Nobody likes to admit it, but some bomb blasts and some lives are more important than others. Take last week’s attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sindh. It was one of the bloodiest attacks by ISIS in the past few years, but no one declared “je suis Sehwan” or added Pakistani flags to their Facebook profile pictures in solidarity with the 88 victims. Instead an imaginary attack on Sweden dreamt up by US President Donald Trump got more attention. Not that these gestures would have made any difference. ISIS still would still have remained a serious threat. Those who had lost their loved ones would not have got them back. What this does reinforce, though, is the hierarchy of human life in which American and European lives matter more.
Still, it would be quite convenient for us in the Global South to criticise this hypocrisy. Even within our societies, there are hierarchies. On Thursday, a blast ripped through an elite market in Lahore, resulting in the deaths of 10 people and injuring several more. The blast shook Pakistan. Contradictory theories emerged – it was a generator blast, it was a planted bomb, the bomb was being transferred to another location when it blasted, and now the latest, by the law minister of Punjab, that it was cylinder blast. As time passes, the story gets more confusing.
Irrespective of how it happened, it is quite clear that in a blast hierarchy, an attack in Lahore is right on the top. This is because of the symbolic significance of Lahore. Anyone slightly acquainted with Pakistani politics is aware of the fact that Punjab enjoys a hegemonic status over rest of the country. Its politicians dominate the federal government, the bureaucracy, judiciary, the army and the media. Other Pakistani provinces feel, and rightly so, that Punjab’s political agenda dominates the national political agenda.
A pampered province
Still, it would be though unfair to talk about Punjab as a single unit. There are hierarchies within the province, with central Punjab, as Lahore its centre, enjoying greater political importance than the southern part of the province. For years, politicians from other parts of Punjab and Pakistan have criticised the Takht-e-Lahore (crown of Lahore), a title used to refer to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which dominates not just Punjab but also the federal government. There is a criticism that Punjab ends up consuming the overwhelming share of federal resources, more than its due, and that within Punjab it is Lahore that acquires the bulk. Underpasses, overhead bridges, metro-buses and now the metro-train are all introduced in Lahore before they spread to other parts of the province. Lahore is the model city. Nothing ever goes wrong in Lahore – nothing is supposed to go wrong in Lahore.
It is the ultimate symbol of status quo. It is a symbol of Punjab’s hegemony over other provinces. It is the symbol of Pakistani nationalism, defined as it is by Punjab. In the 1980s, when the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, inspired by leftist ideas, spread like wildfire in Sindh, it was Punjab that called the Sindhis traitors. When the Taliban, due to the policies of the political establishment, gradually found refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan, it was Punjab that started calling the Pashtun terrorists. Similarly when the Baluch nationalists started fighting for their rights, it was Punjab that started calling them anti-nationals. A poet from Lahore, Habib Jalib, identified this dilemma in his iconic poem, Jaag Mere Punjab. In the past few years Punjab has seen the overwhelming majority of attacks against religious minorities: Shanti Nagar (1997), Sangla Hill (2005), Gojra (2009), Kasur (2009), and Lahore (2013) to name a few, not counting militant attacks.
Hitting right home
An attack on Lahore, therefore, acquires symbolic importance. It is an attack on the Pakistani establishment. It is an attack on Pakistani nationalism. As a consequence, the repercussions of an attack in Lahore will be far greater than an attack on any other city in the country. For example, for years, the federal and provincial governments have dragged their feet about mounting an operation by the security forces in Punjab akin to the one carried out against gangsters in Karachi last year. Perhaps a reason was that the political establishment enjoys a warm relationship with several extremist organisations in Punjab, including the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. So ingrained are some of these organisations now in the fabric of the province that some of the first ambulances to reach the site of blast yesterday in Lahore were that of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. They are very much part of the political establishment of the country.
However one attack on Lahore last week, outside the provincial parliament, changed the entire narrative. This week, the Pakistani government approved a Rangers operation in Punjab. I seriously doubt if the government would have approved a similar operation had there been an attack on Multan or Bahawalpur. It has not got off to a promising start. Authorities across the province have started profiling Pashtuns from the Tribal Areas. It is as if they believe that Punjabis could never be terrorists.
Thursday’s blast, if it is indeed a terrorist attack, might even be symbolically more important than the last one in Lahore. It happened in DHA or Defense Housing Authority, an elite residential society run by the Cantonment Board. This is where the gentry of the city live. Only a few streets away is the home of Yousaf Raza Gillani, the country’s former prime minister. A little further away is the home of Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif. If Punjab’s power is concentrated in Lahore, Lahore’s power converges in DHA. This blast could not be any more symbolic. It’s clear that this is no cylinder blast, as the government is now insisting. It’s time to reconsider the notion that Punjabis can’t be terrorists and that nothing ever goes wrong in Lahore.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.