Feb 9

Ironies of FATA

Posted on Friday, February 9, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Ironies of FATA

Several thousand Pakhtuns, young and old, but mostly from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), are camped outside the Press Club in Islamabad. They are protesting the state of displacement, internment, ethnic-profiling, disappearances, killings, injury and exile that have been everyday occurrences of their war-torn lives in the last ten years. Thousands of families are disabled or devastated in one way or another. Few have been compensated in any meaningful way. FATA is a restive and impoverished tribal borderland in the front-line of the most violent terrorist and anti-terrorist operations in recent years.

The trigger of the current protest is the killing, over a thousand miles away, of a popular social media Pakhtuns model-star – Najeebullah Mehsud – in a “police encounter” against “terrorists” in Karachi, which is home to thousands of displaced and runaway Pakhtuns from FATA. The villain of the piece is a notorious police officer – Senior Superintendent of Police, Rao Anwar – who has done the bidding of the military in many such “encounters” aimed at “cleaning-up” the terrorist-infected city, much as in FATA in recent times. And one of the public demands, naturally enough, is to bring the errant and defiant cop to justice. He has been a law unto himself but is now on the run from his own police force because of public and judicial pressure.

The timing of the “dharna” is also conducive: ruling and opposition parties are especially sensitive to angry voters in the run-up to general elections. The venue is significant too: Islamabad is the seat of the federal government that controls FATA directly on the basis of a colonial system of administration; it is also the headquarters of the powerful military that has waged a relentless war against the Taliban in FATA but failed to work effectively with the civilian authorities to rehabilitate the displaced people and rebuild their lives.

The protesters are also demanding that the “disappeared” be saved from the summary wrath of the military (that has lost over 3000 soldiers and officers in this war and, like all militaries in such situations, has no love lost for due judicial process). They are demanding that land mines which litter the landscape and take their toll indiscriminately be removed. They are sick of the routine curfews that are imposed in troubled areas whenever there is some terrorist strife in some part of the country or other. They want the civil-military establishment to stop the ethnic profiling of Pakhtuns as potential terrorists and the constant surveillance of Pakhtun population clusters outside their home territories. They want hospitals and schools and roads and jobs for their ravaged region. It is reported that “70% of the region’s 5 million people live in poverty, the literacy rate is 10% for women and 36% for men”.

This is an opportune moment to raise a bigger but urgently needed demand – that of the merger of FATA with mainstream Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province so that the “tribal areas” are also brought into the fold of the general “democratization” and “civilianization” of state and society underway in Pakistan, with all its imperfect paraphernalia of elections, rule of law,accountability, local government, etc. Every government in the last twenty years has promised to amend the constitution and bring about this reform but each has shied away at the last minute because of countervailing pressure from party political or tribal vested interests in coalition with the ruling party. Two of the main culprits are Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s PKMAP. Both fear that a merger will enable the mainstream parties to capture their tribal vote. The PTI is popular with the youth; The PPP and ANP have core secular constituencies; the Muslim League will capture the conservative centralist voter. The waters have now been muddied by another group that is demanding a separate provincial status for FATA, a demand that is vigorously opposed by everyone else because of fears that it may lead to similar demands by disgruntled linguistic or ethnic minorities elsewhere in the country.

One curious but unfortunate fact of this protest must also be recorded. The mainstream media is pretending that this “dharna” is not meaningful in any significant way, hence it doesn’t deserve the 24 hour “breaking news” live coverage afforded day in and day out to mainstream politicians. Yet not so long ago, a firebrand mullah, Khadim Rizvi, with barely 2000 supporters, was able to block Islamabad and hog the news for three weeks on end and also succeed in toppling one minister and threatening two others simply because he seemed to have the indirect blessings of the military. Since the media is slavish only towards the military, and since the military establishment seems to be indirectly at the centre of the   FATA protest also, the conclusion is obvious.

The irony is that the military fought a war to save Pakistan from the cancer of Talibanism; it has been urging the civilians to spend more money on rehabilitating displaced persons; and it is desperately seeking FATA’s merger with KP to stabilize the region and consolidate the hard victories won there.

Feb 2

Justice and Reform

Posted on Friday, February 2, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Justice and Reform

The sincere efforts of Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, to provide succour to those in most need of it are laudatory. His instruction to judges to speed up trials in cases involving rent, succession, family matters and stay orders, is very welcome indeed. Nor should anyone dare take his suo motu interventions in the public interest lightly. For the same reason, we would like to draw His Lordship’s attention to a couple of issues that are worrying.

Justice Nisar did right by challenging Dr Shahid Masood, a TV anchorperson, to prove his shocking allegations regarding the rapist-murderer of little Zainab. No one should be allowed to make political capital out of a tragic incident, least of all a congenital liar. In this context, however, we do wish he had summoned the editor of this newspaper to record his views along with the other journalists last Sunday, not just because we have suffered at the hands of Dr Shahid Masood but also because our journal and its editorial staff enjoy some repute at home and abroad and have paid the price for speaking truth to power. It would be a miscarriage of justice if Dr Masood were to get away by blustering and threatening and go back to plying his dirty trade all over again.

Dr Shahid Masood is one of the originators of the “35 punctures” lie that was laid at the door of our editor three years ago when he was appointed Caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab following a consensus between the government and opposition of the day. This lie went viral and caused his family, friends and him much pain and suffering. It also served to erode the credibility of this paper. We sued Dr Masood for defamation but he has neither apologized for the lie nor proven the charge in court, despite the fact that the Judicial Commission under ex-CJP Nasirul Mulk rubbished the allegation of electoral rigging and “35 punctures”. Is it too much to ask, we wonder, that Justice Nisar order the case languishing in the Sessions Court for the last three years to be transferred to the SC and clubbed with the current one under investigation so that we may have the satisfaction of finally getting justice?

Much the same sort of anguish has been caused by ex-cricketer Sarfaraz Nawaz who has launched a vilification campaign against the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, who happens to be our editor. We have sued him too and the sessions court has placed a gag order on him pending adjudication of the matter. But he continues to hurl abuse at will in the media and is lodging vicious, baseless and trumped-up charges in various forums. Accordingly, we have sent a letter to NAB detailing evidence of his attempts to extract personal financial gain from the PCB Chairman and vilifying him when he refused to do his bidding. Would it not, therefore, be in the fitness of things if justice Nisar could also urge the lower court to speed up the case and compel Sarfaraz Nawaz to provide evidence of “fixing”, or apologise and shut up? Such allegations undermine the credibility and ability of PCB management to run the Pakistan Cricket Board and revive Pakistan’s cricketing fortunes by bringing international cricket back home and showcasing the country in a positive light.

We admit that such matters can also be dealt with under the existing defamation laws if – and this is a big IF – the lower courts were to adjudge cases fairly in the stipulated six months. Alternatively, since defamation has now become a media epidemic and is threatening to irrevocably damage civil society and the body politic, Justice Nisar may consider setting up special summary courts to deal with defamation matters. PEMRA is too overburdened to cater to this pressing requirement of state and society – at any rate its judgments are still subject to the courts which are unfortunately quick to grant Stay Orders that end up thwarting the course of justice instead of advancing it.

Of course, we have made mistakes. But we have never shied away from apologizing when we were wrong. Indeed, we would like to think that, by and large, we have showcased independence with responsibility in the media for over 35 years. Regrettably, that cannot be said of many others in the profession of journalism. The explosion of electronic media has changed the dynamics of this profession. In the stampede to “break news”, there is no time to check facts or bother about the unintended consequences of airing “fake news”. That is why defamation is so common. Left unchecked, this can amount to a form of blackmail and coercion for corrupt and immoral ends. More critically, it undermines the basis of trust that is a core factor in the nourishment of civil society in a developing democracy.

We urge the Supreme Court of Pakistan under His Lordship Justice Saqib Nisar to clear the path to reform and justice in Pakistan.

Jan 26

Cathartic Outrage

Posted on Friday, January 26, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Cathartic Outrage

Zainab’s killer, it turns out, was a “naat-khwan”. This is not surprising. Overt display of piety can be a mask for dark demeanors or self-righteous license for unlawful or even immoral behavior rather than an innocent observance of religious ritual or passionate belief. Symbols of religious piety are especially potent in repressed societies in which individuals usually take cover behind them for escaping from their sexual predicaments or criminal cravings.

The bloodlust for swiftly hanging the child rapist-murderer in a public square is also perfectly understandable. It is the expression of vindictive or vigilante outrage at the devilish act as much as acute frustration at the inability of the criminal justice system to provide evident results. Indeed, the ends of justice are constantly thwarted not just by the corruption of the police, the inefficiency of the investigation agencies and the incompetence of the prosecution but also by the lethargy of the courts and the indecisiveness of the administration in complying with the ends of law – hundreds of convicted murderers are stranded on death-row for years on end, awaiting a Presidential reprieve or a final verdict from the courts. The problem is compounded by a parallel system of so-called religious laws – qisas and diyat – that frustrates the ends of deterrence in modern criminal law.

The public and media rage in Zainab’s case led to a massive, unprecedented, manhunt for the killer. Politicians, judges and administrators tripped over themselves to hog the limelight. The police and intelligence agencies were marshalled; dozens of cameras were overnight installed in the family’s neighbourhood to catch signs of suspicious movement; over 1000 DNA samples were taken from family members, friends and neighbours, and analyzed. Before long, the murderer was caught and produced before an anti-terrorist court. Now begins the trial of the man and the tribulation of society. By the time he is irrevocably sentenced – let alone executed – he will be long forgotten. And the hundreds of innocent Zainabs before and after this case will continue to cast their tragic shadow on this callous state and helpless society.

How many people remember the serial killer Javed Iqbal who dissolved over 100 children in acid in less than six months, whether he was caught or surrendered voluntarily, what fate befell him and what, if any, reforms were carried out in the criminal justice system to protect women and children from wanton rape and slaughter? How many remember the outcome of the more recent case of five-year old Sumbal who was assaulted and left dead at the entrance to a hospital? Whatever happened to the gang of child sodomizers in Kasur who were caught in a social media blaze last year? Was anyone apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and punished? Indeed, since Zainab’s death, the media has daily reported assaults on girls and children across the country but no administrative attention is paid to them because their plight is tucked away in short single columns buried deep in the print media.

It is interesting that the debate in the country has turned on the pros and cons of a public hanging. An opposition party senator has opportunistically tabled a resolution for an amendment in the law to sanction public executions. The Punjab chief minister is taking credit for his administration’s success in catching the murderer and now putting the onus of suitable punishment on the courts. But Parliament is divided. So too is civil society and the media. Will a public execution brutalize society further or will it provide the critical deterrent that is missing from the equation? How are notions of vengeance, retribution, due process and justice mediated in modern democratic and accountable states? Alas, there is no sensible and informed debate in Parliament on such issues. What is tragically significant is the lack of any focus by judges and administrators on reforming the criminal justice system to protect the hundreds of thousands of little Zainabs and Sumbals who daily remain at risk. Civilized societies treat such collectively anguished moments as tragic watersheds in the social development of modern states, from which they learn and take suitable action. But is there any such understanding or urgency here?

This is election year. The PMLN government in Punjab is besieged on several fronts. The opposition is primed to exploit every weakness in the chief minister’s arsenal. By the same token, he is on a war footing to thwart their every assault. It has taken him two weeks to gear up and marshal all the state’s resources and wit, to catch the murderer. Indeed, if the same incident had happened at any other time in any other province, given the comparative poverty of governance, it is doubtful if such a Herculean effort could have been mounted with such relatively swift results.

The conclusion is inescapable. We will continue to exorcise our collective guilt by periodic cathartic expressions of outrage. But our precious children will not be any the safer until the custodians of the state wake up to legislate new laws, to reform our justice system and follow through on the application of law.

Jan 19

Denouement

Posted on Friday, January 19, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Denouement

In an extraordinary development, the Balochistan parliament has suddenly packed off a majoritarian chief minister and replaced him with a proxy who secured less than 600 votes in the last general election. It doesn’t take rocket science to uncover the hidden hand that engineered the change at this point of time.

The province is extremely vulnerable on two fronts. It is a front-line region on the western border with Afghanistan from where terrorist and separatist groups continue to foment sectarian violence and target Pakistan’s security apparatus.This accounts for the powerful footprint of the Miltablishment in the province. It is also a hotbed of tribal intrigues, vendettas and opportunism that facilitate manipulation and corruption.

If the strategic importance of the province to the Miltablishment is obvious, so too is its tactical relevance in the current political situation. If the PMLN is to be stopped from improving its position in the Senate so that Nawaz Sharif cannot constitutionally make a comeback, then something must be done to stop the Senate elections from taking place in March before the next general elections are held some months hence. One way to do that is to precipitate a political crisis in which at least two provincial assemblies – Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – are dissolved, posing a constitutional challenge to holding the Senate elections on time. If necessary, this may be followed by mass resignations from the National Assembly of PTI, PMLQ, PPP, MQM and assorted groups currently in the fold of the Militablishment – including a significant chunk of PMLN “sleepers”— that compels a dissolution of parliament and the installation of an interim federal government cobbled by the Election Commission and Supreme Court of Pakistan. Such an interim government could stretch for months on end until the latest Census results have been collated and constituency delimitation concluded in a “satisfactory” manner. During this period, further political engineering can take place to ensure “suitable” results — a political dispensation that excludes the person of Nawaz Sharif from power (by getting NAB courts to sentence him for corruption) and also denies any political party an outright majority in parliament that might foolishly embolden it to challenge the political hegemony of the Miltablishment, a mistake that both Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif respectively made in office and for which they are still paying the price.

If there was any doubt about how this strategy would unfurl after the abrupt change in Balochistan that is primed for action whenever the Miltablishment so wills it, that has ended with the multi-party rally on The Mall in Lahore last Wednesday. Despite a ban on all rallies on The Mall, the Lahore High Court was kind enough to grant an exemption to this fiery “get-together”. Appropriately enough, the evergreen darling of the Miltablishment, Sheikh Rashid, announced his resignation from parliament after abusing it with choice expletives-deleted. As if on cue, Imran Khan held out the threat of the PTI following suit in Islamabad and KP in due course at the “right time”.

The pundits have looked at the sorry state of numbers at the rally and pronounced it a failure. If eighteen parties – including the PTI, PPP and PAT — could not mount even 10,000 protestors, they argue, how on earth are they going to force the governments in Punjab and Islamabad to quit? Indeed, the Sharifs are crowing that those who set out to obtain their resignations have ended up submitting their own!

But this is misplaced concreteness.

The Mall rally was only meant to confirm the pledge of the disparate parties to stand together for the final Heave-Ho when the signal is received rather than immediately go for the Punjab government’s jugular. Balochistan, KP and the opposition parties are now all primed for the coup de grace. They are simply waiting for a nod from the Miltablishment to trigger the beginning of the end of the current political dispensation led by the PMLN.

The “pause” in the internal plan has been necessitated by two factors: a revival of popular sympathy for Nawaz Sharif following his disgraceful “iqama” disqualification that could translate into another win in an early election; and the sudden deterioration of the external situation following President Donald Trump’s unexpectedly aggressive policy tweet against Pakistan’s Miltablishment. It would be foolish to engineer mass political discontent at home in the middle of an external threat that requires the nation to show a united front behind a legitimate government. That is why feverish efforts are underway to dilute the American offensive externally while “going slow” internally.

The Miltablishment is aiming to establish its institutional hegemony on strategic decision making in Pakistan without seizing power directly. The ouster of Nawaz Sharif, the embrace of Shahbaz Sharif, the manipulation of Asif Zardari, the unification of anti-Altaf MQM, the free hand to Imran Khan, the mainstreaming of Jehadi and religious elements to undercut the popular vote, the “disappearances” and media capture, are all steps in this direction. The “civilians” have largely themselves to blame for this denouement.

Jan 12

Killing Silence

Posted on Friday, January 12, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Killing Silence

The abduction, rape and murder of seven-year old Zainab from Road Kot in Kasur has sparked protests and riots in the city because there is a sordid history of child abuse in the district in which the police and administration is perceived to be either corrupt and complicit or incompetent and uncaring. Four years ago, reports surfaced of a gang of child-sodomizing blackmailers, prompting the police to arrest two dozen alleged offenders and calm down the public. But later almost all were set free by the courts either because the victims were too scared to give evidence or were bought off, or because of lack of coordination between the various investigation and prosecution branches of the administration.

According to NGO SAHIL, every day more than 11 children under the age of 18 fall prey to sexual abuse in the country. In 2016, nearly 4,150 cases of child abuse were reported. Over 43 percent of the survivors said they were acquainted with the criminals – and over 16 per cent said family members were perpetrators. Yet the record also shows criminal negligence or apathy on the part of the police, justice system, social mores and political culture in accounting for these monsters.

Kasur District has a particularly bad record of child abuse. At least a dozen children, half of them girls, have been abducted, raped and murdered in recent times. Now the police suspect the hand of a “serial killer” in at least eight such cases, since all occurred (2015 onwards) in the jurisdiction of three police stations. The police has arrested and interrogated scores of suspects and conducted dozens of forensic and DNA tests, but without much headway. Some reports say it has even resorted to a couple of “police encounters” to get rid of the worst offenders. But, as the latest outrage shows, the net result is tragically zero.

Not surprisingly, some people have tried to make political capital out of this tragedy. Maulana Tahir ul Qadri led funeral prayers for Zainab and linked the crime to the police killings in Model Town a few years ago for which he is demanding Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s head. The CM himself has tweeted his resolve (for the umpteenth time) to bring the criminals to justice. The agonizing Chiefs of the Army, Lahore High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan have all ordered inquiries and reports. No doubt, the police will soon show “results” by arresting and charging suspects but everyone will lose interest in what happens afterwards, until the next such incident occurs and the whole rigmarole of outrage, protest and forget is repeated.

To be sure, child abuse is not just Pakistan’s heartbreaking tragedy. COMPASSION lists it as a global societal issue that comes in many forms for children living in poverty – sexual, physical and emotional and includes neglect, exploitation and child labour. “Globally in 2014, 1 billion children aged 2–17 years experienced physical, sexual, emotional or multiple types of violence. A quarter of all adults report having been physically abused as children. One in five women and one in 13 men report having been sexually abused as a child. Every year, there are an estimated 41,000 homicide deaths in children under 15 years of age.”

It is also true that child abuse is most pervasive in societies and cultures that condone such actions or neglect to uproot them by suitable laws and moral education practices. One young commentator on social media has put it succinctly in our own context:

“I want justice for Zainab and all the other children who have been assaulted, raped or killed in Kasur. I want to hold the authorities accountable for their criminal neglect. But I want to ask you and me and the rest of our society: when was the last time you encouraged a woman or a child to name and shame their harasser and assaulter? When was the last time you insisted on repealing the Hadood Ordinances under which a raped woman can be charged with adultery unless she produces four male witnesses? When was the last time you insisted that the school curricula in Pakistan include lessons in sexual practices and mores so that children don’t have to find out “the hard way’? When was the last time you tried to stop the countrywide practices of child labour and child marriage? The truth is that we are all complicit in all kinds of abuse, and we encourage silence in the reporting of that abuse, especially when it pertains to women’s bodies. Our legal system is broken (qisas and diyat, anyone?) and our national priority has never been to protect the vulnerable (women, children, religious and sexual minorities and differently abled and poor). In fact, we actively discourage any discussion about such things. So yes – protest all you want, take your candles to the next vigil. But don’t pretend that WE (you and me and our parents, our schoolteachers, our civilian and military rulers) don’t have anything to do with what is happening in our midst”.