Sunday, September 30, 2012
Chickens come home to roost The dual nationality MPs’ saga continues to roll along. The Supreme Court (SC) has issued notices to three MPs to appear before it on October 3. These MPs include MNAs Begum Shehnaz Sheikh and Rai Ghulam Mujtaba Kharral and Senator and Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik. The court is disposed to deal with these MPs in terms of Article 25 read with Article 5 of the Constitution. Article 5 enjoins loyalty to the state and obedience of the constitution and law on every citizen and every other person for the time being in Pakistan. Article 25 lays down that all citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law. On these touchstones, the court is inclined to rule against the MPs who have been proved to hold dual nationality, and knowingly kept this information from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) when filing their nomination papers for the 2008 elections. Unfortunately, the ECP in the past has not properly vetted the nationality status of aspiring candidates, including in the 2008 elections. As a result, it is not known whether the 11 disqualified MPs according to the SC’s September 20, 2012 order, or the three mentioned above, represent the tip of the iceberg of dual nationality MPs. Rehman Malik had stated in a press conference on September 20 and 21, 2012, that if he was asked by the SC or government, he could produce the names of further MPs who enjoyed dual nationality. The SC has therefore asked him to appear to assist the court in this regard. In the meantime, the ECP has sent letters to the secretaries of the two houses of parliament as well as the four provincial assemblies seeking fresh declarations from the legislators affirming that they do not hold dual nationality. The replies have to be submitted within two weeks. The ECP’s view is that it would not be possible for the secretaries to ignore the letter as it had the force of a SC order behind it. This view has been reiterated in the light of the track record. The ECP had earlier written letters on August 29, 2012 to the secretaries of the Senate and National Assembly, provincial assemblies, Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Overseas Pakistanis, seeking details within 15 days about legislators holding dual nationality. Both the Senate and National Assembly said there was no provision under the rules of business to obtain such details from MPs. They further said they did not possess such record and advised the ECP to seek such information directly from the MPs themselves. The Balochistan Assembly also said it had no record of dual nationality of its members. The provincial assemblies of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the ministries did not bother to respond to the ECP’s request. Punjab was the only province reported to have started the process of obtaining such details from its assembly members. After the 15 days deadline lapsed on September 13, a full bench of the SC headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in its short order in the dual nationality case had instructed the ECP to examine the cases of MPs individually by obtaining fresh declarations. It is too soon to conclude where this reassessment of the nationality status of our legislators may end up. If only a few are found to be in breach of the constitution and law on candidature while possessing dual nationality, it is conceivable that their seats could be filled through by-elections between now and the general elections. If, however, a large number of such MPs are identified and disqualified, it remains an open question whether large numbers of by-elections could be completed before the general elections kick in. And between now and then, such a development could add pressure on the government not to insist on its wish to see out its term to the full, but instead to opt for earlier elections. As the general elections loom, this and many other issues are steadily narrowing the room for manoeuvre for the government and adding to its concerns regarding holding the fort until at least March 2013.
Saturday, September 29, 2012
The ostrich rules ok Not unexpectedly, the government and the military/intelligence authorities have come back to the Supreme Court (SC) in reply to Akhtar Mengal’s statement before the court the other day with a blanket denial of all he had said. In short, according to the civilian/military authorities’ riposte, there is no overt or covert military operation going on in Balochistan, no death squads are operating under the aegis of the ISI and MI, and no missing person is in the custody of the secret agencies. Reading these assertions at face value, one could be forgiven for thinking that all is well in the best of all possible worlds in Balochistan. And yet, the stubborn facts and ground realities render the authorities’ statements falling far short of plausible deniability. After all, hundreds of tortured dead bodies of dissidents in the province keep appearing all over the province every other day. Thousands of people are missing, believed ‘disappeared' by the intelligence agencies. How do the authorities explain this? Their assertion that missing persons are being searched for is belied again by the fact that hardly any of the disappeared have ‘appeared’. The disturbing factor in the statement is the elected civilian government and the military establishment not just being on the same page on the issue, but in complete unanimity. What was started by military dictator General Musharraf in Balochistan therefore continues under the rule of the civilian government elected in 2008. Only two possibilities can explain this unholy convergence. Either the government is convinced of the implausible and blanket denial by the military and intelligence establishment, or they know the truth but are not willing to take the risk of annoying the military establishment by taking a principled stand against the brutal repression going on in Balochistan. Both possibilities are equally troubling. The authorities’ statement before the SC also asserts all political parties are free to operate in the province. Two facts undermine this assertion. Most of the dead or missing belong to nationalist parties or are their supporters. Akhtar Mengal’s own party’s general secretary, Habib Jalib Baloch, was murdered in Quetta after speaking at a seminar on Balochistan in Islamabad. The case has yet to reach any conclusion. Looked at as a whole, the ostrich-with-its head-in-the-sand attitude of the authorities suggest that the earth has swallowed up all the thousands of missing persons without the help of human agency, and the only exception is when the bowels of that same earth disgorge the mangled dead bodies of some of those already known to be missing. The government’s defence by recounting the steps it has taken to improve matters in Balochistan smacks of misplaced concreteness. Development packages, autonomy (under a ‘manufactured’ leadership), jobs for unemployed youth may all in totality be considered missing the wood for the trees. Unless the issues raised by Akhtar Mengal and the six-point raft of measures suggested by him to pave the way for a serious dialogue are taken note of and implemented, peace in Balochistan has all the chances of a snowball in hell. To the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and the SC’s credit, they have rejected the government’s assertions, albeit in ‘soft’ language. The CJP once again asked the rhetorical question in court why the government and military authorities do not see the gravity of the situation. Asserting once again the supremacy of the law and constitution, the SC has decided to conduct further proceedings on a case-by-case basis, starting with the next hearing on October 8 at the Quetta registry. Akhtar Mengal’s eloquent presentation of the Balochistan people’s case has evoked support from PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, whom Mengal met. In addition, support to Mengal has come from the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party chief Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Imran Khan and the Jamaat-i-Islami. If the government and the military authorities persist in their ostrich-like attitude, the CJP’s remark that a solution must be found before we enter a ‘blind alley’ may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mengal’s return and appearance before the SC offers an opportunity to retreat from the brink of the country’s destruction and engage seriously with the estranged Baloch leadership to salvage the integrity of the country before it is too late and the growing separatist sentiment inside Balochistan finds succour and support from the increasing internationalisation of the issue to bring about precisely a disastrous denouement.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Mengal in the SC After years of silence in self-imposed exile, chief of the Balochistan National Party and an ex-chief minister of Balochistan, Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal made quite a splash in his appearance before the Supreme Court (SC). Akhtar Mengal’s return to the country and presenting himself before the apex court was the result of the three-member bench of the SC headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry ordering on September 20 that Sardar Aktar Mengal be asked to assist the court hearing a petition on the law and order situation in Balochistan. Apart from deposing before the SC, the visit allowed Akhtar Mengal to interact with the media and put his point of view across as articulately as he had done before the court. Essentially, Mengal distinguished between the immediate cause of the unrest in Balochistan, i.e. torture, killing and dumping of bodies all over the province, and the 65-year old political problem of Balochistan. He spotlighted enforced disappearances as the real current cause of the alienation of the Baloch people and the breakdown in law and order in the province. His solution too was in two distinct parts. First and foremost, he outlined before the court six measures that needed to be taken in order to create the atmosphere for meaningful negotiations with the genuine (not the present imposed hothouse flower) leadership of the Baloch people. These measures included, first and foremost, all proxy “death squads” murdering Baloch nationalists under the supervision of the ISI and MI must be disbanded. Mengal likened these groups’ activities to those of the infamous Al Badr and Al Shams in East Pakistan in 1971, when the Bengali people were subjected to horrendous brutalities. Mengal warned that the consequences of continuing with the death squads today would not be very different from what happened in East Pakistan in 1971. Second, all missing persons must be produce d before a court of law and allowed due process. Third, all political parties in Balochistan must be allowed to function freely, without any interference from the intelligence agencies. Fourth, all those responsible for the torture, killing and dumping of bodies of Baloch nationalists must be brought to justice. He poignantly referred to the beginnings of this regime of enforced disappearances when his brother, Asadullah Mengal, was disappeared along with a friend in 1976, and whose place of burial even has never been revealed to this day. He argued that if action against such heinous offences had been taken then, things would not have come to the present pass. Fifth, Mengal wanted rehabilitation of the displaced people in Balochistan, who were living in appalling conditions. Akhtar Mengal argued that only after these remedial steps were taken to redress the immediate cause of the Baloch people’s anger and alienation could the conditions be considered suitable for meaningful negotiations with the genuine representatives of the people of Balochistan rather than the present imposed leadership that did not even find it necessary to stay in Balochistan (the reference is to the chief minister, who is more often found in Islamabad than Quetta). Mengal came down harshly on the present so-called elected setup in Balochistan based on what he considers are tools of the establishment, leading to a situation where there is hardly any government visible in the province. The SC, after giving Akhtar Mengal a respectful hearing, ordered the chief secretary of Balochistan to discuss Mengal’s suggestions with the prime minister, governor of the province, chief minister and heads of MI, ISI, IB and submit their written response to the court today. The CJP expressed his anguish when he felt compelled to ask during the proceedings why the ISI, MI and IB were not realising the gravity of the situation. The court said if its orders were not complied with (which they have not been so far, given that the court stated it had issued 60 orders during 68 hearings, but none of them had been implemented), it would close these proceedings by issuing a binding injunction asking the responsible senior officer to recover all the missing persons. It does not take much imagination to understand who the ‘responsible senior officer’ referred to by the court is. And that precisely brings us to the 64,000 dollar question: what if the SC issues orders to recover the missing and carry out all of the steps suggested by Mengal, and those orders are, as usual, not obeyed, what then? The ticklish thought here is that that may lead to a clash/conflict between the court and the most powerful state institution. No bets on how that mother of all clashes might play out.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Obama and the Muslim world Tuesday’s session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) gave the podium to Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Barack Obama. While the former plugged his country’s case and in the process expressed Pakistanis’ deep hurt and anger at the blasphemous film, the latter mounted a spirited defence of freedom of expression, no matter how provocative. That Obama view was challenged on Wednesday by many Muslim leaders demanding once again international action to stop religious insults. Obama’s thrust focused a great deal on attacks against Americans in reaction to the film and despite his administration’s distancing itself from it. Muslim heads of state on the other hand argued forcefully for a clampdown on Islamophobia. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country by population, was represented by its President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who characterised the film as another “ugly face” of religious defamation. Quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Yudhoyono said, “Everyone must observe morality and public order,” concluding that, “Freedom of expression is therefore not absolute.” He called for an international instrument to effectively prevent incitement to hostility or violence based on religious beliefs. King Abdullah of Jordan, a close ally of the US, added his voice to the criticism of the film and the violence it sparked. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the depravity of the fanatics who made the film that set off the storm. As these influential voices from the Muslim world indicate, the fault line between the US/western defence of free speech, a principle regarding even blasphemous material being tolerated as Obama argued at the UNGA, arrived at through the secularisation of the state in the developed world’s history, and the deeply held respect for the Prophet (PBUH) and faith throughout the Muslim world, threatens to grow bigger. President Obama’s avowed intent early in his tenure to reach out to and embrace the Muslim world has remained a fond hope, partly because of the legacy he inherited of US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, partly his administration’s role in the toppling and brutal killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and suspicions of covert intervention in Syria against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The provocative film episode proved to be the icing that takes the cake. Anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world has flared because of each and every one of these causes enumerated above, as well as historical memories of humiliation at the hands of western colonialism and imperialism. This hostility towards, and the ‘isolation' of Washington from a significant segment of the world threaten the US ability to continue to claim the mantle of world leader. The US is the mightiest military power on earth many times over, but it has lately been exposed a s a colossus with feet of clay, given the dire straits its and the developed world’s economies are passing through. In the west’s uncritical and bland defence of freedom of speech and expression without any sense of responsibility for the consequences, the US and its western allies are shooting themselves in the foot. They have forgotten that someone else’s freedom ends where my nose begins. The fact that the west has travelled far from religious adherence to even lampooning religions and religious figures does not translate practically into license to hurt and insult those with a different set of beliefs and values. It was not therefore an exaggeration when President Zardari told the UNGA that such provocations, if not stopped, threaten the peace of the world. He could also have added that they bring grist to the mill of the extremists in Muslim societies and elsewhere, who are then enabled to hold moderate, liberal, enlightened opinion hostage. If the west cannot or will not see beyond its nose on the issue of consideration for others’ deeply held beliefs and sentiments, and refuses to act in consonance with the world to nip this increasing mischief in the bud, it will have no one but itself to blame for the impact on its interests in the Muslim world and arguably even beyond.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
President’s address to UNGA President Asif Ali Zardari’s expectantly awaited address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) presented Pakistan’s case to the world community articulately, clearly, and without pulling any punches. He started by calling on the UN and world community to act against blasphemy and incitement of hatred, a reference to the recent furore over the film insulting to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). He urged the international community not to remain silent observers and move to criminalise acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing the right of freedom of expression. The president then went on to underline his oft-repeated desire for Pakistan to become the recipient of trade access and concessions, not aid. In this context, the president thanked the EU for its recognising the value of trade for Pakistan. He then went on to spell out the vision of a South Asia that becomes interconnected and the vehicle for a new regional narrative that helps bind and bring closer all the countries of the region and beyond through trade ties and economic cooperation. He mentioned the outreach to Afghanistan (the Transit Trade Agreement) and India (trade and economic cooperation) to emphasise the point. He appealed to the world to stop the refrain of ‘do more’ directed at Pakistan, arguing that this was an insult to the 7,000 soldiers and policeman and over 37,000 civilians killed in the struggle against terrorism, besides denigrating the suffering of the living. He also made a poignant reference to slain federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti and the president's friend Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, at the hands of extremists and terrorists. But he reserved his profoundest comments for Benazir Bhutto, his wife, mother of his children, and a visionary leader who had warned against the danger posed by the extremist mindset. President Zardari delineated the global challenges of poverty, injustice and climate change, amongst others, challenges that Pakistan will tackle in consonance with the global community. He supported the right of the Palestinian people to their own state and argued the case for their recognition by the UN. Pakistan’s prominent role in UN peacekeeping and its engagement with needed reform in a democratic direction for the world body found mention in the president’s address. The Kashmiri people’s inalienable right of self-determination through peaceful means was underlined. Terrorism and its nexus with the burgeoning drugs trade, which has gone up 300 percent in the last decade and funds most of the terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere was highlighted in the president’s remarks, calling on the global community for a concerted struggle against these twin menaces. While President Zardari eloquently and succinctly summed up Pakistan’s positions on the burning issues of the day, it may be politic to ask why it is that we are unable to escape the incessant drone demanding ‘do more’. The basic reason is that both in fact and in international perception, Pakistan is seen as the ‘mother’ of the Taliban against whom the ISAF forces are engaged in battle in Afghanistan. Pakistani soil continues to be used for safe havens for the Taliban and affiliated groups for their insurgency inside Afghanistan. Pakistan is therefore essentially pressed to deny these extremists and terrorists the luxury of a safe rear area to which they retreat, recuperate and relaunch their attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has prevaricated for long on fulfilling this demand. Although the chorus of ‘do more’ has become more muted over time, the suspicions harboured against Pakistan as the main backer of the Taliban continue to linger. So long as Pakistan does not reconsider, if not abandon, its ‘unholy’ alliance with the Taliban extremists, it will find it heavy going in the world community and perhaps not to be able to get rid of the dreary repetition of the ‘do more’ mantra.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Friends, not enemies President Asif Zardari, in New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session, met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the way forward in the relationship between the two countries. Needless to say, the ‘relationship’ has passed through some choppy waters over the last two or so years. At times, it teetered on the brink of a breakdown, especially at moments like the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, even at its darkest hour, the relationship was saved by sensible views in both governments as well as the media and public opinion in both countries. These views recognise the commonality of interests between the two allies, while not being oblivious of divergences where they exist. Difficult as it sometimes is to reconcile the two conflicting trends, the common bedrock interests tend to assert themselves in the long run and have therefore helped to salvage a difficult and fraught relationship. Hillary Clinton celebrated the restoration of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, a closure in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid that soured relations for months before finally giving way to better sense. She also thanked the president for the Pakistan government’s handling of the violent protests against the US in the wake of the blasphemous film that has so roiled the Muslim world. In turn the president suggested to Ms Clinton that peace in Pakistan was critically dependent on peace in Afghanistan. Both sides reiterated their determination to work towards that common goal together, with President Zardari underlining once again Pakistan’s commitment to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, which Islamabad promised to facilitate. The president also expressed his and the entire country’s dismay and disgust at the blasphemous film, saying one or two mad people should not be allowed to hold the whole world hostage and threaten world peace. The president thanked the US for its aid, but suggested instead of spreading itself too thin, perhaps it should concentrate on big-ticket projects. He once again emphasised his favourite theme of Pakistan preferring trade access rather than aid, as a measure of the desire to stand on our own feet and wean ourselves off the aid teat. Economic cooperation and the bilateral investment treaty in the works also came up for discussion. The president invited the US to become a participant in the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project to dispel the perception that Washington only concentrates on areas of its own interest. While these lines were being written, there was expectancy surrounding President Zardari’s address to the UNGA on Tuesday afternoon. His address was expected to centre on the hurt and insult Muslims felt because of the blasphemous film, with an appeal to the world community to tackle the problem of hate speech through appropriate international legislation. Of course persuading the west, and particularly the US, to place constraints on freedom of speech, almost an iconic shibboleth for the developed world and protected under the US constitution’s first amendment, may not be easy. In recognition of the uphill nature of the task, the president remarked that he knew this would not happen overnight and may require a protracted campaign. At home Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has been saying that Pakistan would approach both the UN and the OIC to promote the idea. While the government’s stance is unexceptionable and even appreciable, a troubling question lingers in the recesses of the mind. When we ask for tolerance worldwide, should we not also be looking within at the sorry state of tolerance in our own society? The hope therefore is that while the government plugs the idea internationally, it would be well served by steps to mitigate, if not eradicate, the climate of intolerance that has Pakistani society in its grip. The way forward in this direction is to mobilise the moderate majority, liberal, democratic and progressive political forces, and minorities threatened by violent acts and killings by extreme intolerant terrorist forces. As an aside, it may also be reckoned that just as the rise of extremism, terrorism and intolerance owes so much over so long to the Afghan wars, a peace in that long suffering country may be the key to rolling back the dark tide that threatens to swamp us. Another question that springs from this one is whether the civilian president and the government speak for all Pakistan, including the military establishment? The latter has of late seemingly woken up to the threat to state and society from the extremists and terrorists proliferating in our society’s bosom over the last four decades for reasons well known. Only if the civilian and military sides of the state are on one page, that being abandoning the notion of power projection in the region through armed proxies that eventually slip off the leash and bite the hand that once fed them, there can be no peace, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan or the region or the world. That is how high the stakes are.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Aftermath of violent protests After the toll of lives, property and infrastructure during Friday’s violence-laden protests against the film insulting to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), Saturday saw another, albeit smaller, outbreak of protest in Islamabad and Lahore. Karachi and Peshawar, which saw some of the worst violence, looting, plunder, arson and even firing from elements in the crowds, mercifully seemed to be just licking their wounds, although some small protest was mounted in Karachi after the funerals of those killed. After four of the injured died overnight, the toll of lives has now reached 21, with some 200 injured countrywide. The toll of property includes at least seven bank branches, five cinemas, seven restaurants of international food chains, six private buildings, three police posts, six shops (this is probably an underestimate), including an arms store and five wine shops. It is interesting to reflect on the interest in looting these wine shops by those who had come out to declare their love for Islam and the Prophet (PBUH). Such contradictions are legion in our society. The protest on Saturday mobilised around 5,000 people marching on parliament, including hundreds of women. About 500 members of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa laid siege to the US Consulate in Lahore, but failed to make any dent. Though the madness of Friday was not on display the day after, the angst over the manner in which the Day of Love for the Prophet (PBUH) was commemorated still leaves a bitter aftertaste. It may be premature to declare the dwindling number of protestors shows the steam has run out of the agitation. That will only be determinable in the days ahead. Friday prayer congregations usually provide the fodder for such protests. The week ahead, if not weeks, need careful watching. It must be noted that the most generous estimates of the total number of protestors on Friday have not passed the figure of 45,000 countrywide. That suggests that whereas all citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, feel anger at the insult and even love for the Prophet (PBUH), the vast majority are not prepared to bring grist to the extremists’ agenda of using the issue for political gains. So whereas there has been much comment on and criticism of the violence, perhaps we should take a minute or two to reflect on the inherent wisdom and peaceful nature of the overwhelming majority of our citizens. It is by now a well known phenomenon that the actions of the few extremists receive more than their just share of the oxygen of publicity in a milieu of media proliferation and freedom. In fact, the sobering message of Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira towards the end of the day of violence, asking the electronic media to show restraint in its coverage of the events seemed to produce a sudden drop in the frantic temperature at which the electronic media had been operating throughout the day. Did incessant media coverage to the point of saturation help or fuel the fire further? Those in charge should do some introspection. We demand from the US and the west that they should not allow the principle of freedom of expression to be extended to blasphemous and insulting matter. Yet we use our relatively new found freedoms without any thought for responsibility and the best interests of the country. Inflammatory coverage only inflames further. Reports say 6,036 people have been booked for violence, arson, looting, etc. Of these, a few (not more than 200 or so according to available reports) have been actually arrested and sent on 14 days judicial remand by the courts. The justice system needs to be cautioned on the police’s penchant for filling the jails with both the guilty and the innocent in such situations just to make themselves look better. Justice must be done, but must also be seen to be dome, not sparing the actual perpetrators, but taking care at the same time not to victimise the innocent. Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif have shifted the goalposts by declaring, separately, that criminals (Imran) and hooligans (Shahbaz) were responsible for the violence. To them, it is unthinkable that ‘genuine’ Muslims could perpetrate such acts in the name of defending the honour of the Prophet (PBUH). Well, gentleman, wake up and smell the coffee. It is precisely those who claim a monopoly of the truth about our religion who are the most fanatical, violent, intolerant people around. Let us at least not try to fool either ourselves or the public. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has spoken of taking the issue of blasphemy to the UN and the OIC. Be that as it may, and in the unlikely event of the west relenting on ‘freedom of expression’ sufficiently to contemplate restrictions on such hate material, how on earth are governments, east or west, intending to control the new media and the Internet, on which such material can easily be posted and has proved very difficult to block, let alone eliminate. Welcome to the brave new world, in which restraint on hate speech and blasphemous material is conspicuous by its absence. Well intentioned, but a tough call, prime minister.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Pakistan-Afghanistan ‘exchange’ Afghanistan and Pakistan have exchanged the usual accusations and counter-accusations at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told the UNSC on Thursday that attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistan were “a matter of deep and serious concern” and had caused “unprecedented anger and frustration among Afghans”. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of staging repeated shelling barrages across the border into Kunar province. Mr Rassoul called on Pakistan to halt the cross-border shelling, warning that the attacks could jeopardise already tense relations between the two countries. Afghanistan says the attacks have taken the lives of dozens of Afghans, mainly civilians, while leaving many wounded. Rassoul said the Afghan government was in contact with Pakistan to end the attacks “holistically and resolutely”. Despite Afghanistan’s long standing accusation against Pakistan that it backs Taliban militants seeking to overthrow the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Rassoul said his country wanted “close and fruitful relations” with its neighbour. Pakistan in turn says groups of Pakistani Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan have infiltrated the border to stage attacks on its security forces. Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Abdullah Hussain Haroon told the UNSC Pakistan was exercising “considerable restraint” in the wake of attacks on Pakistani check posts from across the border. The ‘exchange’ at the UN SC between the two neighbouring countries is typical of the dialogue of the deaf that has been part of their relationship for years, and in which the two sides talk ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ each other. Now that ‘dialogue' is being played out once again before the UNSC. No objective observer however can ignore the history of the relations between the sometime allies (against the Afghan communist and the Soviet Union). The fact is that when the anti-Soviet resistance ended with the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, what was left behind was a deeply divided country in the throes of a continuing civil war, one that may have finally ‘ended’ in the Mujahideen overthrowing Najibullah’s communist regime, but which was soon followed by the intra-Mujahideen struggle for dominance. Into that boiling cauldron were thrown the Taliban, widely seen as a Pakistani proxy force that managed within two years to capture power in 1996. In other words, Pakistan did not halt its intervention after the Soviet departure and Afghan communist overthrow, instead choosing to try and ‘control’ Afghanistan through its Taliban proxies. That project came to grief after 9/11, when the Taliban resisted US demands for handing over Osama bin Laden and were themselves overthrown by the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the US, later bolstered by NATO forces under the umbrella of ISAF. The fleeing Taliban (and al Qaeda) sought and received refuge inside Pakistan along the border areas, from where they have been waging an insurgency since then. Afghans naturally are less than pleased at this attempt to turn the clock back and once again install the Taliban in Kabul. Resistance to any such outcome runs deep in Afghan society on the basis of the antediluvian Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001. The Pashtuns, considered the mainstay of the Taliban, are themselves split for and against the Taliban. To underline the reality of the split amongst the Pashtuns, UN Special Representative in Afghanistan Jan Kubis has revealed that there are increasing reports of “uprisings” against the Taliban in the areas under their control. The desire of local communities to have security and justice are amongst the host of complex factors that have led to this development, Mr Kubis argued. Pakistan has been attempting for decades before and after the Soviet episode to fly in the face of history and the ground realities to try and ‘control’, or at the very least have a ‘friendly’ regime in Kabul. The first seems to contradict the track record of mightier powers than Pakistan attempting to dominate Afghanistan. The second was dealt a serious blow when the Taliban after 9/11 refused to heed Pakistani advice to distance themselves from al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. What guarantee is there that even if, in the unlikely event, Pakistan’s proxies regain power in Kabul, they will be any more amenable to Pakistani advice and interests than in the past? While Pakistan chases this chimera, the blowback cost to our state and society has proved crippling. Time for a fresh look at the whole Afghanistan adventure.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Violent love The government’s strategy to declare a national holiday on Friday in anticipation of countrywide protests against the film that insults Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) may have backfired. The day off provided the protestors opportunity to turn out in all major cities of the country, reinforced on the day by rightist and extremist elements out to exploit the situation for their own political purposes. That is not to deny the depth of anger felt across the board and throughout the country on the deliberate and provocative attack on the Prophet (PBUH). But all the appeals to the protestors to remain peaceful while expressing their disgust and hurt at the provocation from the president and prime minister downwards fell on deaf ears. Even the shutdown of mobile phone networks throughout the day, presumably to prevent the protestors coordinating with each other and to avoid the risk of bomb attacks, failed to dent the charge of the charged brigades. Protestors numbering about 45,000 countrywide, a minuscule proportion of the country’s 180 million citizens, in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar were at the centre of the violent storm that overtook the country. Appeals throughout the day to remain peaceful and avoid violence had no effect, not even when religious leaders and ulema added their voices to the calls for restraint. The police and law enforcement agencies’ tactics of blocking access to sensitive sites like the US Embassy and consulates in Karachi and Lahore by placing containers in the path of the protestors failed to stop them. The charged crowds shifted the containers through sheer weight of human numbers and charged through the blockades determined, it later transpired, to destroy, burn, and even loot any and everything that came to hand. The ‘trailer’ of what was to follow had already become visible on Thursday when a crowd of protestors, trying to access the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad to get to the US Embassy, turned when frustrated to the car park of a five star hotel along the way and destroyed many vehicles there. Their assault on the diplomatic enclave proved so difficult to control by the police alone that the army had to be called out. On Friday, with greater numbers on their side, the sites of confrontation between the police and protestors seemed to show the scenario of a battlefield. While the police tried to keep the surging crowds at bay with containers blocking access and, where things threatened to get out of hand, heavy tear gas shelling and even aerial firing, the charged mobs were not to be denied. It seemed their objective was to somehow get close enough to US diplomatic missions to attack and demolish them. In anticipation of the risk, western embassies, consulates, cultural centres and schools were shut throughout the country. The police firing was retaliated by armed elements within the protestors’ ranks, particularly in Karachi. The latest available toll of human life speaks of at least 17 dead, 195 injured. In the path of those bent upon violence, the attacks, looting and arson took in its fold cinemas, banks, government offices, police posts, vehicles, shops, etc, despite the fact that markets, petrol pumps and other vulnerable sites were shut. Clashes between the law enforcers and agitators continued late into the evening. The US Acting Ambassador was called in by the foreign office to deliver a protest against the film. The US government, according to the ambassadors’ response, had condemned the film in strong terms, but had nothing to do with its production or dissemination. In an interesting aside, one actress who appeared in the film condemned the deceptive manner in which she and others were inveigled into appearing in a seemingly innocent film, which later was distorted in the direction of an attack on the Prophet (PBUH). She has not only distanced herself from the film and asked for it to be removed from YouTube and the Internet, but also threatened to sue the producer for fraud. Unfortunately, a French magazine added fuel to the fire by publishing blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) in the middle of the furore. Calls are mounting in the Muslim world and amongst sensible circles across the world to revisit the malign purpose for which freedom of expression is being misused by motivated agents provocateurs. While it is important to safeguard freedom of expression, it cannot be allowed so irresponsibly to be abused to create conflict and divide people of different beliefs. Some version of the restraints on hate speech must be forged to nip this mischief in the increasingly flowering bud. As to our own expression of Love for the Prophet (PBUH) on the day set aside for the purpose, does violence against properties, our persons, infrastructure, and ourselves reflect a mature, considered response to the provocation? Admitted, the issue raises extremes of anger amongst Muslims, but in the aftermath of the day’s events, in the cold clear light of the morning after, should we not be focusing on what we have achieved, what we have wrought, and what will be its consequences? First and foremost, if the provocateur’s purpose was to once again show Muslims as irrational, wild, violent people, we helped him succeed even beyond his own wildest expectations. When we fall into the trap of reinforcing the Islamophobes’ stereotypical image of Muslims, whose cause are we serving? As far as the Prophet’s (PBUH) respect is concerned, one level of approach is to understand that his stature cannot be reduced, depreciated, or denigrated through such clumsy attempts. Second, we should look to the Prophet’s (PBUH) own example in the face of extreme repression and provocation when he started to deliver his (PBUH) message and was rounded on by the rich, powerful and biased of his day. His (PBUH) forbearance, patience, tolerance in the face of extreme provocation and insult, forgiveness, mercy and goodness disarmed his enemies and denigrators and persuaded them to accept Islam. Are we following in the Prophet’s (PBUH) blessed footsteps? Far from it. Today’s Muslim world is as far from the Prophet’s (PBUH) example of tolerance as it is possible to travel. The basic reason is the takeover of the religious discourse over the last four decades by extremists who see violence as the only way to achieve their millenarian dreams. In line with the Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunnah (practice and example), we should educate ourselves and each other on the true message of our religion, whose very name means peace, and defend the Prophet’s (PBUH) person in the manner he laid down as an example for us and all mankind. The benefactor and guide of all mankind would not be pleased with us today if we continue to behave in irrational ways to reinforce our image in the world as a backward, irrational, violent community. The struggle against the provocateurs and evil mischief makers has to be fought in a non-violent, mature, intellectually convincing manner, if the world is to be saved from a debilitating clash of faiths, civilisations, and embittered ‘enemy’ camps. That ‘diversion’ into religion-based conflict would distract the world from tackling the real problems that afflict mankind today: poverty, inequality, injustice.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Day of Love for the Prophet (PBUH) The government, under pressure from the growing and increasingly violent protests against the film insulting the Prophet (PBUH) has decided that today will be a national holiday and declared it Yaum-e-Ishq-e-Rasool (Day of Love for the Prophet (PBUH)). The federal cabinet also decided to hold Shan-e-Rasool (Dignity and Respect of the Prophet (PBUH)) conferences at the federal and provincial levels. Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told the media that the cabinet had suggested to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) that it should sign an agreement with YouTube for blocking sacrilegious material. It may be recalled that when the furore over the film broke, the government requested YouTube to take the offending footage off its server and help bloc access to the film through all other Internet conduits. However, despite the fact that YouTube has blocked the film in a number of Muslim countries, and is adding countries to that list every day, it told the Pakistan government that it could not comply with the request since it had no such agreement with Pakistan. As a consequence, the government shut down YouTube in Pakistan altogether, much to the chagrin of its users. But that was apparently not the end of the story, as the Lahore High Court has issued notices to the government regarding inadequate blocking of, and therefore presumed access to, the offending film. Welcome to the age of the Internet, which makes blocking anything a highly precarious and difficult enterprise. The federal cabinet wants the culprits responsible for the film brought to book and to be shown no leniency. Mr Kaira argued that a holiday was the only way the government could show its seriousness about the ruction caused throughout the Muslim world because of the film. Mr Kaira appealed to the protestors to remain peaceful. He revealed a proposal to hold an emergency meeting of Pakistani ambassadors to discuss the fallout of the film and subsequent blasphemies. The cabinet also asked President Asif Ali Zardari to raise the issue in his address to the UN General Assembly and summon a summit of the OIC to tackle the provocation and forge a consensus on the response of the Muslim world. Critics of the government’s decision to declare a holiday today express reservations that the move would encourage people to participate in the protests, which may turn violent. If the past few days’ events are anything to go by, the apprehension is not without weight. Increasingly violent attacks are being mounted against the US Embassy in Islamabad and the Consulates in Lahore and Karachi. Even the supposedly foolproof arrangements to keep protestors away from the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad failed in the face of the determined mob, and the army had to be called in to bolster a hard-pressed police force. The government’s intention may have been unexceptionable, i.e. to answer its critics that its response to the issue had been far too mild. However, if it has misread the mood on the streets, the decision could backfire in the form of countrywide violent protests, which would obviously stretch the already stretched law enforcement and security forces. While Pakistan attempts to cope with the explosive situation emerging at home, the ‘freedom of expression’ champions in the west continue on their reckless and provocative path. French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which gained notoriety in 2006 by reproducing the Prophet’s (PBUH) caricatures first published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, has in the middle of the growing protest in the Muslim world decided to publish more blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH). France as a result is bracing itself for a backlash, while protests sweep Afghanistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. More than 30 people have already been killed in the protests, including 12 in an attack by a female suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Al-Azhar has condemned the publication of the cartoons, and even the Vatican has expressed its unease at the emerging crisis by describing the publication of the satirical images as throwing “fuel on the fire”. What the proponents of unbridled freedom of expression in the west either do not realise or do not give a fig about is the dialectical relationship between freedom and responsibility. In their clinging to notions of freedom of expression (without any responsibility as to the consequences), what these modern day fundamentalists of western values fail to see is how their adventurism is bringing grist to the mill of the extremists throughout the Muslim world, and in the process dooming the liberal, democratic and progressive community in these societies to hell.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
UAE visa restrictions The UAE has announced that visitors from South Asian countries that export labour to the country will from now on require a university degree to get a tourist visa. The UAE has imposed this restriction in order to fight an illegal influx of people who arrive on tourist visas and then stay on to seek employment. Categories of blue-collar workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines affected by the new rule include electricians, pipe fitters, masons, farmers, drivers, tailors and cleaners. These categories comprise the core of labour immigration into the Gulf state. A UAE official explained that the measure would reduce the risk that individuals engaged in organised crime or the trafficking of persons could gain entry to the country. Tourist visas are usually arranged through hotels, airlines or travel agents. Tourism has grown rapidly in the UAE, especially the shopping paradise called Dubai, where the number of tourists increased to 9.3 million in 2011, up 10 percent on the previous year, despite the economic woes that the Gulf states suffered along with much of the rest of the world as a result of the global economic recession. Tourism aside, the UAE hosts millions of foreign workers, mostly from South Asian countries. Western expatriates on the other hand have dwindled in the aftermath of the recession. Nevertheless, the expatriate population dominates the UAE, comprising 8.2 million or 88.53 percent of the total population in 2010. When the UAE first emerged onto the world stage in the 1970s, the building boom drew in millions of construction and ancillary trades workers. Service providers followed in their wake. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated the policy of loosening the procedure for obtaining a passport and finding employment in the booming Gulf. While the UAE benefitted from this influx of workers, Pakistan soon found itself short on skilled tradesmen. The expatriate workers’ remittances bolstered Pakistan’s balance of payments and brought relative prosperity to millions of families back home. Of course those good times are long gone, but even the residual opportunities in the Gulf are a tempting prize for Pakistani and South Asian workers. The availability of work visas naturally decreased as the economic boom slowed and then went into decline, if not crisis. The UAE’s latest announcement indicates a growing problem of those seeking employment gaining entry on tourist visas and then staying on illegally to search for jobs. With the latest restrictions, the apprehension is that just as happened with so many elected representatives when Musharraf’s regime imposed the condition of a graduate degree to run for elections, and which gave rise to a veritable industry churning out fake degrees, this roadblock to entry to the UAE may be circumvented by some unscrupulous elements through fake degrees. If the UAE’s checks reveal any such occurrence, it will sully the name of Pakistan and bring further ignominy on our heads.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
NRO implementation case: solution, finally? The NRO implementation case before the Supreme Court (SC) has held the country in thrall for months now. Every hearing arouses intense speculation, expectations, drama. Yesterday’s hearing, at which Prime Minister (PM) Raja Pervez Ashraf appeared, however, probably could be considered a top contender for a prize. What happened in court came as a complete surprise to just about everyone. All the reports and analyses in the media preceding the hearing regarding the likely course to be adopted by the government turned out to be misplaced. Most of these centred round the strong opinion within the PPP’s top ranks of not writing the letter to the Swiss authorities, in line with the stance adopted by former PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, which led to his departure from office. As it turned out however, the government agreed before the court to write a letter to the Swiss Attorney General (AG) withdrawing the withdrawal letter written by then Pakistan’s AG Justice (retd) Malik Abdul Qayyum. This surprising turn of events perhaps owes a great deal to the change towards flexibility and finding a way out of the impasse by both the court as well as the government at the last hearing or two. PM Raja Pervez Ashraf’s request to the court for one month’s time for consultations was denied by the court on the ground that enough ‘consultation’ had already taken place and it was now time to implement the court’s judgement. The SC ordered Federal Law Minister Farooq Naek to draft the letter and submit it to the court. The hearing was postponed till September 25. The SC exempted the PM from further appearances. The head of the SC bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, underlined that the court was not inclined to dictate the wording of the letter and was at the same time cognizant of the respect of the country and its sitting president. The question in everyone’s mind obviously is that if this was to be the eventual denouement, why did the government drag the affair for so long and in the process sacrifice its unanimously elected PM who still enjoyed a majority in parliament? The dismissal of an incumbent PM by the judiciary on a charge of contempt of court was in itself a first for our jurisprudence, or arguably jurisprudence anywhere. So what were the considerations of the government for this seeming u-turn? Without letting the imagination run away, what seems reasonable is as follows. The government wanted to end the air of uncertainty destabilising the polity (with negative effects on the economy and all else) in the run up to the coming elections. It wanted to deliver a telling blow to all those forces hoping to see the back of the government by using the judiciary as a battering ram. This was reiterated in Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira’s remarks to the media after the hearing. Part of the government’s calculations may also have relied on the case becoming time-barred under Swiss law, as has been speculated in our media over time, although some legal luminaries do not agree with this contention, arguing that there is no such statute of limitations in a case of this kind under Swiss law. Before the present turn of events, one argument doing the rounds was that the Swiss judicial authorities had said on record that under international, Swiss and Pakistani law, a sitting president enjoys immunity so long as he holds office. Second, that without substantive new evidence, it was unlikely the Swiss authorities would reopen the case. Of course these arguments and considerations will now have to be weighed in the light of the government’s concession to writing a letter. Depending on what it says, including the possibility that the president’s immunity may be part of its wording, the ball then would squarely lie in the court of the Swiss AG and judicial authorities. Whatever happens in Switzerland after the letter is written, there is little doubt that those who were extremely concerned about the deleterious effects of the stand-off between the government and judiciary and its possible impact on our future, would have heaved a sigh of relief. How permanent that feeling of relief may be remains to be seen. For the moment at least, a debilitating confrontation between two pillars of the state has been seemingly defused, an outcome welcomed by all who hold the interests of the country paramount.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
‘Defined’ partnership US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman met the president, prime minister, foreign minister and COAS during his visit to Islamabad. The discussions ranged over the fight against militancy, the regional situation, drug trafficking and drone attacks. Bu the central issue remained the US-Pakistan relationship, which has seen unprecedented ups and downs in the last two years. In his meeting with President Asif Zardari, Mr Grossman delineated his wish list of what that relationship should comprise of. He wanted it to be enduring, strategic, and “clearly defined”. He told the president that Pakistan and the US should work together to identify shared interests and act on them jointly for the benefit of both countries as well as the region. Addressing the anti-Islam film that has caused such outrage across the Muslim world, Grossman repeated US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s description of it as “disgusting and reprehensible”. He added that the film appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage. The president in turn reiterated Pakistan’s resolve in the fight against terrorism, which has so afflicted the country that the debate on whether this is our war appears misconceived. Condemning the film, the president wished for a cessation of drone attacks, which is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf described the US as a major development partner with shared objectives of fighting terrorism. Grossman supported a relationship centred on increased market access and trade, including the bilateral investment treaty that is so far a work-in-progress. Both the president and the prime minister invested a lot of hopes in the upcoming visit of Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to Washington, where it was hoped the wish lists on both sides, or at least as much of them as prove mutually acceptable, may be reduced to written agreements. The US envoy’s desire for a ‘defined’ relationship goes to the heart of the matter. Historically, at least two major periods in the relationship can be discerned, with the third struggling to see the light of day cuirrently. The first period was of the Cold War, that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this extended period, Pakistan continued to play its role of a frontline state against communism, receiving in return US and western aid and in the process being reduced to a client state of the US. That began to change in the late 1960s, especially when Pakistan was roiled by an uprising against the Ayub dictatorship in 1968-69. Arguably, Pakistan’s political scene has failed to settle down on a stable keel ever since. This inevitably had its effects on the US-Pakistan relationship, not always benign. By the time the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, and the US and the west turned their gaze away from the region and towards the historic events in Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union itself, Pakistan and the region were left to their own devices. Pakistan then pursued the policy of strategic depth in earnest in Afghanistan through various proxy assets, ending up with the Taliban in power in Kabul from 1996. That is where a new divergence of interests began to emerge between Islamabad and Washington, especially after 9/11. Pakistan had no choice after that seminal event except to go along, albeit with some sleight of hand, with the US’s ‘with us or against us’ mantra. Eleven years later, the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan teeters on the brink of a withdrawal and possible collapse of the intricately constructed system left behind. Pakistan has yet to completely abandon Musharraf’s duality of policy, whereby we are ostensibly a US ally, but supporting Taliban proxies fighting the US in Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan. The blowback from the policy of jihad through fanatical proxies has spawned indigenous Taliban, leading to the spurious distinction between ‘good’ (those who fight the west in Afghanistan) and ‘bad’ (those who fight the Pakistani state) Taliban. That distinction is increasingly coming under strain because of the by now demonstrated nexus between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban. Pakistan may be reluctant to abandon the former because of the uncertainties surrounding post-withdrawal Afghanistan, where GHQ in particular feels it must safeguard its strategic interests, at the very least. In these circumstances, when the US and Pakistan are essentially working at cross-purposes in Afghanistan, lovey-dovey blandishments notwithstanding, the ‘defined’ relationship appears a chimera.
Friday, September 14, 2012
Reaction and response Protests and demonstrations against US embassies and diplomatic missions continue to roil round the Muslim world against the insulting film on the Prophet (PBUH). The most violent protest was held in the Yemen capital Sana, where daylong clashes before the US embassy between police and protestors yielded four protestors dead and 34 wounded by police firing. Similar, though less bloody protests erupted in Cairo and other Arab capitals. In Pakistan, at the time of writing these lines, protests were expected on the call of religious parties and groups after the Friday prayers. The National Assembly unanimously adopted a condemnatory resolution. Security for US diplomatic missions in Pakistan and across the globe was tightened to prevent any untoward incident, with the memory of the Benghazi attack and the slaying of the US ambassador and diplomats fresh in memory. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority proactively blocked all access to the offending film and its trailer on the internet. Reactions in other parts of the world varied, with Russia showing signs of sympathy for the US, while Chinese media blamed the US’s hegemonic designs in the Middle East as responsible for the US’s woes. Pastor Terry Jones, the notorious American Quran burner, who has been promoting the offending film, received a call from US military chief General Dempsey to desist from such actions as they could endanger US soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan and Americans generally all over the world. The pastor remained non-committal, however. The Obama administration’s response presents an interesting case study in the pressures the US president faces in such a situation in the run up to the presidential elections later this year. On the one hand, President Obama vowed to bring the Benghazi attackers to justice, backing up his claim with the despatch to Libyan waters of two warships armed with cruise missiles and a contingent of marines. Obama also spoke to various Muslim leaders, including Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. The thrust of his message was the protection of US embassies and lives. Obama’s rival in the presidential race, Republican Mitt Romney, as expected, did not spare the president criticism for his handling of the crisis, suggesting he was too soft. Unfortunately, with one eye on domestic politics, President Obama expressed his determination to revenge the US deaths in Benghazi, but had nothing to say on the provocateur who set off this storm on the sensitive anniversary of 9/11. His administration, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, did little except to distance the US government from this “disgusting and reprehensible” film. The fig leaf of freedom of expression behind which such provocateurs and mischief makers have hidden, unfortunately backed by their governments in the west, is wearing extremely thin. If the US and the west have any notion of where their interests lie in the Muslim world and beyond, they would take action against the perpetrators of such mischief, charging them with culpability in the killing of the US diplomats in Benghazi. That may remain only a fond hope, however. The fruits of the Arab Spring have been contradictory, to say the least. Well organised, struggle-hardened old religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have emerged the real beneficiaries of the movements against long entrenched dictators and for democracy. Ironically, in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is by now clear that the US, in its zeal to topple regimes it does not like, is in bed, consciously or inadvertently, with al Qaeda and its affiliates. So much for the war on terror. As long as the west continues to protect mischief makers bent upon insulting Islam and wounding the deeply held religious sentiments of the Muslim world, they will find it hard going in what is still perhaps the most strategic region of the globe. In their own interests, the US and the west must clamp down on such provocateurs before their nefarious and deliberate activities spark off a conflagration that could shake the world.
Monday, September 10, 2012
WGEID mission A UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) mission arrived in Pakistan on Monday. The 10-day visit will allow the mission to meet federal and provincial government representatives, the military leadership, intelligence agencies, civil society and family members of the missing persons to collect information about enforced disappearances in Pakistan, with special emphasis on Balochistan, and report back to the UN Human Rights Council next year. At the end of its information collection/collation exercise, the mission will review the measures taken by the government for recovering victims of enforced disappearances. WGEID’s annual report stated that enforced disappearances in Pakistan had reached unprecedented levels, while voicing concern over abductions of civilians in Balochistan and other parts of the country. This led to a request to host a mission, which the government accepted and extended an invitation. According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, an organisation of the families of victims agitating for information regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones and their safe return, 13,000 people have been abducted from Balochistan alone since 2005, when enhanced fighting broke out as a result of the confrontation between the subsequently slain Bugti chief and Musharraf’s government. The authorities do not admit to more than 32 missing persons, a gulf that reflects the lack of governmental seriousness about the issue. Even the intervention of the Supreme Court (SC) and its repeatedly admonishing the authorities has failed to recover even one missing person. As a matter of fact, every time the SC holds hearings on the missing persons case at its Quetta registry, tortured dead bodies of missing persons start appearing all over the province. Dissenters in the province, especially Baloch nationalists, are at extreme risk to life and limb. The WGEID was set up under UN auspices in 1980. It receives an annual renewal of its mandate from the UN Economic and Social Council. Given the situation of missing persons in Pakistan, it will have its work cut out for it to discover the facts and the truth of what has arguably become one of the blackest blots on Pakistan’s image. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) held the second of its seminars on the Balochistan situation in Quetta the other day after the earlier one held in Islamabad. Speeches at the seminar by Asma Jahangir among others stressed the need for a political solution to the impasse in the province, bringing the stakeholders to the negotiating table, and the formation of a high powered commission with the fullest mandate of reaching out to all stakeholders and implementing their suggestions. It must be stated though, that the level of alienation amongst the people of Balochistan has reached such a peak because of the oppressive policies of the military, intelligence agencies and their implementing arm, the Frontier Corps, that such suggestions no longer cut much ice in the province. Scepticism about the WGEID mission’s ability to peel away the layers of official obfuscation and arrive at the true picture is also being expressed. In any case, if the mission reports next year, and nothing changes in the meantime on the ground, how many more people will have disappeared by then and how many more tortured dead bodies will turn up? No doubt the fact that the highest echelons of the UN are now getting involved in the situation is a welcome development. Their report will no doubt put pressure on the government to address the grave situation. But here it must be stated that even if the government, federal or provincial, could by some miracle find the political will to stop the abductions, torture and killings of dissidents, they would run up against the stone wall of the military establishment that for all intents and purposes calls the shots in Balochistan. Ms Jahangir feels the high powered commission suggested in the SCBA seminar should have the authority to take decisions and tell the army chief, “Mr Kayani this is what we the civilians want and you will do it.” But with due respect, if wishes were horses… The grave situation wrought by the military and its arms in Balochistan has stoked separatist sentiment to an extent never before witnessed in our history. The Baloch nationalists’ lobbying efforts internationally have put the Balochistan issue squarely on the map of the US Congress as well as the UN. It is not in Pakistan’s interest to be put in the dock on this issue in attempting to obfuscate or defend the indefensible. The military and the government need to revisit their approach to Balochistan and its genuine grievances and find a political way out of the cul de sac into which the province is being driven.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Krishna’s visit Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna’s visit to Pakistan has yielded considerable progress in an agreement on a relatively liberalised visa regime and continuing discussions on a wide variety of issues outstanding between the two neighbours. These issues include counter-terrorism (including progress on the Mumbai attacks trial), narcotics control, humanitarian issues, commercial and economic cooperation, water issues, Sir Creek, Siachen, Kashmir, etc. The relatively liberalised visa regime replaces the agreement dating from 1974. It opens up travel for businessmen, group tourism, pilgrimages, and visas-on arrival at Wagah-Attari for citizens over 65 years old. The number of cities or places allowed on visits have been increased, police reporting either exempted or made easier for various categories, time-bound visa processing instituted and multiple entry longer visas introduced, especially for businessmen. Restrictions on entry/exit points have been loosened. All this is to be welcomed, but regretfully the agreement makes no mention of media or cultural troupes, both categories potentially important ambassadors of amity between the peoples of the two countries. Both Islamabad and New Delhi are urged to review this oversight. Another welcome development is the reiteration by both sides to cooperate in the struggle against terrorism, which threatens both countries. The Mumbai attacks case also seems to be nudging forward in the direction of greater cooperation and closure. Interior Minister Rehman Malik requested the Indian side to allow another visit by a commission to gather evidence about the incident to facilitate the prosecution of the accused awaiting trial here. Cooperation on drug trafficking and interdiction was discussed and further meetings planned to implement measures cross-border. Fishermen and others held prisoner for long excruciating periods in either country will be treated more humanely, allowed consular access and helped in repatriation with improved procedures. The Indus Waters Treaty will be adhered to and procedures for discussing problems improved. Sir Creek, Siachen and Kashmir were on the table, but it would take foolhardy optimism to think that such long standing intractable issues will yield solutions quite as easily or quickly as the list of nevertheless considerable achievements as a result of this visit, which hold the promise of further progress. Cross-LoC travel and trade are going to be eased, which counts as a significant confidence building measure. Those disappointed at lack of progress in the more difficult problems should conduct a reality check on their expectations. The approach both sides have converged on is to tackle more easily doable areas first, create the necessary mutual confidence, and then move to the more substantive but far more difficult issues. This is an approach that has yielded dividends elsewhere, of particular note in this regard being the changed relationships between the US and China and India and China in recent years. Of significance are the respective statements of both foreign ministers after their deliberations. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar emphasised her side’s intent not to be held prisoner by history and to move relations forward in a positive direction. Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna expressed similar sentiments, notwithstanding his reiteration of New Delhi’s abiding concerns regarding the Mumbai attacks issue and Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Pakistan being subject to expectations of some substantive outcome. The suggestion to both sides is that of the more difficult issues, it is Sir Creek and Siachen that arguably could be resolved first. If the two asides can find ways and means to find convergence and mutually acceptable solutions to these two issues, what better time for Dr Manmohan Singh to visit the land of his birth than at a time when agreements on these two issues would be ready for signing. Relations between the old foes linked by ties of geography, history, culture and many other shared values can be looked at in one of two ways: whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. Both descriptions carry a grain of truth, but neither is complete on its own. The progress made so far can be built upon to nudge both countries to a realisation of the dividends nestling in the lap of improved, if not friendly relations.
Monday, September 3, 2012
Police brutality Our story on police brutality the other day reflects the culture and practices of our police force (‘DT Editor’s brother, nephew innocent victims of police brutality’, Daily Times, September 3, 2012). The police detail that brutally beat up Mr Asad Rahman and his son Mahmood Rahman without cause was imbued with the same arrogance of untrammelled power that their uniform provides. Was the incident an aberration, a one-off happening that could be attributed to one officer and his subordinates’ lack of civility, proper legal and police procedure, etc? Or was it typical of the manner in which our police approaches its duties? The police has yet to be transformed from the culture that underlined its origins as a colonial force charged with keeping their imperialist masters’ interests uppermost. This implied, as the reverse side of the coin, utmost contempt for the lowly ‘natives’. Those attitudes still permeate the ranks of a force that has no truck or patience with notions of citizens’ rights or confining the actions of the police within the parameters of the law. Of course, like any large body of (overwhelmingly) men, it is not monolithic. Fine people can be found within its fold, especially in the officer corps. However, it has to be stated with regret that such individuals are exceptions to the rule. The colonial force, to ensure it remained within control, was under the supervision of an executive magistracy. The colonialists were wise enough to know that if the force was not put on a leash, there was a risk of it using disproportionate force against the increasingly restive natives, which would have political repercussions. Unfortunately, despite independence, the ‘control’ mechanism over the police became ‘loose’ to serve the interests of the successive authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in our history. To top it all, Musharraf’s ‘Plato’, General Naqvi, amongst his other half-baked reforms, authored the concept of ‘autonomy’ for the police by abolishing the executive magistracy, that thin fig leaf of control, and helped institute the Police Order 2002 to grant the police what turned out in practice to be untrammelled and unaccountable power. The result since then has been to see the police turning into a monster off the leash. The normal site of the interface between the citizen and the police, the thana (police station), is a place that evokes quaking fear amongst the populace. Torture, violence, form the normal ‘interrogation’ techniques of the force. That leads to the attitude that led to the incident mentioned above, where the police is inclined to resort to violence first and ask questions later. A brutal, corrupt police force is not only a terror for the citizen, there are any number of legends and stories to prove that it is also the biggest criminal force in the country. One version has it that no serious crime can be committed in our society without the trail leading eventually to the police. Unfortunately, for all the palaver about reform of the police over many years, no government has felt it necessary to get to the root of the problem. The police therefore feels free to carry on business as usual. The losers in this respect are the citizen and any notion of a rules- or law-based state and society. It is time the political forces, civil society, the legal fraternity and all those who care for this country raised their voice against a police that is not only unable to curb crime, arguably it is the biggest factor in the growth of lawlessness. And that is not even to mention its inability to do anything meaningful against the threat of terrorism that afflicts state and society today. Our overactive judiciary has its hands full with everything except the demands of providing justice to the citizen and upholding his rights enshrined in the constitution and law and underpinning any modern civilised society. Unless a debate is conducted on the failings and sins of omission and commission of the police by society at large, there can be no hope for a rights-based dispensation that puts the citizen centre-stage and can then justly claim the title of a democracy.
Sunday, September 2, 2012
False accusation The alleged blasphemy charge against 14-year old Rimsha Masih suffering from Down syndrome that landed her in Adiala Jail has now taken a strange turn. The mosque imam who made the accusation that she had burnt pages of the Holy Quran now stands exposed as a fraud, cheat, and author of a false accusation. His exposure came when Hafiz Zubair, the muezzin of the mosque of which Khalid Janoon is the imam, recorded his statement before a magistrate that the complainant Malik Hammad had brought a plastic bag to the imam containing burnt pages of a school textbook that allegedly contained Quranic verses. The imam added some pages from the Quran to the bag to, as he put it, strengthen the case and induce the mass exodus of the Christian community from the locality. Two more witnesses have also deposed that they all tried to persuade the imam not to doctor the ‘evidence’, but he insisted. The imam has since been arrested and sent on judicial remand for 14 days. Meanwhile the poor Rimsha continues to suffer the trauma of being held in jail since even if it is conceded for the sake of argument that the police arrested her and sent her to jail to save her from the rage of the mob that wanted to burn her alive for alleged blasphemy, our creaking judicial process has so far not been able to free her on bail, at the very least, because of bureaucratic paperwork delays and anomalies regarding her legal representation. Each day the poor victim of this trumped up charge spends in jail is further torture for a poor little Christian girl suffering from a mental affliction. The incident has traumatised the entire Christian community in the country, but especially in Gojra, a village in Punjab that was the recipient of mob violence against its Christian community on similar blasphemy calumnies in 2009. The traumatised survivors of that horror in Gojra have had all their worst nightmares revived and freshened in their deeply wounded memories. Meanwhile a bipartisan group of seven US Senators has urged President Asif Ali Zardari, who had taken notice of the incident, to help in the release of little Rimsha. To those who always raise the objection that foreign countries, and especially the US, have no business poking their noses in our internal affairs, it is time to point out to them that the world is now an interconnected one. The so-called ‘butterfly effect’ means anything that happens in any corner of the world is bound to attract the attention of the world community, especially in the context, to which the US Senators referred, of the treatment of our religious minorities. If we allow malign elements in our society to carry out such obvious acts of false accusation for ulterior purposes against innocent victims, we can hardly expect anything but brickbats. The question arises after the unmasking of the Imam’s evil act whether his motive was religious or material. On the basis of the eye witness accounts, it becomes obvious that religion had little to do with it and material interests were central to the mischief. The attempt to create a situation that would drive the Christian community away out of fear would benefit those who coveted their houses and the land they live on. For such mundane considerations are the blasphemy laws abused time and gain. Unfortunately, in the rapid decline into a madhouse that our society is witnessing, calls for repeal/reform of the much abused blasphemy laws cost Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti their lives. How many Salmaan Taseers and Shahbaz Bhattis would have to be sacrificed before sense prevails? How many more Aasia bibis and Rimshas must suffer the torment of false accusation before society and the state wake up to the catastrophic consequences and open misuse and abuse of the blasphemy laws that is taking a heavy toll of our sanity and image worldwide?