Dealing with security threats
THE Lahore Literary Festival has ended in a blaze of success. The uncertainty about its being held at all and the doubts about the people's capacity to defy fear and much else made the event all the more enjoyable. But the issues regarding the ways of dealing with security threats that it gave rise to still need to be seriously addressed.
The Punjab government has a good record of guaranteeing security at religious and cultural events that have been held in the provincial capital since the beginning of November 2015. The three-day Thaap conference on history, art and culture was held on private premises without bothering the lawenforcement agencies. Then there were three big events at Alhamra: the Faiz Festival, the Khayal Festival, and finally, the Lahore Arts Council's own literary extravaganza. Only a few days before the LLF was to begin a Faiz Aman Mela was held at the Open Air Theatre. Since Lahore has never been free of threats from extremists the administration could claim credit for extending security to all these functions.
One is at a loss to find a reason for the panic the authorities created by going to the extent of undermining a festival that not only the city of Lahore but the country as a whole had begun to feel proud of.
Assuming that the threat-makers had a special reason to target the LLF guests or the crowds how did the authorities calculate that security could be guaranteed at Avari and not at Alhamra and how did they fix the number of foreign guests they could protect? Any precise answers to these questions would imply that the authorities knew more of the extremists' plans than is ever possible.
While faced with such a situation the authorities are required to deliberate on two interrelated points: the significance of the event under threat and the cost of asking for its cancellation. The first question was answered by the crowds the LLF attracted. No elaborate thesis is needed to demonstrate the role literature, art and culture play in enabling any people to realise themselves, especially to retain their sanity in times of conflict and despair. Thus, LLF should have been treated as an essential activity that needed to be protected and encouraged.
As regards the cost of disallowing a major undertaking such as LLF, the cost caused to the people, in addition to the increase in the expenditure borne by the organizers, can be judged from the consequences of the change of venue and curtailment of activities.
Many people felt that the change of venue from a cultural complex open to the public to a hotel meant for the rich made the festival less folksy an affair.
The compulsion to trim the festival programme from three days to two led to dropping some of the activities. It is to be regretted that activities related to Punjabi language and literature had to be sacrificed and that was a huge loss. That the literary treasure and tradition of Punjab should not figure prominently in a literature festival held in Lahore is simply unthinkable. The Punjab government should be brave enough to accept at least a part of the blame.
A more important matter is the need to evolve a rational theme for dealing with terrorist threats. It goes without saying that each threat should be taken seriously, whether the target is a public figure, a state establishment or a private institution. It is also clear that the government and the targeted citizens should cooperate with each other in developing as dependable a security cover as possible. A serious cause of concern to the public is the casualness with which the authorities sometimes pass on the entire responsibility for security to the party under threat. The orders to banks and petrol pumps to pay for security plans devised by the administration, the way schools are being ordered to meet the security needs, or some people are being told to go abroad are only a few illustrations of this approach.
One apparent flaw in the fight against terrorism is the absence of the role of the community/neighbourhood in protecting itself. There were times when communities threatened with communal riots or armed gangs of criminals used to organise collective defences. Similar actions were reported in the recent past from some tribal areas. We no longer hear of such initiatives in cities or villages.
Are local communities unaware of the need or justification for fighting terrorism? The mosques and shrines have been the targets of terrorist attacks. Is it impossible to develop these mosques and shrines as the nuclei of resistance to extremism? If the law-enforcement personnel and the targets of terrorists do not have the cushion of community/neighbourhood support the danger to them is much greater than is generally reckoned. Here is one of the most unbearable consequences of not having a counterterrorism narrative - the inability to mobilise the people at large to take up the fight against terrorism as their own rightful cause.
Above all, there has to be a limit up to which normal life can be allowed to be paralysed by extremists' threats. Suppose the authorities receive information about a possible attack on the civil secretariat in Lahore or the parliament house in Islamabad. Will these institutions be closed down?
Let us not forget that each time a public function is cancelled because of threat to security, or a school is closed or a public figure is told to go into exile the terrorists are handed over a victory they do not deserve.
There has to be a balance between the steps that citizens and public/private institutions must take by way of precaution and what the state must do to protect its citizens. Surely a state that does not promise its citizens freedom from fear in fact denies them the right to life in its real sense.