On December 16, 1971 Dhaka fell and we lost an all-important limb. The country has never been the same again. Not physically.Not spiritually. Not psychologically. A spear was driven through our heart. Our soul was irreparably damaged. On December 16, 2014, six gunmen – one Chechen, one Egyptian, one Moroccan, one Saudi and two Afghans gunmen – attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. 149 innocent lives were lost. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the massacre. Once again, our hearts broke. You can argue all that you want about the number of East Pakistanis killed and the number of women raped by the Pakistan army in 1971 (for the record, I do believe that the numbers generally bandied about are greatly inflated but even one is a number too high) and talk about the development work undertaken in the eastern wing of the country and the number of Bengali prime ministers that the country had in its formative years. However, the fact is that our Bengali brethren felt ignored, marginalised, looked down upon, belittled, condescended to. They were turned into second class citizens in their own country. The final straw was the effective nullification of their will after the 1970 general elections. Now there are rumblings about the repeal/rollback/amendment of the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission award so that more control reverts to the centre and into the hands of those who (supposedly) know best. This would be a big mistake. Those who (supposedly) know best and have played their strategic games over so many years to guide our fates haven’t done a very good job of it so far, have they? Remember, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. If we insist on disenfranchising our provinces – particularly, the smaller ones (one literally a powder-keg, waiting to explode) – more limbs of this cherished body are destined to be lopped off, more dismembering its fate. This we have to avoid at all cost. Our tears flowed and our hearts bled on December 16, 2014. But should we have been surprised? In the months leading up to the attack on the APS, 60 people were killed in an attack on the Wagah Border, a Pakistan Navy frigate was boarded and taken over by Al Qaeda working in concert with rogue Pakistan Navy officers before being recaptured by Pakistani forces, PAF bases in Quetta were attacked, and the airport of our biggest metropolis and commercial heart, Karachi, was targeted and at least 30 people were killed. And that was just in 2014 alone. This was the tip of the iceberg which included attacks on the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) office, on the Manawan Police Training School, and on the Elite Police Academy on Bedian Road all on the same day in Lahore. Don’t forget the takeover of Swat. The death toll was 22 including 6 soldiers and 5 SSG commandos in an attack on nothing less than the Pakistan Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi on October 10-11, 2009. This venom did not spread spontaneously. The poison tree that Zia-ul-Haq and his cohorts and his protégés and disciples have planted and cultivated since 1977, in a misguided understanding of their religion and the desire to use it for their own geo-political strategic ambitions distorted the basic nature of an entire nation Our wakeup call had come long before December 16, 2014 but we steadfastly refused to acknowledge the alarm bells. Whilewe dithered and appeased and bickered amongst ourselves, acting as apologists and pop psychologists, fancifully seeking to co-opt them (even support and facilitate them to a certain extent) in a bid to use them as our “strategic assets” they killed our children, our women, our so-called minorities. They blew up our mosques, our churches, our temples, the shrines of our most revered saints. They targeted our policemen and our soldiers. They attacked our villages, our towns, our cities, our airports, our police stations and police academies, our naval bases, our air bases and our army headquarters. So Operation Zarb-e-Azb became inevitable. Tackling the Taliban and their ilk head-on is absolutely the need of the hour (well past it, actually) and it’s time to forget their (so-called) value as “strategic assets” and confront the problem wholesale, top to bottom – no selective targeting will do. It’s too late for that. But this hydrais only the outer manifestation of a much deeper malaise, the symptom of a far deadlier disease. The war we really have to wage is against the poison of hate and exclusion and obscurantism that has steadily taken over our hearts and minds and souls over the past 40 years. Only a miniscule percentage of us could be said to be extremists in the mould of the Taliban but the infection now lives in a major portion of our society, existing in many shapes and sizes, mutating as it goes along. It is this infection which allows the TTP and its offshoots and its like-minded allies room to manoeuvre and exist. This venom did not spread spontaneously. The poison tree that Zia-ul-Haq and his cohorts and his protégés and disciples have planted and cultivated since 1977, in a misguided understanding of their religion and the desire to use it for their own geo-political strategic ambitions distorted the basic nature of an entire nation. It has now taken such deep root that it will take a generation, if not two, to pull up and destroy completely. Killing extremists and terrorists is relatively easy. Changing hearts and minds extremely difficult. But it is not impossible. If it was done once it can be done again. It just needs a concerted will to do so and we have to begin here and now. The writer is freelance columnist and can be reached at [email protected] Published in Daily Times, December 19th2018.