and breadth of Swat State. I never heard about shortages of medicines in hospitals during the state era.”

The judicial system in Swat during the reign of the Wali was quite efficient. Karim Bakhsh, a 55-year-old farmer of Utrore, near Kalam, says, “During the era of Wali Sahib, a murderer would be arrested within 24 hours. The crime rate was low and the Qazi would decide a case within hours.”

swat-3-dec07In essence, says Inamullah, a teacher in Bahrain, Swat, the lack of democracy had its benefits. “The law and order situation was better due the fact that the state was run by one person. The same is true for the quantity and quality of the infrastructure. But human rights were severely violated. Forced labour was very common, and there was no awareness of civil and human rights. The state seemed to be enjoying a moderate and even secular profile, but people were happy to get their cases decided in a short time.”

In their book, Swat: An Afghan Society in Pakistan, Inam-ur-Rahim and Alain Viaro write, “Though basic principles of justice were taken from the Islamic judicial system (during the state era), an appropriate space was kept for local traditions and customs while deciding the disputes and crimes.”

Several observers believe that the merger of Swat State with Pakistan caused frustration in the people of the valley. Sultan-i-Room, in his paper “Merger of Swat State with Pakistan — Causes and Effects,” says, “With the merger of Swat State, confusion and chaos prevailed. The litigants did not know where to turn for justice. Quick and cheap trials and decisions, whether just or unjust, and their proper execution and implementation came to an end. The prolonged procedures, undue delay, great expenditures, high bribes, misuse of riwaj (customs) and the further deterioration of PATA (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas) highly aggravated almost all the people of Swat.

The present apparent wave of militancy reported from the Swat Valley can be traced back to the early ’90s. It was a time when the Soviet Union had just disintegrated. As such, other immediate issues unfolding in places such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East absorbed the attention of US policymakers after the Soviet collapse. The hard core, militarily trained mujahideen from Pakistan and other countries were desperately looking for new assignments. The same confusion had, most probably, engulfed the power echelons of the secret agencies of both Pakistan and the US that had been quite close with these mujahideen during the Cold War.

swat-4-dec07Several authors have observed that some of the mujahideen who had been the students of Pakistani madrassahs returned to Pakistan, started teaching in the country’s madrassahs and began exhorting the sermons they had been psychologically tuned into during the Cold War. Some of them developed their own regimented forces in the shape of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhanagvi, besides Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). The headquarters and central leadership of all these militant organisations were situated in the Punjab, but they remained in touch with their counterparts and former jihadi colleagues in the NWFP.

The early ’90s was also the time when the TNSM started gathering strength in the suburbs of Mingora town and Tehsil Matta. Some observers point to three contributing factors that gave impetus to the TNSM-led insurgency across Swat.

Firstly, the movement was seen to be stronger in the area where the landed aristocracy had a firm and longtime hold. Those who joined the TNSM mostly belonged to landless families. The movement gave them an opportunity to participate in the power game of the area. Moreover, the religious groups had always previously been considered inferior and would not be allowed to have any say in the socio-political affairs of the area. During the militant movement of the TNSM, the religious groups started asserting themselves and creating a space for themselves in the socio-cultural hierarchy. The landless masses and religious groups of the influenced part of the valley joined hands under the leadership of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, and together they became a strong force in a short span of time.

Secondly, the legal code, known as the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas Regulations, was brought into force in Malakand Division. Malakand Division was formed into an administrative structure in which Swat State was placed after its merger with Pakistan in 1969, along with District Dir, District Buner and District Chitral. The PATA regulations had allowed all executive, judicial and revenue powers to be exercised by the local administration alone and specifically by a deputy commissioner. After a verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which sought to abolish the PATA regulations in the early ’90s, the local administration lost most of its cherished powers. A deputy commissioner of district Dir from then is said to have been a frequent visitor to Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the leader of the TNSM.

Thirdly and most importantly, the people of Swat tired of their experience with the regulations and wished for a judicial system that would give them instant relief. The TNSM leadership tapped this desire of the common people for instant legal relief by promising promulgation of the Shariah law. This earned the TNSM sympathies of the silent majority of the valley.

The TNSM clashed with the local administration in the early ’90s and had effectively brought the whole administrative structure of district Swat to a standstill. Later, when the American forces invaded Afghanistan, Sufi Mohammad had exhorted his followers to join the Taliban in Afghanistan in their armed struggle against America and its allies. Hundreds of jihadis under his command crossed the border and entered Afghanistan. The rest of the story is shrouded in mystery, but what is known is that Maulana Sufi Mohammad returned from Afghanistan while most of his mujahideen followers did not. Maulana Sufi Mohammad is now languishing in a Pakistani jail.

Some observers also believe that the role of the national and international agencies in the present situation of the valley cannot be ruled out. They believe that the US might be interested in containing the march of the Chinese to Gwadar Port and the Karakoram Highway — the access route to Central Asian oil reserves, which may become instrumental in keeping US trade interests intact in the region. The local residents in Matta, Durushkhela and Ningolai told Newsline that they had seen the militants of Jaish-e-Mohammad and those who might have come from Waziristan helping the local Taliban in bringing Upper Swat under their control.

Maulana Fazlullah, the apparent catalyser of the present imbroglio, is the son-in-law of Sufi Mohammad. He probably has supporters from the same strata of society, though the present crisis is of a far larger scale than the one brought about by TNSM in 1994.

It is important for the government to take the traditional elites, political parties and civil society, including teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists and NGOs, into confidence during and after the operation’s end. The government and international donor agencies have to concentrate on infrastructure development, mechanisms of equity-based economic sustenance and a judicial system that responds to the aspirations of the people of the valley. If Pakistan is serious about blocking the way for the emergence of another Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah in the valley, and in the whole Pakhtun belt for that matter, it has to revert to the people. The economic sustenance, political empowerment and socio-cultural rights of the people must be safeguarded if militancy is to be rooted out from the valley and the whole Pakhtun belt.