One of the most damning indictments of contemporary Pakistan is the observation that despite the existence of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1992, millions of workers across the country continue to be tied to their employers through debt bondage, performing extremely difficult and arduous labour in order to service loans that they can never hope to repay. These workers, many of whom are women and children, are made to perform arduous and difficult labour in extremely dangerous circumstances, and are offered none of the rights and security that are guaranteed to them by the constitution. That such horrific abuse takes place on a routine basis, blighting the lives of millions of people across the country, should be cause for outrage and unequivocal condemnation. Instead, bodies like the Brick Kiln Owners Association continue to defend the indefensible, openly flouting the law in the name of economic progress, while making use of their connections to the state machinery and political elite to both protect and pursue their interests.
It is important to remember that even if the scourge of extremism and militancy were to be eradicated from Pakistan, this would still be a country characterized by the persistence of an economic and political framework that visits a tremendous amount of systemic violence upon the poor and dispossessed who constitute the majority of the population. Take, for example, two petitions that have been lodged by the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) in the Lahore High Court pertaining to the fate of almost three dozen men, women, and children who have been imprisoned in the brick kilns owned by their ‘employers’ in Kasur. The term employer here is used in its loosest possible sense, as the alleged perpetrators of this crime are little more than modern-day slave owners, continuing to subject their workers to indentured servitude while deriving considerable economic benefit from the wanton and unrestrained exploitation of their labour. As the BLLF has pointed out in its petitions, the people who have been unlawfully imprisoned in Kasur sought little more than to escape their lives of debt bondage, and are now being subjected to a systematic campaign of intimidation, torture, and coercion, with there being a very real threat to their physical safety. These people may not be victims of the type of violence that we have become inured to amidst constant terror attacks, but they are victims nonetheless whose right to justice is no less important than anyone else’s.
It is an unfortunate paradox that the very events that often draw our attention to great tragedies also serve to impede a more detailed and nuanced analysis of the structural factors underpinning them. For example, the indefensible and unconscionable killing of children by religious zealots during the APS massacre last year prompted a flurry of activity ranging from the introduction of military courts to the pursuit of Operation Zarb-i-Azb with greater enthusiasm and vigour. It also led to the production of the much-vaunted National Action Plan, replete with rhetoric about concerted efforts to combat extremism and terrorism on multiple fronts. As has been pointed out in this space and elsewhere, however, much of what has been done in the name of eliminating religious extremism remains both superficial and opaque. Thus, while thousands of alleged militants have been killed in FATA, important questions remain about civilian casualties and displacement, not to mention the transparency of the process through which people are being targeted for military strikes and detention. The blind embrace of legislation like the Protection of Pakistan Act, and enthusiasm for the reintroduction of the death penalty, masks demonstrably problematic abuses of due process that merit urgent investigation. Even as the state trumpets its successes in fighting militancy this past year, there is little evidence to suggest that meaningful action has been taken to address the sources of militant funding, both domestic and foreign, and the leaders and activists of ‘banned’, avowedly extremist and sectarian organizations continue to operate with impunity.
Perhaps most importantly of all, there seems to be little desire to address the root causes of terror. More often than not, it is just assumed that radicalization occurs in a vacuum. The role the state might have played in this process in Pakistan, through previous and current patronage for extremists groups as well as the pursuit of nebulous strategic objectives through militant proxies, has been conveniently brushed aside as part of the broader process through which any actions it takes in the name of fighting terror have been rendered immune to critical scrutiny. Similarly, these is little if any discussion of how socioeconomic deprivation and political marginalization play a key role in creating an environment that produces recruits susceptible to the ideological blandishments of the groups that comprise the TTP.
This last point is crucial, and is one that is amply demonstrated by the case of the bonded labourers described above. As another year comes to an end, and the public discourse is flooded with self-congratulatory messages about the progress Pakistan has made, whether it is in fighting terror or courting Chinese investment, it is important to continue asking critical questions about the type of state Pakistan is. Terrorism is a menace that must be fought in Pakistan, and it would be a mistake to understate the challenge the country faces in this regard. But, it would be extremely shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating to assume that this is the only issue Pakistan faces, or that blunt instruments like military action can be sufficient to address this and other problems. Until Pakistan becomes a fairer and more tolerant place, which prioritizes the welfare of its citizens and the provision of social and economic justice to the must vulnerable sections of society, it will continue to be plagued by exploitation, oppression, and instability. Organizations like the BLLF remind us of this, and the need to fight terrorism should not mean that we completely and totally ignore how there are other forms of violence and injustice that must also be addressed.