A recent episode of hate speech took place in Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A group of self-righteous men declared their intent to kill, so as to mount pressure for the release of a local notable who was arrested for kidnapping five people from the Handreb valley of Gilgit-Baltistan.
According to reports, Malik Afreen along with his armed men kidnapped locals from Handreb in the western district of Ghizar in Gilgit-Baltistan some months ago. A case was lodged in Gilgit and he was later arrested from the courtroom in Gilgit as his application for bail before arrest was turned down during the legal proceedings.
Infuriated by his arrest, the local supporters of Malik Afreen in Kohistan staged a protest to demand the immediate release of their political leader. Speaking to the media during the protest, they threatened the lives of members of the Ismaili community travelling through the Karakoram Highway (KKH) as revenge against the arrest. For several days, in a series of speeches some political activists in Kohistan continued to threaten Ismailis of Gilgit-Baltistan with violence since the arrest of their political leader was deemed as the outcome of a complaint lodged by the relatives of the kidnapped locals who happened to be from the Islamili sect.
The authorities, which have been only too quick to use anti-terrorism laws against political and rights activists, took no notice of this narrative of sectarianism being spewed for the political mileage in Kohistan these days. The intent to kill declared publicly can potentially lead to another spell of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. Malik Afreen was arrested by police under the directives of the court for his illegal action of kidnapping under the pretext of a territorial dispute.
If there is any territorial or land dispute between the governments of KP and GB, it is not for Malik Afreen to resolve such dispute and that too by kidnapping people. When some people get away with hate speeches in public to incite sectarian violence, murder and genocide of smaller and peaceful communities it weakens the national resolve to fight extremism and terrorism in all its manifestations.
Terrorism is a political and contested notion depending upon where one stands in a politico-legal system. Terrorism is not merely about an isolated act of violence, torture or murder. It is about discretionary and intentional use of violent means or propagation of hatred for short-term gains in violation of or outside of a legal or political framework.
It is, therefore, believed that violence becomes legitimate when it is deployed by states under their legal and political obligations. But when violence is used by an individual or a group for short-term or long-term political and economic gains without adhering to the law of the land it is dubbed as terrorism.
But this conceptualization of terrorism is only partially true because the phrase ‘legitimate use of violence’ implies that the state has public legitimacy and is accountable to its people or its citizens. If a state is autocratic or dictatorial in nature, the use of violence will lead to serve the interests of a tiny ruling elite at the expense of the liberty of its people. The legitimate use of violence is a consensus based, legally binding and politically appropriate step to protect the majority of citizens against a potential threat to peace and welfare. In effective modern democracies, law and constitutionalism precede any use of force to establish peace and justice.
Weaker democracies are weaker states too which generally resort to violent means to establish the writ of law, while strong states with inclusive democracies do not use force as a means of attaining peace. The weakest states are the ones with dictatorial or autocratic regimes using brutal means of violence or which deploy proxies to suppress their own citizens. States become weaker when the democratic and constitutional mode of governance is challenged and such states may turn to fascism. India is a good example of a weakening state where the democratic and constitutional mode of governance is being replaced by a rightwing fascist regime.
Where does Pakistan stand as a state in terms of protecting the lives of citizens against the rising tide of political extremism and religious bigotry? This is an important question to ask today when bigotry threatens communities with extermination. The people of Pakistan have already paid a huge cost due to terrorism and the state has overcome this menace after many sacrifices.
Pakistan cannot afford another wave of terror in one of its most important and sensitive regions from a geostrategic perspective. Regional politics is taking a new turn with intensified atrocities in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Chinese westward expansion and Pakistan’s increasing role in stabilizing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Doha peace deal.
Pakistan may feel starved of the required political energy to operate as a regional player in South and Southeast Asia if internal disruptions are not preempted and dealt with sanely. As a regional player Pakistan has to operate as a strong state by allowing democracy to flourish while India is losing its strategic supremacy by curbing on democratic forces within.
Our most dangerous internal disruption is the reemergence of fanatical ideologies like the one we have just witnessed in Kohistan. Those who are fomenting sectarianism in Kohistan must be taken to task to preempt yet another tragedy from happening on the Karakoram Highway. The killing instinct has functioned along the KKH almost unabatedly in the past but this time it may have severe diplomatic and economic implications for the country in the context of both the FATF and CPEC.
It is the collective responsibility of the people and state to fight the specter of sectarianism which is haunting Gilgit-Baltistan again.
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.