Swat: the other view
By Syed Irfan Ashraf
THE ongoing insurgency in Swat has spawned a heated debate in the media. For some it is a class war between the landless and the land-owning elite.
Others believe it to be a global jihadist agenda spearheaded by rigid Al Qaeda-led Wahabi elements. Here it is important to add personal journalistic observations to help understand another dimension to the story of Swat where negligence on the part of state institutions, parochial political interests and the naiveté of the rural folk have given birth to a militant culture that thrives on vandalism, brutality and anarchy.
In June 2007, while in Swat, it was suggested that I interview Maulana Fazlullah because of his increasing popularity. But at that time many considered him to be just another black-turbaned cleric riding on horseback to preach Stone Age values. In fact, the firebrand Fazlullah was getting as popular as US radio priest Father Coughlin who shot to fame in the early 1930s. Locally known as ‘Redoo Mullah’ (Maulana Radio) at that time, Fazlullah spat fire and venom on the state’s policies, condemning every liberal institution. His campaign for establishing a madressah in Swat was at its peak. Naïve women generously donated jewellery and equally naïve men their hard cash, not knowing how dearly they would pay for their endeavours in the days to come.
Visiting Swat again in early July, I found some 40 cleric-owned FM channels working in a radius of between 10 to 40 kilometres. Maulana Fazlullah was on top of his game. His expert oratory skills made him the most popular radio cleric. One wondered how a local mullah and school and madressah dropout used the same propaganda techniques that were developed in 1818 after extensive research by the Creel Committee members in the US and used to lethal effect by the Allied forces against Germany. Youngsters sat outside their roadside houses enjoying his state-bashing sermons.
It was disturbing to note that the state authorities let this mess go unchecked. Even more bizarre was the absence of any liberal source of entertainment to offset the ongoing propaganda. This was partly explained when a local tailor Iqbal Ali told me about the FM device he had purchased for entertainment. Predictably, Iqbal started receiving threatening calls. Unexpectedly, some officials politely advised him to withdraw in favour of the clerics. Similarly, an Afghan cleric had also launched an FM station in the vicinity of Tehsil Matta and used to broadcast sermons against Fazlullah. His pupil later revealed that in the last call he received from his teacher, the latter was desperately crying for help, following which he disappeared.
At that time, everything in Swat revolved around Fazlullah. It seemed that strong forces were imposing a militant mindset on the people of Swat, going about this job in an organised fashion. In this strategy, the MMA provincial government could not escape blame for offering Swat on a platter to the militants.
One by one anti-Fazlullah officials were replaced by more docile ones. The then district coordination officer had the reputation of being an ‘official Talib’. One MMA minister from Swat said, “Fazlullah is doing exactly what we want but cannot do.” Besides MMA, a federal minister and Musharraf aide sent rice-filled degs to Imam Dheri where Fazlullah was based. Similarly, local influential figures also tried to woo Fazlullah by sending material for the construction of his seminary.
This approach disillusioned Swat’s liberal circles who got the impression that all developments in Swat were part of a larger game plan and the northwestern terrains of Gut and Peuchar were the epicentre of the militants’ network. Conspiracy theories have it that Sufi Mohammad-led Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi activists have been living in this terrain since 1995 when they were flushed out from Swat. One TNSM leader accepted that the area had been used for jihadi activities and ‘mujahideen’ in the past lived in the Osheri Dara near Peuchar. They declared Peuchar a paradise for militants. Denizens of Peuchar also feared that their area is important because of its strategic depth and access to Afghanistan via the inaccessible thick-forested mountains bordering the Kunar province of Afghanistan.
Today, it is not unusual to find militants concentrated in the valleys carrying out successful raids in downtown Swat and also providing support to Baitullah-led Taliban in Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies via Lower Dir. However, it is hard to believe that state intelligence agencies were unable to understand the networking of the militants in Peuchar, something the common people feared much before the military operation.
To record Fazlullah’s first-ever, on-camera interview, I reached Imam Dheri on July 6, 2007. In the presence of his shura member Muslim Khan, I found Fazlullah unfolding his vision for Swat. It was hard to accept it then, but now like other Swatis I believe him. To my question about the future of Swat, he replied, “I see that whatever the [Musharraf] government is doing in Swat is utter failure. It is possible that these policies might lead to his downfall soon. This does not mean the end of a government and the start of another one but this would be the end of the state itself.” He added, “If force is used against us, then this time the case will be different from Jamia Hafsa. There were children locked inside the four walls there, but we have trained people — and mountains also. We surely will be a hard nut for the state to crack.”
Fazlullah did not stop here. He warned the high-ups, “Once I am killed, or disappear or run away from here it will be hard to control the situation.” When Fazlullah was threatening the state and government, his words were full of conviction as if they were part of a written script.
A leaf from the life history of Miangul Jehanzeb recorded by Fredrik Barth in his book The Last Wali of Swat is relevant even today. The book quotes Miangul Jehanzeb as saying: “My father (Abdul Wadood alias Baacha sahib) always used to tell me that a pir (religious leader) and a ruler cannot last together. So one, and one only, should be the ruler. And if you [Miangul Jehanzeb] are the ruler, you have to limit the influence of the pir and if you cannot remove his influence, you can at least remove him. When he created the state, he chased out all those pirs who used to exercise political influence over the people.” (Dawn).