Saturday, March 30, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial March 30, 2019

Relief and mobilisation

The Supreme Court (SC) on March 26, 2019 has granted six weeks bail to Nawaz Sharif on medical grounds, thereby overturning the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC’s) rejection of it, and the Lahore High Court (LHC) has ordered the removal of Shahbaz Sharif’s name from the Exit Control List (ECL). This double relief to the Sharif brothers has evoked a sigh of relief from their family and bouts of joy amongst their party cadres. The SC examined Nawaz Sharif’s medical records and the recommendations of five medical boards that had examined him since his imprisonment, all of which pointed to his health complications regarding heart, kidneys, diabetes and blood pressure. They unanimously recommended certain procedures that required proper medical facilities to the satisfaction of the patient. Despite being shunted around various hospitals for weeks, Nawaz Sharif had finally refused this medical merry-go-round. The government in this period had been unsympathetic to the prisoner’s plight and continued to taunt him with the mantra of ‘No NRO’ and ‘Do you want to be treated abroad?’. The SC having examined the expert medical opinion and found it concurring on Nawaz Sharif’s required treatment, allowed six weeks bail (two short of what Nawaz Sharif’s lawyers had requested) with the provisos that he could not travel out of the country, would have to surrender to custody at the end of the period, and could apply for an extension of his bail period to the IHC if further treatment was required. If during the six weeks period the IHC decided Nawaz Sharif’s appeal against his conviction and imprisonment by an accountability court, the order of the IHC would hold the field. As a consequence of the SC order, Nawaz Sharif has returned home from Kot Lakhpat Jail and started his treatment. Meanwhile the LHC found no merit in the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB’s) justifications for putting Shahbaz Sharif’s name on the ECL after he had been granted bail in two references against him. The court was satisfied that the track record of Shahbaz Sharif showed he had cooperated with NAB in all the cases pressed against him. Meanwhile Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has embarked on his train march from Karachi to Larkana as preparation for the upcoming April 4 death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Along the way, at scheduled and some unscheduled stops, Bilawal has been addressing teeming crowds of supporters in an aggressive tone towards the government as part of what appears to be a mass mobilisation against the perceived victimisation of the opposition through NAB, etc. Although the train march, dubbed 'Caravan-i-Bhutto', evokes memories of the memorable train marches of the past, especially those mounted by Bilawal's grandfather, they can only justify such a comparison if the wider public, not just PPP jiyalas (committed workers), join in.

The SC castigated NAB during the proceedings of Nawaz Sharif’s case for inflicting immense stress on those it charges, which is leading people like Brigadier Asad Munir (retd) to commit suicide. The fact is that NAB, under the military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999, has no restrictions on charging or arresting anyone suspected of being guilty of corruption. Not only that, the NAO turns the time honoured judicial principle of ‘innocent until proved guilty’ on its head to ‘guilty until you prove yourself innocent’. Not only do these appear in practice a heavy-handed, draconian, unjust set of provisions, it has led to tragedies like that of Asad Munir. As far as the ECL is concerned, it functions under a non-transparent, arbitrary, open to partisan abuse regime. It is ironic that the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are both suffering in opposition because they failed during their successive tenures from 2008 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018 respectively to repeal, undo or modify provisions like Articles 62 and 63, inserted by military dictator Ziaul Haq, or the NAO promulgated by Pervez Musharraf, or the ECL regime that is difficult to make head or tail of. They are therefore being hoist on their own petard of neglect or bowing to religious and other lobbies in expedient fashion. The superior courts’ two verdicts discussed above stand on merit, therefore there is no need to indulge in the conspiracy theory doing the rounds that they represent the tip of an iceberg of some ‘deal’.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial March 29, 2019

Persuading the Taliban

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan in an interaction with media on March 25, 2019, related an intriguing piece of information. He said that he had cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Taliban in Islamabad due to concerns expressed by the Afghanistan government. However, he did not clarify when and with which Taliban representatives this aborted meeting had been fixed. It may be recalled that media reports in February 2019 spoke of a planned meeting with the Taliban in Pakistan after the last round of talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. In fact there was speculation at the time that the US Special Representative leading the Doha talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, may also meet the Taliban since he was present at the time in Islamabad. There was a statement put out by the Taliban on February 17, 2019, a day before a delegation of the group was supposed to arrive in Islamabad to meet PM Imran Khan and possibly Zalmay Khalilzad and his delegation officials. The statement said that the Taliban delegation was unable to travel because of sanctions by the US and the UN. Whether, however, that was the real reason or an excuse to avoid talks in Islamabad that the Taliban may have felt would subject them to a lot of pressure to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which they have steadfastly refused to do, calling the Afghan government a US puppet, is not known. So while they have engaged with the US in Doha in a number of rounds of talks that laid down the bare outline of a possible solution to the long running Afghan war, comprising the withdrawal of foreign (largely US) troops on the one hand and guarantees that Afghan soil would never again be allowed to be used to attack the US or its allies ever again (a la 9/11) on the other, the Taliban have not budged an inch on the demand that they hold talks with the Ashraf Ghani government.

PM Imran Khan struck a hopeful note when he suggested an interim setup in Kabul to hold inclusive general elections in the war torn country in which all stakeholders, including the Taliban, should participate. Let such an election decide who is to rule in Afghanistan after the departure of the US and other foreign troops, was Prime Minister Imran Khan’s message. However, he immediately applied a dampener on the very hopes he sought to arouse by stating he did not know how long such a process would take to implement. If the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf government’s and the establishment’s statements vis-à-vis Afghanistan for some time are kept in view, it would seem that Pakistan is wedded to persuading the Taliban to enter into talks with the President Ashraf Ghani administration. PM Imran Khan too quoted the US officials, including President Donald Trump, as having come round to the view that only Pakistan can persuade the Taliban to accede to broader talks that would include the Ashraf Ghani administration and that the Americans were now pleased that Pakistan was making efforts in this direction. Critics in Pakistan of the government and the establishment point to the similarities in the narrative of Pakistan regarding persuading the Taliban and the failure to act against non-state actors that recently brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war. Whether such a comparison holds water or not, there seems to be a convergence across the board in Pakistan that the days of proxy wars have come to an end and groups that threaten the peace of the region because of such activities must be reined in. Of course the Taliban are a different and rather more difficult kettle of fish. Nevertheless, Pakistan must realize that its interests now lie in nudging the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Ghani government if Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region are to return to peace, normality and progress.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Business Recorder Column March 26, 2019

Hindu girls’ forced conversions

Rashed Rahman

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has taken notice of the latest incident of the abduction, forced conversion and marriage to the abductors of two Hindu teenaged girls from Sindh. This is hardly the first case of this kind. Over the years, and particularly the by now decades old rise and rise of religious fundamentalism, such cases are regularly reported. Sindh has the largest concentration of Hindu citizens, therefore it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of such cases emanate from there.
PM Imran Khan has ordered the provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab (where the two girls have reportedly been taken) to carry out an investigation into the case, according to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry. This statement of the worthy minister followed a twitter exchange between him and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj after the latter asked the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad for a report on the case. Had Fawad Chaudhry confined himself to a defence of the constitutionally guaranteed status of equality for all citizens of Pakistan irrespective of their faith, it would have been appropriate. But the minister being the minister, he had to drag in the very criticism of India vis-à-vis its treatment of religious minorities, especially Muslims, which he was objecting to on Swaraj’s part as being an internal matter of Pakistan. Admittedly, there is much room for criticism of the treatment being meted out to Muslims in India under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) rule. But if we are honest, we have to confront the fact that religious minorities in Pakistan too suffer from ‘othering’, discrimination, and worse.
The facts of the instant case of two Hindu girls named Reena and Raveena appear to be that they are underage, 14 and 16 years to be exact. They have been abducted from Ghotki in Sindh and brought, at least initially, to Rahimyar Khan in Punjab. Subsequent reports have muddied the waters further by suggesting that they are now elsewhere in Punjab (perhaps Gujranwala) but yet to be traced. The two girls are the daughters of Hari Laal of the Hindu Maighwal community. A recent widower, the father and his son have lodged an FIR against the abduction at a police station in Ghotki. However, after a video emerged on social media showing the two girls with two young men (presumably the ones they have married) and a cleric, saying they had chosen to convert and marry their presumed abductors of their own free will, the police seems to have reverted to its normal practice in such cases of relying on such doctored videos to turn a blind eye to the crime.
One person has been arrested by the police, but it is not clear what is his role in the affair. The cleric who solemnised the marriages may or may not have been picked up at the time of writing these lines. One name that keeps popping up in such incidents is that of Mian Abdul Haq, known as Mian Mithoo, who has gained a great deal of notoriety in being involved in forced conversions of Hindu girls, especially in Thar, Sindh. How and why he cannot be held accountable is one more of the countless anomalies of our justice system.
Civil society activists protested in Karachi against the abduction, forced conversion and marriage of these two young girls, but it remains to be seen if such protests carry any weight in the corridors of power. Nevertheless, such voices, weak as they may be, reflect the conscience of an otherwise tragically indifferent society to the travails of the religious minorities in our country. In past such cases, if and when they did come to court, neither is there a strong record of reversing the abductions, etc, nor any punishment of the perpetrators. Now we hear that another underage Hindu girl Shania too has been abducted from Mirpurkhas, Sindh, in further defiance of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act that forbids the marriage of any person under 18 years of age.
Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the head of the Pakistan Hindu Council and a prominent figure in the PTI government (having joined the party just before the 2018 elections) has stated his intent to move a condemnatory resolution on the matter in the National Assembly. It would be something positive if the government and opposition came together to legislate on restriction of underage marriages and protection in particular of young Hindu girls who otherwise seem condemned to suffer this fate for the foreseeable future. But legislation, as we know in the case of other social ills, is not enough. The culture and mindset of state officials and institutions, particularly the police and lower courts, will have to undergo a radical re-education in this matter before they can fulfil the demands of justice.
The exchange between Fawad Chaudhry and Sushma Swaraj points to one of the tragedies afflicting both countries: they are unable to escape the prison of history. Partition has left so many wounds and scars on the body politic and society in both countries that neither are able to posit issues that afflict their societies, particularly where minority rights are concerned, in an enlightened, mutually reinforcing manner without descending to point scoring. We here constantly bemoan our departures from the principles laid down for Pakistan by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, but are constantly guilty of violating those principles day in and day out. The rights of the religious minorities were a cardinal point of the Quaid’s principles. Have we done justice to his legacy in this regard?
The reason the answer to this question is in the negative is because we have allowed half-baked, virtually illiterate maulvis to hold state and society hostage to their antediluvian agendas. Pakistan (and India) needs a concerted campaign of awareness raising and combating the myriads of ways in which our religious minorities feel insecure, threatened and second-class citizens. Otherwise the parade of underage Hindu girls being forcibly converted and married off is unlikely to end, to our shame and sorrow.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial March 22, 2019

Selling the family silver

The federal cabinet in its wisdom has decided on March 19, 2019 to sell properties and assets of federal ministries and their allied departments that were not in use, run down, or abandoned. For the cash-strapped government, this appears as a droolingly tempting proposition to enhance its revenues, an issue currently generating more heat than light because of the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) appearing likely to miss its annual target by a whopping figure and the resultant draconian measures such as raids on businesses being conducted by the FBR minions. Whether these methods of FBR will prove productive for government revenues however, remains a moot point. To return to the federal cabinet decision though, one hopes the idea has been thought through and does not suffer the same fate as the Quixotic idea floated early in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government’s tenure to turn the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad into a university and the Governor’s Houses in the provincial capitals into some other public use. The first sank quietly without a trace when security, functionality and the impracticality of the idealist idea came to the fore. The latter remains confined to opening the Governor’s Houses to visits from the public and not much else, not a bad idea per se but reflective of a sobering return to reality. The auction of milk-giving buffaloes and vehicles of the Prime Minister’s House too did not live up to the initial hype. The possible gain from selling off disposable federal properties and assets of the federal government may run into trillions. Prime Minister Imran Khan, according to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, has sought lists of such properties for disposal, and these have been duly supplied by the concerned ministries to the federal cabinet. When asked how the government could sell its assets without adopting a proper liquidation process, Fawad Chaudhry evaded the answer by saying the government would first adopt a uniform policy to frame a modus operandi for legal disposal of such properties as every public organisation has its own procedure for this purpose, which may hamper the government’s plan.

What the information minister did not say (if, that is, he is aware of the fact) is that apart from the federal capital Islamabad, the rest of the federal government’s properties are located in the provinces. The land on which they sit is originally provincial land, leased virtually in perpetuity to the federal government. In the event that the federal government proceeds, after adopting its ‘uniform’ policy and modus operandi, to attempt to sell off derelict, abandoned or not in use such properties, many anomalies are likely to arise. In the first place, the respective provincial governments would be perfectly within their rights to demand of the federal government a return of the land (and the properties standing on them) to the original owners, i.e. the provincial governments, and insist on pocketing 100 percent of the proceeds of sale. Such an outcome would obviously defeat the revenue generation aspiration of the federal government. Even if, in the event the provincial governments agree to share the sales proceeds with their beleaguered federal counterpart, they could virtually dictate such shares between Islamabad and the provincial capitals, implying less proceeds to the former than it may have envisaged. Last but not least, there is a logical inconsistency at the heart of the whole idea. Any such sale for revenue generation purposes, even if it were able to overcome the roadblocks outlined above, would inherently be a one-off affair. The proceeds may well ‘disappear’ into the treasury’s coffers to finance current expenditures without any possibility of ever again being able to repeat such a venture. This is akin to selling the family silver without a clue what will happen in the future when it is gone.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial March 21, 2019

FATA uplift

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government has revealed its ambitious plans to implement the merger of erstwhile FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) that was announced last year and initiate development to help the tribal areas to catch up with the rest of the country. Towards this end, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has announced on March 18, 2019 that the government intended to hold a three-week consultative process with the residents of the tribal areas on the plan to spend Rs 100 billion per annum for the next 10 years on the development of the seven tribal agencies that have been redesignated districts. The PM said the consultative process would be initiated from Bajaur, where he had addressed a public meeting last week. Explicating the government’s plans further, Special Assistant to the PM on Media Iftikhar Durrani said development work had already been initiated in the health, education, infrastructure, communication, law and order, security and tourism sectors. The consultations, he explained, were aimed at keeping the locals on board so that development activities in their areas could be carried out according to their needs and wishes. Meetings would be held with local jirgas in which KP government representatives would also be involved. He underlined the PM’s concern about former FATA’s mainstreaming, as this was a top priority of the PTI government, so much so that he himself monitored the area’s development programme on a regular basis. Outlining some of the ongoing projects in the area, Durrani said police were replacing the Levies, police stations were being built and jobs given to locals in the police. Courts were also being established. Buildings for schools were being built and hospitals established in rented buildings. Mobile phone services had been provided in South Waziristan and would be next provided in Bajaur. It may be noted that this has only become possible since the area, troubled by terrorism for many years, was now peaceful after the military’s counter-insurgency campaigns since 2015. PM Imran Khan, according to Durrani, had vowed to streamline and improve the Afghan transit trade in the tribal districts for which necessary work would be completed. During his visit to Bajaur, the PM had expressed his desire to extend tourist facilities to the area so that local and foreign tourists could enjoy its beauty. Directives to this effect had been given to the KP government. Following the merger, the seven tribal agencies have been given the status of districts with political and assistant political agents being redesignated as deputy and assistant commissioners. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court (PHC) has already been extended to the tribal areas and the PHC is setting up district and sessions courts in each of the new districts. This process is expected to be competed in 2-4 months. The FATA Interim Governance Regulations 2018 will for the time being continue to operate in place of the old colonial black law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).

While the intent of the government to bring the new tribal districts in conformity with the system in the rest of the country and help its development to catch up with the settled areas is laudable, some ticklish questions remain. First and foremost, given the parlous state of the country’s finances, where will the resources for spending Rs 100 billion a year for the next 10 years, i.e. Rs one trillion, come from? Will the infrastructure development plans be confined to building new roads and upgrading old ones or is there a proposal to extend the railways network to the tribal districts? While the idea of streamlining and improving the Afghan transit trade appears rational, how does the government intend to tackle the endemic smuggling regime that has taken advantage of a historically porous border for long? Certainly the tribal districts deserve all the help possible to overcome the drag of being kept aloof and backward deliberately by the colonial power and arguably successive governments after Independence too. Whatever were the strategic compulsions that seemed to suggest this was a good idea at the time, it is now incumbent on the government to make efforts towards negating this dark history.