Saturday, November 29, 2014
War of insult The level of the political discourse in Pakistan has never been known for achieving any kind of heights. But even our low standards have been kicked into the gutter by the manner in which political rivalry and contention are currently being conducted. This low tone has been set, first and foremost, by Imran Khan and his acolytes in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). The party’s chief has not hesitated since the 2013 elections to assail all and sundry, institutions as well as individuals, with vitriolic assertions, accusations and calumny only slightly removed from the lower depths. Now, on the eve of the November 30 ‘big show’ by the PTI in Islamabad, Imran Khan has launched (once again) into the present governments in Punjab and the Centre, former Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker governments in Punjab and the Centre overseeing the 2013 elections, and even the police as being responsible for rigging, which resulted in a false mandate for the PML-N. He goes so far as to lump the PPP along with the PML-N as targets for his wild and woolly charges, including the latest Platonic wisdom that Punjab and Sindh have been turned into ‘police states’. Imran claims 5.5 million extra ballot papers were printed at three Lahore printing presses for the elections and distributed amongst the candidates of the PML-N for the purpose of rigging. He demands a probe into the charges but not under Nawaz Sharif because it would not be a fair one since the prime minister is the beneficiary of the rigging. The sit-ins, Imran insisted, were intended to bring the riggers to justice and were certainly not intended as a move to invite martial law, which accusation was a travesty of his lifelong struggle. However, in the same breath Imran saw no difference between the present incumbents and the 111 Brigade, throwing in for good measure that the ‘third umpire’ was not the military but the Almighty! The best response to such arrant nonsense would perhaps be silence and sympathy for the embarrassment the author of such charges is causing himself and his party. However, since no such embarrassment seems to furrow Imran Khan's brow, the government has fielded Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed to pay Khan back in his own coin. In a press conference on Friday, the normally mildly spoken minister went overboard, a la Imran Khan, in trying to prove the accuser of the government an absconder, feudal lord, and agent of the international oil mafia, who was assigned to sabotage the visit of the Chinese president through his sit-in since agreements for production of power from coal were to be signed (these were later completed when Nawaz Sharif visited China, the minister reminded us). Not stopping there, the minister whaled into Khan with allegations of earning huge sums abroad for unrevealed services to foreigners, holding a suspiciously large amount of cash in hand, and being a defaulter of agricultural income tax while his luxurious lifestyle was financed by hidden hands. To add icing to the cake, Pervaiz Rasheed trotted out facts and figures to show that the Sharif family paid huge amounts of taxes. Have both sides lost the plot? Imran Khan’s wild and unsubstantiated accusations and allegations hardly found traction beyond his adoring circles. The government so far had been well served by a demeanour of patience and restraint. Now it seems to have striven for, and arguably achieved, the same guttersnipe level as the PTI. Could it be that these exchanges, amongst reasons related to previous court orders being flouted, has persuaded the Lahore High Court to exercise judicial restraint and question why the judiciary should be dragged into such political matters while dismissing a petition seeking the halting of the November 30 rally? Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has stated that the PTI has signed an agreement regarding the terms and conditions for the rally. Any deviation from these, the minister emphasised, would bring the law into action and the resultant outcome would entirely be the responsibility of the PTI. The citizen can only marvel and scratch the head at the shenanigans going on in the country. PTI has the right to protest peacefully, for which an NOC has been issued. But can the party guarantee that its professed peaceful aims are compatible with its leadership’s foaming at the mouth? In the interests of the country and the democratic system which, with all its flaws rooted in the slow reform of a still young dispensation, nevertheless offers the best hope of stability and progress, we hope both sides will show exemplary restraint and responsibility and not plunge us into another unnecessary crisis to add to the list of all the others we are confronted with.
Friday, November 28, 2014
Summit breakthrough? The gloomy mood that had gripped the 18th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was dispelled somewhat on the last day by the public display of bonhomie between Prime Ministers (PMs) Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi when they not only shook hands warmly, but smiled for the cameras to lay to rest the prognosis of a failed summit. However, realistically speaking, the fact that one agreement on a regional electricity grid was signed while two more on road and rail connectivity could not, reflects the long road ahead before South Asia (SA) can revel in a newfound closeness. Whereas the foreign office in Islamabad refuted suggestions Pakistan was the sole country playing an obstructionist role on these agreements, it argued that it was the remaining “internal processes” that had yet to be completed and therefore the agreements could not see the light of day. Even if we take the foreign office’s statement at face value, how is that in one day the ‘internal processes’ on electricity connectivity were ‘completed’ while the other two were not? One may be forgiven for some scepticism. Perhaps it was the thaw between the PMs of Pakistan and India on the last day to which the electricity grid agreement is owed rather than any ‘rapid’ progress on the ‘internal processes’. Be that as it may, the smiles wreathing the faces of all the SA leaders when Sharif and Modi shook hands reflects how precarious is the SAARC project. While the breakthrough on the electricity grid can only be welcomed, given that the region can greatly benefit from energy surplus countries passing on its benefit to energy-deficient neighbours, there are reminders of just how difficult South Asian integration still is. Apart from the pending road and rail agreements, two incidents, one a renewed exchange of fire between Pakistani and Indian forces in the Charwah sector and a rebel attack in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) near the Line of Control (LoC) underlined on the vey day the chink of light became visible in Kathmandu that a considerable distance still has to be traversed by Pakistan and India before normalisation of relations, peace and development for mutual benefit can follow. For one, the festering conflict on the LoC and Working Boundary urgently needs to be defused, the broken off Pakistan-India dialogue resumed, and ways and means found for a political solution for the vexed question of Kashmir. That dispute not only is a legacy of partition, it is difficult of resolution because of the trajectory the dispute assumed since then. India has long ago abandoned any notion of a plebiscite to allow the Kashmiri people the right to decide whether they wanted to remain with India or Pakistan despite the solemn commitment of then PM Nehru and his initiative to take the problem to the UN Security Council. India has steadily retreated from what proved to be an embarrassing international commitment that it feared would lead to Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. For years now, and particularly after the Simla Accord of 1972, India has been adamant that Kashmir is an integral part of India (implying there is nothing to discuss). However, facts are stubborn things and the long running unrest in IHK refutes India’s complacent stance on any given day. India awaits an enlightened leadership that would recognize the problem for what it is, and even if it was not prepared to allow the Kashmiris their right to decide their destiny, would engage with the Kashmiri leadership to find a political solution. Pakistan has long indicated (implicitly) that it has realistically acknowledged the unlikelihood of the plebiscite ever taking place and stated from time to time that any solution acceptable to the people of Kashmir would be acceptable to it. Unfortunately, India has not taken up Pakistan’s offer with a long-term vision to remove the canker of this long running sore and move to more productive areas of interaction with Pakistan and SA generally. Recriminations regarding the past do not help anything of course. Statesmanship from Islamabad and New Delhi could defuse the Kashmir thorn in their side and open the door to the integration delineated in the SAARC summit’s 36-point final communiqué. But for that to happen, the requisite political will is a sine qua non.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
SAARC realities The 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, seems to be playing out to the old, tired script. All eyes were focused on whether the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers would meet on its sidelines to nudge their stalled interaction forward. Unfortunately, far from this desirable outcome, reports indicate they did not even make eye contact or exchange normal courtesies, not even a handshake. This lingering friction between the two largest and mutually conflicted countries of South Asia has once again put paid to hopes for the SAARC summit yielding agreements amongst the eight member countries to push the agenda of cooperation, integration and mutual benefit that underlies the whole concept of the regional grouping. In fact, the first fruits of this disappointing alienation of Pakistan and India from each other appeared when three agreements on sharing railways, highways and energy failed to achieve consensus. And the likelihood of such consensus being achieved, even in the retreat that the eight leaders will enjoy, seems distant. This lack of outcome is doubly depressing since if the speeches of the leaders are anything to go by, conceptually they all appear on the same page. For example, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif in his address to the summit underlined the need for the region’s countries not to fight each other but rather fight together against poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment. He emphasised his vision of a dispute-free South Asia. The PM advised the SAARC countries to build convergences, minimise divergences and augment complementarities in order to bridge the gap between the promise and reality of SAARC. Nawaz Sharif, amongst other points, underlined the need to invest in youth (given the demographic bulge in South Asia), energy, communications, connectivity and integration. On tapping into youth’s creative energy, the PM pointed out that South Asia boasted amongst its population of 1.5 billion one-fifth of people between 15 and 24 years of age, which is the highest proportion of youth in any population in the world. Their potential is undeniable, as is the absence of sufficient focus on this resource, both within the SAARC countries and in the region as a whole. The regret expressed by Nawaz Sharif was informed by the fact that South Asia represents only six percent of world GDP on purchasing power parity basis, just four percent of world trade and a measly three percent of foreign direct investment. A quarter of global humanity in South Asia remains mired in poverty and its concomitant fallouts, prominent amongst them being disease, illiteracy and the lowest human and social indicators. What this means is that South Asia has not been able to take advantage of its cultural affinity, shared geography and history and its unique synthesis of cultures and traditions. Nawaz Sharif would like the region to engage in an interactive process that would reveal the beauty and strength of the true South Asian identity. Expanding on the need for building on the inherent strengths the region possesses, Nawaz Sharif wants SAARC to effectively address common issues such as socio-economic disparities, women’s empowerment, health and education, without losing sight of the worst affliction: widespread poverty. Estimates speak of 43 percent of the population of South Asia living below the poverty line. In terms of numbers, this is a staggering sea of deprived humanity, around 645 million souls. Of course, as Nawaz Sharif pointed out, this requires a high level of coordination at the national and regional levels, which is nothing if not conspicuous by its absence. By now, there is hardly anything left to argue about as far as the potential of South Asia is concerned. Its traditional strengths, including agriculture, now stand poised to take off with the help of the growth of industry, commerce and technology that permeate the South Asian scene today. However, none of the strengths and potential of the region can be taken advantage of so long as some states, particularly Pakistan and India, remain prisoners of history, ancient and relatively recent. If SAARC is to be nudged off the rock on which it seems stuck, Pakistan and India first and foremost will have to show statesmanship and vision of an extraordinarily high calibre to get beyond the things that divide them, embrace the things that do or could unite them in cooperation, and through their mutual extending of the hand of friendship, bring the enormous benefits of a new South Asian order to all the countries of the region.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Ball toss On his way to Kathmandu, Nepal, for the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif tossed the ball of restarting the stalled Pakistan-India dialogue into the latter’s court. He objected to the unilateral cancellation by India of the foreign secretary-level talks that were due to take place in August but which New Delhi cancelled in a huff over the Pakistan High Commissioner to India’s meeting with the Kashmir Hurriyet Conference leaders. The PM said Pakistan was disappointed at the unilateral cancellation of talks that had been agreed by the two PMs when he attended Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. In the context of the 30-year-old SAARC’s progress as a body of eight member countries of South Asia, Nawaz Sharif said the organisation had failed to live up to its potential given South Asia’s huge resources. Unfortunately, he said, differences and rivalries amongst the member countries continued to present obstacles to SAARC coming up to the level of other regional groupings in the world, let alone coming up to the expectations of the 1.5 billion people who inhabit the region. To put the matter in perspective, trade amongst the SAARC members at present is a paltry $ 3 billion, with connectivity through road, rail, telecommunications, energy, etc, still the stuff of dreams. Further, although Pakistan plans to set up three land ports to facilitate trade with its neighbours, it has been unable so far to offer India Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) status (despite India having conferred Most Favoured Nation status on Pakistan in the 1990s). The trade normalisation process with India is at a standstill because of recent tensions emanating from the exchanges of firing on the Line of Control and Working Boundary. The original 1,963 trade items on the Negative List (NL) have by now been reduced to 1,209. However, only 137 items are allowed through Wagah border. NDMA requires elimination of the NL on the Pakistan side and South Asia Free Trade Agreement Sensitive List on the Indian side. The present political atmosphere does not seem promising for progress in these matters for the foreseeable future. While Kashmir remains the main hurdle in an improvement in ties between Islamabad and New Delhi, it is also undeniable that there is no other way to make progress on this and all other issues except through a sustained bilateral dialogue. India, since the Simla Accord of 1972, has been extraordinarily sensitive to and irritated by any attempt to take the Kashmir issue to any multilateral forum, including the UN. Obviously the mention of Kashmir in international forums is an embarrassment for India’s ambition to be recognised as a world power. However, India must realise that this problem will not go away by merely repeating ad nauseam the mantra that Kashmir is an intrinsic part of India, not the least because despite its having been put on the backburner by the powers that be at the UN, it raises its head every time India wants to make its pitch for great power status. We have long argued in this space that New Delhi needs to engage with the Kashmiri leadership to find a way out of the long running cycle of insurgency, resistance and repression that has so damaged life in the disputed territory and extended indefinitely the life of fitfully recurring tensions between Pakistan and India. And that implies that the Modi government’s effort to get the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling at the Centre into power in J&K through the current staggered elections in the State is not the best way forward. For one, the prospects of the BJP, even with manoeuvring alliances with and splits within rival parties, may still not be enough to win it a majority in the 87-seat Assembly. The BJP hardly has a presence in the Valley, and may be relying more on the predominantly Hindu area of Jammu to get a toehold and, as many fear, attempt to change the special status of J&K enshrined in the Indian constitution as Article 370. Modi has proved a hardliner as far as the relationship with Pakistan is concerned. Therefore the chances of a meeting in Kathmandu between the two PMs, and indeed the prospects for a resumption of the stalled dialogue are mired in uncertainty.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
CEC conundrum Finally running out of patience with the much delayed process of appointing a regular Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday refused to give any more extensions to agree on the matter. The SC bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Nasirul Mulk only acceded to Attorney General (AG) Salman Butt’s plea on the circumstance that Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif was in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit and the Leader of the Opposition, Syed Khursheed Shah, was in London for medical treatment by giving the authorities till December 1 to complete the task. The PM and the Leader of the Opposition are the two constitutional consultees in the matter. They are expected to agree on names to be forwarded to the parliamentary committee that endorses one of the nominees for the post. Failure to meet the last and final deadline of December 1, the CJP observed, would result in the acting CEC, Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali of the SC, being withdrawn on December 5. The court said notices could be issued to the PM and Leader of the Opposition to explain their failure to comply with the court’s orders. Some legal circles were of the view that such notices could be issued under contempt of court. The court was obviously displeased by the apathy shown by the politicians despite repeated instructions. The AG had told the court that the two consultees had considered the names of some former CJPs and SC judges for the CEC’s slot, including former CJP Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, Justice (retd) Rana Bhagwandas and Justice (retd) Tariq Pervez, but could not finalise any name because of the strong opposition by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). Justices Jillani and Bhagwandas refused nomination and Justice Pervez was left by the wayside in the aftermath of this development. All this failed to cut any ice with the bench, however, given that earlier deadlines had come and gone without the process of appointment advancing even an inch. So much so, the SC on November 13 had warned of withdrawing the acting CEC by November 24, but that deadline too was not met. Only the PM’s absence persuaded the court to extend the deadline by one week for the last time. It is pertinent to remind ourselves that there has been no regular CEC appointed since the last incumbent, Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, resigned on July 31, 2013. There have been three acting CECs since then. Even if the PTI’s obstructionist role is taken into account, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the courts’ orders are not being followed in this and other instances. For example, the local bodies polls issue, which forms part of this case, has yet to see the light of day despite several hearings and orders of the SC. Similarly, the SC’s directive to set up a minorities commission for their safety, especially in the light of the Kot Radha Kishan incident of the burning to death of a Christian couple at a brick kiln, has yet to see any movement towards implementation. One could therefore understand the bench’s obvious ire and impatience with what has become almost a pattern of dissembling and ignoring the courts’ orders by the executive in particular, and politicians in general. Those who shout about democracy day and night must also be aware that in our triarchical division of constitutional powers, the judiciary is the third pillar of state. Ignoring its advice, suggestions, let alone explicit orders, is not less than flying in the face of the constitution itself. Only when the political class shows the proper respect to the judiciary in line with its constitutional obligations will all other institutions and citizens learn to respect the judiciary and, by extension, constitutionalism and democracy. Reports say the PM and the Leader of the Opposition have spoken on the telephone about fresh names for the CEC’s post before the former left for Kathmandu. They are expected to meet on Friday for finalising the names. The hope is that the constitutional consultees will rise to the occasion and their responsibilities and ensure the process is completed. If they fail to do so, the withdrawal of the current acting CEC will result in a vacuum since the CEC is a constitutional post. It will also have the effect of paralysing the Election Commission of Pakistan, which cannot function without a CEC. All in all, the writing on the wall is clear. Hopefully the consultees too will have got the message.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Widening ambit The Special Court trying former military ruler General (retd) Pervez Musharraf on high treason charges has through a split 2-1 decision, accepted his plea to include his alleged collaborators in the imposition of the November 3, 2007 emergency. To this end, the court has ordered the inclusion of former chief justice of Pakistan Abdul Hameed Dogar, the then prime minister Shauqat Aziz, and the then law minister Zahid Hamid. The last named resigned from the Nawaz Sharif cabinet after the order. The court did not accept that part of the defence counsel’s plea for further widening of the ambit of the case to include former military top brass or the parliamentarians who endorsed the emergency. Be that as it may, the order as it stands implies that the case proceedings so far stand nullified and the case will virtually begin afresh after the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up for the case has had an opportunity to restart the investigations to include the three alleged co-accused named in the order. Witnesses and evidence will have to be produced and submitted ab initio after investigation in order to meet the demands of the court’s procedure and justice. As if this delay, which could stretch from months to years, were not enough, the question of ‘persuading’ and/or issuing international warrants to get Shauqat Aziz back on home soil, without which the joint trial cannot proceed, seems destined to become a major roadblock to progress in the case. Musharraf’s defence lead counsel, Barrister Farogh Nasim’s strategy all along had been to persuade the court that his client had not acted alone and that the requirements of public interest and justice demanded that his alleged advisers/collaborators also be indicted. The court has partially accepted his plea after it had reserved its verdict on the same on October 31. Justice Yawar Ali recorded a dissenting note stating that the defence had failed to persuade him of the involvement in imposing the emergency of those the defence wanted included, and that post facto implementation of the emergency’s provisions did not amount to collaboration in what is seen as a violation of the constitution. In effect, the acceptance of the defence plea, albeit partially, can be considered to have put paid to any ideas the government may have had of putting Musharraf in the dock for treason for reasons actually stemming from his 1999 military coup that overthrew Nawaz Sharif’s government, imprisoned him and family members, and finally sent them into forced exile in Saudi Arabia. Since the government did not charge Musharraf for the 1999 coup and only confined itself to the 2007 emergency, it has left its case open to the kind of clever manoeuvring Musharraf’s defence team has resorted to, which could effectively mean the case may or may not chug along, and even if it does, may not find closure till the end of the government’s tenure. So much for that project. Naturally, the court’s order has been met with delight on the part of the Musharraf team and sheepishness on the part of prosecutor Akram Sheikh. It is no secret that the military was less than pleased to see an ex-COAS dragged over the coals in this and several other cases filed against him since the Nawaz Sharif government took office. In fact some analysts see this as one of the issues on which the military has managed to wring behind-the-scenes concessions from the government by taking advantage of the pressure exerted on the government by the Imran/Qadri sit-ins. Whether that speculation has any weight or not, one would perhaps not be remiss in thinking that the decision would have pleased the military. This government’s penchant for shooting itself in the foot is once again demonstrated by the quixotic project to bring Musharraf to justice on treason and other charges. Even a child could have told the ‘wise’ heads in the government that this would prove a red rag to the bull and create unnecessary complications for the government. But throwing all caution to the winds, the government went against the wishes of the military by proceeding headlong with the case and now seems hoist by its own petard. The desire to redress the imbalance in civil-military relations and punish coup makers may be unexceptionable on the touchstone of justice, but to embark on such an adventure in the absence of the requisite political strength to see it through smacks of foolishness in the extreme. The government now once again seems to be whistling in the wind without a clue how to proceed from here.
Friday, November 21, 2014
COAS’s visit Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif’s visit to the US has yielded interactions across the board and in depth with the policy movers and shakers of Washington. His meetings have included, amongst others, CENTCOM’s top brass, Department of Defence top officials, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, members of various Congress committees, etc. While the visit is still ongoing, it may be difficult to pronounce on its final outcome. However, interim conclusions can be drawn, based on the responses of General Sharif’s US interlocutors. But first the speech delivered by the COAS at a reception on Thursday by our Ambassador to the US, Jalil Abbas Jilani. General Sharif stated categorically that the Haqqani network, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and all other militant groups were being targeted without discrimination in the ongoing military operations in FATA in order to defeat terrorism squarely. He went on to assert that those who played football with the severed heads of our soldiers would not be spared. He assured his audience that Islamic State (IS) would not be allowed to set foot in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The context in which General Sharif felt it necessary to issue this clear message included the recent Pentagon report that accused Pakistan of still harbouring terrorists on its soil and the embarrassment caused by Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz’s interview in which he questioned why Pakistan should target those who were not Pakistan’s but the US’s enemies. This aroused anger and criticism in Afghanistan and the US respectively, with the latter particularly incensed at any suggestion that the Haqqani network, considered mainly responsible for the deaths of 2,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, could by any stretch of the imagination be considered ‘good’ Taliban by Pakistan. Of course the foreign office tried furiously to conduct damage control by saying Sartaj Aziz’s remarks were quoted out of context. Nevertheless, General Sharif had his work cut out for him in allaying any alarm or concern amongst his hosts regarding the issue. After all, quite irrespective of these recent reasons for concern, who does not know that Pakistan has offered safe havens and continues to host militants on its soil? Better to confront reservations about Pakistan’s policy head on rather than dissemble, particularly given the importance of the visit’s mission. As General Sharif and his spokesman, DG ISPR Major General Asim Bajwa have been at pains to emphasise, the visit should not be seen through the narrow, transactional prism of seeking military hardware, aid, etc (although reports say the possibility of the US transferring some of its hardware in Afghanistan to Pakistan is under discussion). The task General Sharif has set himself is to lay the foundations of a long-term relationship with the US. This includes military-to-military cooperation and the whole gamut of issues after withdrawal of the bulk of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan by year’s end. Neither side would like a vacuum of power to emerge in Afghanistan that may be exploited by militant forces battling Kabul. Although General Sharif’s interactions have elicited positive vibes from the US administration, Congress and the military, the vexed question of Mulla Omar and his Taliban forces remains the unspoken of elephant in the room. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to Islamabad has visibly improved the atmospherics between the two countries, at loggerheads virtually throughout the tenure of former president Hamid Karzai. Would the military establishment facilitate the process of rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban that Kabul wants? That would be a real test of the bonhomie on display when President Ghani was in Pakistan. Pakistan’s official position, particularly since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government came to power last year, has been to support an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process. Although such a process and its success is clearly in the interests of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the wider region and the world, Pakistan may be called upon to put its money where its mouth is in persuading Mulla Omar to engage with Kabul. As far as Pakistan’s current campaign against militants is concerned, General Raheel Sharif brings impressive credentials to the task of rooting out terrorism from Pakistan. He is considered the most prominent counterinsurgency General of the present army top brass, having trained troops for the task and written the counterinsurgency manual for the army. However, it should be noted that the COAS takes a holistic view of the struggle against terrorism, pointing out in his reception speech that the drive against terrorists was not confined to FATA but encompassed the whole country. That is particularly reassuring, given that observers have expressed reservations about the seeming weakness of the counter-terrorism aspect of the campaign.
Friday, November 7, 2014
Time for repeal Pakistan is being subjected to one horror after another every other day. Close on the heels of the brutal, barbaric torture and burning of a Christian couple and their unborn child in a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan, comes the report of a policeman hacking a prisoner to death in a police station in Gujrat who had been detained for alleged blasphemous utterings. As usual in such cases, there are contradictory versions of the events leading up to the bloody murder. According to the murderer, ASI Faraz Naveed, the detainee, Syed Tufail Haider, had been saying blasphemous things continually since he was brought in, and finally, the police officer could not control his emotions and axed him to death. Gujrat District Police Officer Rai Ijaz Ahmed however, revealed that the detainee had used swear words, which infuriated the murdering police officer. The victim had been picked up by police after a scuffle with some people who alleged that he had uttered blasphemous words. It also transpires that the police were aware of the presence of the victim in Gujrat much earlier as he had been found using expletives at various points on the city streets, was briefly detained on more than one occasion, and finally freed on the grounds that he appeared mentally unstable. The question this case therefore boils down to is whether Haider was killed for blasphemy or using foul language, and whether he was fully in control of his senses. The fact that the murderer claimed blasphemy after the act reminds one of how the blasphemy law has been misused and abused in so many cases that on deeper examination are based on settling scores or gaining some material advantage. The Christian brick kiln workers mentioned above had a monetary dispute with the owner of the kiln where they worked and may have been eliminated for alleged blasphemy when the real reason was more materialistic and therefore even more sordid. The blasphemy law provisions have emerged as a convenient catchall justification for literally murder. All one has to do to eliminate a rival or someone from whom some material benefit can be derived is to accuse them of blasphemy, mobilise a vigilante mob with the help of some local frothing-at-the-mouth cleric, and the deed is done. Why such witch-hunts and lynchings are becoming ‘popular’ and more and more frequent is because the courts have proved incapable of punishing false accusers and murderers in this context. Take the case of Governor Salmaan Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. Despite being sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court (whose judge had to flee the country for fear of his life), he languishes reportedly in comfort and with the freedom to proselytise and instigate prison staff to commit similar atrocities because the Islamabad High Court in its wisdom is still sitting on his appeal against the death sentence. Justice delayed is justice denied, the old saying goes, but in this case this is not the only tragedy. Mumtaz Qadri has proved himself a threat to society by instigating another jail official to shoot dead one blasphemy accused and wound another inside Adiala Jail. Failure to punish murderers using the blasphemy cover for their heinous objectives has encouraged others to utilise this loophole and the inability of the judicial system to provide justice. In the climate that is abroad in the country, the mere accusation of blasphemy, true or false, often seals the fate of the accused. Our descent into fanatical barbarism is accompanied by our inability to face up to the challenge. Civil society’s protests and condemnations fail to create a critical mass of opinion that could change things. Political society’s response too is lip service to condemnation without lifting a finger to alter the state of affairs. Even one of the largest parties in the country, the PPP, failed to come to the aid and support of its own Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was literally thrown to the wolves by his party’s pusillanimous leadership and torn apart by religious fanatics and right wing opinion makers even before he was brutally gunned down in a cowardly attack by his security guard. All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing to combat it. This is where we stand today as a society. It is time to revisit the blasphemy law with a renewed vision that even fresh legislation to provide safeguards against false blasphemy accusations will not do since the accused is likely to be killed anyway. The blasphemy law must simply be repealed. The time has come. Neither Allah nor his Prophet (PBUH) need our puny and misguided efforts to defend them.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
Relief at last After a federal cabinet meeting on Friday, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif announced a major reduction in petroleum prices. The decreases of up to 11 percent are the biggest in 10 years. Petrol has been slashed by Rs 9.43 per litre, from Rs 103.62 to Rs 94.19; diesel by Rs 6.18 from Rs 107.39 to Rs 101.21 per litre; kerosene by Rs 8.16 from Rs 95.68 to Rs 87.52, and HOC by Rs 14.68 from Rs 131.13 to Rs 116.45 per litre. These reductions have been made possible by the fall in the international price of petroleum, from $ 104 in August to $ 98 end-September and now hovering around $ 85 per barrel. The trend of falling international oil prices began earlier this year, but the government only now has acted on the logic of domestic prices being pegged to the international trends. It has often been the case in the past that governments have taken advantage of rising oil prices to jack up domestic rates since this nets the government higher petrol levies (currently Rs 6-14 per litre) and GST (17 percent), but ignored the opposite trend. The reductions announced by the PM will inevitably mean that the government’s revenues will take a hit, estimated at Rs 1.5 billion for November. While the government seems prepared for this revenue loss to bolster its public image as a caring administration and not the callous or indifferent regime the sit-in authors and other critics have been painting it as over the last few months, the oil industry seems unprepared to forego its profits. Hence the margins of the oil marketing companies and dealers have been raised to compensate them. This along with the impact of the depreciation of the rupee against the dollar reduces the reduction. According to the PM, and rightly so, federal and provincial authorities must now be on their toes to ensure the benefits of the reduced petroleum prices reach the common man. Whereas the country-level transporters’ organisations have already announced a reduction in fares, the Karachi transporters are sticking to their guns. It goes without saying that hopes are up that the reduced petroleum prices will not only make commuting cheaper, it will also lower the transportation costs of goods, which should translate into a much needed fall in prices across the board. Apart from the benefit to the common man, reduced petroleum prices will inevitably also be beneficial for industry, trade and power generation. If economic activity receives a desperately needed shot in the arm as a result, the decision will have been more than vindicated. The second major issue taken up in the cabinet meeting was the audit of overbilling of electricity over the last two months. The PM rightly rejected the audit report that attempted to whitewash the overbilling to the tune of 31 percent by ascribing 22 percent to the tariff increase last year and nine percent to increased consumption, thereby not only denying any wrongdoing but failing to point out the officials responsible for the debacle that is costing the government dearly in public goodwill. Nawaz Sharif ordered a fresh audit report within a week and ordered officials to address consumers’ complaints in this regard and compensate them for excessive billing. The PM also set up a high powered committee led by the Finance Minister to look into the overbilling conundrum and assess the best relief package for electricity consumers. The water and power secretary had proposed a Rs 22 billion relief to consumers of 300-500 units of electricity per month, but the PM wanted some more midnight oil burnt on this before a decision. Whether it is overbilling or the performance audit of the federal ministers, clearly Nawaz Sharif has decided to take matters in hand to refurbish his government’s declining stock in the public’s eyes. None too soon either because those in the know and perceptive observers have been complaining for months that the government has lost focus and decision making ability. A reversal of this trend can bring nothing but good for both the government and the country.