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Peshawar attack: Blame history for unrest in the region

The massacre is a grim reminder of the end results of using a region as hostage to the defence requirements of a state.

ht view Updated: Jan 06, 2015 06:44 IST
Pallavi Raghavan

Malala Yousafzai's story seems to dovetail neatly into a variety of messages that are played out about Pakistan: The death and devastation unleashed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the short-sightedness of the government's policies; and the crying need for the expansion of school education in South Asia.

In the aftermath of the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, these narratives acquired prominence. A great deal of the analysis on this issue happened: This could be the 'turning point' for Pakistan and that the government would cease to support sections of the 'good' Taliban operating from their bases along the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP).

But a more in-depth perspective about the episodes of violence along the NWFP has to take on board the fact that this has a history that spans not just decades but centuries. The region's primary utility has always been seen in terms of defence, rather than any developmental or national priority. Overcoming such deeply entrenched institutional inheritances cannot be conjured up in a matter of days, merely by the replacement of this individual or that, or even as a result of a particularly horrifying episode of terrorism and violence.

Part of this problem lies in how the region was inextricably linked with the British Raj's frontier policy. A great deal of the strategic thinking of the colonial State lay in demarcating an 'inner line' of defence along the NWFP, as well as Balochistan, to protect the subcontinent from threats from rival empires. The idea was to create a buffer zone around the subcontinent, which could protect it from potential invasions from rival empires.

The colonial State attempted to concretise a frontier policy aimed at guarding the western boundaries of the subcontinent, and buttress this further by attempting to administer entities such as Afghanistan, Persia and Yemen as protectorate territories.

Even during the transfer of power, the British generals kept an eye on what would become of their strategic bases in the NWFP. For instance, Field Marshal BL Montogomery, chief of the Imperial General Staff, had argued in a note recommending the strengthening of Pakistan's links with the Commonwealth that "it would be a tremendous asset if Pakistan, particularly the Northwest, remained within the Commonwealth... the bases, airfields and ports would be invaluable to Commonwealth defence..." The doctrine of strategic depth as a scenario was to be explored when Pakistan was surrounded by hostile powers: The Soviets on the west, and India on the east, also shares many assumptions with the colonial State about the nature of relations to be chalked out with Afghanistan, and the use to which its Frontier Province is to be put to for defending its boundaries.

The Peshawar attack is a grim reminder of the end results of using a region as hostage to the defence requirements of a state. If we are to move beyond generalisations about the divide between progress and backwardness, then similarities in the context of South Asia do present themselves with discomfiting clarity: A death grip by angry and discontented groups on poor, terrified and remote societies; often a murky history of collaboration and engagement with its opponents, and a bitter memory of the unjustness of their state. South Asia's regional security challenges lie not in rooting out of extremist ideologies based on religious fervour, but rather in tackling mindsets that go back hundreds of years about what its boundaries should represent.

(Pallavi Raghavan is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal)