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DAWN - Opinion; February 21, 2007

February 21, 2007

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The Samjhota carnage

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


THE midnight blasts that tore through two coaches of the Samjhota Express at Panipat about an hour after the train had left New Delhi station on Sunday evening killed some 68 persons and injured many more. The damage would have been much worse had other incendiary material discovered at the site of the incident also exploded. According to railway officials, the majority of the passengers aboard the train were Pakistanis.

The contents of the unexploded suitcases suggest that the devices contained incendiary material designed to start fires in coaches rather than destroy these by exploding. Many of those who died would probably have been able to escape had the doors of the coaches not been sealed and had the windows not had bars placed across them. Indian officials have explained that for security reasons, police seal the doors of the coaches in Delhi after a security check, and they are only opened at the Attari station.

Unfortunately it seems that the security checks were not what they should have been. Eyewitnesses at the Delhi station and some of the surviving passengers have testified that only nominal security searches were conducted as the passengers boarded the train. Railway officials said there were no special procedures for passengers on this train, while a spokesman of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party castigated the government for not having special security procedures for this “trans-national route train”.

A clear lesson is that security checks on this train will have to be strengthened in both countries and additional guards rather than the sealing of doors and windows will need to be the method adopted to prevent illegal entry or exit.

Some Indian analysts have conjectured that incendiary rather than explosive material was deliberately used by the perpetrators to create the impression that this was an arson attack reminiscent of the attack on the train that took place in Godhra in Gujarat in 2002. It was used by the Gujarat government to trigger communal strife that left hundreds of Muslims dead. It is, of course, premature to draw any conclusions before the completion of the investigations.

Leaders on both sides appear to agree that this wanton and senseless terrorist attack was designed to derail the peace process. Both President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have expressed the determination that they will not allow the perpetrators to succeed in achieving this objective. At the time of writing, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri was due to arrive in New Delhi at the head of a large delegation for a meeting of the Indo-Pak Joint Commission and perhaps for some less public discussions on the “core issue”. It is to be expected that the packed agenda for formal talks will be overshadowed at least in some measure by the need to discuss the steps that will need to be taken to ensure that travel between the two countries, one of the first fruits of the “peace process”, is made safe.

A few days ago, it was announced that the first meeting of the joint anti-terrorism mechanism established by Pakistan and India as a result of the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh meeting in Havana last September will be held in Islamabad from March 6 to 7. Foreign Minister Kasuri and his Indian counterpart will have to decide during their meetings over the next two days what the agenda for this meeting should be in the light of the Samjhota Express carnage.

The Samjhota tragedy is the first terrorist incident on Indian soil in which the victims for the most part have been Pakistanis. It underlines the need for cooperation in fighting this menace without resort to finger-pointing or to playing the blame game.Many of the eyewitnesses of the incident were Pakistani passengers who have now reached their homes. Their testimony will be a vital part of the investigation. At the other end, Indian railway officials and bystanders at New Delhi station will need to be questioned and the tapes generated by the CCTV cameras that were evidently working at the Delhi station will also need to be studied thoroughly.

One assumes that this process is already underway but there may be need, and this should be looked at dispassionately, for this work to be done jointly or at the very least for the results to be shared fully by the two sides.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, has apparently assured him that his government will share the findings of its inquiry into the incident. Whether this will go further and lead to a joint investigation is not yet clear but it would seem to be the logical thing to do if the anti-terror mechanism is to have any real meaning.

Even the most virulent of critics in India would hopefully find it difficult to allege that Pakistan authorities were somehow responsible for this incident or to deny the need for the tragedy to trigger a joint investigation in which all information is shared by both sides.

It is clear that both sides have decided to prevent the derailing of the peace process and it is very possible that the two sides may decide that the seemingly interminable talks on some of the peripheral issues such as Siachen and Sir Creek are brought to a successful conclusion quickly so that what the leaders term to be an irreversible process is seen as such by influential opinion-makers and the general public in both countries.

If such a breakthrough comes it may, in the view of many analysts, discourage efforts by extremist elements and opponents of the process to make further attempts at sabotage. Even the manner in which the investigation is carried out can be used to build the trust and confidence that so far has been sadly lacking in Indo-Pak exchanges.

As mentioned earlier, it is too early to draw any conclusions about who the perpetrators were or even to state conclusively what their objective was. Some people in Pakistan might like to believe that this was done by extremists in India who were opposed to allowing Muslims in India easy access to their relatives in Pakistan and vice versa. Others might believe that Indian extremists carried out the attack since all the victims were bound to be Muslims and that this would, therefore, be a befitting revenge for the Godhra incident where, according to the Hindu extremist version, Muslims had set fire to coaches carrying Hindu passengers.

Such theories are too far-fetched to merit anything more than passing reference. The same short shrift should be given to speculation already rife in some Indian circles that the perpetrators were organisations based in Pakistan and enjoying Pakistan government support. The results of the investigation must be awaited in both countries while believing that neither government nor official agencies had any hand in this incident.

Pakistanis have been the victims of terrorism on their own soil for many years now. In recent weeks, the number of terrorist incidents has increased exponentially. Samjhota marks the first time that Pakistanis have been targeted on foreign soil. Many feel that our fight against terrorism has had a regional dimension only because we are partners in the global war on terrorism.

Now the horror of the Samjhota carnage has brought home to us the lesson that the safety of our own nationals requires us to wage the war against terrorism regionally as much as internally. This will require cooperation with those that we have hitherto regarded with suspicion and distrust and to whose machinations we have attributed some of our problems on our western borders. The test will be severe. The legacy of the past will hang heavy. But the stakes are so high that we have no choice but to rise to the challenge.

Although regional cooperation will help, at the core of it the problem will remain a domestic one. Economic and political discontent is the driver of extremism in every area. It must be ensured that a “moderate polity” in Pakistan is one that gives more power to the people and ensures a more equitable division of the fruits of economic development. Moving towards this goal it must be recognised that there is no one remedy that can apply everywhere. The issues need to be tackled differently in different areas. In some areas overcoming the appeal of extremism and its almost inevitable corollary, terrorism, requires an extensive process of re-education and creation of employment opportunities to change a certain type of mind-set.

In other areas, a vigorous effort to cut off foreign and domestic funding and prevent the abuse of the pulpit would bring results in a comparatively short time. While we are dealing with forces that represent a comparatively small minority, these forces have in recent times came to wield a disproportionate degree of influence which they are now beginning to use in ways that even their own leaders may not want. The temptation of continuing to believe that these are forces that can still be controlled and manipulated must be avoided.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Profiting from the status quo

By Zubeida Mustafa


ASGHAR Ali Engineer, a well-known social scientist and activist who heads the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, has studied the dynamics of many communal riots in India. His observation based on personal first hand knowledge is that most incidents of violence have an underlying economic cause. There are vested interests at work trying to change the situation in such a way that they profit from it.

Conversely and more often, when various elements act to resist change, the phenomenon can be traced to some vested interests that benefit from the status quo and do not want to lose the personal advantage they enjoy from the given state of affairs. So powerful is their motivation to prevent change that they preserve it even if it is gravely damaging to the wider interest of society. The selfish gain of a few individuals assumes more importance than the welfare and common good of the majority.

This is a worldwide phenomenon that plagues all societies. It has now been clearly established without doubt that America’s attack on Iraq was motivated by the oil interests of the Bush/Cheney combine in the administration in Washington.

The arm manufacturers who constitute a powerful vested interest in all countries are known to influence foreign policy especially decisions on war and peace. Their interest in war is inherent in the nature of their product. They are known to test new weapons on the battlefield. Even otherwise when the pot is kept boiling and tensions run high, defence spendings escalate and the demand for weapons is sustained in a volatile arms market.

This holds true in every country of the world. One has only to scratch the surface to discover the vested interests at work. They operate so insidiously and in such a subtle manner that it is not always possible to discern them. Since they are so powerful it is difficult to break their hold.

In Pakistan vested interests have been created over the years in various areas of national life and they ensure that they perpetuate their privileges. The armed forces are one good example of how vested interests operate in this country.

Since the fifties the army has enjoyed a role in Pakistan’s politics. This has enabled the men in uniform to use their position in national politics and economy to make laws that safeguard their economic privileges. They have emerged as a major corporate entity that owns housing estates, industries and even agricultural lands. As such they have a vested interest in clinging to power to ensure that they do not lose the advantages they have gained over the years. It is therefore unrealistic to expect the military generals to bow out of power to please some starry-eyed idealists championing the cause of democracy or some expediency-loving politicians.

There is yet another example of how vested interests distort policymaking priorities. The Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissues Bill, which has been lying before the Senate since 1994, has had a rough sailing in Islamabad.

It is no extraordinary piece of legislation – it legalises cadaveric organ donation while banning the sale of human organs and providing the infrastructure for a national organ transplantation programme – and has been adopted by all countries that have transplant services including a large number of Muslim states. The bill has, however, met with stiff resistance from the vested interests which benefit from the present unregulated conditions.

On account of the unscrupulous commercialisation that is taking place a horrendous market for the sale of human organs has emerged in Punjab. With the help of unethical surgeons who have forgotten the Hippocratic Oath they took at the time of graduation, the organ trade has reached massive proportions by exploiting the poor and the desperation of those suffering from endstage kidney failure. Minting millions, the urologists and the middlemen involved in this racket now have a vested interest in obstructing any change in the status quo. They have co-opted policymakers to prevent the government from changing the law.

The ordinance which, it is now reported, will be promulgated is an eyewash. It will not change the situation in any way at all because it gives legal cover for payment which is made ostensibly for “defraying and reimbursing” the cost of removing, transporting or preserving the human organ and the loss of earnings incurred by the donor. It also makes an exception in cases where a related donor is not available and an evaluation committee, which is so empowered, “allows donation by a non-relative”. A fine example of vested interests at work!

There are vested interests at work in the education sector as well. There are teachers who set up coaching centres to earn hefty sums from students whom these same teachers don’t teach in school and college. Naturally enough the teachers develop an interest in keeping the standard of teaching in school and college abysmally low so that the poor students have to turn to private tuition and coaching centres to pass their examinations.

Are not the lack of commitment and neglect of duties of many of these teachers so striking? They never make demands for an improvement in academic standards because they are responsible for this decline thanks to their appalling performance.

The problem with vested interests is that once they are allowed to strike roots it becomes difficult to break them. They grow rapidly by enlisting in their fold other people who become party to the enterprise that serves the interest of a small minority. Generally these partners are the state functionaries and political leadership whose primary duty it is to check vested interests. But they don’t because they are paid for not doing their duty. That is how the entire society has been corrupted and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In a state where the rule of law is supreme and where administrations supposedly protect the interests of the people, a citizen can at least seek redress. But not so in Third World societies where the legal system is weak. When this process breaks down, trouble lies ahead.

Politics of statements

By Hafizur Rahman


THERE are no two opinions about the fact that political statements by government leaders in Pakistan are a sign of life. They show that federal and provincial ministers, chief ministers and others are alive to the political situation in the country. They may not be doing anything to avoid confrontation with the opposition, but at least they talk about it. Where would we be without these statements?

This is one great difference between us and, say, the Americans. I once looked into a whole bunch of American newspapers. There was no such political statement in any of them, not even by the antidemocrats. It is amazing how they conduct their politics.

I have referred to Americans as an example in this connection because of what a columnist in Islamabad wrote the other day. He said that a foreign diplomat he had met recently couldn't understand why there were so many political statements by government leaders in our dailies and in our TV news bulletins every day.

"Why do they have to talk so much about meaningless issues?" he asked the columnist, and went on to say, "I never get to read any pronouncements by ministers about their own departments, their policies and performance. Is this by design or do they really know nothing about these matters?"

Yes, it is by design, and the columnist should have told this to the diplomat. I hate to comment on the ways the Americans and the British and other Europeans conduct themselves, for fear that they may lodge a protest with our Foreign Office, but they seem to think that all the politics that a nation needs to do is at the election eve. That's all. After that their ministers get busy with government work, as if they had nothing better to do, thus neglecting the political education of their people.

They don't seem to realise that democracy is a continuing process and there are no letups in it. The people must be able to hear the ruling party and the opposition not only talking politics but actually fighting politics all the time. And what a better way for that than by issuing statements, counter-statements, rejoinders and rebuttals?

It's so bad in those advanced countries that reading their newspapers and watching their television you sometimes can't tell which party is in power and which one is in the opposition.This diplomat I am talking about had the cheek to say to my columnist friend, "In a newspaper that normally supports the ruling regime, I counted on a single day seven political statements made by your federal ministers and chief ministers, and even one by the governor of a province." He must have made a mistake in counting. I am sure the figure was seventeen.

So what, even if they were seventeen. This gentleman should have come to know by now that when the leader of the opposition in Pakistan issues one provocative statement, he/she has to be replied with at least half a dozen biting retorts from members of the ruling party. When Ms Benazir Bhutto was PM, she once told a cabinet meeting that she would judge the performance of her ministers from the number of statements they issued to blast the opposition.

It is also vice versa. Let a federal minister say something about the "clean and principled" politics of the regime in power and he will get in return a barrage of scathing attacks aiming to show that the ruling party was no party and, in any case, it had no politics worth talking about before a decent audience.

In this exchange of statements each side lays stress on the fact that while they are true democrats and tolerant and practising fair means, the other side is a bunch of crooks who can't even spell the word "democracy" in English or Urdu. Besides, they are ready to sell their country to any Indian prime minister who comes along.

So if this diplomat doesn't like what he calls "a spate of statements by government leaders every day," he should persuade the leader of the opposition and her colleagues to stop talking without good cause. Nowadays, of course, BB is in "voluntary exile," but it is said that when she was in power, she listened with attention to some of the foreign envoys and would do anything to please them.

It will be doing us a great service if one of them could get her to stop criticising the government without reason. Because then the ruling party members wouldn't have to issue so many rejoinders and rebuttals, and instead, might spend more time in doing official work, and for a change, do something useful for the public.

The PML government assumed power quite some time ago. During this time it has done many good things for the country and the people which some of its ministers possibly don't know about. If the opposition hadn't been pestering it with caustic comments that had to be rebutted, it would have been able to achieve much more.

After all, you can't stake your claim for governing Pakistan merely on a fine mandate. And for how long can you boast about fighting terrorism in collaboration with the United States. No, ministers must be told what all the government is doing for the people. Their penchant for issuing striking statements should be put to better use.

The fact is that ministers have no time from issuing statements to devote themselves to preparing state policies which must be left to bureaucrats. It is true that it is the good old section officer who actually drafts these policies but the ministers must read them at least once to know what they are about. But if the poor chaps are kept involved in political statements I don't see how they can be held responsible for what their officers churn out?

One morning I decided that I would give a prize for the corniest statement by a government leader, a statement that should gladden the heart of the inquisitive foreign diplomat. I went through a whole lot of them over a full week, but each one overdid the other and I was in a quandary whom to award the prize.

I was thinking of sending the entire lot of clippings to that diplomat, but I refrained from doing so fearing he might get a fit or something and ask for a transfer. If I were really cussed I could also have sent him the counterstatements issued during the same period by opposition leaders. That would have really floored him and he would have to be carried out of Pakistan on a stretcher!

The Afghan crucible

'LAST year, the number of roadside bomb attacks almost doubled, direct fire attacks on international forces almost tripled and suicide bombings grew nearly fivefold." That's not a quote from one of the president's critics about Iraq — it's from the president himself, and he was talking about Afghanistan.

It's not quite fair to call Afghanistan the war the administration forgot. But it was heartening last week to hear President Bush give a speech about that other war for the first time in his second term, to acknowledge the growing Taliban threat and to call for a renewed US and Nato commitment. Still, military power alone won't make Afghanistan secure — the country must also undergo substantial economic development.

Congress should approve Bush's request for $11.8 billion for the next two years of operations in Afghanistan, but this will not suffice. Without a plan to jump-start reconstruction — and convince the Afghan people that the civil society the West wants to build for them is not just obtainable but worth fighting for — all could be lost.

The old saw that there are no military solutions to political conflicts was never more true than in Afghanistan. Yet, in the five years since US forces toppled the Taliban government with a "light footprint," the Bush administration has never spent enough on reconstruction, opium-crop substitution payments for farmers, road building, education, healthcare or jobs programs — or enough on security to make sure the rebuilding succeeds.

Bush will not get the full support and cooperation of Nato allies until he demonstrates that reconstruction is not a second priority to fighting Al Qaeda. There are serious differences with Germany, which has sent thousands of troops and spent millions in Afghanistan, commanded Nato forces and been responsible for security in the country's north, where Berlin believes its style of nation-building has been notably successful. The government of Angela Merkel has signalled it believes that Washington is relying too heavily on military solutions.

The war effort cannot be allowed to falter over an "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus" cultural divide on whether to emphasise military commitment or nation-building. Both approaches are necessary.

—Los Angeles Times

How green are the mountains?

"Snow: an endangered species" read the adverts put out by America's grandest ski resort, Aspen, in a bid to stir awareness about climate change. In the Alps, too, a green tinge is spreading across the slopes that involves more than unseasonable grass.

Alpe d'Huez has already put solar panels on lifts. But as Britain's army of half-term skiers heads to the slopes, this week and last, the skiing industry cannot decide if the world's changing climate is something it can defy or should surrender to. Nor has it yet come to terms with its own contribution to the degradation of the climate and of fragile mountain environments.

Skiing harms the planet in more ways than almost any other sport apart, perhaps, from Formula One racing. Mountains are ripped apart to open up the wide runs that modern skiers expect. Roads are bulldozed into the hills. Customers fly in. Snow, when nature does not provide it, is created using chemicals and electricity, and then bashed into shape by diesel-hungry machines. Energy is used in huge quantities to carry skiers up slopes, simply so that they can slide down again.

The smarter parts of the industry are guilty about this, just as they are proud of the thrill that they offer people. But so far the response from most resorts has been to battle poor snowfalls by increasing the environmental harm they do. Systems of snow cannons are being plugged into mountains, a visual horror as well as an environmental obscenity. Lifts are being driven higher into the Alps; one resort is considering air-conditioning a glacier. New ski stations in China, India and Russia are spreading across undamaged landscapes: the Asian Winter Games, about to open in China, has required 260,000 cubic metres of artificial snow.

—The Guardian, London



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007