Saturday, December 30, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 30, 2017

Much ado about nothing?

Our politicians are a cut above when it comes to creating a hullaballoo out of what may turn out to be nothing. Shahbaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia, facilitated by a special plane sent by the Kingdom, followed by Nawaz Sharif and Railways Minister Khwaja Saad Rafique has set off a veritable storm of accusations that the Sharifs were seeking an NRO-type bailout from their present troubles with the help of Saudi Arabia. Foremost in the charge of the light brigade behind this latest controversy is the inimitable Imran Khan, for whom logic and consistency are the least of his concerns. He is followed closely by former president Asif Zardari and our perpetual sitter-in in chief, Tahirul Qadri, not to mention Leader of the Opposition Khursheed Shah of the PPP. These worthies have proclaimed from high and low that the ‘suspicious’ gathering of the three PML-N leaders in Saudi Arabia is the prelude to some back channel accommodation with the establishment, with the army and judiciary at its heart. Khursheed Shah has outdone them all by proclaiming in stentorian terms the humiliation of a nuclear power inviting foreign interference in its internal affairs (as though this is the first time such an accusation has surfaced in our sorry history in this matter). In turn, PML-N ministers have as usual not been able to resist the temptation (which has reached a crescendo of late) of responding to and denying all that the opposition hurls at the ruling party. Thus the ‘defence’ chorus comprises some of the cast of usual suspects in Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal and the indefatigable Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah. They all speak with virtually one voice and say more or less the same thing: visits by the Sharif brothers to Saudi Arabia should be viewed in the light of religious obligations (the ubiquitous Umra) and the long standing close relations with the Saudi royal family, whose ‘guests’ the Sharifs were for eight years during their exile in the Musharraf era. Now the government’s loyalist ministers could still be forgiven for considering it their duty to respond to any and all diatribes by the opposition, although how much of the country’s time is wasted in frivolous controversies should be a question in their minds. But the really amazing fact is that Imran Khan, Asif Zardari and virtually the opposition entire has been untiring in their constant complaints that Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N government have been guilty since the Panama case verdict that disqualified former premier Nawaz Sharif of maligning and attacking the judiciary and army. What they perhaps lost sight of or did not consider in their eagerness to weigh into what they thought was another opportunity or stick to beat the government with were the implications of their speculations about a new NRO-type ‘deal’. Logically this would imply a two-way street or interaction between the alleged seekers and dolers out of such a deal. Does that not constitute compromising the dignity and independence of the judiciary and respect of the armed forces if they are indeed engaged in any such ‘back door diplomacy’ with Saudi Arabian help, facilitation or pressure to let the Sharifs off the hook? Imran Khan has been berating the Supreme Court for not using its contempt powers against the utterings of Nawaz Sharif and functionaries of the PML-N government, yet he skates perilously close by implication of being held in contempt himself.

No one of the leading lights of the accusatory opposition, Imran Khan, Asif Zardari, Khursheed Shah, et al have bothered to explain to a weary public who is making an NRO for the Sharifs, with whom and why. To jump from the fact of the Sharifs reaching out to and interacting with their dear and close friends in Saudi Arabia to the purely speculative conclusion that this signals an NRO-in-the-making requires a suspension of logical belief and taking on trust far too much. Yes, the Sharifs, and in particular Nawaz, have been receiving the advice from within their ranks and outside to avoid confrontation with the establishment (the latest reportedly being National Security Adviser Nasir Janjua to Nawaz Sharif). Whether the advice has been listened to or acted upon is a moot point. But to take a flight of fancy into some unreal virtual world of intrigue and back channel efforts for an NRO for the Sharifs strains credulity and beggars belief.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 28, 2017

New spat

Even the best intentions don’t always seem to deliver the desired results where Pakistan-India relations are concerned. At present, these relations seem frozen, with the revival of the suspended composite dialogue nowhere in sight. In the midst of these tensions, Pakistan’s humanitarian gesture of allowing Kulbushan Jadhav’s wife and mother to meet him seems to have backfired and set off a fresh round of Indian charges against the Pakistani authorities. India has accused Pakistan of violating the agreed ground rules for the meeting. Four violations of these agreed rules have been cited by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA): prohibiting Jadhav’s family from conversing with him in their native Marathi, making the two women change their attire and remove religious symbols; preventing the Indian Deputy High Commissioner from observing the meeting, and permitting the media to harass and hector the two women. The MEA statement deplored that the meeting was held in an intimidating atmosphere that lacked credibility. Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) in response has denied the allegations as baseless and twisted, and which emerged 24 hours after the meeting when the two women had returned to India and had a meeting with MEA officials. The FO said it did not want to indulge in a meaningless battle of words on the issue. It said if the Indian concerns were serious, the guests or the Indian diplomat could have raised these in front of the media, which was readily available but at a safe distance, as requested by India. The controversy was exacerbated by Mrs Chetankul Jadhav’s shoes being confiscated by the authorities on suspicion there was some metal detected in them. India has also raised objections to her bindi (traditional coloured mark on the forehead) and mangal sutra (marriage necklace) being removed. In so far as forbidding conversation in Marathi is concerned, it negates the charge that the exchange was being recorded, since, in that case, the Pakistani authorities could have had the Marathi translated later.

To be fair, the Pakistani authorities, despite their goodwill humanitarian gesture in allowing Jadhav’s wife and mother to meet him, had serious concerns surrounding the meeting. Foremost amongst these was the possibility of something being slipped to Jadhav that he might use to harm himself. Hence the extraordinary precautions vis-à-vis what the two women wore and carried into the meeting. Logically perhaps such extraordinary measures relate to the mutual paranoia that grips both countries when dealing with each other, given that the meeting took place through a glass partition, thereby avoiding any physical contact. Such an arrangement is not unusual for high profile prisoners, especially someone like Jadhav who is under sentence of death from a military court as a spy. Perhaps if the Pakistani authorities had spelt out to the other side the details of the arrangements, this last minute unpleasantness that spoilt a goodwill moment could have been avoided. The role of the media in both countries cannot be allowed to pass without comment. If we have complaints about our media trumpeting all too often the officially certified truth, the Indian media is arguably worse. The latter seems motivated by and large by extreme nationalism, which has reached fever pitch since Mr Modi’s ascent to power in 2014. Be that as it may, it nevertheless behoves us to restrain ourselves from the temptation to answer in the same vein, since rational discourse and the desire to proceed towards dialogue and normalisation of relations are badly affected by loud diatribes from either side against the other. The fraught nature of relations is underlined by reports of fresh clashes and casualties on the Line of Control, whose tenuous 2003 ceasefire is by now in tatters. And in case anyone is wondering, it is not only the media that is the culprit but also the national narrative in both countries that is unhelpful. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, no mean protagonist herself in this regard, was discomfited in the Indian parliament by the strident grilling at the hands of MPs baying for blood. Sadly, it appears Pakistan and India cannot even handle humanitarian issues and considerations in a cool, calm, rational, mature manner in the presence of the mutual hatreds that have sullied the air even more in recent years.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 26, 2017

An idea whose time has come

The delay by the government in presenting the FATA Reforms Bill in the National Assembly (NA) inexplicably at the last minute and sans explanation has evoked a series of walkouts by the combined opposition in protest. The only explanation for this delay doing the rounds is the desire to get its two allies, the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party of Mehmood Khan Achakzai on board. Both have opposed the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), ostensibly on the basis that the tribal people’s will be ascertained, but critics say because they have a vested interest in maintaining a separate identity for FATA so as not to lose their hold on the tribal areas. A recent meeting amongst Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Maulana failed to achieve agreement on the issue. Critics have pressed the government not to continue appeasing its allies and to implement the long overdue mainstreaming of FATA. Delay can also open the door for Afghanistan to resurrect its past irredentist claims on the tribal regions, which acceded to Pakistan in 1947. An example of this is the suggestion the other day by the Afghan Consul General in Peshawar to hold a referendum on the issue in FATA. That may open the Pandora’s box of Afghan opposition to the Durand Line as the international border once again. For all these reasons and the overriding argument that this is an idea whose time has finally come (70 years after independence, it is good to remind ourselves), the government needs to fulfil this historic duty and task as soon as possible. In the light of the above, therefore, it is heartening to see reports that the high-powered National Implementation Committee (NIC) on FATA reforms has endorsed the merger. All that remains is for the government to announce the measure, something it seems to be avoiding or perhaps procrastinating over while it continues efforts to persuade its recalcitrant allies named above. Chaired by the prime minister, the NIC met last week and also decided that FATA would elect 23 members to the KP Assembly in the general elections in 2018. Further, the NIC decided to do away with the controversial sections of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) immediately while allowing the rest of the FCR to continue for the moment as a supplementary dispute and conflict resolution mechanism with a sunset clause to repeal it in its entirety once a proper judicial system is in place in FATA.
While all this is going on, the KP government and 11th Corps Peshawar have reportedly gone ahead with finalising an implementation plan for the merger, complete with phasing of the required steps and the resources required for the same, which of course will only become available once the federal government stops dragging its feet in exaggerated deference to its spoiler allies. Another issue is the proposal to allocate three percent of the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award for the next 10 years for the uplift and development needs of FATA. Although consensus is wanting so far on this since the provinces and the Centre will have to forego this amount, the prime minister after chairing an earlier meeting of the NIC in October 2017 had directed the Finance Minister to seek endorsement of the proposal from the NFC.

No one thought the long-standing aspiration to bring FATA out of the colonial-era construct imposed by the British to safeguard their northwestern frontier would be quick, easy, or painless. The government seems to be planning for it wisely without ignoring the difficulties or the need to proceed step by step. The only complaint is that it seems so far to be held hostage on the issue by its two allies, a situation that flies in the face of a historic repeal of the colonial past and opening the door for the people of FATA incrementally to enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen of the state.

Business Recorder Column Dec 25, 2017

Ruined lives

Rashed Rahman

Five bloggers, Salman Haider, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas were disappeared in January 2017 within days of each other. All five used social media to oppose religious intolerance and criticised the military for its alleged support to retrograde religious extremists and militants. Their disappearance sparked fears at the time of a crackdown against dissenters and critics on the social media. After their disappearance, blasphemous material was posted on their blogs. This was followed by a virulent (seemingly orchestrated) social media campaign to paint them as blasphemers. The campaign triggered a flood of threats against them, as is the norm whenever a blasphemy charge is levelled against someone.
After the release of the five bloggers, reports of their torture in custody did the rounds. This was confirmed to me personally by one of these bloggers whom I happened to meet abroad. After their release, all five are reported to have fled abroad with their families in fear of life and limb. Who can blame them when a blasphemy charge, whether true or false, has evolved into a virtual death sentence, if not at the hands of the state, then at the hands of vigilante mobs?
The case of the five bloggers is being heard by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court (IHC). In the latest hearing on December 22, 2017, some interesting developments and information came to light. The Director General (DG) of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Bashir Ahmed informed the court that no evidence was found against the five bloggers on the charge of posting blasphemous material online. Justice Siddiqui responded by directing the FIA DG not to proceed further against the bloggers against whom evidence was lacking. He also remarked that those who level false blasphemy charges commit an equal, if not double the crime of blasphemy. No innocent person, he remarked, should be implicated in a false case of blasphemy.
Additional Attorney General Afnan Karim Kundi informed the court that the federal government was amending the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 to include blasphemy and pornography to the list of scheduled offences in PECA. He revealed that the Law Ministry wanted to amend the law to ensure appropriate punishment to false accusers in blasphemy cases.
If what Mr Kundi said is true, it could not have come soon enough. The track record of blasphemy cases is a sorry and tragic story. Most blasphemy accusations over the years have turned out to be motivated by mundane earthly reasons, not religion. They have stemmed from some vested interest or the other, e.g. property and money disputes, religion-based hatred (especially against religious minorities but by no means sparing Muslims), revenge, etc. The charge seldom finds its way to the courts. When and if it does, the outcome has sometimes been tragic. On October 10, 1997, Justice (retd) Arif Iqbal Bhatti, formerly of the Lahore High Court, was killed in his law chamber three years after he and another judge acquitted two Christians accused of blasphemy, and who had been sentenced to death by a lower court. Since that horrendous incident, the judiciary has been reluctant to take up blasphemy cases because of the risks involved. That has acted as an incentive for vigilante mobs, led by fire breathing clerics, to take the law into their own hands and kill a blasphemy accused on the basis of (often motivated) accusation alone.
Late Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer was assassinated on January 4, 2011 by his own police guard, Mumtaz Qadri, for defending a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy. Taseer’s and other PPP leaders’ attempts to repeal or at least amend the blasphemy law and bring in protections against false accusation led to his death and in parliament, the silencing of voices such as Senator Sherry Rehman for advocating reform and safeguards. Lately, the Barelvi Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah has made blasphemy, Khatm-e-Nabuwat (finality of the prophethood of Hazrat Mohammad, PBUH) and the deification of murderer Mumtaz Qadri the three main planks of their campaign that found militant expression recently in the sit-in at Islamabad. An atmosphere of fear and dread has developed around the issue of blasphemy, with citizens forced to constantly look over their shoulders to fend off any such disaster as a blasphemy accusation. If safeguards against false accusation are now being contemplated by the government, it is not a moment too soon.
Scores of people’s and their families’ lives have been cut short or ruined on motivated blasphemy charges. If the accused survive the accusation, they live in constant fear of being killed by some fanatic sooner or later (cf. Justice Bhatti’s murder above). In the case of all the victims of false blasphemy charges, including the five bloggers with whom this piece began, the reform and safeguards will come too late. For all intents and purposes, their lives lie shattered, their future uncertain, and no redress remotely in sight. There is no mention in the IHC proceedings quoted above of bringing the perpetrators of the disappearance of the five bloggers and subsequent posting of blasphemous material on their blogs to justice. For the agencies, barefaced denial in the face of the courts (even the Supreme Court) is the norm, with the invisible cloak of impunity in which they have wrapped themselves proving impossible to penetrate.
For the sake of all the past, present and future potential victims of false accusations of blasphemy for reasons that have nothing to do with religion but everything to do with material vested interests, the government must as soon as possible make good on its commitment before the IHC to bring in reform and safeguards to lay this tragic history to rest.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 23, 2017

More stick than carrot

A war of words has broken out between our foreign office and US Vice President Mike Spence. The latter was on an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan at Bagram base, and used the opportunity to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul. What got the foreign office’s goat were remarks Pence made while addressing US troops at Bagram. He said Pakistan had been put on notice that the days of harbouring terrorists on its soil that attack US, Afghan and allied troops inside Afghanistan are over. This line of thinking stems from the recent foreign policy announced by US President Donald Trump, in which Washington indicated it would work with Islamabad on areas of convergence but was prepared to act unilaterally on areas of divergence. The main bone of contention, not surprisingly, is Washington’s perception that its failure to win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, or even to persuade them to seek a negotiated end to the conflict owes a great deal to the safe havens they enjoy inside Pakistan, and to which they retreat when under pressure or to rest, regroup, and fight on. Our foreign office’s response attempted to turn the ‘notice’ mentioned by Pence towards the manifest failure of Ghani’s national unity government to scotch widespread corruption, introduce better governance, eliminate poppy production that reportedly finances the Taliban’s operations, and even manage parliamentary elections. That argument notwithstanding, Pence did hold out a measly ‘carrot’ by saying Pakistan had much to gain from partnering the US and much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists. However, whatever Pence meant by ‘gains’, the ISPR chief Major General Asif Ghafoor responded to Pence by asserting that his words were likely to negatively impact the existing coordination and cooperation between the two countries. On the implied withholding of aid, and in the case of the Coalition Support Funds reimbursement of Pakistan’s expenditures on the war on terror that have had restrictions placed on their release by Congress explicit withholding, the ISPR chief said Pakistan was not fighting for money but trust and respect. Similar sentiments were voiced by Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua in a briefing to a Senate committee in which she said Pence’s remarks were at odds with the tone and tenor of the discussions ongoing with the US. Pakistan argues in addition that it has eliminated terrorist bases from its soil indiscriminately and is in turn threatened by the safe havens enjoyed by the Pakistani Taliban in the ungoverned spaces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This was underlined by an attack on our troops from across the border in the Mohmand Agency on the very day Pence spoke in Kabul, an attack that killed three soldiers.

However, two points need to be made clear. First and foremost, Pence’s remarks were obviously part of his effort to boost the morale of US troops by emphasising that the Trump administration was in Afghanistan for the long haul and until the Afghan Taliban were persuaded they could not win on the battlefield. Perhaps Pakistan should have resisted the temptation to react publicly to Pence’s comments, relying, as it has often done in the past, on conducting diplomacy discreetly through official channels rather than in the public space. Two, the two sides appear publicly to be talking past each other. Washington insists the safe havens on Pakistani soil exist, Islamabad in turn insists they have been eliminated. This gulf has created a vast amount of (mutual) suspicion between the two ‘allies’, particularly since Pakistan feels aggrieved by the US’s open expression of its intent to rely strategically and in Afghanistan on rival India. Washington could not have been pleased with, and according to our UN Ambassador Dr Maleeha Lodhi, threatened Pakistan not to co-sponsor the UN General Assembly resolution against Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While Islamabad’s calculations may include the fact that it has Washington over a barrel in terms of the latter’s reliance on Pakistan for the logistical needs of its presence in Afghanistan, this should not be stretched to the point where Trump’s penchant for retaliation comes into play and Washington falls back on attacks and even bin Laden-type raids inside Pakistan while using its clout with the international financial institutions to put the squeeze on Pakistan. This would cause huge problems in Pakistan obtaining the Rs 24 billion it needs to meet its external deficit next year (estimated by some independent economists to be closer to Rs 32 billion). Pakistan and the US need to put their heads together to once again jump start efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table (a stop-start process that is currently conspicuous by its absence) and deal with both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s terrorism problem through cooperation, not in hostility and laced with mutual recriminations.