DAWN - Editorial; December 09, 2006

Published December 9, 2006

Revising the textbooks

SINCE 2001 Pakistan’s education planners have been involved in the process of revising the school curriculum. Considering the research that has been conducted by independent scholars who have reached the conclusion that there is a lot of hate material in our school/college textbooks directed against non-Muslims, it is a welcome move that a revision has been considered necessary. But as could have been expected, this has provoked a lot of opposition from the pro-status-quo lobbies led by the Islamists, who have also alleged that this is being done at the instance of the Americans. Succumbing to their criticism, the government has introduced no substantial changes in the books. In fact, a minor change that had removed an ayat on jihad from the school biology textbook was later undone and cost the federal education minister at the time, Zobaida Jalal, her job. Now the winds of change are blowing in the wake of President Musharraf’s shift in strategy: he is gearing up for a direct confrontation with the obscurantist religious elements.

It has now been leaked to the press that the Pakistan Studies textbooks are being revised drastically to give a moderate and less biased interpretation of the two-nation theory. In other words, the ‘ideological basis’ of Pakistan is to be de-emphasised. Given the fact that the religious lobbies have acquired an exaggerated importance, this is a courageous move. But it is an honest one that was long overdue. In 1971, when Bangladesh was born, the two-nation theory receded into the background as it lost its rationale. But General Ziaul Haq found an alternative in the Pakistan ideology that was promoted in a high key and also provided the army a justification to hold on to power as the saviour of the ‘ideological frontiers’ of the country. It is good that the government has decided to shed old biases from the history that is taught to our students and thus inculcate in them a positive mindset that accepts non-Muslims as equals who enjoy similar rights and privileges as Muslims. This should also implant in students a worldview not based on a jaundiced perception of history that divides the world community into Muslim and non-Muslim locked in an ongoing conflict.

The fact is that Pakistan does not owe its birth to any single factor, as is widely believed. Islam did make the Muslims a distinct community but it was not designed to be exclusive or intended to alienate them from the non-Muslims. Even in his speech at the Muslim League session of March 1940, the Quaid-i-Azam categorically stated that the creation of two states in the subcontinent would lead to goodwill and harmony between them since the Hindus and the Muslims would not be vying with each other to establish their political supremacy in the government. On August 11, 1947, he reaffirmed the inclusive character of the Muslims’ faith when he said in his famous speech that Muslims would cease to be Muslims and Hindus would cease to be Hindus “in the political sense as citizens of the state”. What we have instead taught our students is that Muslims are superior and it is their religious duty to wage a jihad against the non-Muslims. Our textbooks have failed to teach the younger generation the importance of tolerance and the sanctity of human rights of all people whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. One hopes that the changes that have been suggested will remove all tainted texts from the school books.

Israel’s strange reaction

EVEN though the Iraq Study Group’s report is of a recommendatory nature, Israel seems to be more upset about it than the Bush administration. The cardinal sin of the report in Israel’s view is that it links the Iraqi situation with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The report, drafted by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, makes it clear that peace will elude the Middle East unless the Arab-Israeli problem is resolved. Reacting to the report, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told journalists in Tel Aviv on Thursday that it was wrong to link the Arab-Israeli conflict with the wider issues in the Middle East. The region had many problems, he said, but they “are not connected to us”. What also may have jolted Mr Ehud — “a political corpse”, in the words of a European diplomat — is the ISG’s proposal that Israel should talk to Syria. Instead of the usual Israeli rhetoric about Syria and Iran supporting terrorism, the Baker-Hamilton report spoke of the “influence” these countries have over events in Iraq.

To deny that the Arab-Israeli conflict is central to peace in the Middle East is to repudiate the history of the region since the Balfour declaration and the subsequent wars involving no less than half a dozen states. Under the Ottomans, Palestine had for centuries enjoyed complete peace; it was rudely shattered when Jews began settling in Palestine. This deliberate attempt to alter Palestine’s demographic character to create a Jewish-migrant majority led, first, to a conflict within Palestine between its Arab inhabitants and European migrants and, later, to destructive wars between Israel and Arab states — those of 1948-49, 1956, 1967 and 1973, in addition to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon twice (1982 and last July-August). The Arab humiliation, the continued occupation of Palestine by Israel and its repeated massacres of Arab men, women and children also had repercussions within Arab states and gave rise to extremism springing from the Arab masses’ dissatisfaction with their tragic fate. In Iraq, nearly 3,000 Americans have died in fighting the insurgents there. The neocons launched the invasion of Iraq because Israel considered the Baathist Iraq its principal enemy.

Their case for speedy trials

A REPORT carried by this newspaper describing the judicial limbo in which Karachi’s juvenile prisoners find themselves is a sad reflection on a society that puts penalty before reform. Had concern with the latter been overriding, matters would not have reached a stage where 97 per cent of teenagers — technically children — currently being held in the city’s juvenile lock-up would be faced with the prospect of delayed trials and consequently a lengthier period in jail. This is a common phenomenon in jails across the country and is also true for the adult prison population, most of which spends a number of years in prison because of a slow judicial process, at the end of which very few are convicted. Of those convicted, many have actually spent more time in jail waiting for the verdict than the term of their sentence.

In the case of children, such a delay is doubly reprehensible. For not only is it a travesty of justice to keep them in the lock-up indefinitely, it also means robbing many of them of crucial, formative years and a carefree childhood. In many cases, their offence is of a petty nature that does not deserve the rigours of prison life. The psychological impact of such detention can be deep and have negative repercussions not only for the individuals but also for society. Moreover, their age makes them vulnerable to various forms of physical and mental abuse at the hands of the law-enforcers and jail officials. Far from focusing on reformative steps for character building, jailers tend to expose the juveniles to an atmosphere where many fall into the mould of habitual criminals. In such a scenario, the importance of fair and speedy trials cannot be over-stressed. It is up to the government to remove impediments in the way of this goal.

A tribute to Agha Shahi

By Aftab Shahban Mirani


IT was indeed heartrending to hear about the demise of Agha Shahi, a distinguished Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer from the 1944 batch. My reminiscences of Agha Shahi go back to my childhood when he and my brother-in-law Nazir Ahmed (ICS 1938 batch), each occupied half of the same double-storied rented house at 2, Bleak House Road, below Karachi’s Clifton Bridge.

Agha Shahi lived in that house for about 15 years and then moved to Islamabad. Later, when in Karachi, he used to live in his own house in PECHS. Nazir Ahmed and my sister lived in that house all their lives and died there.

Agha Shahi was posted in Thatta as the collector and district magistrate in 1946. He was averse to tyrants and oppressors exploiting poor people with no place to seek justice. His modus operandi was to dress up as a common man and sit in wayside hotels catering to the poor. He would then inquire from various people about the criminals and the godfathers of that area. After visiting several such places, he evaluated rogue elements recurrently mentioned by the people and then ensured that all of them, including their godfathers, were apprehended and punished. Once they were arrested, even the high and the mighty could not get them released. No criminal could get relief during his tenure.

Subsequently, he was transferred from Thatta, and never held district charge again — for obvious reasons. Sixty years have passed since, but the people of Thatta, where Agha Shahi has become a legend, still remember him. Later, he opted for the foreign service of Pakistan where he had a distinguished and an unblemished career.

About 20 years ago, I read an article, perhaps in Dawn, about war-related developments in the post-1971 phase. Around one and a half years ago, I asked him about this and he recalled it with clarity. The reason why I solicited his response was because I was invited to be chief guest at the launching ceremony of Hafeez Kashmiri’s book at the Arts Council in May 2005 where I narrated the story.

The last time I met Agha Shahi was some six months ago during his last visit to Karachi. He invited me and my wife for lunch at the Sindh Club where I again asked him to recollect the facts.

His narration was as follows:

After the December 1971 war, the constant demand of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman and the Indian government was to try the Pakistani troops. They had pinpointed 192 officers and jawans who they intended to put on trial. The Simla accord came into being at 12:40 am on July 2, 1972. It did not mention the return of the 92,000 Pakistani troops (war prisoners) because insistence at that stage was not leading to an agreement. This was left to be discussed at a later date.

Some time in August 1972, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then the leader of his party in the Lok Sabha, criticised Mrs Gandhi on the floor of the House for signing the agreement. Mrs Gandhi’s response was, “We still have the Pakistani troops with us” (which confirms that our troops were being used for their ulterior motives).

Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a man of vision and a statesman par excellence, was greatly disturbed. Once Bangladesh was recognised by the United Nations that year (1972), India had plans to try the Pakistani troops — for that would then have amounted to being tried for “war crimes”.

Bhutto called over Agha Shahi — then Pakistan’s ambassador to China — from Beijing. He was told that the only way to thwart the entry of Bangladesh into the UN was to request China to veto its entry. It was only that year that China had replaced Nationalist China on the permanent seat of the UN and had thus been empowered with the right of veto.

Agha Shahi was asked by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to immediately fly back to Beijing and personally speak to Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and request him on his behalf. This was at the beginning of September 1972.

When Agha Shahi made this request in person to the Chinese prime minister, he was told that this was the first year of China’s entry into the United Nations and it would be the first veto for China. The prime minister, however, paused for a moment and agreed to veto the entry of Bangladesh. He asked Agha Shahi to convey this news to Prime Minister Bhutto. Agha Shahi thanked him on behalf of Prime Minister Bhutto and Pakistan. As the issue was highly sensitive and secret, telephonic conversations were kept to the bare essentials due to possible interception by intruders.

The Security Council was to meet very shortly during the same month. Since China was a new entrant in the United Nations, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai asked Agha Shahi to assist his delegation in New York (earlier Agha Shahi had been permanent representative of Pakistan at the United Nations where he served for over five years, having the rank of a senior ambassador). Shahi responded: “Sir, who will look after the affairs of my country in my absence?” To which the Chinese prime minister said: “Don’t worry, I will serve as ambassador of Pakistan in your absence.”

Pressed for time, Shahi had to fly the next day to Pakistan to brief Prime Minister Bhutto and then fly on to New York. To his surprise, there was no flight going out from Beijing on that day. He informed the Chinese prime minister. To his astonishment, he was given a special plane to fly him to Hami in Xinjiang province from where he caught a connecting flight to Islamabad. After his meeting with Prime Minister Bhutto he flew to New York.

India had lined up a majority in the 15-member Security Council. (If I recollect correctly, Shahi had said it was nine for entry and six against.) Until the last moment, the use of the veto was kept a closely guarded secret. Thus to the surprise of everyone, the first veto of China was cast, and Bangladesh was not given entry into the United Nations that year.

This was a turning point for Pakistan. The cherished desire of India for recognition of Bangladesh by the UN that year was delayed. The trials never took place. The rest is history.

This, perhaps, is amongst the greatest contributions of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Pakistan and its people. In this endeavour, he was ably assisted by Agha Shahi. Intellectual giants of such stature are very rare in the present time.

The writer is a former chief minister of Sindh, and a former federal defence minister.

A setback to neocons

By Martin Jacques


JUST a month after the American electorate delivered a resounding rebuff to the Bush Iraq policy, the great and the good — in the guise of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) — have subjected that policy to a withering critique.

The administration has had the political equivalent of a car crash. George Bush is being routinely condemned as one of the worst presidents ever, and his Iraq policy no longer enjoys the support of a large swath of the American establishment. The neoconservatives suddenly find themselves isolated and embattled: Rumsfeld has been sacked, Cheney has gone quiet, the likes of Richard Perle are confined to the sidelines. The president is on his own and it is difficult to see how Bush can avoid moving towards the ISG position. The political map is being redrawn with extraordinary alacrity.

Before our eyes, the neoconservative position is disintegrating. Its foreign-policy tenets have been shown to be false. As is now openly admitted, they have brought the US to the verge of disaster in Iraq, which is why the American version of the “men in grey suits” has ridden to the rescue. After less than six years in office, elected at a time when the US was unchallenged as the sole superpower, the Bush administration has managed to deliver the country to the edge of what can only be compared to a Vietnam moment: the political and military defeat of the central and defining plank of American foreign policy.

Of course, in one sense it is quite unlike Vietnam. In 1975 the Americans suffered a spectacular military defeat at the hands of North Vietnam and the Vietcong, with US helicopters seeking to rescue leading US personnel from the tops of buildings as Vietnamese guerrillas closed in on the centre of Saigon. It was to shape American foreign policy — in particular, a desire to avoid overseas military entanglements — for decades.

Indeed, the rise of the neoconservatives was partly predicated on a rejection of what they saw as American defeatism during and after the Vietnam war. Iraq is very different. There is no single enemy with a clear military strategy. Baghdad will not be Saigon. This is a case of an endless, bloody and unwinnable quagmire rather than any spectacular denouement in waiting.

But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).

The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy — to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) — has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush’s foreign policy

From a longer-term perspective, moreover, it is already clear that it will be impossible for the Americans to restore the status quo ante in the region. The failure of the occupation has shown the limitations of its power - which every country, from Iran and Syria to Israel and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Hezbollah and Hamas), will have noted. The US has been the decisive arbiter in the Middle East since the end of the Suez crisis in 1956, albeit with the Soviet Union playing a secondary role until 1989. The American era is now over.

In future the US will be forced to share its influence with regional powers such as Iran, with the EU — and no doubt in time, with emerging global players such as China and perhaps even Russia.—Dawn/Guardian Service



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