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Fighting Bullets with Pens and Ballots

On numerous accounts, the popular saying “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” has been proven right, but not as accurately and brutally as on 16th December 2014, when terrorists belonging to Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed 132 children (among 141 others). As we weep for the loss of innocent souls and keep them in our prayers, we also ought to understand the gravity of the attack and must take up the responsibility of preventing such dark days for humanity in the future.

This is certainly not the first time that children have been targeted by militant groups to achieve a certain objective, one of the goriest being the killing of 186 children (out of a total of 385 deaths) in Beslan (Russia) in 2004 after the Chechen rebels took the school children hostage in order to achieve the independence of Chechnya from Russia.

The killing of children evokes the ire of people the most, and naturally so! There is definitely no reason, no argument of seeking revenge or justice that can justify the ruthless killings of unarmed, innocent children. But then, why do we shy away from expressing the same feeling for those unarmed and clean-handed children and kin of the terrorists who are targeted? Is it because we are too weak to fight terrorism without creating ‘necessary’ collateral damage? We can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, it is so said. But if we continue to break the bird’s eggs, the bird will most certainly continue to peck us! And that is exactly the reason Muhammad Umar Khosarani, Taliban spokesperson gives: “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel the pain.” There might be other reasons which could’ve come into play while deciding the target of the attack, like the TTP’s need to demonstrate its power to the government, or the need of one of their many factions to do the same, but, let’s say we were to believe in the line of reasoning given to us by Khosarani.

Were they right in killing children to seek revenge? No.

Can their attempt to redistribute the pain of their loved ones be justified under any circumstances? No, absolutely not.

Yes, the smallest coffins are the heaviest.

Yes, we are right in condemning such attacks.

Yes, we are right in hating terrorism.

But does hating/abusing terrorists and hanging them solve the problem? Does the benefit from the collateral damage in terms of unnecessary body counts offset the damage we are inflicting? For terrorist groups to achieve their goals, whatever they might be, some important pre-requisites like lack of government control, available leadership and very importantly, a vulnerable population need to exist. Though in the case of the Pakistani Taliban, a large support base in terms of a vulnerable population seems to be missing, but we cannot overlook the Pakistani government’s support in funding and sheltering them. It is they who’ve helped create this Frankenstein’s monster which has now turned against them, just like the Taliban in Afghanistan who were funded by the US in order to advance their political interests against that of the erstwhile Soviet Union. This is definitely not a good time to antagonize the population inhabiting FATA region (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), which is the stronghold of the TTP.

It is imperative that the Pakistani government handles the Pashtuni population in the area with extra care and builds a relationship of trust with them. Counter terrorism fights must be about giving the population a reason to want to see the terrorism fail, they must be co-opted into the fight since terrorism can become very difficult to tackle if the common man believes that he has more  to gain by resisting the government rather than supporting it in its counter terrorism fight. Yes, interrogating the terrorists and his family members may yield information which could be highly valuable to military intelligence but killing or hanging them or harming their family members is not a very smart idea to tackle terrorism. Killing and hanging terrorists does instill a fear of loss of life upon being caught, but do you think a man with a suicide vest on, is afraid of death? It is time we face the real problem. It is an idea (in this case, that of revenge) that sticks in their head and drives them to do psychotic things. Imagine an illiterate man who manages two square meals a day for his family, courtesy, the Taliban organisation which has recruited him. His son goes to the nearest Madrassa, also run by the Taliban. One day, the son doesn’t return home and his body is found along side that of many others killed in a drone attack. Well, there, I just sketched a terrorist for you.Do you think he will hesitate, even for one moment, seeing the innocent faces of other children while killing them? Isn’t revenge a prime human instinct? Is it pragmatic to expect everyone to offer their left cheek after being slapped on the right one, like Gandhi?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to justify their act of violence. Avenging a loved one’s life by taking someone else’s may be an overpowering instinct, but is definitely not the right approach (actually, a pretty sick approach!). All I’m trying to say is that, it is high time that we look into the real problem, the circumstances that drive one to take up arms and surrender all of one’s humanity. Maybe it is time, we stop being myopic and delve deeper. Only then can we find the road to humanity and happy days. Let us ask ourselves a basic question: How is the Taliban able to muster support to carry out their activities? The funding part seems clear to us, but why would any sane/rational man be willing to blow himself up along with many others? That all terrorists are ‘insane’, ‘psychotic’ and ‘need mental help’, are absurd assumptions to make. This is where E.A. Bucchianeri comes to our rescue by saying, “If there are damned souls in Hell, it is because men blind themselves.” Men have been blinding themselves since time immemorial.

They have been carrying out crusades and holy wars in the name of God or Allah who they believe wants them to do so. The problem lies in what they are taught, told and hence what they end up believing. I firmly believe that education leads to liberation from all the problems that are ailing us today. If everyone was educated enough to think for themselves, question things that are usually taken for granted, make decisions rationally by weighing all pros and cons before arriving at a decision, the world would indeed be a better place. Unfortunately, for many people, the only lessons they receive teach them that Allah will reward them for blowing up a school. And in believing so, they think that they are doing the right thing. Brainwashing is feasible when a man struggles to feed himself and his children, let alone provide for their education, when he himself never knew what going to a school feels like, when he struggles to put words together to read a sentence and hence, takes whatever interpretation of the Quran he is taught at face value. He is not psychotic, you see, but just a man who finds himself in chains of poverty, illiteracy and hunger all intertwined and weighing him down like an anchor. It is such men who are easily exploited in the name of religion. And all we are doing is making matters worse by antagonizing and provoking him by killing his kin and torturing him rather than working out a long term solution. Numerous researchers use regression of determinants like income, economic inequality, unemployment, political instability, etc. on measures of terrorism like number of terrorist activities, etc. Gurr (1970) identified that poverty; income inequality; relative deprivation and political violence are major determinants of terrorism whereas the school of thought led by Tilly (1978) revealed that violence and terrorism increases due to political opportunistic structure. Moreover attempts have also been made to see how variables like number of drone attacks in tribal areas in Pakistan affect terrorism and the correlation is expected to be a positive one. Empirics also suggest that increasing political rights of the people can check terrorism.

With the meshing of many factors, the solution is of course not that straightforward. By making education easily available and freely accessible, ensuring food security and employment, one of the main requisites for terrorism, namely a vulnerable population, can be dealt with. Providing the population with adequate political rights and a mechanism to voice their concerns and dissents would help further. But a lot remains even then! The issue of the state being hand-in-glove with the militant groups complicates things much further. I hope Pakistan wakes up from its deep slumber and realizes that thousands of innocent people will continue to be sacrificed if it doesn’t act immediately. I hope this incident sends out a strong message to countries against funding and supporting (either covertly or overtly) militant groups for advancing their own political interests.

The state of Pakistan needs to make a firm resolution to eradicate terrorism starting from the grass root levels. This will require tactful state intervention, provision of better security and most importantly, humanity. Let’s not forget that it is circumstances which shape men to be who they are, that any sin that any sinner ever committed, every sinner under proper provocation could commit. Let’s change the circumstances.

And what better arms to fight the bullets than pens and ballots!


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