Feb 21, 2009
Swat: signs that inspire hope
The writer is resident editor of The News in PeshawarMaulana Sufi Mohammad has once again been tasked to perform a familiar role. He is trying to persuade militants in Swat to drop their guns and go home. His argument is that the government had accepted his demand for enforcement of Shariah, or Islamic law, and there was now no point in continuing the armed struggle that has turned Pakistan's most beautiful and greenest valley into a battlefield. The task before him is difficult and the environment in which he is operating is dangerous. But the elderly cleric is made of sterner stuff and even risks to his life won't turn him away from doing what he believes is the right thing to do. Back in 1994, he did something similar by persuading the armed fighters belonging to his organisation, Tanzim-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), to stop fighting the state. A military helicopter flew him to all those places in Swat, Shangla, Dir, Kohistan and other districts where his black-turbaned followers had blockaded roads and set up hilltop positions to fight the troops from the paramilitary Frontier Corps and personnel of the other law-enforcement agencies. Accompanied by Major General Fazal Ghafoor, the-then inspector general of the Frontier Corps, and some other civil and military officials, he would disembark from the chopper, make a rousing speech to his startled fighters and urge them to return to their villages. On occasions, he would even reprimand them for taking up arms against their Muslim brothers in the FC. He would argue that the use of force for achieving the worthy cause of Shariah was wrong.Almost single-handedly, Maulana Sufi Mohammad managed to defuse the volatile situation and brought peace to Swat and the rest of Malakand division. He prevailed upon the armed agitators blocking the Karakoram Highway in Kohistan district of Hazara division to end the blockade. In Swat, he won freedom for the 65 government officials, including judges, magistrates and police officers, who were made hostage by the militants in the Matta area. He got the Saidu Sharif airport vacated from armed occupiers and the traffic flowing again on the blockaded road in the valley. In return, the secular PPP government of then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and NWFP Chief Minister Aftab Sherpao gave him the high-sounding Shariat Ordinance, which in practical terms meant little except changing the nomenclature of the judges to qazis and the normal courts to qazi courts. Some clergymen were made "muavin qazi" to assist the judges, or qazis, in deciding cases on the basis of Islamic law. The simple man that he is, the Maulana believed he had won Shariah for his people and henceforth all their disputes and courts cases would be resolved quickly and at almost no cost under Islamic law. By 1999, the dissatisfaction with the new judicial system had become widespread and there was concern that another round of violence could engulf Swat and other districts of Malakand division if urgent measures weren't undertaken to satisfy the people, particularly the Islamic groups clamouring for enforcement of real Shariah. Another secular government, this time with Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and Sardar Mahtab Ahmad Khan as chief minister of the NWFP, amended the earlier Shariat Ordinace and promulgated it as the Shariat-e-Nizam-e-Adl Regulation to placate those wanting more Islam and Shariah in their lives. Now that the issue has cropped up again and led to unprecedented violence in Swat and elsewhere in the Malakand region, the secular coalition government of the ANP and PPP in the NWFP has agreed to further amend the previous Shariah law by incorporating the proposals made by Maulana Sufi Mohammad and deleting whatever he and his advisers deemed objectionable. It is now called the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, and among its key points is the setting up of an appellate court functioning under the Federal Shariat Court in Malakand division and the insertion of clauses for making judges, lawyers and litigants accountable if they fail to ensure that court cases are decided within the stipulated time. It also carries certain other amendments aimed at achieving better governance. President Asif Ali Zardari has given his approval to the new regulation but has delayed signing it until peace is restored to Swat. Obviously, peace cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the militants. The idea is that the militants would get the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation if they stop fighting the security forces. However, by not signing it into law he risks creating doubts in the minds of the militants and the people about the government's sincerity about the enforcement of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation.The responsibility to sell the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation to the people and defend it against some strident criticism by both well-meaning and ill-informed critics has fallen on the shoulders of the ANP-led provincial government in the NWFP. Despite being secular and nationalist, Asfandyar Wali Khan's ANP is defending the Islamic-rooted regulation as the need of the hour in view of the grave security situation in Swat. Its policy is based on pragmatism as it offers a way out of the dangerous standoff in Swat and elsewhere in the NWFP. The effort may not succeed as is evident from the lack of progress in negotiations between the delegations of Maulana Sufi Mohammad and the Swat Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah. But there is no harm in trying, at a time when the security threats to the ANP leadership has paralysed the provincial government and destabilised the NWFP. Besides, the ANP and others defending the peace initiative and Nizam-e-Adl Regulation are right in pointing out that this wasn't a new law but an improvement on the previous regulations. More than the ANP leaders, it is Maulana Sufi Mohammad who is responsible for selling and defending the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation and persuading the more radical Taliban from Swat to accept it. It is a tough sell because people, the militants in particular, are mostly unconvinced that this regulation would provide them full Shariah or that the federal and provincial governments were sincere about its implementation. The Maulana is going around telling the Swati people attending his peace rallies that the government had agreed to enforce Shariah not only in Swat but also in Chitral, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, the Malakand Agency, Shangla and Buner in Malakand division and in Kohistan in Hazara. He said the same thing in 1994 but before long was showing frustration that the qazi courts functioning in the area weren't coming up to the expectations of the people. The old man will have to first win over his fiery, 33-year old son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, who in turn will be required to overrule objections from his shura comprising some very intolerant and hardline clerics and commanders. Approval from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mahsud would also have to be sought because he came to the help of the Swat Taliban in their hour of trial. All this appears an uphill task. But there are positive things as well that inspire hope. Swat was transformed in a matter of days from a curfew-bound and sad place into a valley ready to welcome the spring following the announcement regarding the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation. Roads were once again crowded with vehicles, bazaars started staying open until late into the evening and displaced families began their journey back home. The night-time artillery shelling targeting distant hideouts of militants stopped, the fear of suicide bombings receded, ministers and elected representatives who had abandoned their people and constituencies ventured forth into Mingora and Saidu Sharif, and there was even talk of Swat being able to again receive tourists this summer. The mood was upbeat as the Swatis made it known that they would welcome any law and every move that could restore peace in their scenic valley. The popular support for the peace initiative would hopefully put pressure on both the government and the militants to reach a compromise.The peace accord between the NWFP government and Maulana Fazlullah's Swati Taliban reached in May last year could provide the basis for a new deal. That agreement served the interest of both sides as the government got the Taliban to accept its writ in Swat and promise not to set up a parallel administration and courts. The Taliban also promised to disarm in return for the enforcement of Shariah. Establishment of an Islamic university at Maulana Fazlullah's headquarters, Mamdheray, also formed part of the accord. The Taliban were promised that their prisoners would be freed on a case-to-case basis, that people affected by the military operation would be compensated and that the army would be gradually withdrawn once peace returned to Swat. Some improvements could be made to the May 2008 peace deal. Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who has spent a lifetime struggling for Shariah, will have to continue his mediation efforts and finally bring the two sides face-to-face so that they could discuss the shortcomings of the previous peace accord and attempt a new and more durable one. His failure could plunge Swat into a new round of fighting, which in turn would further destabilise the NWFP and the country.