By Muhammad Aslam
About 132 students and teachers, mostly children, were murdered on December 16, 2014, in the APS school attack by TTP in Peshawar. This was the most horrendous act of terrorism and religious militarism in Pakistan’s history. It also came to known as Pakistan’s 9/11. In fact, worse than 9/11 because the victims were innocent children. Most of them in their teens and younger even.
Before the APS, in June 2013, at least 25 people, mostly female students, were killed when a female suicide bomber carried out an attack on the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University’s bus in Balochistan’s capital Quetta. Among the dead also included Deputy Commissioner of Quetta, Mansoor Kakar, and four nurses who were killed in a gun battle on the same day in Bolan Medical College, where the injured students were taken. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Pakistan’s most lethal sectarian outfit, took responsibility for the attack. The target of the attack was Shia students.
Similarly, in June 2012, at least 4 students of the Hazara Shia community were killed in a bomb blast on a student carrying bus of Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences, Quetta. Following such attacks, most Hazara students have been under a constant threat to their lives. Many have quit schools or migrated to foreign countries, mainly to Australia where a sizable group of Hazara Shias has settled permanently due to an unending repression at home.
Yet again, on January 20, 21 students and teachers of Bacha Khan University in Peshawar’s Charsada town were slain by four TTP gun men. More students could have been murdered had it not been for the tough battle that the University’s faculty, security guards, and the locals took to the attackers. The teachers did all it took, including forswearing their lives, to defend the students. And their courage is applaudable indeed. But, it feels sad and unacceptable that, besides teaching, defending children will also become our teachers’ responsibility.
In response to the attack, the state, rather than recognizing its own intelligence and security failures, quickly resorted to the usual conspiracy-mongering that some foreign hands, India and Afghanistan, were behind the attack. What a pity! What was more sickening and pitiful was the celebratory language used for the deceased. The state and the media called the dead students and faculty ‘martyrs’ and ‘brave’ souls of the nation.
But, unfortunately, the gullible Pakistani public, rather than asking the right questions, also hopped on the bandwagon of conspiracy theories. And in a deeply religious society where human lives seem to matter less than a supposedly ‘rewarded’ life after death, the public also did not question the meaning of imposed ‘martyrdom’ and ‘bravery.’ And this happens each time our children and young ones are killed in cold blood by religious militants. Muhammad Hanif, a Pakistani novelist, was spot on in his op-ed Pakistan’s Unnecessary Martyrs for the New York Times: ‘How much courage does it require to take a bullet in the head? What are their brave parents to do except cry and ask questions? Why do we forget that these students went to university to study math and chemistry, and not become martyrs?’
Hanif is absolutely right. Those students were to live their precious lives. They had wonderful dreams. They were in school for education, not on a war expedition. Why would they die? And in such an immeasurable pain. Why would parents lament their dead children for no reason, and so often? Thus, it is stupid to let the government and the media carpet the state’s persistent failures in protecting its citizens under the notions of ‘bravery’ and ‘martyrdom’. My brother is a lecturer too. I want him safe and alive, not killed and a ‘martyr’.
In the war on youth, Pakistan is losing its future. Its wrong policies in the past lost a generation to religious militancy and jihad, which is bent on killing our future generations now. Due to the death ground, which it is for its youth and children today, Pakistan will lose more young people not only to the monster of religious militancy but also to the safety and privilege of the developed world.
Young students, especially of social sciences, from Pakistan fear to go back to their country once they come out for education. And those who stay there are also immensely attracted by the rise of youth brain drain. This is particularly due to shrinking religious tolerance, censored freedom, marginalization, and increasing violence and repression there. The end result is the loss of a great youth potential to foreign lands. The kind of potential which is the country’s most precious asset and which can make it a better and developed place in all respects.
Our generals and politicians, after the APS school attack, vowed to defend our children at all costs. Heightened military operations were launched in the North. The National Action Plan was charted out to eliminate religious terrorism and extremism in all forms. There seemed a firm resolve to close down all radical religious seminaries, which function as the nurseries of jihad. Military courts were established for trying individuals involved in violent attacks on the state and society. Scores of militants were hanged. But, of course, these hangings were not a permanent fix to the much deeper problem of radical Islam.
However, all this seemed a welcome step in the beginning. But, the coming to fore of more brutal attacks on educational institutions shows NAP and all else less than encouraging. It seems that NAP is more of lip service and less about implementation. Still, Maulana Aziz, the unruly and militant Lal Masjid cleric, threatens the state right from its capital’s mid. Other extremist religious figures incite religious hate and violence against minorities and moderate and liberal Muslims with impunity. But the state seems either helpless or unwilling to take on the militants. Thus, there is less hope for the safety of the nation and the youth and their promising future, which is Pakistan’s future as well.