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


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


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”.

Jan 5

Beware unintended consequences

Posted on Friday, January 5, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Beware unintended consequences

True to form, US President Donald Trump has welcomed the new year with a barrage of threatening tweets against his favourite targets in North Korea, Iran, Palestine and the US Media. Pakistan now has the dubious distinction of being added to this Quixotic list of “enemies”. It stands accused of “lies and deceit”, of playing “double games”, of gobbling up $33 billion in the last fifteen years, of “harbouring terrorists”, etc. “No more”, warns President Trump, unless Pakistan is ready to “do more” to help America.

Understandably, the public reaction in Pakistan has been shrill. The country has been awash with anti-Americanism for many years. Thankfully, the government’s tone is measured.  It is “disappointed” by President Trump’s damning allegations. Indeed, Islamabad claims it has paid a very high price in men and material fighting the war against terrorism but it will not compromise on its long-term national security interests when they conflict with short-term American goals.

Are US-Pakistan relations about to rupture with severe consequences for both, but especially for Pakistan?

In his autobiographical books “The Art of the Deal” and “Time to Get Tough”, published years ago, President Trump boasts about how he used bullying tactics to clinch his most successful business deals. Clearly, he thinks the same strategy will work in the White House. But the Iranians, North Koreans and Palestinians have not yet been cowed down and the US media is still baying for his blood. How will Pakistan fare?

Much depends on how President Trump intends “to sort out” Pakistan. Clearly, the carrot of $33b hasn’t worked. So the stick may be brandished. He has cut $255m from the military component of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package. Earlier, the US withheld an amount of $350 million from the Coalition Support Program reimbursements to Pakistan. But this is no big deal, says Miftah Ismail, the new finance minister, “it’s just a day’s expenditure for the Pakistan government”.

The US may conceivably take other steps to “punish” Pakistan. It could lean on international finance institutions to tighten the screws on Pakistan at a time when it is faced with a developing balance of payments crisis. It could sanction Pakistani exports to the US. It could deal a blow to Pakistani business transactions by restricting access to SWIFT, the global provider of critical and secure financial messaging services. It could put Pakistani military officials and institutions with alleged links to banned or terrorist organisations on its sanctions list and restrict their international movements and freeze their assets. It could expand the theatre of drone operations inside Pakistan. It might even be tempted to attack the “safe havens” of the Haqqani network on the Pak-Afghan border. But each action would be precipitous, with unintended adverse consequences for both Pakistan and America.

“Pakistan”, thunders army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, “is impregnable”. The air force chief says he will shoot down any drones venturing into Pakistan territory. The bluster is political necessity in the face of a bully. But the reality is harsh, whatever the worth of US allegations.

Pakistan has never been more divided and weak internally than it is now. The mainstream politicians are at each other’s throats, inviting constitutional deviation. The military is manipulating favourites. The judiciary is reeling from the backlash of its own judgments. The economy is tanking. Balochistan and FATA on the periphery are in turmoil. The “foreign hand” of India and Afghanistan continues to foment trouble. No one can say with any confidence that the general elections will be held on time and a smooth transfer of power will take place. Let us admit it: a nation at war with itself can hardly put up a decent defense against a certified global bully.

Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is out of power not because he is inordinately more corrupt than everyone else in office but because he has chosen to call a spade a spade. He has challenged the political hegemony of the Miltablishment whose national security doctrines – including jumping in and out of bed with America – have brought Pakistan to a sorry pass where it is regionally alienated and internationally isolated. Clutching at Pakistan’s all-weather friend China will not erase or replace this reality. Mr Sharif has recently alluded to the price he is paying for attempting to question this “national security” paradigm. “It is time,” he says, “to put our house in order… there is a need to examine our character and actions with sincerity…we need to understand why our narrative is dismissed…if it is ignored and termed against the national interest, this is nothing but self-deception that has already led to the fragmentation of Pakistan once before”.

Foreign intervention in disunited and failing states can trigger mass upheavals, chaos and disintegration. The Arab “spring” has become a withering winter and Middle-Eastern nation states have been reduced to rubble amidst the specter of “militant Islam”. This unintended consequence of foreign intervention is now raising its ugly head over the Pakistani horizon. Ruling establishments in America and Pakistan should beware their proposed actions and reactions.