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A National Action Plan (NAP) was announced by the government of Pakistan in January 2015 to supplement the antiterrorism drive by the military and police. Even though the military operations have been largely successful, the NAP has often been caught napping, especially in areas where it is supposed to check hate speech in public and align the country’s ‘national narrative’ with the one now driving the military operation against extremists.

After the reprehensible terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014, the ruling and opposition parties and the military establishment all agreed that the existing national narrative (which began to evolve from the late 1970s onwards) has contributed to the radicalisation of society.

Ever since the NAP was launched, the need to fully implement it has been emphasised more by the military, despite the fact that a majority of the NAP’s aspects are to be initiated by the civilian government.

The civilian leadership needs to be more proactive in implementing a change of narrative through the National Action Plan

But critics of the present Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) government have often lamented that the regime has only offered an ‘eyewash’ in the name of the NAP. They point out that some men and women are still free to indulge in hate speech on TV channels, many mosques are still misusing loudspeakers and that not all “radical madressahs” are being properly investigated. What’s more, recently, even a member of the ruling party was called out for using the National Assembly floor to “spread hatred” against an already besieged minority group.

Interestingly, the criticism against the government in this context has not always come from the opposition parties. Whereas opposition outfits in parliament are vocal against the government’s alleged corruption, very few from the opposition benches have been as vocal about the same government’s lukewarm attitude towards the NAP. Observers believe this is mainly because of the fact that even within the non-religious parties, such as the PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, are MNAs and MPAs who never really agreed with the many aspects of the plan. They regularly use rhetoric which can come under the purview of hate speech according to the NAP. Many of them were also opposed to the military operation against extremist groups.

What’s more, the same observers and critics go on to say that almost all mainstream political parties in Pakistan engage with far-right groups during elections so they can gain ‘religious’ votes in certain constituencies. Even in 2004 when the government of Gen Musharraf was aggressively disseminating its “liberal” ideas (through the expression of “enlightened moderation”), the general was asked by reporters about some of his ministers rendezvousing with certain far-right individuals. In response to the reporters’ query, Musharraf had cleverly passed the buck by saying that these men were politicians who interacted with far-right groups to appease their conservative constituents.

The criticism against the PML-N regime’s feeble attitude towards the NAP has also come from the military. During Gen Raheel’s tenure as COAS (2013-2016) and now during Gen Bajwa’s stint, almost all ISPR statements on the military’s operations against extremist outfits also emphasise the need for the civilian government to fully implement the NAP. Veteran defense analysts such as Dr. Hasan Askari, have suggested that the roots of the concern exhibited by the military high command in this context lie in the tenure of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

These analysts point out that during Kayani’s long stint as COAS, when acts of terrorism against military and civilian targets witnessed an unprecedented increase, Gen Raheel, who was IG Training & Evaluation at the time, warned that extremists were using the same religious symbolism and rhetoric that were weaved into the imagery and doctrines of the Pakistan military from the 1980s onward. There was a growing feeling that fighting an enemy flaunting similar symbols and expressions that the soldiers were indoctrinated with, was causing confusion in their minds.

Even though Gen Kayani is correctly criticised for letting the terrorism problem grow and become malignant, in one of his last speeches as COAS in 2013, he finally emphasised the need to separate what the extremists were claiming and what the soldiers were being taught. Consequently, during Gen Raheel’s tenure, a more meaningful process was started to overhaul the ideological narrative within the armed forces. It’s still an on-going process, trying to cut a clear tunnel through a mountain that has been piling up ever since the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s.

Yet, it is the civilian set-up that is to implement a change of narrative in the society through the NAP. A task it has thus far failed to even convincingly initiate. The scenario in this regard is just too contradictory.

For example, a PM makes all the right noises about the need to keep faith away from the amoralities of politics and to treat non-Muslim Pakistanis as equal citizens. However, his son-in-law, an MNA, uses the National Assembly floor to curse a minority group and demands that its members be ousted from the military. He also praises a man who had confessed to killing a governor on religious grounds. This is the same man who was ordered to be hanged by his PM father-in-law who he believes was ousted through a “conspiracy.”

There’s more. A popular opposition leader accuses the government of corruption and spewing hatred against the armed forces. Yet the same gentleman was against a military operation against extremists who were downing soldiers. He also wanted to open offices for militants in Peshawar.

Then, a young chairperson of a left-liberal party wants to turn Pakistan into a bastion of tolerance. Yet, he seems clueless about how to tackle the issue of forced conversions in his home province. Adding some comic relief to this are the judges hesitant to sentence accused extremists, but quick to ban events such as Valentine’s Day!

State institutions and the civilian leadership have just too much baggage on their backs which they picked up to help them navigate their careers within the “old national narrative.” The new narrative (as suggested within the contents of the NAP) is still too startling for a society and its leaders who have found political outlets, comfort zones and social gains in the old narrative.

But it can be argued that even though implementing the NAP will be problematic for quite a while, it will eventually be implemented. Simply because the powerful military establishment has finally convinced itself that Pakistan’s very existence now depends on the implementation of the NAP. The civilian leadership must follow suit and for once let their political pragmatism stretch a bit beyond their electoral noses.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 22nd, 2017

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