Crossing the red line

Published November 18, 2013

MALIK Saeed Hasan is a legendary figure in the Lahore High Court Bar Association who has many quotable quotes to his credit.

But the one often repeated is his proud announcement that he has only one principle and that is not to follow any principles at all.

Yet, he remained an upright high court judge and when martial law was declared in 1977, walked over from the bench to the bar. He was elected president of the Lahore High Court Bar and performed remarkably.

During his tenure, the first International Women’s Conference was held at the Bar. The sight of so many women from across the globe enthused both, the bench and the bar.

A memorable speech of Malik was his presidential address to the general house of the bar after the introduction of the Sharia bill during Zia’s dark days. His solution was a simple one. Tongue in cheek he suggested that the country should be divided into ‘Sharia’ and ‘non-Sharia’ zones.

He passionately urged that Lahore remain in the ‘non-Sharia’ zone as it was his hometown and he wished to see prosperity, growth of culture and mirth in the city. Woefully, Malik’s ‘wayward’ vision now appears ominous; religious militancy and extreme intolerance has made deep inroads across the country.

Malik remains principled without making tall claims. He is not infallible but will not cross the red lines of decency and sanity.

Pakistani values are complicated. No one can claim absolute virtue. Sagacious and ameen cannot survive the rough and tumble of a society based on double standards. A court that fell to the temptation of violating an oath to constitutional rule now sits on judgement on other people’s integrity.

This is why conventional wisdom dismissed Imran Khan’s famous promise of never lying to the nation. Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court put his valour for the truth to test. Khan understandably chose the path of pragmatism.

To that extent, Malik’s theory of flexibility to principles is acceptable. Malik’s message was to have realistic expectations from mere mortals, but certainly indict them when they crossed the red lines. Applying one standard to oneself and yet another to everyone else is crossing the red line. Deliberately misleading people leading to dire consequences is another such example.

Take the all-party conference on terrorism. Was there a genuine debate to find a way to peace? How long did it take our top leadership to reach an obvious conclusion? Were other measures also discussed? Was it a participatory brainstorming or was it an exercise to galvanise public support for a single course of action?

Television debates by politicians have been disappointing. The opposition seems to have raised their hands and then handed over the trouble to the ruling party alone. A couple also admitted that they never read the final resolution.

Fata members were given hardly any time to raise their concerns. No details of the peace process through talks were mentioned nor asked. Was this laying out the truth before a suffering population?

Peace through talks is only one of the strategies to deal with an insurgency. Blockades, infiltration, use of force when attacked, extending the writ of the government, and firmness in ending impunity to terrorists are also valuable tools for sustained peace.

Talks to the exclusion of all other measures only sends one message — terrorism will be tolerated and the government has no policy against it or a strategy to protect its own citizens.

The response to the much-touted talks has been seen in blood. Over the years, thousands of Pakistanis, security forces included, have paid with their lives. The opposition blames the government for stalling the talks. Dealing with terrorism that has plagued this country for over two decades should be a worry for all stakeholders.

The government takes the lead but every leader must take his or her share of responsibility. At the moment the government does not appear to be in the driving seat and most in the opposition have either washed their hands of the matter or are brazen apologists for religious militants.

Strategies for ending terrorism should be based on the objective of protecting the rights of innocent civilians rather than accommodating the desires of militants. This is the fundamental line our politicians must not cross.

Sadly, after the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud all red lines were crossed. The fury was overwhelming. Such expressions of despair soon after the killing of someone who attacked his people can only embolden the terrorists. Such outrage is not seen after routine murder and mayhem in Peshawar or over the brutal manner in which our security forces have been slaughtered. All this was done over the pretext of peace talks being disrupted. The very peace talks that the opposition was claiming had not started, and thus the attacks after the all-party conference.

The interior minister gave no details of the talks except that some individuals were on their way to hold parleys. Sadly, talks cannot be one-sided and the Taliban spokesperson never owned the initiative nor showed any keenness for it.

Mehsud was killed in a drone attack and there is consensus that drones attacks violate international law. They are to be condemned regardless of their victim. Ironically, none of the politicians who have gone ballistic over the drones raised an eyebrow over their use during the Musharraf regime.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf has vowed to blockade Nato containers and down the drones. Will these measures end or decrease terrorism in Pakistan and secure the lives of ordinary Pakistanis?

If ending attacks by terrorists is indeed the objective and expected outcome then the PTI must make good on its promise. Populist threats are dangerous. They have a way of laying their own trap for those who initiate them.

These are critical moments for Pakistan and politicians will be judged harshly if the country descends into further isolation. There are red lines that they cannot cross and one of these is not to sympathise with the killers of innocent people.

The writer is a lawyer.

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