Shahbaz Sharif’s faux pas

Shahbaz Sharif’s comments asking the Taliban not to attack Punjab have caused a furore in many parts of the country. In imploring the Taliban to not attack the PML-N-ruled Punjab since both had a common enemy in Pervez Musharraf, the Punjab chief minister is being accused of pleading for peace for only his own province. He is being attacked from all directions despite his later claim of having being wronged by journalists who quoted him out of context.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a typical excuse used by most people in high positions, the Punjab governor and others might just forgive him considering that unintelligent statements could be a family trait. One is reminded of the 1980s, when jokes used to circulate in the country regarding the older Sharif brother’s fondness for food and his inability to concentrate on food for thought. In fact, Shahbaz Sharif had the reputation of being the brightest of the Sharif lot and was loved by many, including Gen Ziaul Haq. His recent statement, however, shows that he does not think before he speaks. While the older Sharif may have learnt a few lessons from having been in exile, the younger one looks ready to shoot from the hip.

But then, why get angry, given that all political figures tend to talk unthinkingly? Perhaps Shahbaz Sharif did not intend to make such a statement but was so dumbfounded by the recent terrorist attack in Lahore that he was simply unable to hide his surprise at the jihadis breaking their promise yet again. Wasn’t it just a fortnight ago that his police officials gave him the assurance that Punjab was safe from terrorist activities? A fly on the wall might have overheard him mumble his frustrated thoughts on what had propelled the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) to deviate from the agreed-upon peace formula.

It’s not fashionable in Pakistan to talk about deals being brokered in Punjab, just like they were in the tribal areas. In our earnestness to accuse outside forces, we often forget that the main perpetrators of violence sit inside. A number of people claim to see an Indian hand in the recent attacks in Lahore in the same manner as they suspected our neighbour of all earlier acts of violence. Let us assume for a minute that the Punjab government and the various intelligence agencies are able to prove that some outside agencies were involved in financing the attacks. Such an assumption still doesn’t answer the question of why the Punjab government is holding on to those terrorists who then engage in terrorist activities.

The case of Omar Saeed Sheikh planning a war between India and Pakistan, while in Hyderabad jail, after the Mumbai attack, allegedly organising the murder of Maj-Gen Faisal Alavi and even threatening Pervez Musharraf from his jail cell goes to show that such people cannot be controlled even if they are behind bars. Punjab has Malik Ishaq, who is the head of the LeJ and is currently incarcerated in Multan jail. And there are many others who traverse the length and breadth of the province, including some lethal proclaimed offenders, involved in various terrorist activities.

Anyone in the Punjab chief minister’s place may be equally shocked and disappointed to see the jihadis not delivering on their part of the bargain which was concluded over a year ago not to attack Punjab in return for certain concessions. The agreement seemed to have gone awry even earlier when terrorist activities were carried out in and around Lahore, such as the attack on the Sri Lankan team. Sources claim that the LeJ leadership was probably involved in those cases.

Malik Ishaq of the LeJ is accused of carrying out hundreds of murders but was not convicted because of lacunas in the legal system and the police’s inability to collect evidence or run a sound witness protection programme. Resultantly, he is being kept in jail under the Maintenance of Public Order act there is no other substantive case against him. Let us also not forget that there are many in the lower judiciary who are sympathetic towards the jihadi mindset. Not surprisingly, Malik Ishaq was apparently allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses inside jail even in cases not related to him. The police official who tried to stop this practice was later murdered.

Shahbaz Sharif is responsible for agreeing to keep silent on the jihadi ‘assets’. According to one source in the government, there was an understanding that he would take care of these elements, especially while the military was busy in the tribal areas. Therefore, the Punjab chief minister and his loyal law minister, Rana Sanaullah, deflected attention away from Punjab. There were even occasions when senior police officers covered up the jihadis’ tracks and maligned those that warned about such threats.

The younger Sharif brother was not keen to upset the apple cart he was trundling, since such a disturbance would have had a direct impact on the possibility of his riding the tide of the future of the PML-N. It is sad to see the elder Mian, who has learnt a few lessons from his exile, being gently sidetracked for the sake of political expediency. Shahbaz Sharif appears to have his footprints all over the PML-N’s future.

Then, there’s the fact that other politicians have also made deals with banned outfits to win seats in parliament. Hardly anyone in there or in any of the provincial assemblies has the capacity to challenge the growing tide of radicalism and jihadism in the country, especially in the two major provinces. For the leadership, it is convenient to blame ordinary people for being conservative, although the leadership has itself never tried to deliver any better message.

The problem with strategic assets, as Shahbaz Sharif may realise, is that they often bite the hand that feeds them since they can also feel insecure. Some ‘boys’ may interpret the arrest of Mullah Baradar and others as a strategy which may result in local networks being finally wiped out. The ‘boys’ who feel they are not getting the right signals are likely to jump the gun and turn into splinters of the splinters. It is up to the Punjab chief minister to face this reality before it’s too late.

Note: This article originally published here.