Monday, November 23, 2015
State of fear Another alleged blasphemy related incident involving the Ahmedi community in Jehlum has once again highlighted the parlous state of affairs regarding the blasphemy issue and especially the state of fear in which minorities generally, and the Ahmedi community in particular, live in our country. The incident began on Friday, November 20, when a supervisor in a factory owned by Ahmedis allegedly burnt copies of the Holy Quran as part of the scrap used to fire the factory's boiler. Workers at the factory reacted to the alleged blasphemy and filed a complaint with the local police. The local mosques then got into the act as they tend to do and instigated people against the alleged blasphemy. An enraged mob forcibly entered the factory, set it on fire along with workers' homes on the premises and vehicles parked inside the compound. Around 14 people living in the factory, including eight women and four children, fled to safety with the help of the administration. Mercifully, there was no human toll in the attack. The police arrested four people initially but released three of them later. This further enraged local people and, egged on by the anti-Ahmedi diatribe from the mosques, they torched an Ahmedi place of worship in Kala Gujran. The local administration and police had failed to anticipate such an eventuality and provide security to all such obvious targets in the area. Only after the Kala Gujran incident in which an inadequate police force deployed failed to hold back the agitated mob were army troops deployed to control the situation, reportedly on the orders of Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar. The vigilantes then blocked the GT Road between Jehlum and Islamabad and it took the deployment of army troops and Rangers to get the highway cleared after about seven hours. Ahmedi spokesmen refuted the version of the incident being put out by local people and the police. The factory in question was a chipboard manufacturing unit that burns scrap as fuel for its boiler. The question of intent remains unanswered, although that has never stopped vigilante mobs taking the law into their own hands, an aberration Chaudhry Nisar found unacceptable after the event. The same spokesmen revealed that Ahmedi families residing in the area have fled for their lives, leaving their homes at the mercy of the mobs. A climate of fear has gripped the community, which is apprehensive of more attacks against their persons and properties. Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif responded to these events by convening a high level meeting, ordered an investigation, and directed the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order to visit Jehlum and review the situation. The incident reflects the usual pattern of such events. A rumour is sufficient to agitate some people, the mosque throws fuel on the fire, and the rest unfolds in familiar manner through a vigilante mob. Despite the repetition of this pattern from time to time, the government has not stirred a finger to prevent and pre-empt such happenings. Chaudhry Nisar's umbrage at people taking the law into their own hands, while correct in principle, did not and could not prevent precisely such an outcome nor will his statement make any difference to future similar incidents. Time and again, either a misplaced notion or some vested interest can rely on the mosque to blow things out of control. Some restraint must be placed on the ability of the mosque mullahs to instigate such madness. There is little need to point to the repeated incidents of accusations of blasphemy, usually false, which lead to violence, to persuade those with any sense that this affliction has gone on long enough and something needs urgently to be done to prevent such chilling happenings. At the heart of the problem lies a blasphemy law with the maximum punishment of death but with no remedy against false accusation. As far as the besieged Ahmedi community cowering in a state of fear in our society is concerned, we must all express our solidarity and sympathy with them as human beings and citizens, irrespective of our faith or views on their set of beliefs. And while we are at it, is it not time to revisit the 1974 Second Amendment in which parliament relegated to itself the right and power to determine religious questions, thereby violating the spirit of founder Quaid-e-Azam's view of a tolerant and inclusive Pakistan, and condemning in perpetuity the Ahmedi community to its present state of fear of unremitting persecution?
Monday, November 16, 2015
Bloodbath response The simultaneous attacks at six different locations in Paris by Islamic State (IS) on Friday night reaped a toll of 129 innocent people killed, 116 wounded, of whom 67 are reportedly critical. The worst carnage occurred in the Bataclan concert hall where a musical event was in progress. Eighty-seven young people were slaughtered there by attackers who coldbloodedly fired indiscriminately at the crowd, calmly taking time to reload and finish off people at point blank range before commandos assaulted the hall and rescued dozens of people. Forty people were killed in five other attacks, including a double suicide bombing outside the Stage de France where President Francoise Hollande was watching a football match. The president was immediately whisked away and he has declared a state of emergency, the first in France since World War II. Apart from the concert hall and stadium, cafe terraces were raked with machine-gun fire. President Hollande described it as an act of war by IS on France. It is being called the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the Madrid train bombings of 2004 in which 191 people died. Six of the attackers blew themselves up. A seventh was shot dead by the police. The existence of an eighth gunman could not be confirmed. The whole carnage lasted 40 minutes, with automatic weapons and explosives used indiscriminately to target innocent victims going about their business or just relaxing and having a good time. France's response to the atrocity has been to reimpose border controls to prevent any collaborators of the terrorists escaping, local sports events were suspended, concerts cancelled, the Paris metro, schools, universities and municipal buildings closed. Emergency services were mobilised, police leaves cancelled and 1,500 troops drafted. While hospitals recalled staff to cope with casualties, radio stations warned Parisians to stay home and give shelter to anyone caught out in the streets. President Hollande promised a 'merciless' response, but it is still not clear what that means. IS has called the attacks 'the first of the storm', indicating there may be more attacks inside France and Europe as a whole. The whole world has expressed grief and solidarity against this mindless violence against peaceful innocent citizens. Although there are no words to describe the horror of IS's latest atrocity, the reasons seem obvious. Just as a Russian airliner from Sharm el-Sheikh was reportedly bombed the other day and all passengers killed in retaliation it is surmised for Russia's intervention in Syria against IS, France is now on the receiving end of revenge attacks by IS for the country's role in support of the western aerial strikes campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. It would perhaps be insensitive to describe in the middle of the tragedy the cost to innocent victims of their government's policy in the Middle East as the chickens coming home to roost, but there is no denying the nexus between the mess created in the Middle East and North Africa by western interventions and the retaliatory revenge attacks being claimed by IS. President Barack Obama was elected on a platform of ending his predecessor George Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Disappointingly, however, while he has created an even bigger mess in both countries through ill thought through withdrawals, he can also boast of the signal honour of starting two new wars in Libya and Syria, the former leading to the destabilisation of North Africa (the Maghreb) and the latter the wider Middle East. Gaddafi's overthrow in Libya at the hands of western-backed insurgents supported by NATO bombardment has left that country in a parlous civil war and sparked off jihadi conflicts in the Maghreb and even deeper south in black Africa. The Syrian intervention's obsession with overthrowing Bashar al-Assad arguably opened the door to the rise of IS. If George Bush's revenge against al Qaeda for 9/11 could be likened to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, an endeavour whose 'splat' spread the jihadi affliction far and wide, Obama's interventions into the cauldron of the Middle East and North Africa have exponentially increased the terrorist threat beyond borders. Unless the US abandons its quest to unseat Assad, recognises his objective status as an ally in the fight against IS, dumps its jihadist proxies in Syria (which include the al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front), and persuades its western allies as well as friends in the Middle East and beyond to join ranks against IS and construct a collective global architecture to demolish the hydra of IS, the terrorist international will continue to enjoy the initiative and have ample opportunity to replicate the Paris massacre.
Turning point? The Friday November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris have reaped the first retaliatory response by France. President Francoise Hollande had declared the Islamic State (IS) attacks as an act of war in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. Now on Monday French air strikes have hit Raqqa, Syria, considered the headquarters of IS. Helicopter gunships and A-10 planes also hit IS’s oil convoys in the area in an attempt to eliminate the terrorists’ source of funding by selling oil in the black market. Meanwhile at home, relatives of one of the attackers have been interrogated, raids are being mounted en masse, some people are under arrest, others in house arrest. A global manhunt has been mounted for one of the attackers believed to have escaped. Europe-wide security crackdowns have led to establishing the links of the three jihadist cells believed to have coordinated the attacks with the Middle East, Belgium, possibly Germany and homegrown French roots. The revelation that one of the attackers travelled through Europe alongside Syrian refugees, seeking asylum in Serbia, have made the worst nightmare of the five million Muslim community in France and the refugees influx come true, with calls by right wing parties to end uncontrolled immigration. Muslim mosques have been dabbed with hate messages in Paris and the already marginalised Muslim community fears for its safety. This misplaced concreteness in blaming the peaceful Muslim community in France or the refugees fleeing war zones afflicted by jihadi terrorism would be ironic were it not posing serious threats of further division and ethnic/religious conflict all over Europe. US President Barack Obama has vowed to finish IS at the G-20 summit in Turkey while the EU is saying to Russia to focus its military efforts in Syria on IS. However, it is France and the western alliance that needs to realign its stance on regime change in Syria to confront all jihadis, including the so-called moderate opposition that includes al Qaeda affiliates. A new IS video released on Monday has threatened attacks on the US and Europe. Security has been beefed up in the US and all over Europe even though the American security establishment does not yet envisage attacks on the mainland US. However, this may prove too sanguine a view, given the demonstrated ability of IS to infiltrate cells all over the world in preparation for such massacres. The focus on the Paris carnage has eclipsed the twin suicide bombings in Beirut just a day earlier on Thursday that killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 239. The suburb of Beirut struck is a Hezbollah stronghold. IS claimed responsibility and warned of more attacks on Hezbollah, which is fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad along with Iran against the jihadi opposition and IS in Syria. The Pakistani Foreign Office has seen fit to declare categorically that IS does not exist in the country and that Pakistan is ready to overcome such challenges. That may be unnecessary denial and chest thumping. The fact is that the terrorism base in Pakistan can easily lend itself to IS’s purposes, as is happening already on the margins of the Afghan Taliban. Terrorism of the IS and all other varieties is by now a global phenomenon and it will not do to lapse into complacency on the basis of the undoubted successes the military’s counter-insurgency operation in FATA have gained. Counter-terrorism is still, as the military has recently emphasised, where the lag is. No country in the world can now afford to let its guard down, especially not a country like Pakistan, which has been centre stage for decades in the incremental growth beyond borders of terrorist organisations. With COAS General Raheel Sharif visiting Washington currently, the issue of resolving the Afghan conundrum through peace talks assumes critical importance. If the Afghan Taliban insurgency can be resolved through some political power sharing deal, it would have two collateral benefits. One, it may deprive the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan of its safe havens across the border on Afghan soil. Two, it may free up our military and security forces to focus on the possible emergence of an IS threat. As the cliché goes, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. No room therefore for burying one’s head in the sand in denial.
Friday, November 13, 2015
Civil-mil ruction Pakistan is no stranger to the civilian-military divide in our history. But whenever it rears its ugly head, there is an inevitable veritable flurry of staking out positions by all stakeholders. In the current kerfuffle that has followed in the wake of the ISPR statement after the Corps Commanders meeting and the government’s rejoinder, the debate in the Senate indicates the underlying alarm caused amongst the democratic forces, which have come together in solidarity and defence of the democratic system and the civilian government despite their mutual differences. The sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, Leader of the Opposition in the upper house, when he said on the floor of the house that although the treasury benches (lately) had been carrying out his character assassination, and despite the fact that he was the government’s most trenchant critic, if it came to the crunch, he and his party would stand by the government. Senator Farhatullah Babar of the PPP perhaps went furthest in not just defending the government (albeit bewailing the fact that he had been reduced to what sounded like an advocate for the treasury benches) but questioning the ‘poor governance’ of the army (the reference being to the ISPR statement’s focus on the poor governance of the ruling PML-N). There was a unanimity of views amongst the Senators that there should be no overstepping the constitutional, limited role by any institution while decrying the method whereby the military conveyed its concerns through a public statement rather than discreetly in meetings that just preceded the Corps Commanders conference. It is interesting to note that the opposition Senators were foremost in defending the government while not being shy of admitting it was guilty of poor governance. This was reflected in the criticism that the government benches appeared paralysed by fear, particularly in the National Assembly, when they failed to utter a single meaningful word in their defence. The task of setting out the government’s case therefore was left to the rejoinder issued to state that implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP), which was the main thrust of the ISPR ‘critique’, was the collective responsibility of all institutions of the state. Tacitly and implicitly, the government seems to have opted, apart from the rejoinder, in considering discretion to be the better part of valour and reportedly instructed the PML-N leadership to say no more for fear of exacerbating the situation. This may well be a blessing in disguise if the past indiscreet utterances of several ministers is kept in view. The rejoinder seems to have been carefully crafted with the objective of preventing or pre-empting any such ISPR pronouncements in future. There has been talk since Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched of a ‘creeping coup’ by the military, meaning leveraging more and more space for itself on security and foreign policy issues at the expense of the civilian government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, perhaps stung twice by the consequences of taking on the military during his previous two terms, has imbibed the lesson not to unnecessarily rock the boat through open defiance. Instead, he seems to have been willing to concede the space the military has muscled its way into on the wisdom that patience pays and this squall too will pass. It only needs to be waited out. Whether however, such a strategy can succeed in the face of the government’s manifest shortcomings and failures in the implementation of the NAP, economic development (skewed almost exclusively in favour of infrastructure at the expense of the people’s problems of health, education, employment, inflation, etc), the energy crisis and a myriad of other accumulated discontents in society that do not figure on the government’s radar, remains an open question. In other words, does the government have the space and time that will allow a strategy of ‘procrastination’ and conceding space to powerful state institutions for the sake of remaining in power, finishing its tenure and living to fight another day, likely to furnish a favourable outcome? Crystal ball gazing aside, it is a moot point and one that has sufficiently alarmed the democratic forces as to forge unity around the defence of democracy and civilian supremacy.
Monday, November 9, 2015
Modi's setbacks Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first visit this year to Indian Held Kashmir has not gone off according to plan. Despite the detention of some 400 Kashmiri leaders of the Hurriyet Conference and their workers and strict security that virtually reduced Srinagar to an armed garrison bristling with soldiers, the Kashmiri people roundly rejected Modi's overtures. At a rally in Srinagar's cricket stadium, Modi announced a package of Rs 800 billion for rehabilitation of the victims of last year's worst floods in more than a century, creating jobs for youth by improving education and promoting industries such as tourism and cashmere wool. However, curfews, tight security, heavy deployment of paramilitary personnel and sharpshooters failed to quell the protests and shutdowns that gripped the whole of Indian Held Kashmir. Schools and colleges were shut and the Indian authorities suspended the Internet for fear it could be used by the protesters to organise resistance to the visit. Clashes with police and security forces by protesters attempting to take out a rally resulted in the death of at least one young man. Mirwaiz Farooq and Ali Gilani both spoke with one voice from house arrest that the Kashmiri people's sacrifices could not be 'bought'. They both returned the narrative to the irreducible right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people. Though the UN has long ago betrayed its responsibility in this regard, its resolutions are still in the field. Even former chief minister Omar Abdullah castigated Modi's attempt to weigh the Kashmir issue in rupees and paisas. Engineer Rashid, who was at the centre of an attack by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPAs in the state's Assembly recently for throwing a 'beef' party, was also detained after he took out a black flag protest. Protests were also held against Modi's visit in Azad Kashmir. This proves that the hearts of Kashmiris across the Line of Control (LoC) beat as one despite the division. As if the Kashmir visit on Saturday's outcome were not bad enough in terms of exposing the ground realities in the state, BJP received a drubbing in the much anticipated Bihar state elections at the hands of a Lalu-Congress combine. Despite the BJP being part of the coalition government in Indian Held Kashmir and in power at the Centre, Modi's 'reception' in Srinagar and the heavy electoral defeat in Bihar indicate that Modi may be in trouble. He had been elected last year largely on the anticipation that he would succeed in reproducing the economic 'miracle' he had managed while chief minister of Gujarat, a tenure that saw the worst pogrom of Muslims in that state in living memory. But what Modi and the BJP failed to realise was that the combination of economic development and a hate-filled Hindutva agenda that seemingly served them well in Gujarat would be difficult, if not impossible, to pull off in India as a whole. The ethnic, class and caste reality of India is much more complex than such simplistic prescriptions could address. Added to this truth are the failure of the Modi government so far to live up to its 'promise' of economic development and the rising crescendo of resistance to the tide of intolerance and hate being fuelled by Shiv Sena and others, on which Modi has adopted a studied silence. This has convinced many secular minded intellectuals and celebrities in India to protest through messages and the return in protest of national awards. All rational, democratic, secular forces in India (and their ranks are formidable) have recognised the threat that Modi and the Sangh Parivar's Hindutva agenda presents to a country that could be torn apart by such divisive politics. Modi and the BJP have erred grievously in thinking India could so easily be 'saffronised'. His predecessor as BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was wise enough to recognise the limits of the appeal of the saffron brigade. He was also a peacemaker. Modi on the other hand has recklessly thrown all caution to the winds internally in pushing (or being complicit in) a Hindutva drive, and externally in stoking tensions with Pakistan, the latter possessing the unthinkable possibility of mutual annihilation. The Indian electorate may already be having second thoughts if not ruing the day they chose Modi to lead the country. The portents therefore for Modi and the BJP's future political fortunes appear bleaker by the day.
Saturday, November 7, 2015
Reinventing the Left The Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (THAAP) is holding its three-day sixth International Conference in Lahore. As its name implies, this is an intellectual forum that seeks to bring a critical outlook on the matters under its preview. Accordingly, on the first day of the conference on November 6, the proceedings fielded papers by various scholars on history, politics and the arts. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a paper by Meher Ali on “The Hidden Left: Communist Activity and Influence in Pakistan’s Early Years”. In it, Ms Ali dilated upon the history of the Left in Pakistan, centred on a discussion of the inhospitable milieu encountered in the new state by leftist parties, particularly the Communist Party. Early support garnered by the Party later virtually vanished due to repression by the state. The most famous episode of this repression against what the state labelled anti-state elements was the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951 because of which such luminaries as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer were incarcerated for long years. Arguably, the move spelt the death knell of the Communist Party in pure form and communists and leftists from then on sought to operate through and with various left-leaning nationalist parties, student and trade unions and in the cultural and intellectual field. The influence of leftist thought across disparate areas in Pakistani society cannot be denied. However, all such efforts dissipated during the extreme reaction unleashed by military dictator General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, resulting in the virtual collapse of the Left in Pakistan around 1981, a full decade before the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. What that cataclysmic event heralded was a post-Cold War world in which capitalism, the mortal enemy of communism and the Left, was given free rein and in its triumphalism fulfilled its historical tendency to expand throughout the world, described today as the process of globalisation. In Pakistan’s political landscape, not only did the Left suffer arguably a grievous collapse in the 1980s, even the nationalist camp that had provided cover and an umbrella to operate under suffered a decline if not its own collapse. Barring small parties and groups that still identify themselves of the Left therefore, Pakistan’s leftist politics has been rendered barren. The problem the remnants of the Left suffer from in Pakistan, in common with similar problems the world over, is the lack of a narrative no longer limited to its own received wisdom of the twentieth century, which by and large has lost its audience and does not appeal in convincing fashion to the subsequent generations that have come of age post-Zia. Disparagingly, these generations are dismissed by some as ‘Zia’s children’. However, this is a somewhat cynical and superficial view that fails to take account of the unprecedented changes in Pakistan as well as the world since 1991. What is missing and may explain the lack of resonance with the young of the residual Left’s narrative is its inability to explain, analyse and lay bare the workings of what has become for all intents and purposes an inter-connected world. The communications revolution, bringing into play the internet and its derivatives such as the social media, by and large are dominated here and everywhere by conservative and even reactionary ideas, not the least of which is the exploitation of the outreach of such new means of communication by the extremist and terrorist camp. The task therefore for the older generation of leftists is to reinvent a Left narrative that grips the imagination of the young. This can only be created through a thoroughgoing critique of existing conditions at home and elsewhere and connecting with the movements and ideas that are today challenging the notion that history has ended in liberal bourgeois democracy and the free market and that there is no alternative to the present (unequal and unjust) world order. Given both the achievements and drawbacks of the socialist, left-oriented and national liberation revolutions of the twentieth century, an honest and objective critique of this rich experience is perhaps the only way to reconstruct a narrative that not only addresses the problems the present dominant capitalist order has presented the peoples of the world with, but tries to critically avoid some of the mistakes of the Left historically, including the practice and eventual outcome of successful revolutions. This narrative must, if it is to have relevance, move away from rigid conformity with the ideas of the past that are no longer apt while conserving the truths the panoply of left literature and practice has bequeathed.
Monday, November 2, 2015
Electoral landscape The exercise of holding local bodies elections in 12 districts of Punjab and eight districts in Sindh in the first phase passed off by and large peacefully, although notable instances of violent clashes between rival party workers were reported from some areas. The worst incident occurred in Khairpur where 12 people were killed in an exchange of firing between rival party workers of the PPP and PML-F. Physical clashes were also reported from various areas but nothing on the scale of Khairpur. The results as available so far did not run contrary to expectations. The PML-N carried the day in Punjab while the PPP triumphed in Sindh. The advantages of incumbency, as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) pointed out in its preliminary analysis, were clearly on display. A surprising development was the emergence of so many independent victors, who taken as a whole counted as the second largest (albeit disparate) group. Two factors may help to explain this phenomenon. First, aspiring candidates who failed to garner their parties' tickets ran as independents and reaped the benefit of their local stronghold constituencies. Second, it could also indicate a level of dissatisfaction with the mainstream incumbent parties. Whether some or most of these independents later negotiate their way into the corridors of power, a phenomenon of long standing in our political culture, the trend should give pause for thought to all the mainstream parties. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has much to learn from the instances highlighted in these local elections in terms of overcoming the lapses and mismanagement reported. Security remains an area of concern and should be focused on for the remaining two phases of the elections. The ubiquitous VIP culture was on display, at least when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif voted in Lahore and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Larkana (a first for the latter). Polling stations were emptied of voters before they arrived. Ostensibly this was for security reasons and offers a contrast with the way leaders in democratic societies appear to exercise their right to vote. The Ahmedi community, in line with its announcement before the polls, boycotted the election on the basis that its concerns regarding status, voting rights and representation went unaddressed. Other minorities and women, both subject to restrictions and problems in past electoral exercises, appeared able to participate unhindered. Physically challenged voters were not facilitated, an oversight the ECP would be advised to correct in future. The exorbitant spending in these elections, in conformity with what has become over the years a fact in all elections, was blatantly and unabashedly visible without causing even a crease on the ECP's brow. Effectively, the electoral road is closed to all but the moneybags in our society. Apart from the emergence of the large number of independent winners, the expected fireworks between the PML-N and the PTI in Punjab ended as a damp squib. The failure of the latter to dent the former in its home base has claimed its first casualty in the shape of the reported resignation of the PTI's Lahore organiser, Shafqat Mahmood. Ex-Governor Chaudhry Sarwar too must take the blame for his failure to produce a satisfactory outcome as the Punjab chief of the party. In Sindh the result was expected since the eight districts going to the polls were all rural areas, the stronghold of the PPP in that province. Although there is much room for improvement in the arrangements for holding the next two phases of the local elections, there is no denying a sense of satisfaction at the beginning of the process of electing the lowest tier of the democratic structure after all the delays and foot dragging, perceived as provincial governments' reluctance to devolve power to the grassroots. It took years of agitating the issue, the 18th Amendment and the efforts of the Supreme Court before even this stage could be reached. Hopefully, the future holds the routine and timely holding of local elections rather than the decade that has been lost since the last such exercise. The ordinary citizen is most interested in the creation and sustainability of local bodies since they promise delivery at the doorstep. Pakistan's halting journey towards a fully functional and consolidated democratic system continues, a source of satisfaction for all democratically minded forces, and a promise of a more stable and mature polity to come.