On the economic and security fronts, it is safe to say, Pakistan is going through a tough time. To say that the Taliban are a threat to the country's present and future status is oversimplifying the issue. Economically, Pakistan faces a severe deficit as the cost of the war in the country's northwest grows and development funds get slashed.
Which is why it was rather startling to read a report that the government of Punjab province was handing over millions of rupees to madrassas run by the infamous Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba's charity wing.
India accused JuD of carrying out the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, following which the United Nations added four LeT leaders to its consolidated list and imposed "an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo" on them. The Pakistani government then sealed the JuD offices as part of a series of moves to assure India that it was serious about cooperating with investigation into the Mumbai attacks. It also put JuD leader Hafiz Saeed under house arrest, a move the Lahore High Court later declared unconstitutional.
However, attempts to remove JuD from the public sphere may have just been a smokescreen. Journalists travelling to camps housing internally displaced people who had left the Swat Valley because of the army offensive against militants in 2009 discovered that the JuD was at the forefront of disbursing aid, albeit under a new name -- the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.
While the priorities of provincial governments in fighting terrorism have often been questioned, the Punjab government has one-upped itself this time.
On June 14, Dawn reported that the provincial government of Punjab "gave more than Rs82 million to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa during the outgoing financial year, according to the budget documents for 2010-11." Additionally, Rs79 million were given to the JuD headquarters Markaz-i-Tayyaba in Muridke, and another Rs3 million went to different schools run by the JuD in Punjab. According to the Guardian, "The provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said the funds were for charitable purposes and would be administered by government officials. A spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa said the group had not yet received any official funds."
The links between members of the current Punjab government and banned organizations is not new. In February 2010, reports emerged that Rana Sanuallah, who is a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was seen with the leader of another banned organization, the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, while campaigning for his party's nominees in the by-elections.
In an email interview, analyst and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida says, "The specifics may be in dispute, but the tolerance for JuD and Hafiz Saeed at the state level is not."
According to Almeida, "The problem with the Punjab government goes deeper than this particular case. There is a sense that the provincial government is in denial about its Taliban problem. Whether for ideological or purely political reasons, the PML-N is considered to be 'soft' on militant groups."
The Punjab government is dominated by the PML-N, a right-wing political party. Even though the PML-N are unofficially coalition partners with the ruling Pakistan People's Party, PPP and PML-N leaders frequently trade a war of words on various issues -- whether it is on the security situation or on the imposition of value added tax. And militancy in Punjab has come under the spotlight again after the two attacks on Ahmedi mosques in Lahore last month that highlighted just how fragile the security situation in the province is.
In a statement issued to the press this week, former Information Minister and PPP leader Sherry Rehman said, "The country can no longer afford this mollycoddling of terrorists, and Punjab is fast becoming a victim of its own ambiguity. There can be no military operation against terrorists in Punjab, but there must and should be a police sweep, with enough evidence to obtain convictions through our courts. Instead of building police capacity to throw such a dragnet around terrorists, who openly hold rallies in the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, we see money being doled out of the tax-payers pockets through the annual budgetary exercise. If this is not pampering a banned outfit, what is? We are told that the government appointed an administrator to run. If we continue on this path, the carnage we saw in various attacks on mosques, non-combatants and minorities in Lahore and other parts of Punjab will only gain strength. You cannot run a military operation in six tribal agencies and then have extremist ideologies run rampant in other areas."
Last week, while addressing a public rally in Lahore, JuD leader Hafiz Saeed described "suicide bombings as attempts at defaming jihad, alleging that the ‘bogey of Punjabi Taliban' had been invoked to justify an army operation in southern Punjab," and issued a warning that "those operations could not continue for long." But while Saeed may cry himself hoarse that the JuD is just a charity organization, the fact that his groups have been banned for having links to acts of terror cannot be denied.
The Punjabi government's open support for JuD is mind-boggling. Poverty figures have risen in the last few years and development in the public sector is sorely needed -- but surely not to an organization that has come under severe criticism by various governments and international organizations, and is run by people who have been repeatedly accused of being terrorists. Secondly, lest we forget, the sole surviving gunman in the deadly November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Ajmal Kasab, was a Pakistani, who was allegedly trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba -- a supposedly banned militant group that Saeed co-founded. Lastly, with dozens of attacks in the province in the last few years, which have claimed hundreds of lives, it is time for the Punjab government wake up and smell the coffee: ties with any organization that is linked to acts of terror cannot, and must not, be supported -- or else, this war against terrorism that the state is fighting will be in vain, as will be the sacrifices of thousands of Pakistanis, who have paid with their lives.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Karachi and blogs at http://humaimtiaz.wordpress.com.
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