Muharram security challenge
By Afzal A Shigri
EVERY year Muslims all over the world recall the tragedy of Karbala in Muharram, and they observe it according to a variety of traditions. The tragedy is a gripping epic of the battle between right and wrong and victory in apparent defeat.
Even in peaceful times, Muharram congregations and processions pose a huge challenge — as we saw in Thursday’s attack on an imambargah in Balochistan’s Bolan district, and last night with a bombing of a procession in Jacobabad — in terms of management for a country like Pakistan, which has a range of traditions associated with the observance of the occasion. Pooling all their resources, the law-enforcement agencies work together on security and traffic management. Precautions have to be taken to ensure that historical flashpoints of conflict are carefully monitored so as to prevent an untoward incident as the latter can escalate into widespread sectarian disturbances.
Within the prevailing security environment, these challenges are formidable as any incident can spiral out of control and has the potential to engulf the entire country. In the last 10 years, a number of serious incidents of terrorism have led to widespread violence. For instance in 2009, the Karachi bomb blast on Muharram 10 resulted in extensive lawlessness across the city. In view of the serious consequences of such incidents, the provincial governments and the federal government have mounted large-scale efforts to arrange security for the processions and to provide effective security cover to the congregations.
The key to peace is the implementation of improved procedures for management of processions.
Over the years, with the rise in acts of terrorism in Pakistan, the law-enforcement agencies have also ramped up their efforts to enhance security during Muharram by improving the cordon around the main processions and denying access to the terrorists. But the threats of terrorism in other areas have not receded, and the possibility keeps the entire security apparatus on edge during this month.
When certain terror outfits — as a matter of policy and propaganda — question the beliefs of various Muslim sects by way of justifying violence against them, it becomes very difficult for a thinly spread-out security apparatus during Muharram to ensure protection to all. It is indeed a matter of satisfaction that, except for the unfortunate incident blighting the Ashura procession in Rawalpindi in 2013, there has been no major terror attack during Muharram for the last five years. The Rawalpindi incident too can sadly be attributed to administrative/security failure and sheer incompetence as it took place at a location which is a known sensitive flashpoint.
The usual practice had been to deploy security personnel strategically so as to prevent untoward incidents of the kind that took place that year. In this case, the district police of Rawalpindi failed to take adequate steps, which resulted in casualties and widespread disturbances.
This year, security for Muharram presents new challenges because Operation Zarb-i-Azb has dismantled the sanctuaries and command structure of the militants, and the ongoing operations by police and Rangers have denied refuge to them in the rest of the country. Yet the recovery of a huge arsenal of weapons and explosives and the arrest of a new breed of university-educated radicals shows the reach and the strength of these terrorist groups. Such widespread radicalization and allegiance of the extremists to foreign militant groups are alarming signs, for they reflect the rise of a borderless and invisible enemy that is difficult to fight or root out.
The good news is that many of the ulema and religious leaders across the sectarian divide have realized the gravity of the situation and are actively involved in maintaining peace, particularly in areas which are historically prone to sectarian confrontation. They have not only participated in the peace committees but have also pleaded for sectarian harmony in the country. However, the interrogation of the terrorists arrested recently shows that, despite being on the run, these extremists have the resilience to regroup and remount attacks with the help of their sympathizers. This reflects their resolve to challenge the writ of the state in the hope of triggering widespread sectarian violence so that the relentless pressure on them is relieved.
Tactically the arrangements are a success as the police and the civil armed forces, supported by the army, have been successful in maintaining peace during this critical period. As mentioned earlier, the operations against the terrorists across the entire country have, in general, disrupted their nefarious plans to attack Muharram processions and congregations. The newly introduced CCTV cameras and modern police control rooms have also been of great help for the law enforcers. As part of this effort, Punjab has gone one step ahead, launching a campaign to control misuse of loudspeakers for broadcasting inflammatory speeches and to confiscate hate publications/materials.
Key to this sustained peace is the implementation of improved procedures for management of the processions and direct involvement of the senior leadership of the law-enforcement forces. Despite the constraints discussed here, the maintenance of peace proves that order can be maintained by the present law-enforcement structures, if they exhibit the resolve and exercise the will to do so. Hitherto, they have been held back due to the lack of political will and absence of clear vision with a workable strategic plan.
The government should build on this newfound tactical superiority and convert it into a long-term plan as uprooting terrorism is a long and arduous journey requiring an integrated efficient intelligence network and effective police to act on the actionable information.
The ministry of interior should take the lead by activating the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, improving the law-enforcement structures and eliminating the major terrorist groups through the newly established military courts. Ultimately, the civilian government has the responsibility to devise long-term policies to sustain this peace and de-radicalize society.
The hapless people of this country have suffered for a long time and the lack of state protection for ordinary citizens has created a governance vacuum. If matters continue like this, the vacuum will be filled by those who will not allow the state to collapse. The political government has yet again been presented with an opportunity to re-establish itself, and it must act before it is too late.
The writer is a former IGP Sindh.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2015