With the Taliban ousted and the Pakistan army in control, the Swat Valley has rediscovered its serenity
Sanjay Kapoor Swat
The picturesque valley of Swat, Pakistan, which was under the control of Islamic radicals before they were thrown out in a massive army operation in 2009, is hardly the place where one expects to find Hindus. Bewildered, you wonder what they are doing here. Stereotyping has its pitfalls, after all. Did they not leave at the time of Partition in 1947, or, later, when the leader of the Pakistani Taliban headed by an extremely garrulous ‘Mullah Radio’, who made a big name for himself by spewing hatred, took over this valley, called by some “ Swat-zerland”?
Brigadier Bilal of the 28 Brigade of the Pakistan army is an articulate and well-read officer. He has been mandated to restore peace and rebuild Swat from the ruins of the 2009 military operation undertaken to throw out the Taliban and reestablish the authority of the army and the Pakistani State. “Meet our Hindu friends,” Brigadier Bilal introduces the Indian delegation of journalists to a small group sitting on one side of the quadrangular arrangement in a refurbished and upgraded Cedar Golf Resort at Swat along with the hosts, officers of the Pakistani army, and members of the Jirga.
Long years ago, Hindu Shahi kings ruled Swat. The serenity of the place also nurtured Buddhism — evidence of which can be found all over the Swat valley which is part of Khyber Pakhtunwa Province. the Swat Museum, now looked after by the army, has some of the finest terra cotta figurines belonging to the Gandhara School.
Local Hindus looked totally at home in Swat. “We have good relations with the aksariyat (majority community).” And did you or your women face any trouble when the Taliban took over Swat, this writer asked a community elder. “The Talibanis were one of us. They wanted our women to wear burqas or cover their heads. That is about all. They did not stop us from going to the gurudwara or anything.” Was he being careful?
Maybe, but the head of the local Jirga did not feel the need to pull his punches.
Tall and stately in his salwar kameez, he was liberal in using the cuss word against the Taliban who held Swat to ransom for more than two years: “That Mullah Fajlullah was evil. He caused us so many problems,” he said. Now, he informed, the local community is working with the army to clean up Swat of those elements who disrupted their lives.
“So, can the Taliban return in Swat?” Brigadier Bilal was categorical that there was no possibility that they can. He was of the view that the rise of Islamic radicalism in Swat was linked to poor quality of governance and nostalgia amongst a section of the localpeople for the old ruler of the place, where Shariah courts dispensed speedy justice. The army has not only established its authority but also put in place structures of governance that would not allow the return of the radical elements.
In an earlier presentation, Brigadier Bilal asserted that it took some effort to reclaim Swat from heavily armed fundamentalist forces. A Special Forces operation in which 3,000 commandos were para-dropped from helicopters broke the back of Taliban resistance. It was a bloody operation in which 416 Pakistani soldiers died and hundreds were injured.
The Taliban casualties were high. As many as 3,400 armed Talibans were killed and about 5,000 were arrested, who are now serving time in internment centres. “We neutralized 10,000 radicals in this operation. Around 700 militants may have escaped from here but they disappeared in different parts of Pakistan. We are tracking them with the help of our intelligence agencies,” said the Brigadier.
The real brunt of Taliban ascendancy in this region was borne by women. Trenchantly against education for women, they threatened teachers and students from going to school. Some school buildings were even burnt. The horrible images of girls being whipped turned the tide against Islamic fundamentalists.
Some school buildings were burnt. The horrible images of girls being whipped turned the tide against Islamic fundamentalists
The army has now rebuilt one such school in Kabal, where girls are being imparted modern education. Some of them still have disturbing memories of those days when men with long beards would enforce their version of the Shariah laws. Now, it is possible to see little girls with school bags, fearlessly walking on the road without fearing the enforcers of religious laws will use violence against them.
Swat has a very visible army presence. Soldiers in battle fatigue still roam the streets and villages of this valley. Machine gun-mounted vehicles are placed at vantage points. Local people do not want the army to return to their barracks until the time the threat from the radicals has been wiped out.
The army is planning to set up a cantonment to consolidate its hold over an area that is so rich in military history. It was in Swat that a young Winston Churchill saw action at the nearby Malakand fort.
Although the presence of the army has instilled confidence all around, local Hindus have other concerns — and the big one is how to get a visa to India. Sukhi Lal (name changed),who runs a small business here, cannot go to India to meet his son. “I have been trying very hard for the past few months, but I am turned back all the time. Also, they have begun to demand too many documents before they even entertain our applications,” he said.
The real brunt of Taliban ascendancy in this region was borne by women
Other members of his community, who have active ties with India, agreed with him. What about reports of Hindu families leaving Pakistan, fearing religious persecution or forced conversion by a section of the clergy? We have also read about it, but we do not know of any family which is planning to leave from here.”
Many of these Pakistani Hindus have a branch of their family parked in India or elsewhere. It is an insurance cover to save their wealth and also the next generation — lest the radicals manage to challenge the tide of history and logic of war.