The character and life of a nation is not measured in the number of years since its birth, nor in the quantum of foreign reserves in its banks, or the expanse of highways built across its land, or even by the lofty accolades that are ascribed to its name. The only true measure of a nation, its life and its character, can be imagined in the love, purpose, joy, and pain experienced by its people; the honesty with which it reflects on the past; the manner in which it celebrates its heroes and treasures their memory; the passion with which it greets the future; and the ferocity with which it meets the challenges of the time.
By this virtue, whenever the chapter on Pakistan is written in the annals of history, a major section will be devoted to the ‘Massacre of Innocents’ (in Biblical language) that occurred in Army Public School (APS), Peshawar, on December 16, 2014. And our generation, as well as the generations to follow, will be judged on the touchstone of how our humanity summoned the courage and tenacity to confront this unprecedented evil.
Seven years on, while our people, and especially the families of the martyrs, are still reeling from the horrors of that infamous day, it is pertinent to take stock of how far we have come from that excruciating moment in time, and what direction we must take hereon.
The State of Pakistan has been at war with militancy since September 11, 2001. The people of our nation, for all intents and purposes, joined the frontline on the afternoon of APS Peshawar tragedy. In an instance, the untenable lines of faith, of partisan divide, of twisted religious ideology—between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants—were washed away, into oblivion, by the streaming tears of wailing motherhood.
The menial bickering, across political lines, convulsed into an All Parties Conference. The mis-found doctrine of ‘Strategic Depth’ was immediately discarded by a new military leadership. Even the legislative contours of our laws as well as the Constitution, seemed to hold no meaning in the face of 140 school-uniform souls, who were too young an innocent to have ever appreciated the nuances of jurisprudence.
In just one moment, as soon as the first child was mercilessly executed by the followers of a perverted religious philosophy, our nation was stripped of its politico-religious prejudices, and made to confront herself in the mirror of truth, with a series of existential questions: How long will we let our conscience suffer at the hands of religious bigotry? How long will we live in the shadow of apathy, shirking away from a confrontation with evil? How long will our State and our laws exonerate those who take pleasure in stabbing our national heart? How long will our inaction claim the lives of the innocent? How long will we allow this land to swallow the martyrs, without avenging their memory with the fullest might of our physical and ideological muscle?
Tujh ko kitnou ka lahoo chaheeye aye Arz-e-Watan, Jo tere aarz-e-berang ko gulnaar karen? Kitni aaho’n say kaleja tera thunda hoga? Kitny ansoo teray sehraon ko gulzar krien?
For the first time in our national history, this unprecedented tragedy gave birth to unequivocal action. In the immediate aftermath, the military intensified its crusade against extremist elements in our urban centres (e.g. Karachi) as well as the remote militant stronghold. Zarb-e-Azab, under the command of General Raheel Shareef’s demystified leadership, put a tangible dent in the serge of religious extremism. And, in the follow-up, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s Radd-ul-Fassad prepared the final nails in the coffin of extremism.
Simultaneously, perhaps as an abhorrent (desperate) measure, our parliament enacted the 21st Constitution Amendment, along with corresponding Amendments in the Army Act, 1952, thus creating a constitutionally mandated system of military courts for the prosecution and trial of “persons” who are, claim to be, or are “known to belong to” any terrorist group, or otherwise wage war, “using the name of religion or a sect” (section 2 (d) of the Army Act, 1952, as amended). And these amendments were upheld, by the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan, in its landmark judgment concerning challenge to the 21st Constitutional Amendment.
Along with this, the Federal Government introduced the National Action Plan (NAP), which included a 20-point strategy aimed at curbing terrorist activities in the State of Pakistan. These measures, supplemented by the earlier enactment of, and amendments in, the Protection of Pakistan Act, 2014, provided sufficient constitutional, legislative, and policy paradigm for mounting a purposeful offence against terrorist elements within our society.
This, in terms of structural response, is as much as the law could achieve. The fight against terrorism, thereon, for avenging the martyrdom of the innocent souls of APS Peshawar (and others like them), was fought at a human, cultural and ideological plain. Law and policy alone could not banish the darkness of extremism, till such time that the people found the courage to call the enemy by its name, and confront him on every street and corner of this country.
Sadly, despite our military efforts and legislative interventions, the passion and resolve against extremism, which had surged through our nation in the days following APS Peshawar, seems to have slowly disintegrated. Our polity has reverted to bickering about petty partisanship. December 16, this year, saw nothing more than token statements by the political leadership of the various parties.
The few customary press-conferences that did take place (e.g. one by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi), focused on attacking State institutions, and defending the (ill-gotten?) fiefdom of political masters. There were the usual snipe comments about NAB, about corruption convictions, about provincial divides, with little mention of the scourge of terrorism itself.
Preferring partisan pot-shots over our strategic struggle against extremism, especially on the anniversary of APS Peshawar attack, berates the memory and sacrifice of our martyrs. A shifting of the political focus away from war against terrorism, amounts to betrayal of that unspoken promise that we all made to lamenting mothers on the eve of December 16 last year.
And the fact that each individual who reads this Op-Ed piece, will soon put it aside and return to the banality of life, is a revocation of that primordial challenge that our Creator threw to the Angels, when He ordered them to kneel at our feet.
There is still time to redeem ourselves. There is still time to fulfil the unspoken promise of December 16, 2014. There is still time to be vindicated in the gaze of history. If not for ourselves, then for those who were interred into the earth too soon, for having being born in a nation of apathy.