Monday, July 24, 2017
Trump administration disintegrating? US President Donald Trump and his administration, barely six months in office, seem entangled in so many webs as to suggest it is on the verge of disintegrating or at the very least becoming increasingly dysfunctional and losing whatever remains of its credibility. The one issue that has put the president and his administration in the dock is the ongoing investigation into the Trump election campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, in the midst of further allegations of Russian attempts last year to influence the election in Trump’s favour. The latest developments in the matter concern the resignation of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, ostensibly in protest at the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director. Similarly, a member of Trump’s legal team dealing with the investigation into his and his camp’s ties with Russia, Mark Corallo, has also resigned. This one-two punch has left the Trump administration looking like it is reeling. The reset in the White House team that Trump seems to have initiated reflects mounting pressure from a broadening investigation into the Russia connection, which could potentially include Trump and his family’s finances. In typically combative style, Trump has stumbled into potentially perilous legal territory by trying to draw a red line for Special Counsel Robert Mueller not to venture into areas beyond the scope of the original inquiry into the Russia connection. Analogies are being drawn between the present investigation and that conducted by independent counsel Kenneth W Starr into President Bill Clinton, which began by reviewing an Arkansas land deal and concluded several years later with the president’s impeachment over a lie about a sexual affair. This underlines the mandate of such special counsel to follow any leads that indicate grey areas or potentially wrong behaviour by incumbent presidents. The Clinton administration saw the investigation as a political witch-hunt and openly challenged Starr. Trump and his team seem to be treading the same path in seeking ‘conflicts of interest’ in Mueller and his team’s efforts. Alarmingly, if Trump’s daily barrage of tweets are anything to go by, the president seems indifferent to constitutional, legal and ethical boundaries, except if they serve his own interests. Trump’s track record of six months in office has raised a great deal of alarm at home and abroad. His demeanour points to what has emerged as the pattern of Trump’s behaviour vis-à-vis real and imagined detractors, including hitherto known allies, backers and loyalists. What Trump seems to want is total personal loyalty, and anyone perceived not to be fully on board in this requirement soon earns either a sacking, supersession, or at the very least a verbal assault that makes the target’s position potentially fragile. What Trump in his inflated ego bubble seems unable to understand is that the US has long established constitutional, legal and ethical norms. For example he seems unable to see clearly that officials in the US system swore allegiance to the constitution, not the person of the president whose team they are on. The separation of powers and checks and balances in the US constitutional construct do not spare even the high and the mighty. The US system has incrementally evolved away from tacitly turning a blind eye to presidents’ faults and not shrinking from impeaching incumbents if warranted. Examples of this from recent years are Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But Trump seems oblivious of this history, or if he is aware, trumps it by the calculations of what lies in his interest alone. Abroad and at home, critics are ruing the apparent loss of US leadership of the world, an established fact since WWII. Retreat from climate change agreements, unguarded, indiscreet and undiplomatic pronouncements about NATO, Europe and other allies, not to mention China, North Korea, Cuba, etc, paint Trump and his administration as whimsical, incompetent and positively dangerous for the peace and welfare of the globe. Trump may have been elected on the wave of the backlash and resentment against globalisation and other contemporary trends in the world, but the signs of even his diehard supporters starting to have doubts about his fitness for the most powerful office may be pointers to an ignominious end for President Donald Trump’s tenure.
A century of revolution and counter-revolution – III Rashed Rahman Guerilla movements in the Third World virtually ceased to exist in the 1990s, notwithstanding some notable examples such as Colombia (that long running insurgency is currently in the process of a turn from civil war to a negotiated peace settlement). And in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and re-emerged as the Commonwealth of (15) Independent States. That construct, aimed at keeping close ties between the newly independent countries that hitherto constituted the USSR, did not prove long lasting and withered on the vine. The factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union are complex and multi-layered, but if one overriding one can be identified it is the inherent difficulties and problems of constructing socialism in a comparatively underdeveloped country, and that too in the face of unremitting hostility and sabotage by the imperialist powers. That inevitably leads the revolution and its leadership into a siege mentality, where survival against imperialist subversion and attempts at restoring the ancien regime dominates over all other considerations. The war communism imposed on the USSR during the life-and-death struggle against the monarchist White Guards and their imperialist supporters soon after the 1917 revolution inevitably produced great hardship for the Soviet people, including hunger and in some areas, starvation. The victory of the revolution in this conflict was therefore achieved at great human cost and suffering. Immediately after the end of the civil war, the Bolsheviks introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) to stimulate a revival of the economy, offering concessions to the rich peasantry (kulaks). Lenin predicted that after its overthrow, the resistance of the expropriated capitalist and large landowning classes increases ten-fold. The class struggle, therefore, could only intensify, despite the revolution’s victory. This perceptive view re-emerged in Stalin’s work, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, after the victory in WWII. His prediction about the need to intensify the struggle against the class enemies of the revolution reflected what hindsight reveals was the growth of capitalist restoration forces that had quietly gathered force as a result of the devastating losses, human and material, in WWII, which fed into a resurgence of silent resentment against the deprivations experienced since the revolution. Stalin’s repression of ‘counter-revolutionary’ dissent, both outside and inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), led to his denunciation by new leader Nikita Kruschev in a secret speech to the CPSU Congress in 1956. The leak of the speech (allegedly by the US CIA) evoked unrest in Hungary that year, aimed at an overthrow of the communist regime that had emerged there and in many countries of eastern Europe after the Soviet Red Army liberated them from the Nazi yoke on its way to the final defeat of Hitler in 1945. The Hungarian uprising was crushed, but the questions and issues it threw up were never satisfactorily resolved. These included the nature, not only of the eastern European communist regimes, but even the Soviet Union itself. The ravages of war, the needs of survival of the revolution in the face of awesome internal and external odds, the unwise and unfettered repression of any and all dissent within the CPSU, even if it was not necessarily counter-revolutionary, had alienated the party and government from the people. The 1968 crushing of the Czechoslovakian experiment at reform in the direction of ‘Socialism with a human face’ proved that the Hungarian example was not an isolated phenomenon. Both countries’ developments exposed serious contradictions within the communist system. If the crushing of movements that appeared to Moscow to reflect counter-revolutionary tendencies in eastern Europe was problematic, the adventure in Afghanistan (1979-89) proved the last straw. This invasion and occupation ostensibly was mounted to save the Afghan revolution, being led astray, it was argued, by Hafizullah Amin, who had overthrown and killed Nur Mohammad Tarakai, the leader of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. In the process, time has revealed, it killed off the Afghan revolution and, in the process, accelerated the process of collapse of the Soviet Union itself under the weight of its internal contradictions. The backdrop to the 1991 collapse was the attempt by Mikhail Gorbachev, elevated to leader of the Soviet union in 1985, to reform the Soviet system under the rubric perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). What Gorbachev and the Soviet Union learnt to their cost is that an arguably stagnant, bureaucratised and alienated-from-the-people system is at greatest risk when it tries to reform. The rest is history. The collapse of the Soviet Union provoked unabashed triumphalism in the capitalist west, with British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously declaring: There is no alternative (to free market capitalism). In the wake of the capitalist west’s victory in the Cold War, unbridled capitalism expanded horizontally into the former communist countries as well as the rest of the world (globalisation). It appeared that the bourgeoisie’s victory was so complete that Marxism and socialism were declared passé or even dead. But the Red Mole (Revolution) has a peculiar tendency to prove the reports of its demise as premature again and again after every defeat and retreat. The 1999 Seattle protests against the world’s grouping of pre-eminent capitalist countries (G-7), the Occupy Wall Street movement, the focus on the one percent filthy rich of today’s world in sharp contrast with the inequality and immiseration inflicted on the rest of the 99 percent, the resurgence of the Left in Latin America and Europe, all indicate that capitalism’s claims of final victory (the ‘End of History’ thesis, amongst others) is once again flying in the face of history’s lessons. The human aspiration for a just and equitable society, an idea with which this series began, remains alive and kicking in the contemporary context. The struggles against capitalist-imperialist domination will no doubt adopt different forms and paths (as they are already embryonically indicating), not perhaps the classical forms of the revolutions of the 20th century. But for all its undoubted development of the modern world, capitalism in its moment of greatest triumph still faces the spectre of the peoples of the world challenging the system and, if history is any guide, overcoming or changing it in the direction of a just and equitable society. (Concluded) firstname.lastname@example.org rashed-rahman.blogspot.com
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
India-China border tensions China has briefed foreign diplomats in Beijing, particularly the representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, that its troops have been waiting patiently at the Doklam plateau on the border between China and Bhutan in a standoff with Indian troops but will not wait for an indefinite period. This has the diplomatic community in Beijing worried and some have conveyed their concern to their Indian counterparts in Beijing and Bhutanese counterparts in New Delhi. The issue erupted last month when Indian troops blocked Chinese road works in Doklam in an unarmed confrontation involving bumping chests against each other. China says the Doklam plateau is its territory and whatever its dispute in the area with Bhutan, Indian troops have unnecessarily butted in. Indian media reports say Bhutan asked New Delhi for help in the matter. As it is, Bhutan is dependent on its big neighbour India strategically, politically and economically. The Doklam plateau lies in close proximity to the meeting point of the borders of three countries, China, Bhutan and Sikkim, India having annexed the last named in 1975. China says the Indian troops have trespassed into Chinese territory in the area and attempted to change the status quo dating back to an 1890 agreement between China and the then British colonial authorities in India, which delineated the border in this area. India on the other hand has objected that the Chinese road building activity in the area represents a significant change in the status quo with serious security implications for India. China insists the Indian troops must pull back to avoid an escalation and before a meaningful dialogue on the dispute can be initiated. The ruckus has stirred memories of the 1962 Sino-Indian war over the disputed border stretching from Kashmir to NEFA, which India lost. The Chinese side withdrew its troops from Indian territory once the fighting stopped and offered talks on the border dispute. The matter has seen sputtering talks between the two sides ever since, without a definitive solution in sight. Once again the Chinese have shown exemplary restraint in Doklam and this should encourage steps to defuse the situation and open discussions at the negotiating table. China and India are both emerging powers, with the former poised to enter the superpower club, based on the rapid advances in its economy over the last three decades. This economic clout has translated into military might through a modernisation of the huge People’s Liberation Army. India on the other hand is also an aspirant for entry into the big international boys’ club. It harbours fears about China’s outreach in its periphery to the west (Pakistan), south (Sri Lanka and the Seychelles) and southeast (Myanmar, etc), characterising increasing Chinese influence in these countries as Beijing’s strategy of stringing together a ‘necklace of pearls’ to ring India and contain it. Given this rivalry and jockeying for space and influence at a regional and global level, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the smallest incident on the long and sensitive Sino-Indian border can quickly cause bristling on both sides. But it is not in the interests of either side, nor the region nor the world, for such ‘misunderstandings’ and their subsequent frictions to be allowed to come to a pass where military conflict looms. A peaceful competition for global clout is one thing, attempting to do the other side down through military muscle is quite another. Both sides must exercise restraint on the China-Bhutan border ruction, withdraw their troops to positions to restore the status quo ante, and make sincere efforts to sort things out peacefully. Friendly countries could and perhaps should play whatever facilitating role they can to defuse tensions and initiate negotiations.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Three-ring circus Ever since the Panama case started, there has been an unseemly cacophony of comment and even ‘advice’ to the Supreme Court what verdict to give, coloured of course by the particular political bent of the commentator. Whereas the media, especially electronic, has gone to town with such discussions and pronouncements, perhaps the most unsavoury has been the ‘circus’ put on by supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family outside the Supreme Court after every hearing of the case. Here the rostrum to address a media eager to lap up and reproduce every last syllable and word of the heavyweight spokesmen of the government and the opposition has often become a bone of contention, with the two sides vying for, and sometimes pushing for, ‘capture’ of the platform. Unseemly as all this seems, it is what has been on offer in all these pronouncements that is the most concerning. Not only has this rowdiness and free-for-all commentary been unprecedented in a matter that is sub judice, it has not done the respect and dignity of the Supreme Court any good. Superior courts in the past have not shown the extreme patience with this three-ring circus that the Supreme Court bench has displayed. Whether its hesitation to intervene and stop this show has been motivated by a reluctance to be seen as placing curbs on freedom of expression or some other consideration, arguably the restraint has not done the apex court’s reputation and respect much good. The media, especially TV, has in any case given free rein to unrestrained comment on the case and its outcome to both government ministers and opposition leaders. This is bad enough, but the vituperation on display before the Supreme Court by rival spokesmen has been a stunningly unprecedented media circus. With the rise in the political temperature because of the increasingly shriller vituperation by both sides, it was perhaps inevitable that push came to shove between the workers of both sides of the political divide before the Supreme Court on July 17, the day the court started hearing the case in the light of the Joint Investigation Team’s report. Mercifully, the situation was saved from deteriorating into a physical clash by the timely intervention of the police. But the incident shows how the fraught situation in the country because of the weight of expectations from the Supreme Court in the Panama case could so easily lead to physical clashes and even violence between the protagonists of both sides. It would perhaps be in the fitness of things for the Supreme Court bench to take notice of this potentially explosive scenario and forbid the holding of these public addresses to the media outside the courtroom after every hearing. To the objections of the defenders of freedom of expression it can be argued that it is the venue that is sensitive and loaded with implications for the respect and dignity of the Supreme Court. The warriors of both sides can and are welcome to take their diatribes elsewhere and onto the already available TV screens to satisfy their unbridled keenness to steal a march on their rivals after every hearing. The three-ring circus before the Supreme Court is only one of, and perhaps the most visible manifestation of the effects of the case. In the country as a whole meantime, the situation resembles nothing better than a paralysis of governance by a ruling PML-N seemingly fighting for its continued grip on power and to fend off adverse interpretations of the outcome of the case. With the massive distraction of the Panama case, it seems the government has been rendered virtually dysfunctional. The damage to the interests of the country may be unquantifiable, but promise to be massive once the shouting and dust kicked up dies down. The case, if the pronouncements of the two contending sides are taken into account, has taken on the hues of a ‘do or die’ effort by the incumbents and their would-be topplers. With hindsight, we may come to rue the invisible damage wrought by the all too highly visible war of words swirling around the Panama case.
A century of revolution and counter-revolution – II Rashed Rahman The victory of the Russian revolution in the civil war and against imperialist intervention by 22 countries soon after the socialist takeover in October 1917 was achieved after four years (1918-22) of bloody conflict through the length and breadth of the country. It demonstrated the strength and resilience of a people mobilised by a revolution they owned and supported because it had declared itself for the people and against their erstwhile oppressors and exploiters. However, a country already reeling under the privations of the First World War (WWI) was further placed in enormous difficulties because of the ravages of the civil war/imperialist intervention. While the Russian revolution was marching to new victories and demonstrating that the capitalist front had been decisively breached in the largest (by area) country in the world, albeit with significant hangovers of serfdom (abolished in law in 1861) and underdevelopment, the revolution in the rest of Europe was defeated, bloodily in Germany in 1918 and Hungary in 1919. With the retreat of the revolutionary wave in the wake of WWI, the choices and chances of long-term survival of the Russian (by now the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, encompassing the extent of the Czarist empire), appeared bleak. Until the October 1917 revolution, the article of faith amongst Marxist revolutionaries was that without a revolution in (by now defeated) Germany, any revolution in Europe, including the Russian, was doomed. Even Lenin subscribed to this received wisdom. However, history had now placed the Russian revolutionaries in the unenviable position (and, some argued, opportunity) of building socialism in the inhospitable terrain of an underdeveloped country with the barest rudiments of industrialisation and a vast reservoir of peasants relatively recently liberated from serfdom. The slogan of Socialism in One Country proclaimed by the Bolsheviks was as much a pragmatic recognition of the hand dealt them as an admission that backward Russia could not look for succour, support and sustainability from the advanced countries of Europe. The task before the Bolsheviks was formidable. How to lift a huge country (albeit with enormous, untapped natural resources) from its virtually medieval darkness into the light of the modern day exercised the minds of the Bolsheviks. With his characteristic clarity, Lenin summed up the challenge by focusing his government’s economic efforts on electrification (a huge task) to provide the energy base for rapid industrialisation. Having nationalised the commanding heights of the economy, the revolutionary regime gave the working class unprecedented rights, the peasants land under a redistribution of the vast lands owned by the nobility and aristocracy, instituted universal education (including adult literacy), healthcare, skills training and universal employment. In addition, they transformed the ‘prison of nations’ as the Czarist empire was known, into a country with equal rights for all the nations and nationalities in the USSR, including cultural and linguistic rights. Taken as a whole, these revolutionary policies brought enormous change in the lives of the overwhelming majority of the people and evoked in them the spirit of living and dying for the revolution. The example of the Russian revolution inspired generations of revolutionaries all over the world. If the problems inherited from WWI, the seizure of power and the civil war/imperialist intervention were not enough, soon after the (premature due to sclerosis of the brain as a result of an assassination attempt on him in 1918) death of Lenin in 1924, the spectre of fascism began to raise its ugly head in Europe. Italy succumbed to the scourge in 1922 (Mussolini), Germany in 1933 (Hitler). In the latter case in particular, the Nazi Party fed on resentment at the harsh terms imposed by the victorious allies on Germany at the end of WWI through the Treaty of Versailles and the misery of generalised unemployment, hunger and starvation for the working people during the Great Depression (1929-39). In echoes of the development of fascism in Europe, Japan in the east and Spain in the west also exhibited features of fascism. As the immediate threat from fascism grew from a rapidly rearming Germany under Hitler, while the continuing hostility of the other imperialist countries remained a fact of life, the Soviet government embarked on rapid industrialisation, even at the cost of agriculture and other needs of the people based on the argument that either the Soviet Union must catch up with the imperialist countries to be able to defend itself or it would be exterminated. To stave off an attack from Germany, the USSR made a non-aggression pact with Hitler, hoping that he would confine himself thereby to the conquest of the rest of Europe in what Moscow saw as another inter-imperialist war for a redivision of the world (WWI was the first such conflict, and in many ways fed into WWII). However, the USSR under Stalin, Lenin’s successor, gravely underestimated Hitler’s ambition of world conquest and hatred of communism. Having conquered the rest of Europe and driven the British off the continent, Hitler launched a surprise offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1941. The element of surprise, relative technical inferiority of the Soviet forces, and the blitzkrieg (total war) tactics of the Germans initially overwhelmed the Soviet defences and brought Hitler’s legions within striking distance of Moscow. Basing himself on the rapid conquest of the rest of Europe through this unprecedented total war strategy, Hitler thought the Soviet Union would succumb before the onset of the severe Russian winter. However, he had not factored into his calculations the resilience of the Soviet people and revolution. Hitler’s offensive bogged down after its initial rapid advance in the face of the determined resistance of the Soviet people against terrible odds and degenerated into a war of attrition, with the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad reflecting the strategic stalemate. Meanwhile Japan had brought a reluctant US into the war through its sneak attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Now the fascist Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, faced on paper a formidable alliance of the capitalist powers with the socialist USSR. However, the air war over Britain, the American war in the Pacific and the allied war in north Africa notwithstanding, the USSR bore the brunt of Hitler’s cruel hordes. Starting from the defeat of Hitler’s siege of Stalingrad in February 1943, the Soviet people turned the tide against Hitler, finally defeating him virtually alone (until 1944) on the eastern front at the cost of 26 million dead and many more millions wounded. Arguably, as honestly admitted by British military historian Basil Liddell-Hart, the Soviet Union virtually singlehandedly defeated Hitler while the allied effort came towards the fag end of the war. WWII shook the world order to its roots. Movements for independence and national liberation from colonial control broke out and accelerated in the wake of peace. ‘Peace’ does not fully fit the situation, since a divided Europe between the capitalist west and the socialist east entered the Cold War, punctuated by rebellions against the communist regimes of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), crushed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces’ interventions. On the other hand, the part liberation of Korea and Vietnam characterised the growing desire for independence of the colonies in what came to be called the Third World. The Chinese revolution’s triumph in 1949, the Cuban revolution in 1958 and the renewed anti-colonial liberation war in Vietnam (not to mention the indeterminate conflict in Korea 1950-53) inspired the outbreak of guerrilla wars throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. It seemed at that historical juncture that the advance of socialism was looming on the horizon and the day of colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism was done and dusted, especially given the inspiring example of the Vietnamese people’s heroic resistance against superpower the US and their complete victory in 1975. The Vietnam war radicalised the whole sixties generation and this phenomenon changed the social (if not political) world of their elders beyond recognition. However, the owl of Minerva had not yet spread its wings and the liberatory hopes of the Third World came to be dashed eventually at the end of the 1980s. Guerrilla movements were defeated in the Third World, and even where they succeeded in capturing power, soon discovered the process of capitalist domination of their economies by a world order still not fully socialist, and in which the socialist camp’s best efforts to aid and help these newly liberated countries proved inadequate. (To be continued) email@example.com rashed-rahman.blogspot.com
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Mad cow disease The Indian Supreme Court has upheld the suspension by a lower court of the ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter decreed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in May this year. The Supreme Court’s upholding of the suspension would prove a boost for the beef and leather industries, mostly run by Muslims who constitute a 14 percent minority in the country of 1.3 billion souls. The ban limited the trade in cattle to only agricultural purposes such as ploughing and dairy products, ostensibly to stop cruelty to animals, but widely perceived as a plank in the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. This perception is lent weight by the absence of any similar measure by the government for any other animal. Modi had not long ago paid lip service to the growing disquiet against mob vigilante actions against cow slaughter or beef eating. However, his words have not had much effect as such incidents continue at the hands of violent Hindu mobs that consider the cow a sacred animal. Two such incidents have been reported since Modi intervened to condemn violence against people accused of cow slaughter or eating beef. India’s diverse landscape in most matters is also replicated in the issue of cow slaughter and consuming beef. Cow slaughter is already banned in many states of India, but the Modi decree imposed a blanket ban throughout the country. The Supreme Court stressed the hardship the ban had inflicted, affecting livelihoods and curtailing the meat and leather industries worth sales of over $ 16 billion a year. The government assured the Supreme Court it would modify and reissue the May order. Speculation has it this could exclude buffalo (not considered sacred), whose meat reportedly constitutes the bulk of India’s ‘beef’ exports, which totalled 1.33 million tonnes worth $ 3.9 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, as compared to 1.31 million tonnes the previous year. Petitioner Abdul Faheem Qureshi, head of the Muslim All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision. So too did Tamil Nadu lawyer Ajmal Khan, representing the state’s petitioners who were the first to challenge the ban, claiming it infringed their right to eat what they choose, a position that by now represents a flashpoint. When the ban was imposed in May, there was an outcry in many states. Protests against the perceived over-reach by the BJP followed. Many states where cattle slaughter is legal vowed to fight the decree. Both before and after the decree, allegations of cow slaughter and beef consumption against Muslims and other minorities triggered murders and violent reprisals. An estimated 28 people have been killed by mob vigilante violence on the issue since 2010. The matter goes to the heart of the conflict between the secular ideals of the leaders of India’s independence struggle and the communal saffron brigade that has sought over the years to replace both that leadership and its aspirations with its own narrow and bigoted worldview. One manifestation of this conflict was the reaction by some states soon after the ban when they organised beef festivals while counter-rallies by the BJP adorned cows with flowers. This represents nothing short of a struggle over the soul of India, a conflict with many overlays of history and the potential for widespread violence going forward. The Hindutva wallas will have to decide whether they want to preside over a majority Hindu state that acknowledges and upholds the rights of minorities or plunge ahead into the maelstrom of trying to carve out a ‘pure’ Hindu society. The former course would reflect wisdom and realism, the latter an invitation to bloodshed sooner or later. India’s secular, liberal, enlightened forces are already out on the streets in protest at the cow slaughter ‘pogrom’ in motion. It is for wiser heads in the BJP to wake up to the ground realities of a diverse, multi-religious, multi-cultural India before they unleash a holocaust that would not spare them or their future either.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
The shape of things to come The report of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to the Supreme Court (SC) bench hearing the Panama leaks case against Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and his family appears from what has appeared in the media to lay the foundations for further conflict and struggles. The voluminous 10-volume report elicited, logically, a postponement of the proceedings till July 17. Presumably this will give time to the bench as well as the petitioners and respondents (all of whom have been given copies) to study it and prepare their respective responses. The bench has indicated it will not pronounce on the matter before hearing all parties. This is as it should be. Contrary to a widespread perception that the SC would move immediately in the matter as soon as the report landed before it, the judicial process requires a fair hearing to all concerned, particularly the respondents. All this will unfold in the near future but even at this juncture it is possible to examine the main findings of the report and what they may portend. In essence the findings of the JIT posit that the PM and his family have not been able to satisfactorily explain the disjuncture between their declared wealth and sources of income, allegedly submitted false and doctored documents to justify their explanations of the money trail of various transactions involving foreign countries and offshore companies, have mis-stated the actual beneficiaries of some of these offshore companies, and attempted deliberately, directly and indirectly, to mislead the SC. These are serious findings indeed, exacerbated by the report’s pointing to anomalies and contradictions between the statements of various members of the (extended) Sharif family. However, one must resist the widespread temptation to rush to judgement. Let the court deliberate the matter in a manner ensuring due process. The responses to the (partial) availability of the report hold no surprises. PML-N ministers held a press conference in which they rejected the report and vowed to fight it through legal and political means,. The opposition, also no surprise, pounced on the report to demand the immediate resignation of the PM on moral grounds, even before the case has concluded. The government however has explicitly rejected any such notion. Apart from seeing through the court case itself, the opposition appears to have few good options. Threatened street agitation does not at present seem to offer sufficient traction to ensure the goal of unseating the PM. Nor does the emergency session of the National Assembly (NA) demanded by the main opposition parties present good outcomes. If the opposition moves a no-confidence motion against the PM, it is likely to be easily defeated because of the unassailable majority enjoyed by the ruling party in the NA. And if the PM defeated such a move, the opposition’s hands would be tied from repeating it in any relevant timeframe. It should be noted in passing that the case from the very beginning has attracted comment from all and sundry, having thrown the rule of not commenting on matters sub judice to the winds. It has taken the SC all this time to take notice of the matter. Only now has the bench issued a contempt notice to a media group and its reporter for directly approaching a member of the bench to solicit his views through a landline call. And the bench now also requires the record of PML-N ministers’ speeches over the last two months. Hopefully this belated attention to the free-for-all circus that has been swirling around the case will now be restrained if not silenced. As for the stakeholders in the democratic system, which includes the opposition as well as the ruling party, they must act with the requisite restraint to ensure that vested interests do not take advantage of the uncertainty engendered by the JIT report and the SC proceedings to follow to precipitate the kind of political crisis that in our past has led to a folding up of the democratic system per se. Without subscribing to the self-serving theory that holding the PM and his family accountable for their wealth, income, and financial matters constitutes in and of itself a threat to democracy, there are nevertheless enough precedents in our history to make the caution above worthy of serious consideration.
Monday, July 10, 2017
A century of revolution and counter-revolution Rashed Rahman This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Russian communist revolution of October 1917. The hundred years in between have been the most violent in human history. The explanation for this phenomenon is incomplete without a recognition of the central role of revolution and counter-revolution during these 100 years. Mankind’s aspiration for a just and equitable society is almost as old as mankind itself, certainly as old as the emergence of private property, classes, and the state. All these were outgrowths of the ancient agricultural revolution, which freed large parts of humanity from the precarious existence of primitive hunter-gatherers and led to settled communities. The ancient civilisations that arose on this foundation were riverine, as this was the only reliable source of fresh water in sufficient quantity to sustain cities. The three great examples of such civilisations are our own Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt, all more or less contemporary and, as the archeological record shows, in contact and trading with each other. These ancient civilisations and those that followed were based on the subjugation of those who worked the land and provided the riches enjoyed by their ruling elites. This subjugation took the form of slavery and serfdom in the west, the Asiatic mode in the rest of the ancient world (this mode of production rests on the state controlling agricultural production through irrigation and exacting tribute in cash or kind from the peasantry). Subjugation required repressive force, hence the evolution of the state as an instrument of the class rule and domination of the ruling elite. Revolts and rebellions against this extremely repressive system were either crushed bloodily or at best led to a change of rulers without denting the system per se. It was not till the advent of full-blown capitalism, starting from the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, that the glimmer of a systemic change that would abolish the ancien regime first presented itself as a distinct possibility. In its native home in the west, the capitalist mode of production concentrated a scattered peasantry in cities and towns, crowded them into factories for long hours of backbreaking work, and relegated them to slums to live in. It is these miserable conditions of life and work that spontaneously gave rise to working class solidarity through trade unions at work and poor people’s social clubs during whatever scarce leisure time was on offer. The new emerging working class thus now began to take on the hues of a class-in-itself, without yet having achieved the status of a (conscious) class-for-itself. Many utopian meanderings later, the general idea of a just and equitable society, now clearly expressed as socialism, was placed on firm scientific foundations. This scientific socialism, enunciated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century, posited that capitalism, undoubtedly the most dynamic and innovative mode of production in mankind’s history, was also at the same time producing its own gravediggers: the working class. Certainly in Europe of the 19th century, this appeared a real prospect. However, with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and the crushing of the Paris Commune of 1870, counter-revolution and reaction seemed paramount. It was not till the early 20th century that revolutionary hopes were once more awakened. But they emerged in new form since the expected revolutions in the developed capitalist countries of Europe, such as Britain or Germany, had not materialised and ‘backward’ Russia was showing signs of revolutionary ferment. It is a testament to the wisdom and scientific approach of the founders of Marxism that far from being a dogma as uninformed or motivated critics have tried to paint the philosophy, they were open to a revisit of their earlier views if the circumstances changed. About Russia their initial scepticism, especially in the case of Marx, gave way to the acceptance of the possibility of a revolution in comparatively backward and undeveloped Russia. Czarist Russia was a bundle of contradictions, the main one being the conflict between an absolute monarchy and the economic, political and social changes being triggered because of developing capitalism. These contradictions came to a head in 1905 in the aftermath of Russia’s defeat in the Far East at the hands of a rapidly modernising and rising Japan. Revolution not only broke out in Russia, it threw up a new form of political power of the people: the soviets (councils) of workers, peasants and soldiers. Although the 1905 revolution was crushed, the memory of the soviets as a new form of people’s power re-emerged in 1917. The trigger for the 1917 revolutions in Russia proved to be the First World War. An absolutist monarchy out of touch with its people’s misery and demonstrating its incompetence on the battlefield fell prey to a general uprising of the people in February 1917. The revolution abolished the monarchy and declared a democratic republic. Most revolutionaries (including Lenin’s Bolsheviks), not to mention reformers, believed this democratic phase of the revolution would last for an extended period of time, such was the relief and euphoria at seeing the back of Czarism. However, the one man who thought differently changed the course of Russian and world history by arguing that Russia was ripe for a socialist revolution. That man was Lenin who, upon returning from exile, enunciated his April Theses to persuade his own Bolshevik Party that the revolutionary iron was hot, especially considering the reluctance of the interim government of the Cadets Party to negotiate peace with Germany. On the contrary, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘Land, bread, peace’ struck such a chord with the masses that the party soon gained a majority in the soviets. By July, the Bolsheviks were in a commanding position and began to prepare the insurrection that was launched and proved successful in October 1917. The declaration of a socialist state and society in hitherto backward Russia shocked the international bourgeoisie and persuaded 22 capitalist countries to support the monarchist White Guards against the revolution with money, weapons and even troops. However, a revolution that enjoys the unstinting support of the masses is difficult to defeat. The Bolsheviks not only defeated this panoply of local reactionary and foreign imperialist forces, their victory rang the bells for a new era in world history. (to be continued) firstname.lastname@example.org rashed-rahman.blogspot.com
Saturday, July 8, 2017
The wages of the original sin Forty years after General Ziaul Haq’s military coup on July 5, 1977, Pakistan still has not been able to heal the wounds inflicted by that catastrophe. The story is no longer as familiar to present day generations. Therefore it may be instructive to delineate its main lines so that many of the scars on the body politic become at least explicable, even if they cannot be rubbed off. The coup took advantage of a political crisis engendered by charges of rigging of the 1977 elections by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (ZAB’s) PPP government, at the precise moment when hopes were high that the government and the opposition grouping known as the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), the latter having mounted a countrywide street agitation against the former, were on the verge of an agreement that would have paved the way for fresh elections. The immediate trigger for the opposition’s agitation may have been the charge of rigged elections but the PPP government of ZAB was already in the dock of public opinion for many of its sins of omission and commission. Elevated to power in the wake of the 1971 separation of East Pakistan, ZAB turned on and alienated his own party’s left base, launched a military operation in Balochistan after dismissing the NAP-JUI government of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, and hounded his political opponents. This resulted in a broad political opposition to his government coalescing around the controversial 1977 elections. Zia moved, according to some accounts, on the night of July 4-5, 1977 to prevent a political settlement of the Balochistan nationalist insurgency at the time, which ZAB had reportedly conceded. Ironically, after Zia’s commitment to hold elections within 90 days of the coup was reversed when ZAB’s reinvigorated popularity frightened the military regime, Zia, fearing a two-front situation, plumped for compromise with the Baloch to deal better with the resurgent PPP threat. How he dealt with it, with help from the superior judiciary, is also well known: ZAB was hanged for murder. Zia now set about the so-called Islamisation of Pakistan with a vengeance. Religion had been used since independence to push back demands for provincial autonomy and progressive reforms whenever it seemed expedient. But now the state brought to the fore the mullahs and empowered them beyond their dreams. These retrograde forces were unleashed against democrats, liberals, progressives, minorities and women. Freedom of expression was scotched (some journalists being flogged), theocracy firmly established through shariah benches in the High and Supreme Courts apart from creating the Federal Shariat Court as well as through the proliferating (Saudi-funded) madrassas and religious texts in the educational curricula. Zakat and ushr now came to be collected by the state and the incremental tightening of punishments for blasphemy finally ended up in making the death penalty mandatory for it (the aftereffects of this development are visible today in the form of vigilante mob killings). Parliament members’ qualification became subject to religious orientation (the Sadiq and Ameen requirements of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution). Student unions were banned and morality brigades (official and unofficial) unleashed to enforce religiosity (although their malign effects faded with time). However, religiosity spread and continues to have state and society in its grip. The Afghan war came as a Godsend for Zia, extending his tenure until he fell foul of international (and some say some domestic) forces that led to his death in an air crash in 1988. The quasi-theocratic direction Zia set state and society in persists despite efforts to roll back its worst manifestations. Not all of Zia’s innovations however have been eliminated. Jinnah’s dream of a secular, democratic Pakistan lies buried beneath the desiderata of Zia’s self-serving and reactionary policies. Today Pakistan is unrecognisable as the country it was before his advent. Internal and external security, increasing poverty and immiseration and the truncation of citizens’ rights are only some of the enduring legacies of the dark dictatorship of Zia. Time to complete the rollback of his reactionary changes if Pakistani state and society are to regain some semblance of a modern, enlightened, forward looking entity.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
India-Israel honeymoon After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Washington where US President Donald Trump accorded him a warm welcome, it was now the turn of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to roll out the red carpet for the first formal state visit by an Indian premier. And what a roll out. The entire Israeli cabinet turned up to receive Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Netanyahu was to accompany him throughout his stay, and although Modi paid his respects at the Jewish holocaust memorial, he skipped the customary meeting with the Palestinians. Diplomatic ties between India and Israel were established in 1992 under the government of Narasimha Rao. Since then, there has been a steady expansion of ties. Modi’s visit now promises to accelerate cooperation to include defence and military supplies, trade, air routes, agriculture and energy. Most significantly, both sides underlined the common threat from terrorism and a joint fight against it. Israel feels ‘threatened’ by the Palestinians, India by the struggle in Kashmir. Israeli intelligence and counterinsurgency capabilities are well known. Any such Israeli role in Kashmir is bound to have repercussions for Pakistan. Defence deals of around $ one billion a year have been one of the fruits of the growing friendship between India and Israel. This has allowed India to obtain the latest US weapons technology. Now defence cooperation will receive a boost from deals such as state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries’ $ two billion sale of an advanced defence system of medium-range surface-to-air missiles, launchers and communications technology. This largest ever defence contract for Israel Aerospace Industries could affect Pakistan’s quest for a credible deterrent, disturbing the current strategic stability of the region. There is also talk of a $ 500 million deal for 8,000 Spike anti-tank missiles. The proposed free trade agreement between the two countries could boost the current level of trade of about $ two billion a year to $ 20 billion. A Delhi-Mumbai-Tel Aviv air route is contemplated. India’s deft diplomacy has earned it warmth and benefits in both Washington and Tel Aviv of late. The seal has been put on abandonment of the Palestinian cause by India through this visit and the symbolic but clear snub to the Palestinian leadership. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seems to have been responding to Modi’s handing Israel ‘a great diplomatic victory’ by speaking up about the Kashmiri struggle. Surely the timing was not fortuitous. Geopolitical shifts in the world are seeing old established positions being abandoned (as in the case of India vis-à-vis the Palestinians), new alignments coming into play, and uncertainty attending these changes. It is a matter of concern then that Pakistan seems oblivious of these tectonic shifts and their implications for its interests and security. One obvious gap is the absence of a full time foreign minister, who could track and address the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. Perhaps because of this, Pakistan’s foreign policy seems lacklustre, bogged down in the same old tired script and lacking an intelligent response to the new emerging challenges in the region and beyond. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government may be distracted by the ongoing Panama Papers case, but the time and tide of regional and world affairs will wait for no one. It is time to understand and address the serious implications of India’s receiving such warmth and favours from Washington and Tel Aviv before unforeseen events overtake us.
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Sindh’s repeal of NAO The PPP government in Sindh has repealed the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999 through a bill rammed through the provincial assembly on the basis if the PPP’s unassailable majority. The bill abolishes the applicability of the NAO to Sindh province. That means the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) can no longer conduct inquiries or investigations into the affairs of departments or autonomous bodies under the control of the Sindh government. The bill was presented in the house by Sindh Law Minister Ziaul Hasan Lanjar and explained at length by Sindh Advocate General Barrister Zamir Ghumro. The opposition, comprising the MQM, PML-N and PML-F, protested vociferously against the bill, likening it to the thin edge of the wedge of separation from the federation. That alarm may be exaggerated, but matters were not helped by the hurry the treasury benches were in to present and pass the bill. The Speaker, Agha Siraj Durrani, did not help matters and in fact poured oil on the fire by insisting on restricting the opposition to speeches by party leaders alone. This set off a veritable firestorm in the house, which did not deter the government from reading out and passing the bill within 70 minutes from start to finish amidst a protest walkout by the entire opposition shouting loud slogans against the PPP. The opposition later held a press conference in which they vowed to mount a legal challenge to the repeal bill and initiate a movement against it. They rejected the arguments of the treasury that the NAO was promulgated during the emergency imposed by former dictator General Pervez Musharraf and should have expired, as all Ordinances do, after six months. However, they had no cogent explanation for how they intended to challenge the cover provided to the NAO by the 17th constitutional amendment. As it now stands, the repeal bill transfers all pending proceedings with NAB and its courts to the provincial anti-corruption department. The Sindh government committed to bringing in a fresh anti-corruption law to strengthen what the opposition castigated as a zero performing anti-corruption department. Legal arguments aside, and they are layered and complex, the perception not only of the Sindh opposition but wide swathes of public opinion is that the Sindh government’s move is intended purely to save their ministers such as Dr Asim Hussain and Sharjeel Memon from the tender clutches of NAB. Provincial bureaucrats too have been hauled up on similar charges of corruption. This perception is lent weight by the manner in which the PPP government railroaded the bill through the assembly, despite the argument that such a controversial and potentially constitutionally challenged law needed a thorough debate and consideration. A guilt complex may have informed the treasury’s unseemly haste. Of course there are aspects to the NAO, NAB and their functioning that have raised more than their share of controversy over the years. For example, the procedure of detention and trial by NAB courts has often been criticised for failing to meet fair trial standards. NAB courts had no power to grant bail even if the circumstances of the case prima facie warranted it. The NAB chairman is perceived to be anointed with too much discretion in pursuing cases, the methodology followed, and, most controversially, plea bargains. But none of these arguments worthy of consideration appear to be the real motivation of the Sindh PPP government. The repeal bill therefore will be seen as a naked, blatant attempt to save the skins of PPP ministers and bureaucrats under their control from the prying eyes (and clutches) of NAB. Surely this is neither wise nor politically beneficial for the Sindh PPP government.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Raymond Davis as metaphor Rashed Rahman The Raymond Davis affair in January 2011 is one that embarrassed Pakistanis may well want to forget. The American CIA contractor was charged with shooting dead two alleged armed robbers in Lahore when they pointed guns at him as he rode in a vehicle. A third man was run over and killed by another vehicle sent to rescue Davis from a gathering hostile crowd at the scene of the incident when it was careening at speed on the wrong side of the road. The reason reasonably self-respecting citizens of Pakistan may want to forget the incident is the shameful manner in which the powers that be bent over backwards to get Davis off scot-free and unpunished. The method chosen was to coerce the victims’ families to accept Diyat (blood money), which implied they had forgiven the killer. The role played by the Pakistani authorities in the affair is an affront to the dignity and self-respect of the country. Foremost in facilitating the ‘rescue’ of Davis was the former ISI chief General Shuja Pasha. Other political and state officials also played a bigger or smaller part in the exercise. This recollection is prompted by the publication of Raymond Davis’ memoir entitled The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis. Although the reportage in the Pakistani media indicates that the book does not make any new revelations over and above what is already known about the affair, its publication does serve as a reminder to jog the memory about the incident. Davis was on undercover security duties in Pakistan, according to his memoir. Pakistan, since the advent of the Afghan wars and post-9/11 during Musharraf’s regime, had been cooperating most generously with Washington in issuing visas to CIA operatives, contractors, etc, to come to Pakistan and undertake their assignments. This ‘generosity’ continued after Musharraf left power and an elected PPP-led government was installed in the 2008 elections in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. For long years, Pakistan’s foreign, defence and security policies have been the virtually exclusive domain of the military establishment. Davis’ account of General Pasha’s efforts on his behalf reflects the central role of the ISI (and perhaps other intelligence agencies) in facilitating and, when and where necessary, covering up for them. Although this nexus between the military establishment and its US counterparts reached unprecedented heights during the Afghan wars, it was by no means new. Pakistan almost from the word go chose to become a dependent client state of the west, led since the end of the Second World War by the US. The first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, snubbed Moscow’s invitation to visit the USSR and instead travelled to Washington. The die was thus cast. Pakistan had plumped for becoming part of the anti-Communist alliance put together by the US-led west to contain and roll back communist revolution. This led inexorably and naturally to Pakistan becoming the ‘most allied ally’ of the west when it joined, because of its geopolitical location, both CENTO and SEATO. The only problem with this throwing of all Pakistan’s eggs in the west’s basket was that Pakistan and the west understood the alliance differently. Whereas for Pakistan the alliance with the west, whatever Pakistani leaders’ aversion to communism, was essentially a security guarantee against its bigger and hostile neighbour India with which it was in conflict over Kashmir, for the west it was nothing more than an anti-communist grouping. Later events were to glaringly throw into relief the differing understanding and expectations of the two sides. India had declared itself non-aligned after independence but was considered close to Moscow. China was a friend of India until the two neighbours’ border disputes erupted into an all-out war in 1962, in which India was roundly defeated. New Delhi then turned to the Kennedy administration. Washington was more than willing to come to India’s rescue by opening the door to weapons sales and other forms of cooperation against the Chinese communist ‘threat’ (China was magnanimous in victory and offered negotiations on the border dispute after withdrawing its troops from Indian territory captured during the war). Pakistan questioned this US largesse towards India, fearing a bolstered military capacity would make New Delhi even more intransigent on issues such as Kashmir. Washington ignored Islamabad’s protests. In fact during the 1965 Pakistan-India war, weapons supplies and other aid was cut off to the ‘most allied ally’, triggering an acceleration of Islamabad’s outreach to Beijing in the time honoured tradition of ‘the enemy of my enemy…’ This was not the last occasion for the US-led west to demonstrate that the weapons and other aid supplied to Pakistan could only be used against ‘communist aggression’ and not against any non-communist state, including India. When this truth finally lifted the curtains from Pakistani leaders’ eyes, they incrementally realigned their foreign policy in the direction of diversifying sources of weapons and aid, chief amongst these new sources becoming China as time passed. Despite annoyance at the perceived western ‘betrayal’, successive governments maintained as polite and cooperative relations with the west as the circumstances allowed. But a relative frost had descended on the alliance, whose obsolescence was brought home with great force during Pakistan’s 1971 civil war in East Pakistan, culminating in Indian intervention and the breakaway of the eastern wing to emerge as Bangladesh. After this dismemberment, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after becoming President and later Prime Minister, took Pakistan out of SEATO and CENTO and began to cultivate the oil-rich Gulf states as part of an Islamic alliance. India’s test of a nuclear weapon in 1974 sparked off a secret nuclear weapon programme in Pakistan, which finally culminated in Pakistan ‘coming out of the (ambiguity) closet’ by testing its nuclear weapon in 1998. Starting from the 1970s, developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan provided incentives and opportunity for Islamabad to intervene through religious fundamentalist proxies in its neighbour’s affairs. The rest, as they say, is history. Part of that history is the ‘alliance’ of mutual benefit between Pakistan and the west, particularly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The holy warriors unleashed as a result of this enterprise were the forerunners of today’s global terrorists. However, the ‘honeymoon’ between Pakistan and the west only lasted until the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1989. From then on, a familiar pattern of suspicion and sanctions revolving around Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear deterrent set in. September 9, 2001 is the next major turning point when Pakistan willy-nilly joined the anti-al Qaeda war, being forced ostensibly to abandon its Taliban allies who were ousted by the US invasion of Afghanistan. Anti-al Qaeda because this is how then President Musharraf’s strategy of duality played out. The US was ‘delivered’ al Qaeda (except Osama bin Laden) while the Taliban were sheltered in safe havens on Pakistani soil for a time when the US invaders/occupiers would tire and be ripe for a defeat. Currently, the policy of duality has Washington in a cleft stick, with a US Senate delegation led by John McCain visiting to reassure Islamabad that Washington’s policy on Kashmir has not changed despite Modi’s recent warm welcome and solicit Pakistan’s cooperation to bring about a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan. Ironically, while the unequal nature of the US-Pakistan relationship has never been in doubt, numerous examples exist of instances of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. Not so of course in the case of Raymond Davis, which could be considered a metaphor for the banana republic behaviour of Pakistan vis-à-vis the west through most of its existence. email@example.com rashed-rahman.blogspot.com
Saturday, July 1, 2017
Raymond Davis’ account Raymond Davis, an American CIA contractor, was embroiled in a sensational case in early 2011 involving his shooting dead two armed motorcyclists in Lahore who he claimed had aimed their guns at him. A vehicle sent to rescue him from the scene ran over and killed another man when it was careening along on the wrong side of the road. The case became notorious not only because it exposed the murky world of US spies and others virtually enjoying the run of the country, but also because it brought into play high ranking military officials and the civilian political leadership bending their backs to resolve the issue without too much embarrassment to the US or its Pakistani hosts. Much of the circumstances of the case were already known and in the public space although details may have become shrouded by fading memories. It is therefore a welcome development that Raymond Davis has now published a book bearing his version of the whole episode titled How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis. Although the accuracy and veracity of Davis’ account can only be assessed as a whole after reading the book, from what has appeared in the media some points are worth noting. Contrary to the natural suspicion of terrorism arising when a CIA undercover contractor these days gets involved in a violent incident of this kind, Davis claims his would be attackers were robbers with a long police record. He details his ‘fast draw’ of a pistol and sharpshooting abilities in getting 10 shots off in a trice from his Glock pistol carrying 18 rounds in all and killing both men, yet claims he had never killed a man before. This means either Mr Davis was blessed with incredible luck at that moment or is lying about his track record. Last but certainly not least, Davis clearly spells out the role played by former ISI chief General Shuja Pasha in getting him off the hook and out of the country. Davis’ trial in Kot Lakhpat jail was turned into a farce when the ISI reportedly forced the victims’ families at virtually gunpoint to accept blood money (Diyat) under Sharia law and forgive the killer. As soon as the trial court judge handed out a total of $ 2.34 million to the 18 members of the victims’ families, Davis was whisked away to board a plane on which then US ambassador Cameron Munter was present and flown to Kabul, en route to the US. Davis’ account does not spare the political leadership from the charge of colluding with and facilitating a way out that would limit further embarrassment for the US and its ‘ally’, Pakistan. Even as ‘embarrassments’ in the US-Pakistan relationship dot and punctuate its history and trajectory, the Raymond Davis affair exposed in no uncertain manner the nature of this unequal relationship. To take relatively recent history as an example, when the US-led west saw an opportunity to take down the Soviet Union through its unwise and shortsighted decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan, ostensibly to save the Afghan revolution, Pakistan readily lent itself to the role of a frontline state, without thinking through the unintended consequences of unleashing an army of holy warriors. Not only did the mujahideen ensure the Soviet Union was fought to a strategic stalemate in Afghanistan (helped immeasurably by weapons and aid from the west), its eventual retreat in 1989 proved a short hop away from the collapse of the USSR. In a post-Cold War world, the certainties of east-west battle lines and contentions were blurred in an increasingly complex and confused global order, spurring the assertion and spread of religious fundamentalist ideology, including reliance on terror, far beyond the region and throughout the world. Pakistan’s role in this denouement is beyond denial. Satraps we have been to the US and the west for most of our existence. To this was added another layer of satrapy when we embraced Saudi Arabian and Gulf riches in return for our conscience and arguably the health of our polity. No one, the military establishment, political leadership or our state institutions come out unscathed from Davis’ account. A moment perhaps to reflect and hang our head in shame.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Black Friday Friday, June 23, 2017 will vie for recognition as a black day in the tragic litany of terrorism in Pakistan. On the day, terrorists struck with devastating effect at three sites across the country. In Parachinar, known for past atrocities by the fanatics on a sectarian basis, bombers struck in a by now familiar manner by first setting off a hand grenade in a busy bazaar and then exploding a big bomb to target people who had gathered to rescue the victims of the first blast. The death toll according to the latest reports has reached 67, which may rise given that about 200 wounded are still under treatment in various hospitals, some in a critical condition. In Quetta, a suicide bomber set off a car bomb after colliding into the sandbag barriers in front of the IG Police’s office, killing at last count 14 people and injuring at least 24. In Karachi, four policemen taking iftari (breaking their fast) were targeted by motorcycle-mounted gunmen and shot and killed at close range. These incidents, not unfamiliar except for their concentration on the same day, were followed by even more familiar responses. Condemnations from the highest to the lowest accompanied international condemnation. Claims of responsibility came from a cast of the usual suspects such as Jamaat ul Ahrar and Islamic State for the Quetta atrocity, but also included a relatively newly emerged group called Ansarul Shariyah Pakistan, said to have Libyan and Syrian connections, who claimed the Karachi attack. There is so far no claim of responsibility for the Parachinar atrocity. What followed the day after was also predictable. A flurry of actions netted some terrorists in different parts of the country, concerns about Eid security led to heavy deployment of security forces in many cities, and the political and military leadership weighed in with its take on the events and developments. While the former reiterated their view that Pakistan was making progress in the fight against terrorism and these incidents reflected the last gasp desperate terrorist efforts against soft targets, the latter repeated their mantra of ‘external’ factors to explain away the recurring phenomenon. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar too focused on the external dimension, particularly stricter control over the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossings to prevent infiltration of terrorists with safe havens on Afghan soil, but had the courage to question why warnings of impending attacks in Parachinar and Quetta were not heeded by the local authorities. While the country can justifiably celebrate its counterinsurgency successes in FATA under Operation Zarb-e-Azb, it is the follow up counterterrorism effort that leaves some questions unanswered and provides an opportunity once again to point out the lacunae in this campaign. The National Action Plan meant to guide this campaign has virtually been forgotten and become a dead letter. That means the coordinated effort envisaged under it against terrorism still goes abegging. The National Counter Terrorism Authority meant to act as such a centre with a centralised data base fell victim to turf battles and remains a non-starter. Coordination between civil and military intelligence agencies still suffers from mistrust and suspicion, Centre-provinces cooperation is at best episodic and subject to the travails inherent in different parties being in power at the federal and some provincial levels. The impact of this uncoordinated and haphazard scenario has grave implications. For one, the absence of a national coordination centre reinforces the inherent tendency towards inertia and complacency creeping in over time every so often and thereby providing the terrorists the openings and opportunities to strike unexpectedly. For example, apart from the interior minister’s highlighting the lack of impact in terms of readiness despite intelligence warnings, these incidents reveal that the standard operating procedures appear weak or remain non-implemented on a consistent, long term or even permanent basis. No doubt there have been successes despite the uncoordinated effort in terms of preventing terrorist actions. But these have yet to be systematically compiled and revealed for public knowledge to boost national morale at the partial and ongoing erosion of terrorist capability. Nor have the citizens been sufficiently mobilised to act as the eyes and ears of the authorities in support of the counterterrorism campaign. A notable gap here is the absence of a national anti-terrorist narrative that could inspire and evoke a citizens’ response. If Pakistan is to tackle the terrorist affliction, it must eschew the expedient explanation of all terrorism emanating from across the Afghan border, recognise explicitly the presence of terrorist groups and cells within, address the shifting kaleidoscopic breaking up and merging under new banners of these groups, and take measures to coordinate civil-military, Centre-provinces’ efforts under an umbrella central platform.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
Lawyers’ growing misbehaviour A group of lawyers supporting Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) member Maqsood Buttar, a suspect in a missing persons case, ran riot in the Lahore High Court the other day, assaulting counsel Asma Jahangir’s junior associate Barrister Usama Malik, manhandling the complainant Bilquis Zareena, and abusing Asma Jahangir and some other counsel on her team. The case has been brought by Ms Zareena for the recovery of her daughter Ayesha and her grandson Alyan Ali. Ms Ayesha is reported to have been a junior lawyer in Buttar’s office. He later married her (as his second wife) and had a son by her. The habeas corpus petition filed by Bilquis Zareena seeks the recovery of her daughter and grandson who have been missing for the past six months. She fears that their lives are in danger. According to the petitioner, her daughter had informed her that she and Maqsood Buttar had developed differences. Ayesha and her two-year-old son had been living in a flat in Model Town. Bilquis Zareena claims that Maqsood Buttar had tried to kill Ayesha once before by pushing her off a cliff near Murree, causing her multiple injuries and fractures. In November 2016, Bilquis Zareena visited her daughter’s residence in Model Town but she was not there. She also deposed that her family had been receiving threats from Buttar’s side. During the proceedings, Justice Abdul Sami Khan hearing the habeas corpus petition expressed displeasure at the DIG Investigations Sultan Ahmed requesting more time to complete the investigation. The petitioner’s counsel, Barrister Usama Malik, pointed to an all too familiar scenario in which the police had not issued a single summons to any of the suspects, even though an FIR was registered in December 2016. He accused the police of protecting Buttar. On the other hand, arguing on behalf of the legal fraternity, PBC member Ishtiaq Khan argued that the case against his colleague was fabricated, politically motivated, denied Buttar was related to the missing woman, and challenged the maintainability of the petition. After Justice Sami adjourned further hearing till June 23, Buttar’s lawyer supporters attacked Usama Malik, roughing him up and ripping his shirt because of umbrage at his daring to appear against Buttar. They also manhandled the complainant, Bilquis Zareena. While walking out of the court, this bunch of rowdies shouted profanities against Asma Jahangir. This is neither the first nor, given the trajectory of many lawyers’ behaviour since the movement for the restoration of former Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry and members of the superior judiciary removed by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, likely to be the last. Since that historic movement led by the lawyers community, a strange sense of entitlement bordering on insanity has taken root amongst many in this community. Over the years since that seminal movement, instances of lawyers’ misbehaviour with and even resort to violence against judges, court officials, colleagues and litigants have grown exponentially. This has led many times to judges’ protests and strikes, cases being registered against the offending ‘guardians of the law’ and condemnation by wide swathes of opinion. However, in the absence of deterrent punishment by the judiciary, lawyers’ representative organisations and the authorities, the aggressive misbehaviour of offending lawyers has continued apace. The perpetrators of such abuses, it would be well to remind ourselves, are officers of the court, a status that places upon them the responsibility of upholding the law and the respect and dignity of the judiciary. The malady is by now so widespread that it hardly elicits treatment by the media that reflects its importance as a malign trend or the implications for the functioning of an already beleaguered judicial system, not to mention the offence it causes to every conscious citizen of a civilised society. These bitter fruits of the lawyers’ movement are the unintended consequences of their sense of power after they contributed to the downfall of Musharraf. However, enough is enough. This loutish behavior can no longer be tolerated. If the judiciary, lawyers’ bodies and the authorities fail to stop this trend, the offending lawyers should prepare themselves for a citizens’ backlash that will puncture their inflated egos and seriously affect not just their standing and credibility in society, but their ability to command briefs as well. Citizens’ boycotts are no longer a fantasy, as the brief fruit boycott recently proved. It is still not too late for sense to prevail and the incorrigible black sheep amongst the lawyers to be brought to heel. Failing that, an additional factor of disruption to the business of justice looms.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Shutting the stable door… The Rangers, army, intelligence agencies and police personnel carried out a sweeping operation in Karachi jail in the wake of the startling escape of two Lashkar-e-Jhangvi prisoners the other day. The escape was mystery enough. Reportedly, the two men shaved off their beards in a courtroom washroom and then calmly walked out of the main gate of the prison. It boggles the mind how such a bold plan could have succeeded without the complicity of jail staff. If there was even the faintest smidgeon of doubt regarding this suspicion, it was blown away by the results of the sweep and search operation. Around 6,000 prisoners belonging to various political, religious and banned outfits were physically searched and their barracks and cells swept for items not allowed in jail. Lo and behold, the operation netted a veritable treasure trove of illicit things. The list of seized items is self-explanatory: 102 mobile phones, Rs 3.552 million in cash, 18 deep freezers, 449 TVs, 163 LCDs, 995 bracket fans, five packets of heroin, 22 heaters, three DVD players, 30 blankets, 10 scissors, 31 water dispensers, 400 cigarette packets, 45 knives, 46 memory cards and 50 remote control devices and other items. Needless to say, this ‘find’ makes a mockery of the jail manual, rules and security. It is inconceivable, just as in the case of the escape of the two Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorists, that any of this could have arrived within the prison walls without the help of the jail staff, from top to bottom. Although 12 of Karachi jail’s staff, including the superintendent and deputy superintendent, were arrested after the escape, what measures would be required now to clean up the Augean stables of the prison beggars description. The operation after the event, regardless of the ‘rich’ discovery, is little more than a face-saving attempt to shut the stable door long after the horse has bolted. Taking their cue from the happenings in Karachi prison, the authorities in their belated wisdom carried out a similar security-oriented mock exercise in Adiala Jail Rawalpindi. Neither operation inspires any confidence in the light of the prisoners’ escape and the considerable ‘illicit’ material recovered in Karachi. It has been common knowledge for many years that our prison security resembles nothing more than a sieve through which almost anything can pass, leavened by money exchanging hands. But if this were the only worry, it would be bad enough. However, one recalls in the light of the discovery of cell phones and anti-jamming devices in Karachi prison, the incident in 2008 when jailed terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh made hoax calls from inside Hyderabad jail to then president Asif Ali Zardari and the Chief of Army Staff in the wake of the Mumbai attacks posing as an Indian minister and using such threatening language that Pakistan and India went oh high alert. Given the fact that both neighbouring countries are nuclear armed, the incident underlines the scope for mischief because of our rotten, corrupt prison system. Currently, faced with the terrorist threat and the growth of criminal activities, can the citizen rest sanguine that those behind bars can do no further mischief? The woes of governance in Pakistan are too many to recount. As it is, the justice system is virtually dysfunctional if judged by the backlog of cases. If its prison regime too continues to be so decrepit and hopeless, even the stoutest heart must quail before the implications.
Monday, June 19, 2017
Trump and Cuba Rashed Rahman US President Donald Trump has taken to pandering to the hawkish Cuban exile community in Florida that supported his bid for the presidency. Addressing a meeting of this community in Miami on June 16, 2017 he denounced Cuba’s ‘brutal’ communist regime (throwing in Venezuela for good measure), vowed to restore ‘freedom’ to their homeland, and announced he is cancelling the ‘one-sided’ deal Obama initiated as part of an opening up to Cuba after more than five decades of hostility. He also vowed not to lift the economic sanctions (in fact a total economic embargo) imposed on Cuba soon after Fidel Castro’s revolution triumphed in 1959 until all Cuban political prisoners are freed and free elections held. Trump followed up this foray by issuing a presidential directive to give effect to his declaration. Essentially, the thrust of Trump’s ‘new’ policy is to place restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, the former in particular having resulted since the US-Cuba rapprochement in 2014 in large numbers of American tourists flooding into Cuba, bringing with them dollars badly needed by the foreign exchange starved Cuban economy. The demand for enhanced accommodation and services for this nascent flood of tourists has engendered small private businesses offering private homes to stay in (the main driver in this being Airbnb) and service providers. Significantly, Trump seems to have bowed to pressures from US businesses and some Republicans to avoid turning the clock back completely. Thus air and sea travel will continue, but with fresh restrictions, including American citizens using services provided by companies controlled by the Cuban military, which have a big stake in the tourism industry. The logic of this measure is ostensibly to not benefit the regime with dollar flows. However, this myopic step is likely to hurt the emerging small private sector in Cuba, which Trump seeks to support in the name of benefits only for the Cuban people. Failing providing a map of which enterprises to deal with, it is obvious that this ‘separation’ of state and private enterprises is practically difficult if not impossible. Trump’s policy will hurt not only enhanced economic engagement with Cuba generally, but its emerging small private sector most of all. Critics of Trump’s reversal of Obama’s policy seek engagement with Cuba since, they argue, 50 plus years of hostility and attempts thereby to overthrow the revolutionary regime have failed. Their overt and covert hope is for such engagement to result in the peaceful transition from the revolutionary regime to a pro-capitalist one. The hawks and doves’ hopes for regime change though are unlikely to be met in the light of President Raul Castro’s clear declaration that the revolution will not bow to pressure or blandishments. For those unfamiliar with the history and trajectory of the Cuban revolution, it would be useful to retrace some of the seminal moments in that journey. Cuba, lying just 90 miles away from Florida, had been since independence from Spain in 1898 a virtual US colony. The US controlled the commanding heights of the Cuban economy and treated its southern island neighbour as a playground for the American rich, including the Mafia. Large tracts of land owned by the local elite (latifundia) showed a cruel contrast between the lives of the rich and the peasants who worked the plantations, the latter mired generation after generation in extreme poverty and misery. Cuba’s seemingly stable status as a colonial outpost of the US was disturbed when Fulgencio Batista mounted a military coup and took power in 1952. A young dynamic lawyer and member of the mainstream Orthodoxo Party, Fidel Castro, decided the time had come for decisive action. On July 23, 1953, he and a band of his comrades mounted an armed assault on the Moncada military garrison in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The assault was beaten back with most of the insurgents killed and a handful, including Fidel, imprisoned. At his trial, Fidel delivered his famous “History will absolve me” speech, which became the clarion call for the Cuban revolution despite his and his compatriots’ exile (including his younger brother Raul Castro). Fidel and his comrades regrouped in exile in Mexico, joined in this period by a significant recruit: Argentinian Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1956, Fidel and this band of revolutionaries, under the banner of the July 23 Movement as it came to be called, mounted an expedition to Cuba on a boat named Granma (this later became the title of the Cuban revolutionary regime’s paper). The expedition was almost wiped out on landing in Cuba by the Baptista regime’s military. A handful, including Fidel, Raul and Che, managed to escape the ambush and set up a guerrilla base in the Sierra Maestre Mountains. From here, the rebels launched a guerrilla war that led to the collapse of the Baptista regime in 1958. The dictator fled to the US. On January 1, 1959, Fidel’s triumphant columns marched into Havana to the cheers and joy of the populace. Fidel’s regime soon fell foul of Washington when US businesses on the island were nationalised, land reform carried out and an increasingly socialist orientation of the new regime became visible. US President Eisenhower responded by imposing an economic embargo on Cuba. The Cuban elite and its supporters fled the island for the US, where John F Kennedy’s administration and CIA trained, equipped and launched an invasion of Cuba with exile mercenaries. This blatant aggression against revolutionary Cuba was decisively defeated at the Bay of Pigs. The US-inspired economic blockade was total, only breached by the then Soviet Union, which came to the rescue of the beleaguered government. The world held its breath when, in 1962, Soviet missiles were deployed in Cuba to ward off another US invasion, leading to a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. A nuclear holocaust was only avoided at the last moment when the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Kruschev agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in return for a secret understanding to remove US nuclear missiles deployed in Turkey against the Soviet Union in a quid pro quo. Moscow continued to provide economic and technical support to Havana but could not do enough to overcome the poverty inherited from Cuba’s past, which lingered to devastating effect because of the US’s economic blockade despite the Cuban regime’s efforts to provide relief and a better life to its people. Despite all the difficulties and obstacles, the Fidel Castro-led government provided the Cuban people with a level of education and healthcare that is the envy of the world today. The Cuban armed forces were not only developed to a level of efficiency to give pause for thought to any would be invader, they provided support in far away Africa to the revolutionary national liberation struggles of Ethiopia and Angola, defeating the much vaunted South African army in the latter country. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US-led imperialists licked their chops at the thought of overcoming the Cuban government, faced as it was with immeasurably greater difficulties in the absence of Soviet support. This was a real test for the Cuban revolution. Whereas many communist countries had either consciously embraced capitalism or at least adjusted their policies to a now almost completely capitalist world, Cuba adhered to its revolutionary élan, struggled through the Special Period as it was called, and has kept its revolutionary banner flying even after the illness, retirement and eventual passing away of its charismatic leader, Fidel Castro. Given this brief account of the Cuban revolution and people’s resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the hopes of the US hawks and doves, separated only by the ways and means chosen to overthrow the Raul Castro government, face the indomitable will of a small Caribbean island people wedded to defending, constructing and maintaining their socialist future. firstname.lastname@example.org rashed-rahman.blogspot.com
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Pakistan-India tensions COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa told the 75th conference of Annual Formation Commanders at GHQ on May 23 about the high state of operational readiness and morale of troops during his recent visits to front line field formations along the country’s eastern and western borders, especially displayed in response to recent border and ceasefire violations. He said notwithstanding Pakistan’s desire for an enduring peace with its neighbours, any hostile action anywhere along the country’s frontiers would be responded befittingly. Those words reflected events on the Line of Control (LoC) on the day. DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor issued a statement the same day refuting as baseless and misleading an Indian claim that their forces had destroyed Pakistani military posts in Azad Kashmir. He stated that none of the posts along the LoC in the Nowshera sector had been destroyed in shelling from across the LoC, nor had the Pakistani forces targeted civilians on the other side, both claims made just hours before by a spokesman of the Indian army in New Delhi. ISPR further clarified that it was the Indian army that had resorted to an unprovoked ceasefire violation on May 13, which had caused civilian casualties and infrastructure damage on our side. A stern response caused substantial losses to soldiers and material on the Indian side. So the exchange of ‘pleasantries’ on the LoC continues. Are Pakistan and India condemned to live forever in hostility? Not according to Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, who said in an interview with an Indian newspaper that Kashmir was the real bone of contention between the two neighbouring countries and there could be no shying away from settling the issue. The necessary condition for such a settlement, he underlined, was that the two countries restart their suspended dialogue. Certainly the logic is impeccable, since both countries are now nuclear armed and all out war is thereby precluded for fear of mutual destruction. However, Abdul Basit also referred in the same interview to the situation on the western border with Afghanistan, which has seen a ratcheting up of tensions and even exchanges of firing of late. The unfortunate fact is that the Pakistan-India rivalry has spilled over onto Afghan soil, where both countries are vying for influence and Pakistan accuses India of utilising Pakistan’s differences with Kabul to stoke conflict on the western border. While the criticality of talks between Pakistan and India is beyond doubt, the present prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is no Vajpayee, who expended considerable political capital on trying to normalise relations with Pakistan. Mr Modi may be motivated in his aggressive stance towards Pakistan by domestic political considerations. Amongst these can be counted upcoming State elections (in West Bengal in particular) and the unremitting uprising in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). The latter may have in fact more bearing on the hotting up of the LoC in recent days. The Indian army’s violations of the ceasefire on the LoC may be an attempt to ‘externalise’ the Kashmir problem, but the indigenous nature of the Kashmiri people’s resistance is hard to deny. The Indian army spokesman’s news briefing referred to above argued that the shelling across the LoC on Pakistani military posts was to prevent them harbouring and facilitating infiltrators into IHK. But no one familiar with the situation on the ground inside IHK can possibly ignore the daily fare of Kashmiri youth combating the unrestrained use of maximum force by the India security forces with nothing more deadly than stones being thrown. The Kashmiri people have shown the world that no amount of overwhelming force has managed to quell their desire for freedom from the Indian yoke. It remains for the Indian political class, and particularly the present incumbents in New Delhi, to open their eyes to reality and recognise that there is no military solution for Kashmir’s pain and that what is needed badly is an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue process.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Social media crackdown The countrywide crackdown on social media activists allegedly running a sustained campaign against the military and other state institutions appears to be gathering steam, but has raised a plethora of questions in its wake about its modus operandi, targets and purpose. This is the first time the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), rammed through parliament by the ruling PML-N in August 2016 despite opposition from rights activists for being overly broad and curbing free speech, has been used in such a wide crackdown against political opponents. Following the directives of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar about a week ago, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has listed over 150 social media accounts and websites allegedly engaged in a campaign vilifying the armed forces. Of these, 33 persons have affiliations with the PTI and other opposition parties, but surprisingly include some from the PML-N. On May 22, one such PML-N social media activist was summoned from Gujranwala to the FIA’s Islamabad headquarters. The others are reportedly operating their social media accounts from Lahore, Quetta, Waziristan and Australia. A ‘vilification’ campaign against the COAS and the military on social media is said to have started after the DG ISPR’s withdrawal of his tweet on the Dawn Leaks issue on May 10. The FIA has sprung into action after the interior minister’s directive, which seems to go beyond anything the military itself wanted, and is rounding up suspects, questioning them about their tweets and posts. This campaign is being fiercely contested by the opposition parties, particularly the PTI, well known for its activism on social media. Initially, 200 social media accounts were put under the microscope, but according to the FIA, only 18 of these are currently being treated as offenders spreading negative material against the military and other state institutions. The scale of the operation seems far smaller than was initially feared (although it could possibly open the floodgates for more), and the small number of suspects it has yielded suggests that these may be individual irreverent posts rather than a sustained campaign against the military or other institutions. What is it that has persuaded the redoubtable Chaudhry Nisar to tilt against these windmills? The context is the desire for hegemony over and complete domination of the national narrative. Naturally, that points powerful institutions towards the media, seen as the conduit for relaying the said narrative. Having by and large ‘tamed’ the mainstream media, print and electronic, these powerful institutions have now, armed with PECA, turned their unwanted attention to the last redoubt of dissident and critical opinion: the social media. Notoriously difficult as the task is to control the internet and social media (that being their strength in upholding free expression), our powerful institutions have chosen a cruder, albeit direct, method. This involves nothing as sophisticated as attempting to block or build firewalls against the offending websites and social media accounts. It simply involves threatening (and worse) the authors of such postings. It may be recalled that five ‘offending’ bloggers were ‘disappeared’ not long ago and then some blasphemous material mysteriously appeared on their sites while they were still ‘absent’. Of course the mere suggestion of blasphemy attaching itself to one’s name these days means your life is in danger. The bloggers ‘returned’ eventually, but reportedly had to flee abroad. Since then, the powers that be seem to have been emboldened to take on the social media activists considered beyond the pale head on. Presumably these powers feel an ‘admonition’ would normally be sufficient to bring the dissidents in line and in the process send the necessary message to the rest about how far they can or cannot go in exercising their right of free expression. It would appear then that the constitutional provisions about the right of expression have been over-ridden by the provisions of PECA. Therein lies perhaps ammunition for a legal challenge. But the irreducible truth is that the over-reaction, paranoia and downright insecure fragility on display in this crackdown bodes ill for the democratic rights of free expression and critical, dissenting opinion.
Monday, May 8, 2017
The courts and politics On the second try, the Supreme Court (SC) bench overseeing the implementation of the Panama Papers case verdict of April 20, 2017 has formed a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on May 5 to probe the matter of the assets abroad of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children. At the previous hearing on May 3, the SC special bench had summoned the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) chairman and acting governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) after expressing dissatisfaction over the two institutions’ representatives nominated for the JIT. Justice Azmat Saeed regretted that the nominees on examination did not fit the criteria for the JIT, hence the demand for a new list. This was delivered by both the SECP and SBP in a sealed envelope bearing the names of all officers of grade 18 and above in these two institutions. Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf pointed out that the rejected officers on the first list submitted had unnecessarily been ‘painted black’ by the media. But the bench responded by saying that they had not revealed the names of the rejected officers, therefore the leak lay in the two institutions themselves, whose heads should be held responsible and accountable. There followed an exchange between the bench and the AG regarding comment on the case on television, popular sentiment, political leaders’ statements on the case, etc. The bench made it clear that they were not swayed by any of these and would walk the tightrope of the law and constitution without worrying about the their popularity. The AG pleaded for restraining discussion of the case on television as people were being maligned. Justice Azmat Saeed clarified that they knew how to control the media, but the bench was exercising extreme restraint in the interests of freedom of expression. Disquiet has been rising amongst the judiciary about the ‘free for all’ manner of comment on the media regarding matters that are sub judice. PEMRA is being asked to implement its rule regarding this matter. The apex court is also annoyed about the partisan and distorted interpretations of the April 20 verdict by politicians of all shades and hues. The crowning argument on this issue is the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Saqib Nisar’s sensible advice to the political class: keep political disputes in the political domain and avoid dragging other institutions (especially the judiciary) into the political fray. The CJP has deplored the consequent waste of the court’s limited time and warned against tarnishing the SC’s public image. Sensible as this advice is, it is a fact that apart from the judiciary, politicians have frequently called upon the military or, in the era of Article 58(2)(b), the president to intervene in political crises against their rivals. This practice is the antithesis of the politicians’ inherent responsibility to strengthen democratic institutions rather than seek extra-parliamentary intervention by powerful state institutions. In recent times, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that has been in the forefront of a ‘war’ against democratic institutions, including the Election Commission of Pakistan. The PML-N government this time round has systematically defanged the accountability institutions, ironically having used them to institute false cases against their political rivals in their previous term. Since political parties across the spectrum appear to have gone into election mode, it is reasonable to assume that the task of reforming and strengthening democratic institutions now stands postponed until the next parliament is in place. Nevertheless, it is only if political parties stop regarding the courts (and the military) as options for resolving political conflicts that the project for strengthening democratic institutions could have a chance to be taken up and even succeed. The institutions approached for such purposes could also help by, for example, the judiciary declining to adjudicate matters with a political taint and the military concentrating on its sphere without ‘leaning on’, let alone overthrowing elected governments.