Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Political solution to Balochistan conundrum The high level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Tuesday saw COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani holding out a solemn assurance that the personnel of the armed forces and Frontier Corps (FC) would carry out their tasks within the ambit of the law. The COAS asserted that not a single soldier of the army is involved in any military operation in the province. Perhaps the COAS needs reminding that the FC, universally accused of responsibility for the missing persons, is commanded by military officers. The FC, the meeting decided, would be placed under the control of the chief minister (provided, of course, he can tear himself away from Islamabad and attend to his duties in his home province). In an exact reversal of the FC’s role, it has been relieved of anti-smuggling duties (its real mandate) and ‘confined’ to law and order management, including the safety of travellers on the highways of the province. The meeting failed to take into account the demand across the board in Balochistan that the hated FC be withdrawn to the borders to concentrate on its real task, and law and order be dealt with in more ‘normal’ fashion. The FC also stands accused of abducting people on the highways of the province. How will it now provide ‘safe’ travel on those very highways? A six-member committee (another!) has been formed comprising three members each from the federal and provincial governments to monitor the missing persons issue and report to the prime minister every week. The question is, if the civilian authorities are helpless before the military, its intelligence agencies and the FC, not to mention the frustration of even the Supreme Court in bringing the missing persons home and the perpetrators of the abductions, torture and killings to justice, how will this ‘toothless’ committee make any difference? The meeting announced the approach of Dialogue, Rule of Law and Autonomy (DRA) to guide its efforts to resolve the problems of the province. The Dialogue will be conducted in three phases, first with the political forces in Balochistan that boycotted the 2008 elections; second, nationalist forces that still subscribe to the federation, and third, the ‘others’ (implying the estranged forces involved in the insurgency). The writ of the government, according to Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, would be re-established, starting with the urban areas, of which Quetta would be turned into a ‘model city’. Foolproof security would be provided to local and foreign companies prospecting for minerals in the province. The province’s jobs quota in the federal services would be filled, its quota in the military would be fulfilled, and 300 youth inducted into the Levies. General Kayani asked for scholarships for the students studying in the cadet colleges set up by the army in Kohlu and Sui. The federal government would pick up the tab for five years salaries instead of three of the 5,000 jobs for youth of the province under the Aaghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package. While the military seems to have expressed its willingness to allow the provincial government to take charge of security in the province, an ominous note was struck by some military sources that some separatist elements would still be held accountable. In that case, how would the ‘dialogue’ with the estranged leaders proceed? Revolutionary or merely symbolic, too little too late or better late than never, take your pick of the considerable scepticism that still lingers despite the soothing noises emanating from the meeting. The real test of course in the days ahead will be to see if the military and the FC abandon their ‘kill and dump’ policy, a campaign to decapitate the dissident intelligentsia of the province. A significant omission from the final conclusions of the meeting was the issue of bringing Nawab Akbar Bugti’s killers to justice, a question Kaira avoided in his press conference. While it would be churlish not to recognise the good intentions and even positives of the meeting’s decisions, healthy scepticism is justified by the trajectory of the approach over long years to the Balochistan problem. General Kayani may have expressed the belated wisdom that seems to be sinking in that the Balochistan problem is a political one that does not lend itself to the use of military force for any lasting solution, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, i.e. on the ground in Balochistan over the coming days.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Somnolent government wakes up In a TV interview, Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani admitted that the number of missing persons in Balochistan is going up. Further, a high level meeting called by the PM to discuss the issue on Tuesday would include COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, heads of law enforcement agencies, federal and provincial officials concerned. Some media reports ascribe this sudden ‘waking up’ to the issue of an otherwise somnolent government to Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s startling remarks during the last hearing of the missing persons case at the Quetta Registry of the Supreme Court (SC) that if the PM is not interested in tackling the serious problem, the constitutional provisions will kick in, including the possibility of the imposition of an emergency. Although the government sources publicly responded mutedly by pointing out that the imposition of an emergency is the sole prerogative of the executive and the judiciary has no powers in this regard, it seems nevertheless to have jolted the PM and the powers that be to at least be seen to be addressing the problem seriously. What may or may not come out of this high powered meeting remains to be seen. The basic reason is that when the COAS is consulted on a problem for which his military and its various arms are fairly and squarely blamed, unless the military changes its unilateral policy of ‘kill and dump’ in the province, what hope is there that a powerless (in this regard) federal and provincial Balochistan government can make a difference? Let us not forget the context in which the Chief Justice delivered his remarks. It was a clear sign of the frustration of the apex court with the ground situation in which no civilian authority seemed able to help the court to produce the missing persons. As if to underline the contentions above, on the very day of the PM’s interview, three missing persons bodies, tortured, strangled and stuffed in gunny bags were recovered from Quetta (four more were found elsewhere in the province). Media reports speculate that these were the same three men whose relatives had appeared before the SC to record their statements about the abduction of the three from Quetta last month. Police officials had presented a video of the abduction incident showing people dressed in Frontier Corps (FC) uniforms bundling the men away. The DG FC however, blatantly denied to the court that these were his personnel, claiming they were impostors, without a shred of evidence to back up his claim. Now the dumped bodies of the same three missing persons are meant to send a familiar message to the relatives of the rest of the hundreds if not thousands of missing persons: shut up or be prepared to receive the dead bodies of your missing relatives. That being the reality, what good will the so-called high powered meeting do, when the military seems bent upon continuing with its short-sighted, repressive actions?
Monday, May 28, 2012
Balochistan Declaration The national conference in Islamabad on the ‘Balochistan Issue and its Solution’ called by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and attended by the leadership of all the political parties has unanimously adopted a 15-point Balochistan Declaration. The sputtering insurgency in the province that began in 2002 received an extraordinary fillip when Nawab Akbar Bugti was cruelly assassinated in 2006. Since then, the province has been gripped by extensive turmoil. The policy of extermination of the intelligentsia and political workers of the nationalist parties has led to some 500 killed so far. This policy of repression amounting to a slow genocide has only led to increased embitterment of the people of the province and stoked separatist sentiment to the point where association with the state of Pakistan has become a virtual anathema to most people in Balochistan. The Declaration seeks to address this grave situation. It emphasises that a military operation (the fifth in Balochistan since independence) can only exacerbate the problems of the province as experience and the current situation shows. What is critically needed is a political dialogue in order to bring the Baloch back into the mainstream from which they have never been as alienated as today. The hated Frontier Corps (FC), blamed for most if not all of the kidnappings, torture and dumping of dead bodies of dissidents, as well as the military (including the ISI and MI) should be withdrawn, all political prisoners and missing persons released, Bugti’s killers brought to justice, as the minimum conditions for paving the path to a dialogue. The conference suggested an inter-parliamentary committee be set up to issue a white paper on the Balochistan issue, an inquiry commission be created to look into the disappearances and other problems of the province, compensation be paid to all those killed or disabled. The Declaration emphasised the need for a new contract with the people of Balochistan to take stakeholders on board with regard to their demands, policies and development. That includes the right of the people of Balochistan over their own natural resources. In a pointed critique of the ground realities, the Declaration asserted that the “politics of the garrison” be replaced by civilian authorities genuinely representing the will of the people of Balochistan. This is a swipe not only at the military and its paramilitary and intelligence wings riding roughshod over civilian authority in the province, but also a reflection of the by now widely acknowledged truth that neither the provincial Balochistan government nor the federal government have any say in the manner in which things are handled in the province. It also reflects the growing perception that the present elected government of Chief Minister Aslam Raisani is unrepresentative, partly because the genuine nationalist leadership of the province boycotted the 2008 elections in protest at Musharraf’s cruelties, partly because Raisani’s administration is all but non-functional. The Declaration underlines the need for retraining the FC and police to respect the human rights of the people of the province, and the FC “strictly prohibited” from transgressing its scope. Political parties are advised to play a proactive role in promoting a democratic culture. They should consider signing another Charter of Democracy to gain the confidence of the people and play a leading role in resolving the problems of Balochistan rather than remaining resigned to the status quo. A genuinely neutral electoral mechanism has been called for, while religious leaders are advised to create a culture of tolerance and harmony. Settlers in the province of long standing and all other communities regardless of ethnic, cultural or religious background deserve equal protection and rights, the Declaration states. The heartening consensus at the SCBA conference both reflects the sinking in of the bitter truths about Balochistan into the consciousness of political and civil society, as well as their worry that the mistakes of the past in trying to resolve political issues through military force are being repeated. If this consensus manages to restrain the military and its wings from pursuing this course any further, the chances of the opening of a dialogue with the estranged Baloch people can be improved. If not, we should be prepared for another catastrophe that could overtake the country a la 1971.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Chronicle of a tragedy foretold Sindhu Desh Liberation Army (SDLA) gunmen killed seven people and wounded many others through indiscriminate firing on the 50 passengers on a Swabi-bound bus on the National Highway not far from Nawabshah. One more victim expired in hospital later. From the reports in the media of eyewitness accounts of the incident, the gunmen had cleverly laid an ‘ambush’ by secreting one of their number on the bus, who asked the driver to stop and take on some of his companions. Those ‘companions’ turned out to be armed men who opened fire on the passengers after a rudimentary check of ethnic identity and allowing three passengers who claimed themselves to be Sindhis off the bus before the carnage started. Slogans raised by the perpetrators and pamphlets left at the scene spoke of the attack being revenge for the carnage on a Love Sindh rally in Karachi and the killing of a Sindhi nationalist leader, Muzaffar Bhutto, whose body was found dumped the other day. Sindhi nationalist and other political leaders have condemned the attack, with some amongst the former seeing it as a conspiracy to stoke ethnic conflict in the province. The police as usual took the cake by claiming it was a dacoity attempt! The ‘suspects’ they claim to have arrested for investigation smacks of karwai (going through the motions), at which our police is so skilled. The SDLA is a separatist Sindhi nationalist group that is held responsible for blowing up rail tracks and attacking National Bank of Pakistan branches in recent days. A few days ago, an incident in which two upcountry-bound trailers were set on fire, killing one driver and injuring another, is also laid at their door. While such acts of sabotage indicate an effort to cut the main lines of communication between the south and the north of the country, the attack on a bus is simply abhorrent. The victims were innocent of any responsibility for the two events purportedly the reason for the ‘revenge’ attack. The tragic incident has thrown the whole question of security of the highways and the risks of using the cheapest form of transport by ordinary citizens open to new and urgent concerns. No bus or coach service has any means so far to check the identities and luggage of intending passengers, nor do drivers abide by the rule that stops are only allowed at designated points. The incident highlights the risks attending picking up passengers randomly along the route. Even if it is conceded that Sindh has many grievances rooted in the history of the country after independence, the end does not justify any and all means. The victim parties of the Karachi carnage after all are continuing a peaceful struggle against the perpetrators of that tragedy. Recourse to the gun can only be justified if all other means have failed. Arguably, that is far from the case in Sindh. A parallel phenomenon that emerged during the armed struggle raging in Balochistan was the controversial tactic by the Baloch militants to target settlers. Even those sympathetic to the Baloch nationalist cause had occasion then to warn that such tactics would weaken the sympathy and support for the Baloch cause. In conflict situations, and especially when the weaker party feels it is being pummelled by jettisoning all norms of civilised political and legal behaviour on the part of its enemies, whether state or non-state actors, falling into retaliatory revenge acts of similar nature is a temptation only mature movements can avoid. The most just of causes can be muddied by indiscriminate acts of violence and killing of innocents not responsible even remotely for the grievances being agitated against. If the Sindhi nationalist conspiracy theory about the bus attack is incorrect (there is no proof to that effect so far), the SDLA and all Sindhi nationalists need to introspect whether such tactics are likely to retain, let alone enhance sympathy for their cause, or have the opposite effect.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Strange pronouncement The Supreme Court (SC) three-member bench hearing the missing persons case in the Quetta Registry headed by Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has been scathing in its remarks during the proceedings about the seriousness of the situation in Balochistan and the obvious lack of the federal and provincial government’s seriousness in addressing the issue. The bench has been putting civil servants, junior government officials and police personnel on the mat regarding their failure to produce the missing persons. At the last hearing, the Deputy Attorney General got so much stick from the bench that he tendered his resignation. The CJ quoted former Balochistan advocate general Salauddin Mengal to portray a situation where no Pakistani flag could fly without the protection of the guns of the security forces more than 10 miles from Quetta. In the same vein of castigating the political, administrative and law enforcement leadership at the Centre and in the province, the CJ remarked that if the prime minister was not interested in acting to salvage the situation, the constitution envisaged other means, including the declaration of an emergency. Further, the CJ warned something must be done before another martial law is imposed. These remarks have set off a new controversy in the media. While legal luminaries expressed surprise at the CJ’s comments, saying the declaration of an emergency was solely the prerogative of the executive and the judiciary had no power in this regard, similar arguments were marshalled by Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. The latter though was ‘softer’ in his explanation that the CJ had only pointed out the possibility of an extreme outcome if the crisis in Balochistan persisted, and did not actually advocate any such step. Be that as it may, the SC bench is motivated by concern at the ground realities in the province. However, well intentioned as their criticism of the political, administrative and security regime may be, it is tilted in the wrong direction. Who does not by know (sometimes from the horse’s mouth) that the civilian political and administrative set up, not to mention the police, have little or no say in how the affairs of the province are being managed. The policy of kidnapping, torturing and dumping bodies of nationalists, intellectuals and others is solely the handiwork of the Frontier Corps (FC), ISI and MI. These agencies are so cloaked in a cocoon of immunity handed down over the years that they fear nothing and no one, not even the apex court. Take for example the blatant manner in which the DG FC cocked a snook at the SC bench by denying that the persons seen in FC uniforms kidnapping a missing person on video were part of his force. They were imposters, the DG claimed, without batting an eyelid. When powerful heads of agencies beyond the pale of any law or restraint can produce such denials so blatantly in the face of the SC, what is there left to say? The SC’s umbrage during these hearings can be explained by the frustration travelling to the honourable judges from the helplessness expressed by all and sundry from the civilian side who have appeared before them. This, my honourable lords, is the real and undeniable truth. The FC, commanded by army officers, the ISI and MI, all arguably answering to and being guided by GHQ, are solely responsible for taking over the ‘running’ of the province, by which they mean the elimination through a slow genocide of all dissenters amongst the Baloch. Since they are ensconced behind an impenetrable wall of impunity, there is little the SC can do to demolish this barrier. Neither the prime minister, chief minister of Balochistan, federal or provincial secretaries, police can do anything. They have nothing on their plate. Unless the SC turns its attention to the real culprits, powerful as they are, there is little hope of redress on the question of the missing persons, let alone the plethora of other issues afflicting the province, some rooted in history. The likely failure of the SC to produce more than a token dent in the wall of impunity of the repressive agencies in Balochistan is likely to embitter the victim populace even more, thereby stoking separatist sentiment further. With due respect to the SC’s valiant efforts, which should not of course be abandoned, rather widened to call to account the real perpetrators of the repressive policies in the province, it seems an all but impossible task.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Fire and blood in Sindh The unprovoked and deliberate attack on a peaceful rally called by the Awami Tehreek (AT) in Karachi on Tuesday against the Mohajir sooba (province) campaign resulted in 11 people being killed and dozens wounded. In addition, vehicles, shops and homes were set on fire. To add further grief, when the rally participants staged a sit-in to protest the attack, the gunmen returned and fired at the crowd again. The AT’s rally had been joined by the banned People’s Amn Committee and other Sindhi nationalist groups. The law enforcement agencies, which reportedly disappeared mysteriously from their duty of protecting the rally just before the attack began, arrived in strength after the attack and fired indiscriminately at the crowd, adding insult to injury. Far from restoring order, the law enforcers exacerbated the tragedy, fuelling greater anger amongst the survivors. The question of the role of the law enforcement agencies in this incident must be investigated and responsibility for the debacle fixed. What is strange about the whole affair is that if the ruling PPP was aware of the possibility of trouble at the rally, as their spokespeople are now claiming, why did they not take adequate security measures to prevent the loss of life and property? The AT and other Sindhi nationalist groups in response called for a strike on Wednesday which, according to reports by the time these lines were being written, was almost complete in interior Sindh and at least partially successful in Karachi. The strike has been supported by the PML-N and PTI, which also condemned the killings. That led Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik to claim that Nawaz Sharif was conspiring with the Sindhi nationalists against the PPP. Reports say Maula Buksh Chandio had words with Rehman Malik in a cabinet meeting on the issue of what Chandio called his inappropriate statement. Chandio argued the PPP would have to return to its Sindhi constituency for votes in the next election and that the nationalists were their brothers. The exchange reflects the internal tensions in the PPP, with the federal and Sindh governments inclined to adopt a stance that smacks of either collaboration with or at the very least turning a blind eye to those responsible for the massacre. The finger of suspicion in this case too is pointed at the MQM, which also stands accused of being the moving spirit behind the Mohajir province campaign. The incident recalls the massacre of May 12, 2007 in Karachi, on the occasion of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s visit to the city, when processions coming to the airport to receive him were attacked and many lost their lives. Unfortunately that incident still begs investigation and closure. Arguably, if the perpetrators are the same set of forces, they must have been emboldened by being able to get away with the 2007 attack. To add to the seething anger in interior Sindh, the discovery of the dumped body of Muzaffar Bhutto, Secretary General of the Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz, who had been missing since three months, has fired up the nationalists. After the controversy surrounding the death (allegedly by poisoning) of the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz leader Bashir Qureshi not long ago, this kill and dump incident (reminiscent of what has been going on since long in Balochistan), is sure to arouse militant sentiment amongst the Sindhi nationalists. The latter are now openly accusing the PPP, with which they are rivals in wooing the same Sindhi constituency, of collaboration with the MQM against them. True or not, the accusation is indicative of tings to come. Unless the Karachi incident and the death of Muzaffar Bhutto (and Bashir Qureshi before him) are satisfactorily investigated and the perpetrators of these crimes brought to justice, Sindh faces the horrifying prospect of ethnic bloodshed in the days ahead. Given its strategic position in terms of having the main port and industrial commercial centre of the country on its shore, if Sindh explodes into ethnic conflict, the country’s struggling economy could be reduced to a cadaver. The PPP in particular has to distance itself from any hint of collaboration with any forces bent upon provoking conflict in Sindh, whether in the form of the demand for the division of Sindh or what appears now to be a concerted campaign of repression against the Sindhi nationalists. Balochistan offers a salutary lesson in how repression only makes political conflicts worse. Let not Sindh go down the same road.
Monday, May 21, 2012
NATO summit conference The NATO summit conference kicked off in Chicago on Sunday, with 50 leaders in attendance, including President Asif Ali Zardari. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in remarks on the eve of the summit that the US/NATO forces were determined to ensure a successful transition to Afghan forces handling that country’s security by 2014. However, to allay the apprehensions of many regarding the compounding of the original mistake of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by a premature withdrawal, Mr Rasmussen emphasised that they would stay the course even after 2014. This is crucial to ensure that there is no return to power of the Taliban who hosted al Qaeda and therefore were indirectly culpable for 9/11, made worse by their refusal to cooperate in delivering Osama bin Laden to account. The western alliance remains committed, albeit only in principle so far, to bankrolling the Afghan security forces to the tune of $ 1 billion a year over 10 years after 2014. This is over and above US funding, whose size is still to be determined. More commitments, NATO hopes, would help it reach its target of $ 1.3 billion a year. Of course this still does not meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s demand for $ 4.1 billion a year, a figure unlikely to be met. Rasmussen’s denial of any rush for the exits in Afghanistan was not echoed by France, whose newly elected President Francois Hollande announced that French forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by end-2012, a year earlier than planned by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The Afghan Taliban pounced on that announcement, telling NATO to follow France’s leader and “get out”. They also attempted to drive a wedge between the US and the European countries in NATO by a call to the latter to “avoid working for the political interests” of the US and heed the call of their own people by immediately removing all their troops from Afghanistan. The tone in which the Afghan Taliban’s message has been delivered suggests that the proposed negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to arrive at a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict may well be dead in the water. The war, which President Barack Obama described early in his tenure as a ‘war of necessity’ (as opposed to Iraq, which he withdrew from as quickly as possible), has by its protracted nature and uncertain outcome, not only changed Obama’s appreciation of the ground situation but also authored a comprehensive review of Afghan policy that led to the decision to set a withdrawal timetable, thereby cutting out the military’s arguments for a continuing and reinforced strategy of defeating the Taliban on the battlefield. Economic difficulties at home and opposition to such military adventures abroad have meanwhile persuaded many thousands of protestors to turn out in Chicago, and in smaller numbers in a number of European cities, against continuation of the Afghan war. The protests so far are peaceful, but anger is seething just below the surface. Perhaps in anticipation of this anger boiling over, Obama decided to shift the G-8 meeting to his Camp David retreat, thereby depriving the organisers of the opportunity of bringing the protests against the G-8 on economic issues together with the protests against NATO for greater effect. Within a year of taking office, President Obama had changed his mind and overruled his Generals on the proper course in Afghanistan. He had come to the conclusion, after a thorough review, that the military’s claims of success should be taken with a pinch of salt, goals in Afghanistan cut back to what is minimally possible, and that his predecessor Bush’s lofty aim of ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan was unattainable. The next logical step therefore was to define what was minimally acceptable as desirable goals and how to achieve those. Gone, therefore, are the idealistic notions of changing Afghanistan from a poor, backward, divided country into a modern state with its concomitant institutions of representation and governance. Instead, Afghans have been left once again to ‘stew in their own juice’ of ethnic, tribal and other divisions and conflicts, with Washington limiting its goals to ensuring that no Osama bin Laden would ever again be able to use Afghan soil for planning events like 9/11. While this may answer the minimal requirements of US security, it neither resolves the internal conundrum of Afghanistan nor addresses the elephant in the room: the Pakistani military establishment’s support for Afghan Taliban proxies waging war against the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan from safe havens on Pakistani soil. It is hardly necessary to add that the Pakistani civilian government is following in the footsteps of the military in this regard. Hence we can understand Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune holding out for an apology, cessation of drone attacks, reimbursement of Coalition Support Funds owed to Pakistan (President Zardari was also expected to raise this issue in Chicago), and intelligence sharing by the US with our suspect intelligence agencies. The implication being that if NATO wants its supply routes reopened, it must play ball on these demands. Since the reopening issue still seems to present some difficulties, perhaps depriving President Asif Zardari of the opportunity to win brownie points from the world by announcing the reopening at the Chicago summit, uncertainty has crept into the statements of both US/NATO spokespeople on the one hand, and their Pakistani counterparts on the other. One sticking point is what the US/NATO consider the exorbitant demand from Pakistan to raise the fee per truck transiting Pakistan from the present $ 250 to $ 5,000. The US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, in his usual pugnacious style, has rejected that out of hand. The uncertainty surrounding the reopening during or even after the Chicago summit has prompted the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, to play down any talk of disappointment if the supply routes are not reopened during the summit. He thinks a deal will eventually be struck, if not in days, perhaps weeks. General Allen would rather the deal was right, not just fast. Considering the alternative northern route through Russia and Central Asia is costing the US/NATO two and a half times more per container, with the rider that only non-lethal goods are allowed to transit (implying lethal goods have had to be airlifted), the US/NATO military’s concern is not only getting goods into Afghanistan but also getting heavy weaponry and equipment out during the phased withdrawal. At the time of writing these lines, meetings between President Asif Zardari and President Obama and between the Pakistani president and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen were still awaited. At a minimum, some face-saving formula to get the allies off the hook of embarrassment and impasse on which they have impaled themselves may emerge. Pakistan’s interest, served to some extent by the decision to participate in the Chicago summit in a reversal over the last six months of boycotting international conferences in Istanbul and Bonn, is to remain engaged with the US, NATO and the world community to stave off the possibility of being left high and dry without relevance in the Afghan endgame. Of course, whatever finally emerges from Chicago, the president can expect a ‘hot’ reception on his return if the plans of the Defence of Pakistan Council to stage a long march against the reopening on May 27 materialise.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Raising tariff for ‘absent’ electricity While load shedding of anywhere from 10 (official) to 23 (empirical) hours a day continues unabated, the government in its infinite wisdom has chosen to sprinkle salt on the public’s wounds by raising the electricity tariff by 16 percent. The raise will yield an extra Rs 88 billion, which the government hopes to set aside for relieving the circular debt impasse that has prevented installed capacity from being utilised fully, producing a power deficit of 4,000 (official) to 5,200 (independent estimates) MW. But why quibble about the number of hours people are subjected to power cuts, especially with summer looming and the temperature finally rising after a false extended spring into the middle of May. Or, for that matter, whether the shortfall is 4,000 or 5,200 MW. In either of these cases, the end result is the same. People are not just uncomfortable, work has been badly affected, if not ground to a halt throughout the country. One shudders at what lies ahead when the full blast of summer is finally upon us. Already irate tempers will explode, if that does not happen even earlier. While the raised tariff will go some way towards retiring the circular debt (estimated to be around Rs 400 billion by now), one, it will not prove the final solution to the problem; two, it will raise people’s ire even further at a tariff rise for ‘absent’ electricity. Since the raise cuts across domestic, commercial, industrial and agricultural consumers, the inflationary impact can only be imagined. So what the government gains with one hand on the swings (tariff raise), it loses on the other on the merry-go-rounds (increased inflationary pressure). In the light of the anticipated negative reaction of the public to this latest burden to be inflicted on them without any sign of relief in load shedding, it is interesting to see in the media reports about the cabinet meeting in which almost all the ministers were so irritated by the fact that they were in no position to face the electorate in their constituencies because of load shedding, and the fear that the opposition was going to town on the issue, that they put both the finance and water and power ministers on the mat. Their fear was that come the next elections, they would have to bear the loss of their constituencies because of the absence of electricity (it may be noted in passing that whatever the government has or has not achieved in the last four years has by now been wiped out by the generalised anger at the government’s inept handling of the electricity issue). Such was the intensity of their grilling that the prime minister was forced to forego the scheduled agenda in favour of a full discussion on the electricity crisis. Certain ‘Platos’ even went so far as to suggest that the government should prevent any negative fallout of the electricity shortage amongst the electorate by printing as much money as was required for wiping out the circular debt and ensuring the supply of electricity. This ‘wisdom’ was shot down unceremoniously by the finance minister. Peeved by the unremitting attacks on his ministry’s handling of the crisis, the finance minister, Hafeez Sheikh, is reported to have snapped that it is easier to talk about things than understand them. The mutual ire of cabinet colleagues at each other will prove nothing in comparison with the storm of anger and protest that awaits the government as the summer advances and electricity ‘retreats’ (demand is bound to rise with temperatures). Even the control room reportedly set up in the presidency to monitor the load shedding may prove unable to make a dent in the situation. Similar remarks apply to the Rs 3 billion released to the water and power ministry for payments to PSO to ensure additional supply of furnace oil to the power producers. Another Rs 7 billion has been requested, but with the finance minister pointing to the straitened financial and economic circumstances of the country, there is no guarantee that extra amount will be available soon. The incumbents are staring down the barrel of a shotgun in electoral terms if they fail to salvage the country from ever rising costs of utilities and everything else in the midst of unrelieved heat and darkness.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The ‘honour’ narrative As expected by many observers, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) has given a ‘green light’ to the reopening of NATO’s supply routes, with the caveat as per parliament’s resolutions that only non-lethal cargo would be allowed to traverse Pakistani soil, and that too on the basis of a tariff to be imposed on goods transiting to Afghanistan. Not entirely unexpectedly either, the return to realism rather than the chest thumping on display by us for months in the name of national ‘honour’ has meant that diplomacy has kicked in on both sides. The reopening of the supply routes has been delinked from the demand for an apology for Salala or the cessation of drone strikes (the latter having been flatly refused by the US). On these two issues, the DCC has said the foreign office will continue to ‘engage’ with the US. On the other hand, in an ostensible reversal of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s assertion recently that Pakistan would not find a seat at NATO’s Chicago summit or indeed any other NATO forum unless the routes were restored, the secretary general has extended an invitation to President Asif Ali Zardari for the Chicago moot. Since the DCC has welcomed the development, the condition in the president’s reply to the invitation that he would be guided by parliament and the government’s advice has been fulfilled, smoothing the path for the president’s attendance. The US State Department spokesperson has also delinked the invitation from what was previously seen as a pre-condition that the supply routes must first be reopened before an invitation would be forthcoming. What all this means is that both sides have retreated diplomatically from the brink of a total breakdown in relations and are striving to get back to business as usual, but with new terms of engagement. The DCC has instructed all relevant ministries to conclude their negotiations with the US on the new terms. The Corps Commanders meeting called by COAS General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani to brief on the DCC decisions, whose results were not yet available at the time of writing these lines, was expected to endorse the government’s changed stance. Cynics would say that this is just a formality, since it is common knowledge that the military calls the shots on foreign policy, particularly vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The DCC wants the military to negotiate new rules for management of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with better coordination/communication to avoid Salala-like incidents from recurring. It also endorsed parliament’s call for foreign fighters on Pakistani soil, wherever found, to be expelled, a decision that would be interesting to watch since it has been the core issue between the ostensible allies regarding the safe havens available to the Afghan Taliban on this side of the border. The difficulties the government is facing in announcing the decisions ostensibly already taken to cooperate once again with NATO, albeit on new terms, is a self-inflicted wound. By throwing the ball into parliament and its Parliamentary Committee on National Security’s court, the government opened the door to political forces in parliament fundamentally opposed to the alliance against terror with the US/NATO to assert difficult and even impossible preconditions for reopening of the routes. Now the government, in the shape of Information Minister Kaira, is treading softly in the public space because of apprehensions regarding the ‘unholy alliance’ of parties inside and outside parliament who are committed to stopping the NATO supplies, physically if necessary. Unfortunately, in one of its least wise decisions, the PML-N has thrown in its lot with parties like the PTI, JI, and the retrograde Defence of Pakistan Council, which boasts many extremists in its ranks. This is not to say that Pakistan should not have defended its ‘honour’ after the Salala attack. Only such defence must take into account Pakistan’s own interests in remaining engaged if not allied with the US/NATO in the struggle against terrorism, which afflicts us as much as it does Afghanistan. Our duality of policy vis-à-vis our Afghan proxies has made the task of combating terrorism on our own soil that much more difficult. Our chest thumping on national ‘honour’ had painted us into a corner from which extraction depended on professional diplomacy, not loud slogans for the gallery. ‘Honour’ can only be defended when a country is really strong and standing on its own feet. Anything less, which obviously applies in our case, must be negotiated with realism and pragmatism. Hopefully belated wisdom will teach us not to overreach our real strengths and weaknesses.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Show of strength Since the conviction of Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court for contempt, the opposition PML-N has ‘gone on the warpath’ against the PM and the PPP-led coalition government. This ‘Go Gilani Go’ campaign was launched without proper homework or taking the other opposition parties on board. The ‘solo’ flight of the PML-N therefore has failed to yield the desired results, despite Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif personally joining and egging on the anti-load shedding protests and elder brother Nawaz Sharif threatening to do the same unless the problem is resolved within four days. In the process, the language being used by the PML-N leaders against the PPP, its leadership and the government has turned increasingly bitter, violent, abusive and denigratory. Stung by what has by now become a pattern in the ‘war of words’ launched against it, the PPP has decided to hit back. The first such manifestation has been the huge rally organised by the PPP at Kamu Shaheed on the provincial boundary between Punjab and Sindh, which according to Chief Minister Sindh Qaim Ali Shah, counted one million people in attendance. Even if one allows for some exaggeration in these matters by the organisers of all rallies, there is no doubting the huge size of the mobilisation achieved by the PPP in its retaliatory mode. To further underline its show of strength, which far outshone even the best of the PML-N’s efforts to date, Qaim Ali Shah vowed that 50 million Sindhis would march towards Lahore if Nawaz Sharif continued to berate the PPP amidst attempts to see the back of the federal government. He criticised Nawaz’s politics by saying he was only indulging in creating chaos and should have the patience to wait till November or December this year, a reference perhaps to the expected general elections. Both Qaim Ali Shah and the PM from London have been rubbing salt into the wounds of Nawaz Sharif for having signed a deal with dictator Musharraf in return for exile and staying out of politics for 10 years. Other speakers from the PPP at the Kamu Shaheed rally asserted that the PPP would take out rallies in other parts of the country to counter the PML-N. President Asif Ali Zardari has congratulated Qaim Ali Shah and the organisers of the rally for a successful show of strength, which will no doubt encourage the PPP to jettison its policy of ‘reconciliation’ so far in favour of taking the gloves off against an aggressive rival. For objective observers, the accusations and counter-accusations of the two sides against each other and the mobilisation of their cadres and supporters could threaten street battles between the contending sides. However, in the usual manner in our politics of leaving ‘grey’ areas for compromise open, if the reports of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI’s task of playing a mediatory role between the two antagonists are correct, the alarmist prognosis of clashes in the street may be proved just that: too alarmist. The redoubtable Maulana has been charged with bringing the two sides together (or rather persuading them to retreat from the brink of an all-out confrontation) and sort out the matter of the appointment of a permanent chief election commissioner with an eye on the arrangements for holding the next general elections. Since the PML-N has been boycotting any forum where it is required (constitutionally now) to cooperate with the PPP and other parties, on the question of the chief election commissioner and the possible caretaker government to conduct elections, consensus has been conspicuous by its absence. Normal political rivalry, so long as it remains within peaceful and civilised norms, is to be expected and perhaps even constitutes the true essence of democracy, but carrying things to the level of an enmity that brooks no retreat is unwise, both for the interests of the political class in the continuation of the democratic system, as well as given the dire straits the country is in. If the Maulana can pull this rabbit out of a hat and get the two sides to back off, cool down and get down to the business of running the system, even if at the minimal irreducible level required by the constitution, he will have made a positive contribution to the polity and its future.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Detailed judgement fallout The seven-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) has released the detailed judgement regarding the contempt case against Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani. Whereas the short order of the SC had convicted the PM and sentenced him till the rising of the court, it had clarified that the reasons for the conviction and sentencing would be recorded later. Those reasons are now available through the detailed judgement. It must be acknowledged that the impression during the proceedings of the case that the bench had been impatient with and dismissive of the defence counsel’s arguments is not borne out by the full judgment, which has explicated in minute detail its reasons for rejecting the submissions of the defence counsel. However, that in no way implies that the right of appeal is not still valid. The government has responded through the PM and others with its resolve to contest the verdict through an appeal. The judgement says a few things that bear repetition. The SC has clearly stated that the PM runs the risk of a five-year disqualification from being a member of any assembly. The bench has refuted the argument of Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan that it was not competent to hear the case, being the author of the suo motu notice. The bench quoted international and Pakistani jurisprudence to reject the contention that the members of the bench had become judges in their own cause, arguing that it was not a matter of the judges involved but of the SC per se. The verdict has returned to the issue of presidential immunity and left the door open a crack to the possibility of the president himself invoking such immunity here and in Switzerland. The judgment deals in detail with the contention of the PM that no direct orders were issued to him by the court until he was summoned in the contempt hearings by going into the record and findings regarding the summaries put up to and assessed by the PM, with directions that the Law Ministry continue with its stance, i.e. in the court’s view, the stance that the orders of the SC were not implementable given the immunity to the sitting president under Article 248. The court has held the PM responsible despite the argument that he acted in good faith according to the advice tendered to him. On the face of it, and legal luminaries will no doubt be contending for and against the judgement in the days to come, the impasse created by the NRO judgement between the executive and the judiciary seems set to continue. Meanwhile things are hotting up on the political horizon, with the opposition within and outside parliament pressing their demand for the PM to go. Ordinarily, any PM or even minister charged with a misdemeanour would be expected to resign in the best democratic traditions and then fight to clear his name. But in Pakistan, nothing is ever ‘ordinary’. The Swiss cases have always been decried by the PPP as politically motivated rather than based on factual evidence. Going by the shenanigans of the Ehtesab (Accountability) Bureau under Nawaz Sharif’s last government, there is weight in the contention. However, the matter has now been taken out of such circular arguments, judicially by the SC, and politically by the opposition smelling blood. Nawaz Sharif’s ‘brotherly’ advice to the PM to now face the music for siding with President Asif Ali Zardari and reiteration of his view that on moral grounds alone the PM should have resigned after the short order is diluted in the next breath by Nawaz Sharif himself when he says any new PM will also have to write the letter to the Swiss authorities as decreed by the SC. That may be one reason why the PPP decided to go with the incumbent PM who had already been convicted by the SC and try to use whatever legal and political options remained available to fight out the issue. The perception within the ruling circles was too that the next replacement PM will also suffer the same fate at the hands of the SC. Like it or not, the verdict has put the cat among the pigeons politically and the outcome can only be heightened tensions and confrontation in the political field, as well as once again the clouds of uncertainty looming over the whole democratic edifice per se. As usual in Pakistan, we live in interesting times.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Disingenuous response US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used her visit to India to accuse Pakistan of failing to take sufficient action against Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief Hafiz Saeed, accused of responsibility for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and speculating that al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is probably somewhere in Pakistan. In their usual knee-jerk and disingenuous responses, both the Pakistan foreign ministry and its boss, Hina Rabbani Khar, have dismissed the allegation about al-Zawahiri as “conjecture” (the ministry) or strongly denied it (Khar), while the usual mantra has been trotted out to provide justiciable proof against Hafiz Saeed. Ms Khar went on to assert that Pakistan had no information about the whereabouts of al-Zawahiri, and if the US had any information or actionable intelligence, it should share it with us. It may be educative to recall that Ms Clinton had made a similar claim in 2010 regarding the presence of bin Laden in Pakistan, almost a year before he was killed by a US raid in Abbottabad. At that time too, the tone and wording of the response was the same. Given this track record, does the honourable foreign minister really expect the US to share ‘actionable intelligence’ on al-Zawahiri with Pakistan when the doubts and suspicions about who in Pakistan may have had knowledge of bin Laden’s presence have scarcely subsided? If Ms Khar means what she says when she declares al Qaeda the common enemy of the US and Pakistan, why the belligerence? Is it not logical that just like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri too may have lain low somewhere inside Pakistan since having to flee Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 and the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan? Why not an attitude instead of cooperation against a ‘common’ enemy? Or is it simply a knee-jerk response to the fact that Ms Clinton made her damaging accusations in Kolkata? This is no way to run foreign policy. Pakistan cannot deny forever that it has a lot to answer for without risking ridicule and isolation in the world community. Despite the time-honoured ploy of resorting to deception, subterfuge and even being economical with the truth that characterises diplomacy, when caught with one’s pants down, it is usually best to make a clean breast of things. Questions about bin Laden’s living in Pakistan for many years, and for the last five years of his life under the nose of Pakistan’s premier military academy, despite the Obama administration’s taking a soft line and letting the Pakistani military and intelligence services off the hook, refuse to go away. So if Ms Clinton, whether on the basis of ‘actionable intelligence’ or ‘conjecture’ raises the possibility of al-Zawahiri being also holed up in Pakistan, why should we start frothing at the mouth? Since we claim we had nothing to hide in the case of bin Laden, and have nothing to hide in the case of al-Zawahiri, why must we behave as though we are ‘guilty’? As far as Hafiz Saeed is concerned, not only does the Mumbai massacre case beg for closure, Hafiz Saeed’s running around the country lately marshalling the ‘troops’ of the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council has raised hackles within and outside the country. If the Pakistan foreign ministry has been reduced to a mere mouthpiece of the military establishment and its policies, as many critics allege was the rationale for appointing a relatively inexperienced Ms Khar to the foreign minister’s post, then the present response to Ms Clinton’s remarks will deepen these suspicions. How this will help overcome the present impasse in Pakistan-US relations escapes one. As it is, both sides are talking ‘at’ not ‘to’ each other, if their public statements are anything to go by. The much-touted Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in FATA, meant to provide economic opportunities to locals and access to the US market, appear dead in the water by now. US aid is shrivelling under the guise of ‘rationalisation’ and being made more effective. The US State Department spokesman can go blue in the face explaining that not everything with Pakistan is “at a standstill”, but the sceptics on this far outweigh those abiding by the faith. This is a dangerous conjuncture for Pakistan, one that best resembles a crossroads, one path leading to going with the flow of history and the world today, the other leading inexorably to isolation, internal and regional chaos, and perhaps much worse. The need of the hour is statesman to rise above narrow blinkered vision and see the wood, not just the trees. Any takers?
Sunday, May 6, 2012
PML-N’s impatience At a rally in Taxila the other day, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif announced the launch of his party’s movement to topple the government of the PPP-led coalition. He issued a call to the people to get ready for a long march for the purpose. There then followed the litany of usual criticisms of the government for its faults and failures, spiced up by rude remarks about Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani being a “puppet” and “pawn” of President Asif Ali Zardari. He went on to raise the accusation once again of the president’s alleged ill-gotten money stashed in Swiss banks, which Nawaz vowed would be returned to their rightful owners, the people of Pakistan. By raising this bogey once again, Nawaz Sharif risks, and is in fact being accosted with, tit-for-tat accusations and allegations by the PPP, Interior Minister Rehman Malik in particular, about his own past transgressions of various types. Whether this kind of exchange will lead anywhere is anyone’s guess. Nawaz Sharif also exposed his frustration with the president, accusing him of misusing the agreement he had made with the late Benazir Bhutto (the reference is to the Charter of Democracy). Although he did not explicate the broken promises he accused the president of, one can surmise that the breach in trust between the two began over the issue of the restoration of the judiciary, which the president agreed to early in the life of the government when the PML-N was still a coalition partner of the PPP, but which did not get implemented until Nawaz Sharif launched his long march for the purpose, with some help, it is reported, from COAS General Kayani. It has been downhill ever since in the relationship between the two erstwhile partners. Meanwhile the PPP’s coalition partners, the PML-Q, the MQM and the ANP have called upon Nawaz Sharif to behave responsibly and not contemplate destabilising the democratic system. Instead, they advised him to adopt a democratic and constitutional path even if he wanted to see the back of the government. What is intriguing is why Nawaz Sharif has abandoned his policy of restraint vis-à-vis the PPP-led government, a restraint informed by the bitter experience of the military taking advantage of the politicians’ falling out to intervene and pack up the democratic system altogether. The restraint shown by Nawaz Sharif over the past four years may have earned him the sarcastic jibe of acting like a 'friendly’ opposition, but it now appears he has allowed himself to be persuaded by the hawks in his party (led by Chaudhry Nisar and backed up by younger brother Shahbaz Sharif) to go all out against the government. The timing of the change is also intriguing, given that the country is in the run up to general elections. The opportunity for the turn has been presented by the contempt conviction of the prime minister by the Supreme Court but the PML-N has displayed its impatience with the legal and political process to be gone through before the verdict can take effect. Nevertheless, the argument that a street agitation may destabilise democracy, if not provide once again an opportunity to anti-democratic forces to wrap up the system per se has not lost its validity, historically or at the present conjuncture. The other, more practical argument against the launching of such a move at this point is that the PML-N seems to be embarking on a solo flight, given that none of the opposition parties, inside or outside parliament, have come on board. This reluctance permeates the stance of the PTI, JUI, JI, et al. Certainly there is much ammunition available to pillory the incumbents, but it must be clarified that the problems facing the country are grave and complex, even if it is conceded that the government has failed to tackle them effectively and may therefore have to answer to the charge of ineptness. The PML-N and its leadership needs to remind itself of the risks and dangers of an all out confrontation between the two mainstream parties on the streets, especially since the aggressive stance of the PML-N has invoked an equally aggressive reaction from the PPP. Mutual criticism within the parameters of a democratic system are inherent in the process of politics, but taking such differences to the level of a confrontation between the workers and supporters of each side is playing with fire. All sides must realise that it in their own mutual interests not to let politics descend once more to the level of an irredeemable enmity, whose advantage can only go to the anti-democratic camp. Democracy has its discontents, but dictatorship is far worse, as Pakistan’s history has witnessed.
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Let’s play ‘provinces’ After getting a resolution passed in the National Assembly (NA) in favour of a ‘Southern Punjab’ province amidst noisy scenes of protest and unparliamentary behaviour by the opposition PML-N, the PPP has now moved a resolution in the Punjab Assembly along the same lines. Here the resolution may encounter even stormier weather, if not rejection, since the PPP may not be able to muster a simple majority in the resolution’s support, let alone the two thirds majority required constitutionally to initiate the process of creating/carving out a new province. Even if a provincial assembly passes such a resolution by a two thirds majority, this is only a constitutional requirement to ascertain the will of the people’s representatives of that province. This has then to be translated into a constitutional amendment, since the names and number of the provinces are enshrined in the constitution. Needless to say, such a constitutional amendment requires a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament. Short of this constitutional process, such resolutions can merely be described as ‘politicking’. Even more serious from the point of view of a democratic outcome, it may be necessary before embarking on such a radical change in the federal structure to consider the necessity of a referendum in the province in question to ascertain the will of the majority of the people of that province. It is not certain at this point in time, the long held aspirations of the Saraiki-speaking people of southern Punjab notwithstanding, whether such a referendum would produce a vote in favour of a new southern Punjab province. What then is the purpose behind the PPP’s raising this issue at this moment in time? Clearly, despite the expressed sympathies of the PPP for the ‘liberation’ of southern Punjab from ‘Takht Lahore’ (rule from Lahore), at the present conjuncture the move cannot be understood without taking into account the gulf that has opened up recently between the treasury and opposition in the wake of the contempt conviction of the prime minister (PM) by the Supreme Court. Even before the detailed judgment is received from the court and the appeals process is exhausted, the PML-N has jumped the gun, declared the PM no longer eligible to hold office, and threatened him with physically preventing his entry into the NA. When the Southern Punjab resolution was being passed in the NA, the PML-N was continuing with its rowdyism and misbehaviour in the house, despite the pleas of the Speaker to uphold the dignity and decorum of parliament. The distraction may have inadvertently helped the PPP to get its resolution passed, since the PML-N did not find the time or focus to oppose the motion. If the PPP stands accused of playing politics with the issue of a southern Punjab province to embarrass its rival PML-N (which is now on the warpath against the government) and strengthen its traditional hold in that area in the run up to the general elections, it is not alone in such endeavours. The passing of the Southern Punjab resolution in the NA, media reports say, was only made possible by allaying the reservations of coalition ally PML-Q that similar efforts for a Hazara province in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) would follow. PML-Q has a special interest in that issue since it has gained at the expense of the PML-N ion the area, the latter having been ambivalent so far in supporting the demand for a Hazara province. Ironically, and perhaps with the belated realisation that it was taking a beating on the issue in the Hazara area, a traditional stronghold of the party, the PML-N has woken up and in turn moved a resolution in the KP Assembly supporting the creation of a Hazara province. So it can be discerned that the mere initiation of a move to carve out a new Southern Punjab province has set off similar demands vis-à-vis Hazara, Bahawalpur (a princely state before being merged in One Unit), and even a Mohajir province in Sindh. The last appears to be the outcome of the clever move by the MQM in moving a resolution in the NA in support of a Hazara province. It may have seemed strange to some that the MQM should be taking such an interest in an issue that did not concern it directly. Yet the move now appears as the MQM’s Trojan Horse to have the concept of new provinces being carved out of the existing ones accepted in principle, thereby paving the way for their own project: a Mohajir province in Sindh. Since both a Mohajir province in Sindh and a Hazara province in KP are likely to arouse opposition from other ethnic groups, in Sindh from the Sindhis and in KP from the Pashtuns, the democratic method of ascertaining the will of the majority of the people of a province through a referendum may stave off ethnic strife and possible bloodshed. The bottom line is that the political, constitutional and democratic process of creating/carving out new provinces is a lengthy affair fraught with many a slip between the cup and the lip, and therefore unlikely to see the light of day before the elections overtake us. The present ‘Pandora’s Box’ therefore, is likely to remain a political football rather than become a reality any time soon.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Working class woes May Day commemorates every year the martyrdom of the American workers of Chicago in 1886, peacefully agitating for an eight hour working day (normal working days at that time stretched up to 20 hours), eight hours of rest, and eight hours of leisure time. This year, May Day was commemorated amidst one of the worst recessions to hit the global economy since the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s. All over the world, the pain of the recession has been borne by working people, including even qualified professionals, who have joined the ranks of the unemployed in the millions. On the other hand, despite the fact that the financial sector was the real culprit because of its unregulated casting off of prudence, many of the big banks have been bailed out by taxpayers’ money and are currently reportedly flourishing in the midst of the miseries inflicted on the people. The day was commemorated all over the world in anger and amidst gloom. Working people demanded an end to the austerity policies that have deepened the recession, instead demanding a stimulus to revive struggling economies to mitigate the sufferings of ordinary citizens. In Pakistan too, the working class came out in strength to put forward its charter of demands that have found repetition every year because governments and employers have done little to overcome the miseries of unemployment, inflation, load shedding, etc. In addition, the workers’ organisations have demanded a minimum wage of Rs 20,000 or 12 grams of gold, the abolition of feudalism and abandonment of privatisation (a disaster here). They have also demanded that false cases against workers for trade union activities be taken back, the favourite tactic of employers in collusion with the police. Other demands include the reinstatement of sacked workers, withdrawal of the condition of 50 workers in a unit for trade union registration in Punjab, rooting out the contract system, registration of brick kiln workers and the abolition of bonded labour. On the day, an unseemly ‘race’ was witnessed between the federal and Punjab governments to appear more worker-friendly than the other. So while the prime minister (PM) announced an increase in the minimum wage from the present Rs 7,000 to 8,000, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif went one better by raising it to Rs 9,000. The problem of course is that the current Rs 7,000 minimum wage has yet to be implemented across the board, especially in the private sector, where the absence of labour inspections on the pressure of employers has left this and other aspects of industrial relations unmonitored. In addition, the PM announced 12,000 homes for workers, seven schools, seven industrial homes and four community centres. Shahbaz countered that by getting elder brother Nawaz to distribute the keys to 1,296 flats to workers. The real problem now is that after the 18th Amendment, most if not all labour issues are dealt with by the provincial governments, where there are many lacunae and flaws. The issue for the working class in Pakistan (and arguably in most other parts of the world) is that their problems and demands have to be negotiated with governments not necessarily inclined to concede a living wage, employment and reforms to equalise to the extent possible the privileges of the rich with the deprivation of common folk. Socialism, once the banner under which most workers’ movements struggled, may not have lived up to its promise of a just society free of the exploitation of man by man, but the present conjuncture clearly indicates that triumphal capitalism’s inherent contradictions have come to the fore once again with a vengeance. In these difficult times, new forms of struggle are and will arise (e.g., the Occupy movement). But perhaps the real need is for the working class to intervene in politics on its own behalf rather than rely on the largesse of governments not necessarily willing to accede social justice. In short, the working class in Pakistan (and arguably elsewhere) needs its own party or movement to fight for its special interests that are congruent with the interests of the vast majority of people on this planet.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
COAS’s ‘intervention’ Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has taken ‘advantage’ of the occasion of the army’s Youm-e-Shuhada (Day of Martyrs) in prepared remarks to deliver a ‘message’ (despite his denial of the same in answer to media questions) to all stakeholders of the country to play by the rules. Reiterating the military’s support for a continuance of democracy, General Kayani reminded his audience, those present as well as those who would receive his words later, that all state institutions were enjoined to function within their constitutional limits. In the context of the conviction of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court for contempt, the COAS explicated that the prime objective of the democratic system was “to ensure the welfare, happiness and increased dignity of the people and the establishment of a balanced society where every person can get justice equally”. This is a very interesting formulation at the present juncture. It can be divided into three parts. One, it is open to question whether the democracy we have had over the last few years has indeed ensured the “welfare, happiness and increased dignity” of the people. Most people would argue it has done precisely the opposite, given the increasing miseries vast numbers of our people are going through. But that, contrary to the impatient and angry view that blames democracy for the people’s woes, thereby throwing open the door to anti-democratic and authoritarian solutions that have a proven track record of being disasters in our history, is a questionable position. It is less democracy and more the practitioners of the system at whose door the faults, warts and mistakes of the present conjuncture need to be placed. The solution for these is not to throw the baby of democracy out with the bathwater but to understand in our historical context how the absence of democracy and its continuity has led to the present situation. Fixing the faults requires continuation with the nascent democratic experiment till we get it right, either with the present cast of characters in the political class or eventually throwing up a new and hopefully better lot. Second, similar remarks apply to the failure so far to establish “a balanced society”. The last part however, has extra resonance in the context of the political-judicial crisis the country is passing through. In sum, the COAS is ending a message to the politicians, especially the opposition, and all other institutions of state, including arguably the judiciary, to understand the limits on their actions laid down in the constitution, particularly in their relationship and interaction with all other players. For the COAS, this ‘reminder’ has been necessitated, first and foremost by the dark clouds of political confrontation and secondly by the demands of the ongoing struggle against terrorism, a struggle requiring all stakeholders to pull together in the overall interest of the country’s security and well-being, rather than tear each other, and thereby the country, apart at the seams. It is of course the military’s prime task to stave off all threats to the security of the country, and the occasion was a poignant reminder of the sacrifices of our soldiers in the struggle against fanaticism and brutal, indiscriminate terrorism, which has cost the lives not only of some 5,000 personnel of our armed forces, but also taken a toll of some 35,000 civilian victims of the extremists. The COAS has delivered a timely and wise cautionary message to all and sundry. While welcoming his measured remarks, it may not be inappropriate to hope that the military too by now understands the cost of its own past transgressions against civilian democratic governments and the need to eschew such a course in the future if Pakistan is to see a stable polity, which is the sine qua non for a stable and flourishing economy, the only guarantee of improved lives for the majority of our people. If it has, and is now sharing its newfound wisdom with all other institutions of the state and all stakeholders in the politics and future of the country, hopefully the message will get through and restrain all and sundry from the kind of adventurism that has in the past, more often than not, brought the whole temple crashing down around our ears, to our great cost and peril. Time to turn over a new leaf and march forward together without reducing politics or the division of powers inherent in the constitutional construct to a zero-sum game.