Less than day after a militant splinter group exploded a bomb in a public park in the capital of Punjab where many Christians and others were gathered for Easter, public revulsion is running deep. Pakistan’s security forces and recent “new policies” by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to handle militancy are both under criticism.
At this writing, at least 72 were killed, mostly children and women, when a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up Sunday evening in the city of Lahore, one of the more cosmopolitan cities in Pakistan and the capital of the Punjab region bordering India.
The Pakistani Taliban’s Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction claimed responsibility. “We targeted the Christians when they were celebrating Easter. This is a message to the prime minister that we are active in Punjab too. And in the coming days you will see more such attacks,” the Taliban spokesperson reportedly told local media.
In the more than a year following a grisly attack by the same general group of local Taliban on a military school in Peshawar leaving 130 youth dead, there’s been a feeling that the Army and security forces have been somewhat successful in neutralizing terror networks. At least that has been the public narrative of a new policy of crackdown here here.
The Easter Lahore bombing however highlights a persistent questioning of the effectiveness of the central government’s actions against militancy.
Narratives of success and failure
“For the past year and a half, the Pakistani government and army have been peddling a false narrative of success,” says Mahvish Ahmad, editor of the online investigative magazine Tanqeed in Lahore. “By mystifying the public with unverifiable 'numbers of deaths' and 'arrests' of so-called 'terrorists,' the state has managed to convince many within Pakistan that their current approach is successful in curbing militancy.” Ms. Ahmad suggests the latest attack in he capital of Punjab is a stark counter-narrative.
“They are attacking a province and a city that serves as the de facto center of Pakistan's political and military elite. If the army cannot even stop attacks at the center of its places of power, how can it claim that it is improving the lives of Pakistanis elsewhere?” she asks.
The Christian minority of Pakistan constitutes less than 2 percent of the country’s 200 million population, with the majority of them residing in the Punjab province.
Mr. Sharif’s so-called new policy of crackdown continues to be selective when it comes to taking action against militancy and distinguishing between Taliban that operate in Afghanistan (promoting Pakistani foreign goals) and those operating in Pakistan (who want sharia law to be put in place at home).
“The Pakistan Army has largely focused its efforts in the tribal belt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, next to the Afghanistan border, making people believe that it is there where the real problem lies,” says Professor Ijaz Khan at Peshawar University.
“But if it wants to really tackle this issue, those it still deems as good Taliban and those which occupy space in Punjab province need to be let go of too,” Professor Khan says, referring to the Kashmiri and Afghan militant groups that the authorities turn a blind eye toward, since they are useful in giving Pakistan strategic depth across its border. Yet many of these groups operate freely out of Punjab.
“When these groups go out of control, such attacks occur. And that is why we are unable to get out of this cycle of violence. Not just that, the Pakistani state weaves a narrative that foreign forces, especially Indian, are the ones who want to destabilize Pakistan and they are responsible for these attacks,” Khan adds.
Many Pakistanis in the past 24 hours posted conspiracy theories of India’s intelligence agency RAW being behind the attack. Sunday night one of the top Twitter hashtags in Pakistan was #RAWBleedsLahore. Some TV commentators also perpetuated this view.
On Monday, however, with criticism of security across the country mounting, the Pakistani Army announced a long-awaited operation in Punjab. There is so far little detail.
“The Pakistani media is telling us that there is going to be an army-led operation in Punjab, but there is no ground reporting on how and against who it will be,” Khan notes. “They are just regurgitating what the army is telling them, and that means we will again see some cosmetic changes, and nothing more.”
Voices from the Christian minority have started to express anger at what they say is a reluctance by the Pakistani media to identify this as an attack targeting Christians.
“The Taliban said they were targeting Christians and yet the press is not showing that. There is an information gap and the media is underplaying the Christian victims,” says Peter Jacob, who heads Center for Social Justice, a Christian rights activist group.
Christians and their future
Mr. Jacob lives in Lahore and also lost some of his community members in the attack. “This is once again a reminder to Christians of their insecure existence and uncertain future in Pakistan,” he adds.
Experts here say that actually dealing with militancy requires more than paper-pushing administrative solutions, including military courts that prosecute. But so far the civil government bends to the Army.
“The Pakistani government continues to give the military more power and thereby eroding its own legitimacy. Pakistani civilian leadership needs to realize that it needs to strengthen democratic values if it wants a pluralist Pakistan,” says Khan. “By handing over control to the military, this cannot happen, as they will undermine any such political process for their own objectives and hegemony, as we have seen in the past.”