Sharia law: Surrender or Survival gimmick?
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad February 20, 2009
Is it a step in the right direction, or much ado about nothing? Is it a survival gimmick or surrender to maverick mullas? Is it a deal to secure Swat and FATA from Taliban or a shot in despair using the shoulders of a politically toothless Mulla Sufi Mohammad? Is the Shariat Regulation an expression of a popular demand or just a reflection of the craving of a few diehard Islamists? Or does the public sympathy or support for such a dispensation flow from peoples' frustration with the existing legal system which sucks them financially dry for years, and often with adverse judgments and little justice?
These questions spring from the February 16 deal between the Provincial Government and the Tehreeke Nifaze Shariate Mohammedi (TNSM). The good news is that people in Swat sighed relief and that despite the Nizame Adl Regulation, the Qazi court decisions would be appealable to the High Court and the Supreme Court. The bad news is that the militants who suffered losses during the three phases of the Operation Rahe Haq are likely to use the opportunity to regroup and recover from the consequences of the military action. The deal appeared to be a decision taken after thorough consultations among the top political and military leadership as well as politicians of significance from the Malakand region – a "corporate decision," as some observers put it, that came last week during intense consultations among the President, Prime Minister, Chief of the Army Staff, the ISI chief, the NWFP chief minister and the governor and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
Officials say the cost-benefit analysis of the continued military operation led most to believe that the cost outweighed the benefit and it was about time to contain the damage, which had caught the attention even of Richard Holbrook, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. On February 16, Holbrook gave a statement in New Delhi that also underscored the US concern over the losses in Swat.
"I do want to underscore the fact that what happened to Swat demonstrates the key point and that is India, the US and Pakistan all have a common threat now," Holbrooke said. "I talked to people from Swat and they were frankly quite terrified. I attempted to discuss Swat a lot; Swat has really deeply affected the people of Pakistan not just in Peshawar, but in Lahore and Islamabad." Indian officials said they told Holbrooke about Pakistan's role in Afghanistan and urged him to ask Islamabad to completely dismantle what they described as "terror infrastructure" on Pakistani soil. The 16-point handwritten accord in Urdu was described by analysts as a comprehensive document of give-and-take by the two sides. The TNSM leadership had renounced militancy in return for acceptance of their longstanding demand that Sharia be enforced in Swat and the rest of Malakand region.
Fazlullah had promised not to challenge the writ of the state, refrain from attacking security forces and government installations and stop opposing girls' education and immunisation of children. Sufi also denounced suicide bombings and agreed to disbanding his private militia — Shaheen Commando Force. Though it was not yet announced, a general amnesty for the Swati militants was to cover Fazlullah and his top lieutenants.
Although, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar welcomed the understanding and had earlier announced a 10-day ceasefire, the main question being discussed in political circles was whether Mullah Fazlullah of FM radio fame would abide by any agreement signed by Maulana Sufi Mohammed and whether he TNSM had got the teeth and clout to show and persuade TTP militants to lay down arms.
Background: Between 1995, when Sufi Mohammad had galvanized crowds in entire FATA including Swat and Dir (Malakand Division in those days) from Bajaur to Waziristan, and February 2009, the balance of power has clearly shifted. Brute power meanwhile rests with the Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of Baitullah Mehsud and not with Sufi. I remember those dramatic days when Sufi's movement was in full swing across FATA, and the entire region was resonating with the basic demand by the TNSM i.e. enforcement of Sharia. Together with a camera crew, we had traveled the length and breadth of FATA for almost a week to gauge the public sentiment.
The overwhelming response to our questions was "Sharia." But I still recall how late night discussions in the hujras of Maliks in Bajaur, Miranshah, Darra Adamkhel and Khyber would lead us to a fundamental issue that plagues entire Pakistan i.e. lack of justice. "We want justice, we want our rights, rid us from FCR." This was the crux of our extended interaction with tribesmen, their elders as well as leaders of the TNSM.
This also exposed their contempt for the Frontier Crimes Regulations. But equally contemptuous were the people in the Malakand region as far as the Pakistan Penal Code is concerned. The courts and the police system there rarely provided speedy justice, as had been the case under the Wali of Swat. People from the region – whether FATA or Malakand – have always been weary of the tedious and corrupt legal system they had to live under. While FATA residents can hardly hope for justice once the Political Agent invokes the draconian FCR 40, the Pakistan Penal Code serves as a cobweb which sucks the complainants into a long-drawn litigation spread over years. And a corrupt, insensitive and incompetent police make the matters worse for those who lack money and contacts.
So in a way, the frustrations with the existing system and the yearning for speedy and cheaper justice became synonymous with the slogans such as shariat and the Niazame Adl.
Nevertheless, there are those in the political circles who are skeptical about Sufi's ability to neutralize Fazlullah and his lethal militant network despite reports that Baitullah Mehsud has already severed all contacts with Maulana Fazlullah for not toeing his line recently. At the same time, it remains to be seen how much political support and clout Sufi and his TNSM still retain in Swat and in the rest of Malakand region following his 2001 misadventure when he had taken thousands of his young followers to fight out the US-led coalition forces which had invaded Kabul in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
With the Nizame Adl enforcement, the political and military authorities have attempted to treat the symptoms of a malaise that is rooted in the tedious and inefficient legal justice system. Without a major overhaul, expansion and qualitative improvement in the system, people's romance with the Sharia-based justice system may also end very soon. And this malaise is not restricted to Swat or FATA only. The entire state of Pakistan faces this crisis of failure of governance and justice delivery. Unless remedial measures and reforms for speedy, fair and cheaper justice are taken across the country in a big way, things would continue to go from bad to worse, and thereby create the space for non-state actors.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.