Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Double track Pakistan seems to be caught in a cleft stick. On the one hand, given our public posture of being beholden to Saudi Arabia for its help over the years, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ringing declarations of support to the Kingdom are understandable. However, this is only one face of the Pakistani dilemma. On the other side is neighbour Iran which, although it has denied supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen (a position endorsed by the Pakistan foreign office, whose spokesperson says there is no proof of Iranian involvement), is widely accused of being behind the rebellions’ major advances in recent days. Pakistan does not want to insert itself into what is perceived as a proxy sectarian war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan’s interests are obviously best served by maintaining friendly ties with both countries. That is why Pakistan is now turning to the UN, OIC and the international community to find a political solution to the Yemen war that would let Pakistan off the hook of committing troops to the Yemen war in support of the Saudi-led Sunni Arab coalition. Whether such multilateral diplomacy can yield any results seems difficult given that the OIC is toothless, the UN prevaricating, and the so-called international community wondering whether the US’s support for Saudi intervention is something they want to go along with. Meanwhile events on the ground in Yemen are rapidly escalating along with the bloodshed. While the Saudi-led air strikes have taken out missile systems and blunted the pell mell advance of the rebels, the military logic suggests and reports confirm Saudi preparations for a land offensive into Yemen. This then is a sensitive and critical time for the high level Pakistani delegation to be visiting Saudi Arabia for discussions. The Pakistani decision makers will perhaps be clearer about their chosen path once the delegation returns and briefs them about the situation. The Pakistani authorities have shown unusual alacrity in mounting an evacuation of Pakistanis caught up in the fighting in Yemen. One flight carrying almost 500 stranded Pakistanis has arrived back safely, but one cannot be sanguine about the fate of the rest of our countrymen still there. Aden is threatened by the Houthi advance, so escape overland to Mokallah and then by air to Pakistan has become precarious. Evacuation by sea is being contemplated, with the foreign office revealing that two naval vessels have been dispatched for the purpose as well as feelers sent out to China, which already has naval ships in the area, to help with the evacuation of the remaining trapped Pakistanis. The tragedies of such a war are familiar tales. Around 40 people have been killed and 200 injured by airstrikes near a displaced persons camp at Haradh in northern Yemen. Exiled president Hadi blames Houthi artillery for the collateral damage. Saudi Arabia has no comment. Threatened Aden has also seen for the first time Egyptian warships in action to stave off the Houthi juggernaut. Most interestingly, the real aim of the Saudi intervention is revealed in a cabinet statement that says the Kingdom is open to a meeting of all Yemeni parties to preserve the country’s security under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One wonders then whether such a robust military intervention really was necessary if all Saudi Arabia wanted in the end was a political-diplomatic solution. Did Riyadh even attempt such a move? There is no evidence to that effect. The flexing of Saudi military muscle in the region of late, starting with the intervention in Bahrain and now Yemen, points to the dual role Riyadh appears to be acquiring of policeman for the Arab world in defence of Sunni power against Iranian-Shia encroachment. This may sound acceptable now that Saudi Arabia has the military bite to match its bark, but the whirling eddies of spreading sectarian conflict throughout the Muslim world it may set off would be a replay five centuries later of the sectarian wars that tore Europe apart. That extended conflict ended with secularism separating church from state. Whether the Muslim world can achieve a similar outcome, which logically seems the only way to prevent a dangerous and bloody sectarian conflict from spinning out of control, is still an open question. For Pakistan, we reiterate, the best course is to be patient, diplomatic, and keep its powder dry while staying away from an extremely dangerous entanglement that looms.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
COAS’s resolve Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif stands out in contrast to his predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani. Whereas the latter dragged his feet over clearing FATA, especially North Waziristan, of terrorists and their local and foreign affiliates, General Sharif has taken the bull by the horns. One of the triggers may have been the APS attack in Peshawar that led to the massacre of students and their teachers, but the COAS’s resolve to eliminate terrorism from Pakistan’s soil predated his elevation to overall command of the army. General Sharif is credited with being the conceptual and in practice leader of turning the military towards first understanding and then eliminating the existential threat to the country that entrenched terrorism represents, and which by now is received wisdom across the board. The COAS, even before he was elevated, is widely believed to be the counterinsurgency General of the army, having written the manual on the subject and trained troops for the task. Not for General Sharif the ambiguity and duality of long years of prevarication and spurious distinctions between good and bad Taliban that hamstrung any effective action against them in the wishful desire to project power in Afghanistan through armed proxies. Instead of achieving that outward aim, the country is now suffering from the ‘reverse osmosis’ of Pakistani Taliban based on Afghan soil mounting raids against the military and security forces on our side of the border. There is little doubt that Operation Zarb-e-Azb has rocked the terrorists, once considered difficult to winkle out of their redoubts in FATA, on to the back foot and triggered an exodus from areas in the path of the military’s operations. It therefore comes as no surprise when the COAS reiterated his and the army’s determination to go after the terrorists wherever they may be. His message while addressing the convocation of the CMH Lahore Medical College on Saturday was straight and unambiguous. He said the army was tackling the menace of terrorism head-on and would not rest till it had delivered to future generations a terror-free Pakistan. The task of cleansing Pakistan of terrorism promises to be a protracted one. After all, terrorists have proliferated and consolidated themselves for four decades and more on our soil as an unintended consequence of our long involvement with our neighbour Afghanistan. While endgame approaches in Afghanistan with foreign troops reduced to a virtually token presence and the Kabul government open to political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to find a peaceful solution to the long running war, Pakistan has a big stake in such an outcome next door. Peace in Afghanistan would have the reverse effect of continuing war. The latter would open up the door to the risk that the Afghan Taliban may be tempted to go on supporting the Pakistani Taliban on their soil, to Pakistan’s security detriment. Peace on the other hand, would avoid such a spillover and may even make the existence of the Pakistani Taliban inside Afghanistan difficult if not impossible. On the domestic front, we now have the first report to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under the National Action Plan (NAP). The report states that from December 24, 2014 to March 25, 2015, the law enforcement agencies have arrested 32,347 people on various charges in 28,826 operations conducted across the country since the start of the NAP. A province-wise breakdown shows that of these operations, 14,791 were conducted in Punjab, 5,517 in Sindh, 6,461 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), 84 in Balochistan, 405 in Islamabad, 1,394 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), 83 in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and 91 in FATA. The breakdown of arrests reveals that of the total 32,347 people arrested, 2,798 were from Punjab, 6,467 from Sindh, 18,619 from KP, 3,483 from Balochistan, 762 from Islamabad, nine from AJK, 30 from GB and 179 from FATA. It may appear at first glance incongruous that there appears not to be a correlation between operations in a province and arrests made from that province, and this is especially glaring in the case of Punjab. But it is inherently very difficult to find such a correlation for the simple reason that such operations are intelligence-led which, like all human endeavour, is an imperfect science. The number of operations therefore cannot be expected in each and every instance to reap a similar crop of suspects. But it is nevertheless reassuring to see that Punjab leads the list of the number of operations in the context of first, the perception that the terrorists have treated Punjab as a safe haven in the past and therefore refrained from too many actions in the province, and second, the allegations and accusations in the air that the Punjab government tried to save the province from the unwanted attentions of the Taliban by appealing to them to spare Punjab. Whatever the truth of such past mistakes and illusions, the fact that the figures underline what the COAS said, that terrorists would be pursued no matter where they are in the country, is cause for satisfaction. However, the other side of the picture is that even after such intense operations in a relatively short time, terrorism is not completely scotched and that brings us back to our starting point: we are in a protracted war against terrorism, one we cannot afford to lose.
Friday, March 27, 2015
A bad idea In response to the Houthi rebels’ advance on Aden, the southern port city of Yemen where embattled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled when the capital Sanaa fell to the insurgents and who has now left the country to appeal for support from the Arab League meeting in Egypt, an Arab coalition put together by Saudi Arabia has intervened through air strikes. The move has evoked responses along expected lines in the region, with Iran condemning it and its Shia allies such as Iraq and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon joining in. The escalation of the civil war in Yemen has set in motion an international/regional dynamic as well as widened some old and other relatively new fissures internally. On the external front, it is by now clear that Saudi Arabia is counting on Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan to join its military intervention in Yemen. On Thursday it was revealed that Pakistan too has been asked to contribute to the effort. Whereas the Pakistani foreign office has been at pains to deny that any decision on the request has been taken just yet, high level civil-military meetings indicate a disturbing rush to get involved. A ministerial level delegation including senior military officers was due to travel to Saudi Arabia for discussions on the issue on Friday, but that visit has been postponed because of the Arab League meeting being attended by all Arab stakeholders. The statements emanating from the government disturbingly hide behind the mantra that any threat to Saudi Arabia would be met with a strong response. It is questionable however, whether any such ‘threat’ exists. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour Yemen is going through the trauma of a bloody struggle for power does not, by any stretch of the imagination, threaten Saudi sovereignty or territory, unless one buys the notion that Yemen has always been Riyadh’s ‘backyard’ and therefore not beyond Saudi whims and wishes to control events in that country. For Pakistan to insert itself into the middle of a largely sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen would be foolish adventurism. Pakistan has enough problems of its own on its plate, including but by no means confined to a life-or-death struggle against terrorism. To offer Pakistani troops for the war in Yemen would place us unnecessarily at loggerheads with neighbour Iran, and cause complications for our relationships throughout the Middle East. It is by now also clear that the purpose of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent unscheduled dash to Riyadh to meet King Salman was tied to the request that has now broken water. For our rich Arab friends to regard the Pakistan army as a mercenary force available for fishing in their troubled waters, including siding with one side in a sectarian-tinged war, is insulting to the dignity and respect of our fighting men. Yemen has had a troubled modern history. Once two states, North and South Yemen, it merged into one country after the North’s civil war between royalists and nationalists ended in the former’s victory and the communist government in the south was removed in 1990. The merger broke down into a civil war between north and south in 1994, in which former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh crushed the south brutally. Saleh himself fell to the winds buffeting the region in the shape of the Arab Spring in 2012. His deputy and successor Hadi has steadily lost ground of late to the Houthi rebels, backed by former president Saleh and his son Ahmad’s supporters, whose ranks boast military units loyal to Saleh. The Saudi air strikes followed the deployment of 150,000 Saudi troops on the Yemen border and were carried out by 100 aircraft. Other Arab countries such as the UAE are said to have supplied aircraft and pilots for the mission. In the midst of this Sunni-Shia divide and conflict, the old resentments and separatist sentiment in the South have re-emerged. Whether it finds traction in the present circumstances or not, it does show that Yemen is fracturing along sectarian and internal regional lines. For an already troubled Pakistan with more than its share of problems to get involved in this complex and potentially explosive war sounds like a thoroughly bad idea.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Pakistan Day Every March 23rd, Pakistanis genuflect towards an imagined idea of their country, a construct that has striven since independence 68 years ago to grip the hearts and minds of our people without, it must be admitted, universal acceptance. The reasons for this duality and confusion are not hard to find. Post-1857, the Muslims of India struggled against marginalisation, the insecurity surrounding which was spurred by Hindu majoritarianism and even, at the fringes, revanchism. When it became clear (gradually, it must be said) that Muslim dominance in India had seen its day, the response of the community was diverse and differentiated, reflecting its internal divisions. The first school of thought to lose out in this crisis was the ‘return of Muslim glory’ trend. Squeezed between British rule and a resurgent Hindu majority whose anti-colonial nationalism was tinged at the margins with an extremist religious mindset, the Muslim polity trifurcated between Muslim (some British created) large landowners (feudals), the religious (millenarian in quite a few cases) lobby, and the modern nationalism of the products of British education: the Muslim intelligentsia. While the first category were predominantly loyal collaborators with the British, the second were hopelessly backward looking, dreaming of an Islamic revival. It was therefore left to the third and newest of the forces that broadly defined the Muslim community to seek its place in the sun, initially under British rule, increasingly challenging it. This intelligentsia’s alliance and cooperation with the relatively modern outlook of the Hindu majority forces, coagulating finally in the formation of the Indian National Congress, is a story of two stages. The first was the period of joint struggle for Home Rule, leading into the formation of the All-India Muslim League, the second the divergence into religious identity, brought on by Gandhi’s appeal to ‘tradition and culture’, which in India’s context could not avoid religion as a reference point. Mr Jinnah, rightly dubbed the ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’, was the first to critique this attempt to sneak religion through the back door into the politics of the independence movement, warning of its divisive and potentially deadly effects. His prescience was validated by subsequent events when the religious divide sparked by Gandhi’s appeal to religious traditional symbols coalesced into the communal gulf, with tragic consequences. By the time the Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940 was passed by the Muslim League, demanding autonomous states in northeast and northwest India’s predominantly Muslim regions, the Congress-Muslim League rivalry had solidified to the point where, even when Mr Jinnah accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan, arguably the last gasp chance for a united independent India, Congress leaders Nehru and Patel threw a monkey wrench in the plan and made partition inevitable. The massacres and displacement of populations that followed were unprecedented in their scale in human history. Almost inevitably, this cruel bloodshed on both sides made ‘permanent’ enemies of the two new states, exacerbated by disputes over Kashmir, etc. It also had the unintended consequence of handing the postcolonial state in Pakistan the key to constructing a national security state under constant threat from its larger neighbour, with the military and bureaucracy inherited from colonialism assuming the viceregal heights and manipulating/using the political forces to their advantage and interest. This capsule view of the origins of Pakistan underlines the trajectory taken by the new state and its continuing validity even at present. Military interventions and martial laws became the punctuation that interrupted brief periods of civilian rule, but the latter lacked the necessary strength and vision to consolidate a representative democracy. Arguably, we keep coming full circle to the same starting point. Today’s Pakistan faces the most serious challenges of its chequered history, perhaps even greater than the events that led to the breaking away of East Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody civil and later India-Pakistan war. Both before and after the emergence of Bangladesh, the Pakistani state, dominated by, and whose policies were dictated to a large extent by the security establishment, has learnt little from its mistakes. Pakistan was always, and remains, a mosaic of nationalities, diverse identities, cultures, languages. In the paranoid aftermath of the shocking events of partition, these realities were ignored in favour of an imagined construct of Pakistani identity, but which proved with time to be hollow and by now is losing in resonance. Only a remaining Pakistan that practices inclusive democracy based on the rights of its federating units, their peoples, and a guarantee of justice and equity can make its place in the comity of nations.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
Ominous signs While attention of late has been transfixed on the MQM and its travails, other forces delivered a deadly reminder in Karachi on Friday regarding the other dangers and challenges that still afflict the city. Two bomb blasts targeted the citizens of Karachi, one through a bomb planted in a motorcycle innocuously parked outside a Bohra mosque in Arambagh, the other a suicide attack on a Rangers vehicle. In the first incident, which followed the by now familiar pattern of attacks on Friday prayers congregations, two worshippers were killed and around 20 injured. In the second, two Rangers were killed, two injured, and another two passersby were also injured. The Bohra community of Karachi is one of the most peaceful, industrious people around. They have been under attack before, more recently in Bahadurabad where one shopkeeper was killed and four others injured. Such attacks have been in evidence from time to time since 2012. It should be obvious that the Bohra community is being targeted not for anything it has done to offend anyone (quite the contrary) but because of its beliefs. The sectarian factor in the spate of target attacks against them therefore cannot be ruled out, although it must be said with regret that none of the perpetrators have so far been brought to justice. The Karachi police meantime are pointing to the possibility that in the second incident on Friday, the Rangers may have been targeted by either militant or criminal groups or even both, since the operation in Karachi has extended its grip to both sets of possible suspects. In a further development, the Rangers have asked the citizens of Karachi to remove all barriers to facilitate their operations within 72 hours otherwise the Rangers would themselves remove them without discrimination. Temporary as it may be, these tragedies on Friday took the spotlight away from the MQM affair. But, as can be expected for such sensational developments, it did not take long for the matter to intrude once again into the media and public space. Rumours swirling around that the names of some top leaders of the MQM had been placed on the Exit Control List were (finally?) laid to rest by a statement from the Interior Ministry denying the speculation on the grounds that no such request had so far been received from the Sindh government and if it was, only then would the matter be considered. Make of that what you will. MQM parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar returned with his MNAs to the National Assembly they had been boycotting since the Nine Zero raid and straight away forced the chair to suspend the rules of business to allow Sattar to harangue a largely empty house on the ‘victimisation’ of his party in Karachi. He underlined the argument that this could prove the thin edge of the wedge and other parties could find themselves on the receiving end of similar unwanted attention all too soon. The prime minister on the other hand is at pains to remind all and sundry that the Karachi operation was agreed to by all the parties, including the MQM, and that it was aimed at cleansing Karachi of criminal elements without discrimination, not to target one particular party. It is becoming more and more difficult to contest the emerging perception that the powers that be have finally decided enough is enough and that the damage to Pakistan’s industrial and commercial hub can no longer be tolerated. If that means any and all armed elements, militants, criminal mafias and the armed wings of political parties have to be taken out to achieve a satisfactory outcome, so be it. If this perception is correct, all one can say is, better late than never. And follow that with the innocent question why it has taken so long for this point to be reached when Karachi has been in increasing turmoil since 1984. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is discomfiting. There is little doubt that successive governments, civilian and military, can be held culpable for the mess Karachi has been reduced to for purely expedient political reasons, whose chickens have finally come home to roost in a manner that leaves no choice but to sweep clean with a big broom.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Operation Karachi How things have changed in the country’s biggest metropolis, commercial and industrial hub and the stronghold of the MQM. Starting with the Rangers raid on Nine Zero, the powers that be seem to be gathering force and strength to cut the MQM down to size. But unlike the operations against the party in the 1990s, this time the orchestrated strategy seems more subtle, defendable and far more effective. Basically, through the exposure of Nine Zero as a safe haven for criminals and wanted elements and a reservoir of illegal weapons, and the ‘confessions’ of Saulat Mirza, the MQM has been put badly on the defensive, struggling to hold its head above water, and probably desperately seeking remedies and damage control. Hit man Saulat Mirza’s allegations in particular have wounded MQM and its leadership to the quick. The MQM’s legal eagles have attempted to discredit Saulat Mirza’s confession as ‘a mockery of justice’ (given that it emerged hours before his execution and long after his appeals process had been exhausted) and inadmissible as evidence. That may be so, but there is no indication that the authorities seek to use his confession in a court of law. It is possible that their purpose is entirely different: to so sully the reputation of the MQM and its leadership that the party is laid open to further actions against it without the defence of ‘victimisation’ to hide behind. The events of the past few days have certainly put the cat among the pigeons as far as the clouds gathering over Karachi’s shoreline are concerned. The ground appears to have been cut from under the feet of the MQM, leaving it vulnerable and unable to deploy its usual ‘weapon’ of bringing Karachi to a shuddering halt. Of course the risk in this conjuncture is that the party, or its militant wing, may seek to ‘defend’ itself by force of arms. If any elements in the MQM are thinking along these lines, they would be advised not to contemplate going down what may be a disastrous path for the future of the party. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar is the soul of reticence in his public statements (including on the floor of the National Assembly) regarding the whole affair. He hints at giving the British High Commissioner proofs in the Imran Farooq murder case but discreetly refrains from indicating what those proofs are or what they show. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the High Commissioner, Philip Barton, has chosen to travel to London for consultations soon after his lengthy meeting with Chaudhry Nisar. At the same time, the minister is careful to make clear that no formal request regarding action against Altaf Hussain in London has been made. Perhaps this is wise because of the perception that the British authorities may not readily agree to any extraordinary measures against British citizen Altaf Hussain that go against the grain of British laws and traditions. Meanwhile reports say the government is contemplating reopening investigations into the murder of KESC MD Shahid Hamid after Saulat Mirza’s pointing the finger of accusation at no les than Altaf Hussain and Babar Ghauri. Saulat Mirza’s family house in Karachi has been ‘protected’ by police security soon after his video saw the light of day. And the exact circumstances, place and time the video was recorded has itself become a mystery after Balochistan Home Minister Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti said the video was not recorded in Macch Jail where Saulat Mirza is on death row. MQM Governor Sindh Ishratul Ibad has been at pains to deny the swirling rumours that he may resign (or be removed?). The MQM is boycotting the National Assembly and in a sulk while licking its wounds. If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif’s meeting on Thursday is tied to events in Karachi, as is being speculated, it spells on the one hand the determination of the authorities to finally grasp firmly the nettle of the MQM’s hold on Karachi, and on the other arguably the gravest crisis in the party’s colourful history.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Hit man Condemned prisoner Saulat Mirza has hours before his excution been reprieved, at least temporarily, on the basis of a video released showing him confessing to various crimes and naming MQM chief Altaf Hussain and other leaders of the party as the ones who gave him instructions to carry out target killings. Mirza said he was a MQM worker and received direct orders from party leader Babar Ghauri to assassinate KESC managing director Shahid Hamid, his driver, and guard. He was summoned to Ghauri’s house where he received the instructions on the telephone from no less than Altaf Hussain himself from London. Babar Ghauri, according to Mirza’s revelations, was the normal conduit for relaying such instructions. The former MQM hit man said workers like him were used and later discarded like “tissue paper”. Governor Sindh Ishratul Ibad is accused of providing protection for criminals within the party. Further, he said MQM workers who became popular were killed or removed in a humiliating manner. To illustrate the former he quoted the example of former MQM chairman Azeem Tariq who was murdered and for the latter he pointed to the humiliating ouster of former mayor of Karachi Mustafa Kamal. He appealed to other workers of MQM to learn lessons from his fate, which was the result of being brainwashed in the name of rights and nationalism. Saulat Mirza is said to be a resident of North Nazimabad, Karachi, who became active in student politics and joined the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation, the precursor of the MQM. He first blipped on intelligence agencies’ radar in 1994 after the killing of two US diplomats and four workers of Union Texas, a US oil company, in Karachi. According to a police press conference on December 11, 1998, he was arrested at Karachi airport on his return from Bangkok, subsequently tried and sentenced to death. His appeals process has been exhausted, but Saulat Mirza’s execution has been postponed to allow the authorities to gain more information from the former hit man who is singing like a canary at the penultimate moment. Naturally, the MQM leaders named, i.e. Altaf Hussain, Governor Ishratul Ibad and Babar Ghauri have all denied the allegations. Altaf Hussain said he did not know nor had ever spoken to Saulat Mirza, nor did he threaten the Rangers in his television interview. That however, did not save virtually the entire top leadership of MQM’s names being put on the Exit Control List. The possible exception was Governor Ishratul Ibad, reportedly on his way to Dubai on a ‘private’ visit. Meanwhile the Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, as expected, has asked the British government through High Commissioner Philip Barton to take legal action against their citizen Altaf Hussain and stop him from defaming the armed and security forces in the manner he has been doing, and which has led to the registration of a case against him. Chaudhry Nisar argued such a threatening tone from British soil could damage the ongoing operation against criminal elements in Karachi. Following on after the Rangers raid on MQM headquarters Nine Zero the other day, these revelations by Saulat Mirza have further tightened the noose around the MQM. To add fat to the fire, the killer of PTI leader Zohra Shahid has been held and identified as a MQM worker whom the party says was in the authorities’ custody since February. The party has never been cornered in its entire history, not even during the operation against it in the 1990s, the way it is now finding its space shrinking. Denials and verbal protests are not helping the party wriggle out of the accusations. The country waits with bated breath to see what will happen next. Although the MQM has demonstrated many times in the past its ability to hold Karachi hostage to its whims and wishes, this time looks different. Any such attempt, particularly any manifestation of violence, could literally bring the house down around the MQM’s ears. More reasons for wondering about the PPP co-Chairperson Asif Zardari’s insistence on embracing the MQM at this juncture.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
MQM in the dock A case has been registered against MQM chief Altaf Hussain under Section 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Pakistan Penal Code and Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act for ‘threatening’ Rangers’ personnel who had raided the party’s headquarters Nine Zero in Karachi last week. According to the Rangers Colonel Tahir Mahmood’s complaint, Altaf Hussain in a television interview on the evening of the raid used threatening language against the personnel of the Rangers who conducted the raid. The police says it will now investigate the complaint. This is rich. What will they ‘investigate’? The language is a matter of record in the television interview. End of ‘investigation’. Of course the matter does not end there. Altaf Hussain has been getting away with inappropriate remarks and language against his real or perceived opponents for years now. In this practice, he has been aided and abetted by particularly the electronic media, which in its mad race for ratings, is by now clearly in breach of media ethics. PEMRA, the electronic media regulator, has been in a Rip Van Winkle repose all these years. Now, it has suddenly woken up and advised all television channels to avoid defamatory and objectionable remarks broadcast live, particularly against the judiciary and armed forces. PEMRA’s ‘advice’ to the electronic media is to install time delay mechanisms to retain control over material broadcast live. In addition, three television channels that broadcast interviews of Altaf Hussain have been issued show cause notices for violating the law and rules. Let us see whether PEMRA seriously follows up on all this ‘advice’ or goes back to its normal slumber again. Of interest in the case against Altaf Hussain is the issue of the accused being abroad. The legal course open to the government is not clear, especially since Altaf Hussain has acquired British nationality. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar is reported to have handed over an English translation of Altaf Hussain’s remarks to the British High Commissioner in Islamabad. This suggests the government plans to ask the British government (again) to take action against Altaf Hussain there. How far this will take the government remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Coordination Committee of the MQM is reportedly examining the case with a view to mounting a legal challenge. They claim the case is a “negation of the facts”. An equally intriguing development is the response of the PPP, and particularly its co-Chairperson and former president Asif Ali Zardari. In a parliamentary meeting of the PPP at Bilawal House, Karachi on Tuesday, March 17, Asif Zardari announced his intention to remain steadfast in support of the MQM in its hour of trial, as necessary loyalty and payback for the MQM’s support to the PPP generally, and lately in the Senate elections. When Asif Zardari threw the proposal of inviting the MQM back into the Sindh government open to comment by his parliamentarians, however, what followed was a deathly silence. Only when Nadir Magsi was asked directly by Asif Zardari what his view of the matter was did what is probably the general sentiment in the PPP ranks spring forth. Nadir Magsi said personally he was not enamoured of the MQM but if there was an understanding with the MQM prior to the Senate elections, that must be honoured. Apparently not satisfied with this and a few other responses, Asif Zardari threw the question to the PPP supporters gathered there, but they too ‘responded’ with a non-response. To cover up the embarrassment, Asif Zardari laughingly characterised this as a ‘yes’! It is clear from this episode that Asif Zardari and his pointman Rehman Malik’s stance on keeping the MQM close does not find popular acceptance in the ranks of the PPP. Whether the MQM decides to accept the offer or not, the PPP government in Sindh should carefully consider the implications of sticking its neck out for the MQM when it is in the dock. Standing by an under attack MQM may seem principled and heroic, but it could risk unravelling the Sindh government itself. Although the rumours regarding Governor’s rule in Sindh have been categorically refuted by the PPP, if things spiral out of control in Karachi, all bets are off.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Cry, my country The bombing of two churches on Ferozepur Road, Lahore on Sunday, March 16, in which 15 people died there and then and one injured died the next day in hospital, triggered riots in the area when the youth of the victimised Christian community came out in protest on the road, breaking the Metro bus fence and trashing the ticket office. They also halted all traffic, stoning and smashing any vehicle that tried to run the gauntlet. Given the anger of the protestors, the tragedy of two innocent passersby lynched and their bodies burnt has seared the conscience of all citizens. It was obvious on the first day, and most of the morning of the next day, when the protest refused to die down, that the Punjab government thought the best course was to let the anger spend itself, even if it meant the rioters destroyed private property and endangered citizens who happened to be caught up in the melee. Arguably, the police failed to rescue the two lynching victims and followed a strategy of masterly inactivity. On Monday, attempts by former Punjab law minister Sanaullah and Home Minister Khanzada to mollify the rage of the protestors failed. The failure extended to the Church authorities as well as Christian leaders. The protestors were in no mood to accept the usual homilies trotted out on such occasions. On Monday too, another tragedy was enacted when a woman driver, in a desperate attempt to escape the crowd, mowed down two youth and was herself subsequently injured by the rock-throwing crowd. Such was the blind rage of the protestors that their ‘unguided missiles’ did not even spare other residents of Youhanabad, the Christian colony where the two bombed churches were located. As a result, the Christian community (and other residents of the area) divided into two groups at daggers drawn with each other. It was only in the late afternoon of Monday that the Punjab authorities finally came to the conclusion that the protest was not about to go away of its own accord and decided to take action. First, police reinforcements were called up and tear gassing of the protestors began. When even this did not serve the purpose of dispersing the crowds, three companies of Rangers were also summoned. By late afternoon, early evening on Monday, the crowds thinned out and a modicum of calm was restored to what had taken on the appearance of a battlefield. At the time of writing these lines, it cannot be assumed with sanguinity that today will be entirely peaceful. We must wait and see. The Christian community feels persecuted. Their people have been time and again burnt out of their homes, killed and lynched, usually under cover of a (false) blasphemy charge brought by (usually) vested interests of one sort or another. These were precisely the circumstances that persuaded the late governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer to take up the case of Aasia bibi, an effort that cost him his life at the hands of a fanatic. Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti became the next victim of these terrorist forces for opposing the controversial and much abused blasphemy law. After every incident of persecution and worse, the victims, whether Christian or others, receive from the authorities soothing noises about taking steps to prevent such incidents in future, monetary compensation to the families of the dead or injured, and that is the end of that as far as the authorities are concerned. How many such cases have been investigated subsequently to the stage of justice and closure? Neither such hollow assurances nor money can now assuage the anger of the victimised, nor can they any longer serve as balm on wounds; if anything, the track record of continuing persecution and hapless inaction of the authorities are seen as sprinkling salt on those wounds. It may be of interest to point out that the Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has claimed responsibility for the atrocity in Lahore. The JuA has recently rejoined the TTP, and ‘celebrated’ this decision by killing Christians at prayer. It may not be stretching the point to conjecture whether the TTP and its affiliates have now graduated to targeting prayer meetings. They were already targeting Friday prayers, particularly in Shia mosques. Now if they have included in their target list churches, we should tighten our belts for more Bloody Sundays and Fridays.
MQM revelations The Rangers presented detained MQM worker Umair Siddiqui in an Anti-Terrorism Court on Saturday. In a claimed confessional statement Siddiqui has said to have given during interrogation, the Rangers laid a whole series of serious charges against him. The Rangers say Siddiqui confessed MQM sector in charge Rehman Bhola was responsible for the deadly 2012 Baldia Town fire that killed at least 258 factory workers (allegedly because the factory owners had refused to pay extortion money). Further, that Siddiqui had been given the task of killing MQM opponents and he had been involved in 120 target killings with the help of a 23-member MQM team drawn from various units of the party. The orders for these target killings used to be issued by Hammad Siddiqui, a member of MQM's Karachi Tanzeemi Committee. Umair Siddiqui and his team of target killers also murdered Rangers Lance Naik Shaukat. Umair was involved in the murders of former PPP senator Faisal Raza Abidi's guard and MQM leader Amir Khan's nephew Sabihullah. MQM worker Tahir alias Nadeem SP was also killed by the assassination team. The suspect has revealed that in 2008, MQM's Deputy Convenor Anees Qaim Khani held a meeting at Khurshid Memorial Hall and issued directions to speed up target killings on ethnic/linguistic basis. The target killers were tasked to not only kill MQM opponents but also MQM workers who fell foul of the party's leadership. A dealer in Quetta was used to procure weapons for MQM's armed wing. In February 2015, all sector in charges were directed to deposit their surplus weapons in the MQM headquarters Nine Zero to prevent them falling into the hands of the security forces during raids. Such weapons were transferred in ambulances. Approximately 250-300 target killers are still residing or hiding in the neighbourhood of Nine Zero. Last but not least, in the 2013 elections, on the orders of Umair Siddiqui, 60-70 party workers in Gulistan-e-Jauhar cast fake votes for MQM candidate Faisal Sabzwari at the polling stations in the Maymar sector. The suspect was handed over after the hearing to the Rangers on a 90 day remand for further interrogation/investigation. Accusations by Altaf Hussain that all those (around 140) rounded up in the raid on Nine Zero the other day have been severely tortured notwithstanding, the charge sheet against Umair Siddiqui and other MQM heavyweights reads like a serious indictment. Knowing the modus operandi of the security forces, the accusation of torture cannot be lightly dismissed. Nevertheless, the account the Rangers have presented as a confessional statement conforms to the urban legends about the MQM that have been around for years. What is notable about this account is not only the existence of target killing teams and weapons smuggling, but also what the MQM was doing at critical points in time when it was engaged ostensibly fully in the democratic process. Coming out of enjoying nine years of a share in power under the Musharraf regime, in 2008, if the confessional statement is to be believed, the MQM was carrying out ethnic cleansing of its opponents in Karachi to retain its monopoly of power over the city. And in the 2013 elections, presumably under the pressure of the unprecedented challenge in Karachi from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, they stuffed the ballot boxes to ensure their candidates' victory. Actually this is the least surprising of the revelations since even in the 2008 elections, the number of votes cast and margin of victory of MQM candidates in Karachi did not accord with the visibly low turnout in the city. It is interesting to take note of certain other developments that may have a bearing on the direction the wind may be blowing vis-a-vis the MQM. First, the bomb blast in Orangi on Saturday may or may not be related to the visible noose tightening around the MQM. Second, the federal government is on the verge of sharing with Scotland Yard details of the two suspects in its custody believed to be the murderers of Imran Farooq in London. Third, there are ominous rumblings from the federal government and the security forces regarding the criticism and language directed at the Rangers and military since the Nine Zero raid. All in all, tough times ahead for the MQM.
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Lakhvi furore The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has struck down the detention order of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, accused of being the mastermind behind the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. The background to this development bears keeping in mind. Despite the passage of more than six years, the case has not been brought to conclusion. Naturally this has caused angst in New Delhi and, until recently, was the main obstacle in the restart of the Pakistan-India dialogue. India has time and again voiced its suspicion that the Pakistani authorities have not pursued the case with any consistency or vigour despite necessary evidence being provided by New Delhi. Pakistan denies this and argues the difficulties in the investigation, including alleged non-cooperation from India in gathering evidence has slowed down progress in the matter. The declaration by the IHC that the extension of the detention orders under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) for the third month in succession was unsustainable since despite repeated orders, the prosecution had failed to submit evidence to justify Lakhvi’s detention, has sparked off a diplomatic row between Pakistan and India. India was first off the starting blocks by summoning the Pakistani High Commissioner to register its strong protest at the IHC decision. Pakistan retaliated by summoning the Indian Deputy High Commissioner to deliver its broadside, including objecting to New Delhi’s hype on the issue, failure to address the same through normal diplomatic channels and lack of progress in the Samjhauta Express bombing case. This tit-for-tat script is so old and tired that even familiarity breeding contempt is too mild a description. Lakhvi and six other suspects were taken into custody in the wake of the Mumbai attacks in February 2009. Allegations were rife at the time that Ajmal Kasab and his companions carrying out the Mumbai attacks were being ‘handled’ from Pakistani soil. The case has seen more than its share of twists and turns. On May 3, 2013, the special prosecutor in the case, Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, appointed in August 2009, was assassinated in Islamabad. The perpetrators have not been found to date. It would appear logical that the assassination produced a reluctance amongst the lawyers’ community to be associated with the prosecution of the case. While the case hung in limbo as a result, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Islamabad saw fit to release Lakhvi on bail on December 18, 2014, just two days after the massacre of schoolchildren in the Army Public School in Peshawar. India and some other countries took grave exception to this development. Arguably, this is what forced the government to resort to the detention orders under MPO. On December 29, 20104, the IHC suspended the detention order, but the Supreme Court (SC) on January 7, 2015 restored it with the direction to the IHC to decide the matter only after hearing the federal government. Unfortunately, the ineptness with which the state prosecutors have pursued the case continued and provided the IHC with the justification for finally striking down the detention order. Of course, there is every likelihood of the decision being challenged in the IHC and the SC, but the damage to the infinitesimal forward movement in the Pakistan-India dialogue hoped for after the Indian foreign secretary’s recent visit to Islamabad has once again been thrown into doubt. It may also be recalled in passing that an appeal against the ATC bail decision is still pending in the IHC. The failure to prosecute Lakhvi and his collaborators of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, of which Lakhvi is the operations commander, is not only a failure of the previous PPP-led and the present PML-N governments, it is a failure of the state. When the bail and suspension of detention orders emerged, the government’s response was to resurrect a six-year-old kidnapping case against Lakhvi to prevent him walking free. This, in the words of the IHC, was a transparent attempt to keep Lakhvi behind bars. Pakistan needs to wake up to the fact that the dragging on without closure of the Lakhvi et al case risks not only Pakistan-India attempts to resolve their long standing and intractable issues and proceed towards normalisation and good neighbourly relations, all of which are crucial to the future of both countries, South Asia and further abroad, it is likely to invite the ire of other countries too. The US State Department spokesperson has already seen fit to ‘remind’ Pakistan of its commitment to prosecute the case to a satisfactory conclusion. It boggles the mind to think that Lakhvi and company, perhaps because they still enjoy the ‘patronage’ of powerful institutions, can hold Pakistan, India, and the world hostage to their nefarious and malign actions and purposes.
Friday, March 13, 2015
Senate complete The process of elections to the Senate was finally completed on March 12 when the Chairman and Deputy Chairman were installed. For Chairman, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the PPP’s Raza Rabbani would be the automatic choice. And so it proved, since he was elected unanimously in the absence of any challenger. Rabbani brings to the office impressive credentials over the years from his early beginnings as a student political activist to his steady rise through the ranks of the PPP. In recent years, after the restoration of democracy in 2008, he brought to the deliberations of parliament not only an acute legal brain but also a politics of principle that saw parliament as the rightful sovereign institution and worked towards that end in legislative matters and the debates in the house. His outstanding contribution was the framing of the 18th Amendment, a herculean effort that succeeded in hammering out consensus on most of its provisions, the failure to remove many of General Ziaul Haq’s distortions in the constitution notwithstanding. His speech in the Senate on the 21st Amendment that set up military courts brought forth his deeply felt angst at the necessity of voting for something his conscience would not sit comfortably with. Despite that blip on an otherwise enviable clean record as a legislator of some power and talent, Rabbani’s respect amongst his colleagues and the general public did not dip appreciably as most people were prepared to recognise the compulsions of necessity that forced Rabbani’s hand. Before taking oath, Rabbani addressed the house, thanking all and sundry for reposing the confidence they had in him and vowing, expectedly, to uphold the sovereignty of parliament against all comers. In this desirable aim, he appealed to the National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq to work with him. Maulana Ghafoor Haideri of the JUI-F’s election by 74 votes out of 96 cast (of which six were rejected on technical grounds) showed the success of his party chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s manoeuvring as much as the sensitivity of the house to giving a candidate from Balochistan the second highest spot in the Senate. Some mundane political considerations may also have gained the JUI-F candidate some support, especially from the ruling PML-N that is in a coalition with the JUI-F in Balochistan. In an otherwise smooth election process for the Senate, the only surprise was that his rival candidate, Syed Shibli Faraz of the PTI, garnered nine extra votes to come out with 16 against his expected seven votes, six from his party’s newly elected senators and one from coalition ally JI. Much speculation has broken out about these extra nine votes, with critics of the PTI castigating it for possible horse-trading, but most senators regarding it as a signal to all parties, especially the JUI-F, that all was not well in their ranks. The PPP now enjoys the rare privilege of having its Chairman of the Senate for the third time running. Whereas Raza Rabbani promised to treat all his colleagues fairly while running the house, formidable challenges to the new Chairman’s role cannot be ignored. The struggle for democracy in Pakistan has no doubt proceeded incrementally by leaps and bounds, even though when viewed in a day-to-day context or in terms of the people’s discontents with the system’s failure so far to deliver meaningful change in their lives, it may seem the turnaround is glacial and unsatisfactory. The task before the political class is to make the federation, creaking at the joints because of imbalances in power and representation and subject to many strains in national unity and harmony, stronger by consolidating the sovereignty of parliament over and above all other state institutions. This is easier said than done, given, as Senator Farhatullah Babar of the PPP pointed out, the civil-military disconnect and the erosion of parliament’s power at the hands of other state institutions (the stand-off with former Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s Supreme Court being a case in point). Consolidating democracy and its apex elected institutions of parliament was always going to be a slow and uphill grind in Pakistan’s context. But perhaps the glass should be seen as half-full in the hope that whatever has been achieved to date will be carried forward under the competent leadership of the new Chairman.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Nine Zero raid The Rangers carried out an early morning raid on Wednesday on the MQM’s headquarters called Nine Zero and seized weapons and ammunition, along with some wanted suspects and even individuals convicted and sentenced to jail. Although MQM chief Altaf Hussain claimed around 60 people had been picked up, on Thursday the Rangers presented MQM leader Amir Khan and 28 others in court and received their physical remand for 90 days for further investigations. During the raid, one MQM worker was killed and a cameraman wounded by firing that the MQM claimed came from the Rangers while the latter denied it. The postmortem report would reveal whether the Rangers’ claim that he was shot by someone with a TT pistol was true or not. Meanwhile the dead worker was buried on Thursday in a city that had shut down the day before along with some cities in the interior of Sindh, where some incidents of aerial firing were also reported. Expectedly, the MQM condemned the raid, claimed the headquarters of the party had been ransacked and another raid carried out on Altaf Hussain’s widowed sister’s house, an accusation again denied by the Rangers. Altaf Hussain has termed the raid “barbaric” and demanded that “terrorism in the name of search operations” be stopped. He denied the prohibited bore military-type weapons belonged to the party, accusing the Rangers of having planted them. Whatever weapons were in Nine Zero, he clarified, were licenced weapons for self-defence. An intriguing set of questions has arisen because of the action. Some have questioned its timing, with MQM Senators claiming their party was being punished for not voting for the ruling PML-N’s candidate in the Senate Chairman elections. This was roundly denied by PML-N leader Raja Zafarul Haq, who pointed to the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had himself endorsed the PPP’s Raza Rabbani for the post. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah was reportedly aware of the raid but has asked for a report. On the other hand, Altaf Hussain cried on PPP co-Chairperson Asif Zardari’s shoulder and both the former president and Rehman Malik sympathised with their ‘ally’. Imran Khan and his PTI have supported the raid, while the DG Rangers and Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar have defended it by saying it was within the ambit of the law and the agreement of all parties to conduct an operation to clean up Karachi irrespective of political considerations. An MQM delegation met Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and demanded a judicial inquiry. It remains to be seen whether Shah’s assurances to them on this count hold any water. The MQM’s denials are neither new nor unexpected. Over the years, whenever any action is taken against the MQM related to criminal matters, they fall back on the ‘political victimisation’ card. But there were some awkward facts revealed by the raid that the party has to answer for. What was the alleged killer of journalist Wali Babar, Faisal Mota, doing in Nine Zero? Equally, what was Farhan Shabbir, alias Mulla, a wanted man convicted by a local court 13 years ago doing there? Altaf Hussain conceded partially that such elements should not have been ‘harboured’ there and their presence had pushed the party into a tight and embarrassing corner. The question of the origin of the weapons seized, whether planted or not, should come out in the wash of the investigation. The fact is that since the 1992 operation rocked the MQM back on its heels, having prompted the self-exile of Altaf Hussain six months before it began, the party, after recovering from the devastating blow, sought to reinvent itself as a mainstream democratic party and shed the label of ‘terrorist’ that had attached itself to the MQM because of its muscle power and extortionist practices in Karachi. If wanted and criminal elements were indeed sheltering in Nine Zero, the MQM has a lot to answer for. The Rangers may not be universally liked in Karachi, but the fact that their raid yielded a rich crop of wanted people and weapons vindicates the action, pending further inquiries and the judicial process that should follow. No party, not even the MQM that has a solid base of support in Karachi, can be allowed to hold any area, let alone the country, hostage to its partisan, and in some cases illegal, agenda.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
IHC verdict A two-member bench of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) comprising Justice Noorul Haq Qureshi and Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui has upheld the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code while striking down his death sentence under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act. It may be recalled that Qadri was sentenced to death under both provisions by an Anti-Terrorism Court on October 1, 2011. His appeal before the IHC had been hanging fire since then. The IHC bench had reserved judgement on February 11 this year. On Monday, March 9, 2015, amidst tight security around the IHC and a ban on the entry of media and the general public, the bench pronounced its 64-page verdict. The court had little difficulty in coming to the conclusion that Qadri had committed premeditated murder in the light of the prosecution evidence and the stance of the accused himself. Qadri had unabashedly confessed to the murder, which his defence team had tried to paint as extreme provocation brought about by the late Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer’s criticism of the misuse and abuse to which the blasphemy law was being put. The Governor stood up for a poor Christian woman, Aasia bibi, accused of alleged blasphemy and sentenced to death. For this act of kindness, sympathy and truthfulness, Salmaan Taseer had 28 bullets from Qadri’s gun pumped into him from behind by a man charged with the duty of protecting the Governor. On the count of terrorism, however, the court allowed the appeal on the grounds that Qadri’s act had not caused fear or panic, and therefore could not be considered terrorism. With due respect to the honourable court, their lordships should ascertain people’s reactions to the horror that January 4, 2011. The overwhelming sentiment was that if even a Governor of the strongest province of the country was not safe in the hands of his security detail, who was? The court also failed to take into account the indirectly associated murder of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti two months after Taseer’s assassination, also for demanding changes in the blasphemy law that has been open to so much abuse since it was first made more stringent by General Ziaul Haq. Nevertheless, the immediate effect of the ‘half-half’ ruling is likely to be that Qadri will not be going to the gallows any time soon. While his defence team rejoices at the reversal of the terrorism charge, they contemplate going to the Supreme Court (SC) in appeal against the remaining death sentence, while others amongst his fanatical supporters speculate about the possibility that, despite the IHC’s declaring the Anti-Terrorism Court entitled to hear the terrorism charge, pressing for a retrial by a sessions court for murder under Section 302 alone. Others dream of the pie-in-the-sky that Taseer’s family may forgive the murderer, allowing him to walk free. Of course, in the midst of Qadri’s supporters’ usual celebrations, amongst whom unfortunately must be counted a great many lawyers, advocates of the rule of law and critics of the much abused in practice blasphemy law will be less than happy. Unfortunately the government side seems tight-lipped and reluctant to commit to any appeal to the SC, citing the difficulty of finding lawyers to stand as prosecutors in the case. While a detailed perusal of the IHC verdict must wait, reports in the media outline the arguments examined by the bench in coming to its final conclusions. The judgement rightly condemns Qadri for relegating to himself the mantle of accuser, judge, jury and executioner without reference to his assigned duty, the law and the constitution. It also examines the defence team’s attempts to paint Qadri as motivated by purely religious zeal. The judgement quotes from Islamic history and the Prophet’s (PBUH) practice to demonstrate that even in Islam, no one is allowed to arbitrarily take the law into their own hands, even if blasphemy is involved. The verdict refers to the example of mercy practiced by the Prophet (PBUH) to forgive those who had strayed from the correct path and maligned him. The exception was those waging war against the newly formed Islamic state. On the touchstone of humanity, duty, religion and the law, therefore, the court found no mitigating circumstances and upheld the death penalty for premeditated murder. Only time will tell, however, whether the striking down of the terrorism charge will help the wily Qadri escape the retribution he so richly deserves.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Arbitrary style Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif seems a man in an inexplicable hurry. Otherwise it is difficult to understand why he pushes his favourite projects without regard to the law or citizens’ rights. Proof of this assertion is available in the Lahore High Court’s (LHC’s) Justice Mansoor Ali Shah’s stoppage of the signal-free corridor project from Qartaba Chowk, Jail Road to Liberty Chowk on the Main Boulevard Gulberg in Lahore. The LHC has not only seen fit to halt all work on the project until a final decision on the matter, it has ordered the implementing agency, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), to remove all the heavy construction machinery deployed at the site and take no further steps regarding the project except for purposes of facilitating traffic flow. These measures were ordered to be implemented by Saturday evening latest. Work has halted as a result, but the machinery is still in place. The Environment Protection Department (EPD) was ordered to ensure the LHC’s instructions were complied with, and in the event of any violation, the CCPO Lahore was ordered to render full assistance to this end. In an earlier hearing in February, the court had accepted a petitioner’s plea and stopped the massive cutting of trees for the project. In this present hearing, both the LDA and the EPD were put on the mat on the question of why the former had not carried out and got approval for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the latter failed to take action when the project was started without such approval. Now belatedly, and under pressure from the close questioning by the court, the Punjab authorities say a public hearing, which is mandatory under the Punjab Environmental Protection Act, whose section 12 provides that no such project can be started without an approved EIA, will be held on March 16. The petitioners not only asked the LHC to issue contempt notices to the LDA for continuing its tree cutting activity despite the earlier order, they also pointed to the impact the seven-mile corridor was likely to have on the city and its environment and the arbitrary manner in which the LDA was proceeding in the matter. The petitioners argued that the corridor would pose serious health hazards. There were hospitals located along the route, and four pedestrian bridges along its path to facilitate vehicular traffic would cause hardship to patients, noise and other pollution, and have a major deleterious environmental impact. The Punjab authorities, the petitioner further stated, intend to cut not only hundreds of old trees along the route but also destroy the green belts on either side of the Main Boulevard, Gulberg. Lahore is already suffering from increasing pollution and these steps would make the lives of citizens even more miserable. The Punjab government wanted to acquire people’s private property for construction of the corridor, but no legal recourse was being adopted for this. In this manner, citizens’ property and human rights were being blatantly violated. The LHC, after ordering the stoppage of all work until the next hearing, directed the project director LDA and the EPD secretary to submit their replies in writing as to why they acted in this arbitrary and illegal manner. While the court’s intervention can only be welcomed because it may help save the beautiful city of gardens called Lahore from the megalomaniacal ambitions of the Punjab government, it bears reflection that this is not the first time there has been an ‘attack’ on Lahore’s traditional beauty and the lives and rights of its citizens. The case of the Lahore Heritage Park, so named by no less than the Supreme Court (SC), saw this obsession with widening and constructing roads threatening the pristine character of the Canal Road. Had the SC not taken a dim view of the project and its justifications trotted out by the Punjab government, Lahoris may have been deprived of their prized waterway and its green environment forever. That still has not stopped the Punjab government from carrying out road building activities along this Lahore Heritage Park, actions that conceivably violate the letter and sprit of the SC’s directions. What all this proves is that this Punjab government does not give a fig for the law, citizens’ rights or Lahoris love of the traditional character of their city. Lahore, like other cities in Pakistan, has never fully recovered from the onslaught of private vehicles that inundated its arteries as a result of former Musharraf prime minister Shaukat Aziz’s opening the floodgates of leasing. Widening and constructing roads since then has not, and logically cannot, match the exponential growth of private vehicles on the roads. A mass transit system is the irreducible need in today’s times for any big city. Unfortunately, the Metro Bus system just does not cut it for being arguably the most primitive, inefficient, and unsustainable option because of the subsidy of Rs 100 per ride. We can only pray that better sense prevails and the helter-skelter rush by the Punjab government to privilege private vehicle owners (a small minority) over the bulk of citizens is halted in its tracks. The judiciary has partnered aware citizens in reining in the proclivities of the Punjab authorities. But it will require constant vigilance and activism by concerned citizens to halt this destructive juggernaut.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Senate elections Despite a welter of confusion, largely induced by the ruling PML-N, the Senate elections for 48 seats of the retiring Senators did not live up to the hype in the run up to the polling of ‘widespread’ horse-trading, bribery and rigging. Most of the polling in the provincial and National Assemblies proceeded fairly smoothly. The exceptions to this general trend were the fiasco surrounding the FATA Senate elections, the scuffles in the morning between rival party members that led to the postponement for five hours and eventual extension of polling time in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly, and the ‘dent’ in the PML-N’s ranks when the PPP’s Nadeem Afzal Chann garnered about 10 more votes than his party’s strength. The FATA MNAs, 11 in number, were accosted when they arrived to cast their votes with utter confusion engendered by the government’s midnight issuance of a presidential ordinance that restricted the votes of FATA MNAs to one instead of the usual four. The FATA MNAs ran from pillar to post, including to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), to clarify what procedure to follow. The ECP was as clueless as anyone else, and after a whimpering response, recommended to the government to rescind the ordinance since under its provisions, the FATA Senate elections could not be held since the four Senators they were to elect could not be returned on the basis of one vote by each MNA. Latest reports say the FATA Senate elections have been indefinitely postponed until the mess is sorted out. Confusion also attended the KP Assembly polling since rival parties, especially the opposition, complained that the treasury members were not following the rules. This led to hot words and even scuffles being exchanged, which eventually persuaded the Provincial Election Commissioner (PEC) to halt the polling for about five hours. After negotiations between Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and the PEC, polling was resumed in the late afternoon, the time extended, and the polling finally completed late at night. If at all the PML-N’s ill thought through attempt to get the 22nd constitutional amendment passed on the eve of the Senate elections made any sense, it may be said to be reflected in the fact that the PPP’s Chann got 10 more votes than expected, leading to speculation as to who in the PML-N ranks may have voted against the party. An inquiry has been ordered, but may not reveal the ‘turncoats’. This should, despite the limited damage done because Chann did not win despite the windfall, persuade the PML-N leadership to pay more attention to their estranged MPAs. Of the 48 seats up for contention, the PML-N clean swept the Punjab’s 11 seats, the Chann episode notwithstanding, as expected. PPP and MQM combined to divide the Sindh 11 senate seats 7-4 between them. The new entrant into the Senate, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTIO) got five of the 12 seats up for grabs in KP. The rest were scattered amongst the other parties. Balochistan saw the ruling coalition get the most seats, nine of the 12 available, despite the surprise defeat of the PML-N’s Sardar Yaqub Khan Nasir. The end result of this confused and confusing exercise is that the PML-N fell short of getting a majority and, despite the PPP losing its previous majority, the two largest mainstream parties came out on top with the PPP having 27 and the PML-N 26 seats in the new Senate. This implies a hot contest for the Chairman and Deputy Chairman slots ahead. Despite the rigging apprehensions before the polls and the confusion in certain respects that attended the vote casting, some observers claim this is the cleanest Senate election ever. Of course, as usual, Imran Khan disagreed in his press conference on Friday, where once again he indulged his penchant for hurling allegations against all and sundry without feeling in any way burdened by the need to provide proofs. No one claims the democratic process in Pakistan is perfect. But if a reasonably clean Senate election has been conducted, the political class, whose elected members to the new Senate read like a Who’s Who of politics, can perhaps justly pat itself on the back and offer the riposte to its critics that the horse-trading allegations were over-hyped.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Armed or political? It appears the 30-year-old conflict between central Turkish authorities and the country’s oppressed and marginalised Kurds may finally be drawing to a close. On Saturday, representatives of the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government held a joint press conference at which a message from the jailed leader of the main Kurdish resistance, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, called on his followers to lay down their arms in a forthcoming conference in spring. The HDP’s Sirri Sureyya Onder at the press conference emphasised, “This is a historic declaration of will to replace armed struggle with democratic struggle.” The statement came after Onder had a 45-minute meeting with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan and Interior Minister Efkan Ala in Istanbul. The ground for this meeting and its outcome had been laid earlier by HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas, whose deputies shuttled between Ocalan’s island prison of Imrali in the Marmara Sea near Istanbul and the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq where the PKK’s fighters are based. The PKK, a nationalist Kurd guerrilla resistance, is listed by Turkey, the US, NATO and the EU as a terrorist organisation, much like all such armed resistance movements have been lumped in the terrorist basket worldwide after 9/11. There was a time after the Second World War and within the framework of the Cold War when armed struggle against colonialism, imperialism, oppression and despotism was hailed as legitimate and heroic. This was a period when most if not all third world countries, whether still under colonialism or having ‘graduated’ to the pantheon of post-colonial dependencies, were under the draconian rule of military dictatorships and authoritarian civilian despots backed by the west led by the US. On the other hand, the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba and the communist bloc as a whole supported the struggles of peoples all over the world for liberation and freedom. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist Eastern European allies, and especially after 9/11, all such liberation movements found themselves confined to the ever-increasing-in-size waste basket labelled ‘terrorist organisations’. So much so, even the Kashmir armed resistance was so dubbed and has since, along with its sister liberation movements in the rest of the world, struggled to establish the verity and justification of its resort to armed struggle. This development was eventually tied up with the received wisdom post-1991 that revolution had been consigned to the dustbin of history and there was no alternative to the new world order of liberal democracy as the political shell for all states and free market economies (capitalist) for all societies. Although those capitalism advocates who have written off revolution as a possibility may be jumping the historical gun in their current triumphalism because of only a superficial understanding of the processes of history and revolutions, the past offers the lesson that revolutions occur when the people come to the conclusion that there is no other way to overcome oppression and deprivation (of rights, livelihood, etc). It cannot be denied that the current received wisdom has permeated the consciousness of the people of the globe, east and west, north and south, and the advent of formally democratic even if flawed governments has blunted the appeal of radical ideas (with the exception of course of the Islamist terrorist phenomenon, which is another discussion altogether), it would be philosophical, political and historical shortsightedness to ignore the possibilities of new forms of ‘revolution’ to overcome the peoples of the world’s discontents with an unequal and unjust internal and global order. Whatever the final outcome of the debate about armed versus political struggle, it is a matter of satisfaction that the Turkish government of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has attempted, since it came to power, to ease the restrictions on its Kurd minority’s rights. For example, there was a time when calling yourself a Kurd or speaking in the Kurdish language could land you in a Turkish jail. These absurd draconian restrictions stemming from a flawed ultra-nationalist Turkish rhetoric steeped in post-Ottoman visions of uniform identity, were gradually but steadily loosened by Erdogan’s government. Caution was dictated by the apprehension of a Turkish nationalist backlash. Similarly, the current dialogue with the PKK runs the same risks. However, the courage of the Erdogan government in grasping this nettle firmly can only be admired and welcomed. There are lessons in the Turkish effort to make its democracy truly representative and inclusive, extending identity and other rights to the Kurdish people in order to pave the way for persuading the PKK and other Kurdish groups that the new Turkey had turned its back on despotism and oppression and was prepared to embrace its Kurdish citizens. Shades of what is needed in Pakistan vis-à-vis Balochistan there. If only…