Feb 9, 2010

Whatever happened to Swat?

It is the responsibility of all those who claim to be committed to democracy to demand a full social audit of Swat operation

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

It has now been almost a year since the signing of the infamous Nizam-e-Adl agreement between the government and Taliban militants in Swat. Welcomed and maligned at the same time, the agreement marked the beginning of the end for peace in the Valley. Only a few short weeks later the military launched a ‘scorched earth’ operation and Swat was never to be the same again.

It is testament to the power of the corporate media that so little is heard about Swat these days. Operation ‘Rah-e-Rast’ was declared complete some six months ago and soon afterwards media attention shifted to South Waziristan. But what has become of the millions who were forced from their homes in Swat, Buner, and other parts of Malakand? Have these teeming millions, and normalcy more generally, returned to the region?

The attack in Dir this past week should make clear that all is not well in Swat and its environs. The mainstream media has completely reneged on its professional responsibility to keep the public abreast of developments in Malakand since the government formally declared an end to the military operation. In fact, it would not be wrong to suggest that the media has deliberately avoided reporting on post-operation Swat because it wants to avoid a head-on collision with the powers-that-be.

Abuse of authority was commonplace during and after the operation. Even distant relatives of suspected Taliban militants were subjected to humiliation and torture; many homes were torched and hundreds if not thousands were incarcerated without charges. There is no telling when the many innocent Swatis who are being held by the military will be released or even if their whereabouts will be formally acknowledged.

Apologists will argue that these developments were to be expected because, after all, a military operation is never pretty. But let us not forget that we were fed tales about the Taliban’s brutality and the urgent need to restore civility to Swat. Things are surely different with the military now in Swat, but terror remains. Could there by a more damning indictment of the methods that have been chosen to deal with militancy?

But I want to return to the question of how the media has gone about its business in terms of reporting on Swat. Some of our bigger media outlets have no problem taking on the government on some matters, so why is there such selective reporting in this case? This is the same question that has been raised about media reporting on Balochistan over a long period of time (and most conspicuously military operations launched during the tenure of General Pervez Musharraf).

In particular, I would like to draw attention to the anti-Zardari campaigns being run by some media channels and newspapers. I do not have any particular affection for Zardari, or for any other mainstream politician. But Zardari is, nevertheless, the elected president of the country. He is not any more or less corrupt than anyone else around (in any case I consider the men in khaki to be far more responsible for the mess that exists than any politician could ever be). So is it not amazing that some media outlets are more than happy to run uninhibited anti-Zardari campaigns yet are unwilling to shed any light on what is going on in Swat (or Balochistan)?

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure this one out. Most journalists steer well clear of criticizing the establishment on sensitive matters, and in fact become ‘responsible’ and ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis when the military demands it. Zardari is a different proposition; he may do deals with the establishment but he is not the establishment himself, and more often than not the establishment uses the media to twist his arm.

And so carries on the ‘greater national interest’ brigade. The question, as ever, is how long such blatant shenanigans in the people’s name can go on. If nothing else, events of the past year in Swat have made clear to the people of the Valley that invocations of the ‘greater national interest’ are just as suspicious as the ‘paradise’ of the Taliban. This recognition hardly improves the lives of Swatis in the here and now but surely does suggest that in the future they will be much more circumspect in trusting the self-proclaimed ‘guardians of the state’.

In the meantime, it is the responsibility of all those who claim to be committed to democracy to demand a full social audit of the Swat operation (as well as basic information about the ongoing atrocities in Balochistan, Waziristan, and numerous other parts of this country). The media may not have fulfilled its basic mandate but this does not excuse the rest of us from taking to task those who act in the name of our security.

Some self-introspection is also called for, particularly amongst those who supported military operations in Swat, Waziristan, and other regions (presumably many still do). A serious rethink is required about the phenomenon that is passed off as ‘terrorism’. Even those who disagree with the basic thrust of my argument here will agree that the people of Swat now know first-hand what this ‘terrorism’ business really is. So why not spend time with those who have been forgotten by our media moguls to gain clarity about who is responsible for what?

They are spread all over the country; some still languish in refugee camps, others are living off the generosity of relatives or friends. When the military operation first began some of the high elite spent some of their precious time raising money for those displaced. Rather than viewing them only as unfortunate victims we should also learn from their experiences, so as to make sure that the events of the past year are never repeated again. One hopes that our pre-conceived notions of what is right and wrong do not prevent us from gaining a little insight into what really happened to Swat.

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