DAWN - Opinion; April 04, 2007

April 04, 2007

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As Saarc comes of age

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


THE Saarc summit currently underway in New Delhi can be seen as marking a certain maturing of the organisation and of regional and international recognition of its potential. Afghanistan is attending the summit for the first time as a full member.

In one sense the inclusion of this country in the organisation does no more than define the geographical limits of the region but in another it is also a recognition of how pivotal a role Afghanistan can play in acting as a bridge between this region and Central and West Asia.

The presence at the summit of such countries and regional blocs as China, Japan, the United States, the European Union and South Korea suggests recognition by the world’s main powers that the region has the potential to be a major, if not lead player in making the 21st century the Asian century.

The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, made it clear during his stopover in Pakistan, en route to the conference in New Delhi, that his country was anxious to develop its ties with the South Asian countries and viewed Saarc as a good mechanism for doing so. Iran, too, has applied for observer status at Saarc and there is no reason why this request will not be approved.This is particularly so given the crucial role that Pakistan and India are prepared to assign to Iran to meet their energy requirements and given the important role Iran can play as South Asia seeks to enhance its trade with the Middle East and the EU by land and rail routes.

The renewed interest of the major powers in cooperation with the Saarc group also reflects their belief that the countries of the region, particularly India and Pakistan, may be moving away from confrontation to cooperation and that genuine progress may now be possible in forging the economic links that the region needs.

The EU, long regarded as a model for regional economic integration, has said, on the eve of the Saarc summit, that it sees itself as “a natural partner in all efforts aimed at reinforcing regional cooperation, people-to-people contacts and trade liberalisation in South Asia, which will bring benefits to all.” It has offered to share its expertise in all areas of interest to the Saarc countries and in the implementation of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement.

India and Pakistan have both recently obtained observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which brings together the Central Asian states, China and Russia. Afghanistan and Pakistan are both members of the Economic Cooperation Organisation, which also brings together the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. Such common membership and/or observer status should help create the synergy that is considered a sine qua non for enhancing cooperation between Central Asian, South and West Asian countries.

So far, not much has been done in any of these organisations to create the impetus that would drive such broadened regional cooperation forward. As in the case of Saarc so too in the other organisations political differences stand in the way as much as the dearth of institutional frameworks.

Saarc’s charter specifically provides that the forum cannot be used to discuss bilateral political problems. This provision in the charter was driven by Indian apprehensions that Saarc would be used by the smaller members to air their differences with India and to bring joint pressure to bear on it.

While the Indians have kept political issues from figuring on the agenda of Saarc meetings the forum does provide, both on the sidelines of the conference and at the traditional retreat of the leaders, an opportunity for the discussion of bilateral disputes in an informal setting.

In many cases, this is perhaps more useful and productive than a structured discussion in a fully documented conference where the inclination to stand by stated positions is extremely strong. The commencement of the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan, now in its fourth year, is owed to the informal meetings on the sidelines of the Saarc summit of January 2004 in Islamabad.

Other Saarc members have also found that they can have useful, if not immediately productive, exchanges with their Indian counterparts on the sidelines of Saarc meetings.

While political disputes litter the entire Saarc landscape there is no doubt that the “elephant in the room” is the Indo-Pak relationship and the bilateral disputes that continue to mar the development of this relationship.

The question is whether in the three and a half years for which the two countries have been engaged in the composite dialogue enough progress has been made to overcome the suspicion and distrust that the disputes have engendered between the two countries and that have prevented the growth of regional cooperation.

The current situation is that there has been an exponential growth in people-to-people exchanges. Not only has there been an easing of visa restrictions for divided families but also for other visitors. Most private Pakistani channels are showing one or more Indian TV soaps on a daily basis. Indian artistes are often the main draw at fund-raising functions held by various charitable organisations. Exchanges in various fields have multiplied with conference organisers in both countries anxious to ensure that delegates from the other country are present for an exchange of views on the problems that are common to the two countries.

Many in Pakistan would, however, view the progress made in enhancing people-to-people contact as an achievement of the objective the Indians had set for themselves even if divided Pakistani families were the principal beneficiaries of the relaxed visa regime and even if Pakistanis benefited from participation in regional conferences.

They would say that there has been no progress on issues of interest to Pakistan and particularly that there has been no progress on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute despite the many bold initiatives put forward on behalf of Pakistan.

They would see the enhancement of economic ties — be it trade, investment or transit facilities — as other Indian objectives that may be of benefit to Pakistan also but which Pakistani representatives must see as bargaining chips that need to be used to obtain substantive results (primarily) on Kashmir and the relatively less important and more tractable issues of Siachen and Sir Creek.

This then is the reality with which both leaderships have to contend. Is there any chance that the Shaukat Aziz-Manmohan Singh meeting on the sidelines of the summit achieves progress on these “Pakistani issues” that is significant enough to create the space Mr Aziz will need to be able to engage constructively on trade, transit and other economic issues?

In the last few days there have been reports that Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, leader of the People’s Democratic Party (a key coalition partner of the Congress in the Indian-occupied Kashmir government) has made the continuance of the coalition conditional on progress towards lessening the difficulties the heavy Indian military presence has created for ordinary Kashmiris. There was also an unverified report that, according to the commander of Indian forces in Kashmir, infiltration from across the LoC is now down to zero.

A couple of days ago it was announced that in consultation with the Kashmir government the prime minister’s office had decided to set up (a) an expert panel headed by the defence secretary to determine whether there was need to review the troop levels and their configuration in Kashmir; (b) a review panel to determine changes in the application in various areas of Kashmir of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act; and (c) a high-powered committee headed by the defence minister and including representatives of the Kashmir government to take decisions on the recommendations made by the expert committee and the review panel.

From the Indian domestic perspective, the central government, faced with electoral losses in other parts of India, can ill afford to see the collapse of the coalition government in occupied Kashmir. Making concessions to the PDP would, therefore, be perceived as good domestic “realpolitik”, particularly if the military, too, could be persuaded to certify a sufficient improvement in the security situation to permit a drawing down of forces.

It is apparent, however, that as is the way of South Asia, there will be no immediate results flowing from the setting up of these bodies. What could happen is that in his meeting with Shaukat Aziz, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who enjoys high credibility with Pakistani leaders, holds out the assurance that within a few weeks, or a couple of months at the most, there will be a substantial reduction in the area of occupied Kashmir to which the Special Powers Act will apply and a substantial drawdown of forces with many of the worst-offending paramilitary units being withdrawn.

On another plane it has been announced that there will be meetings in Pakistan on April 8 to carry forward the discussions on Siachen and Sir Creek. If the rumour mill is to be trusted, then intense discussions on these two issues through the back channel have progressed to the point that at these meetings there is a strong possibility of formal agreements emerging. This is another point on which a reassuring exchange between the two prime ministers would be beneficial.

No exchanges on these matters are likely to be made public. If, however, they proceed along the lines that are anticipated there will be good reason for Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to play a more positive role in the formal Saarc deliberations. It goes without saying that much that will be discussed in the forum, including the poverty alleviation fund or the Saarc university, is of interest and benefit to Pakistan.

If Pakistan and India both set forth a constructive agenda, there is hope that Saarc will be able to benefit from the expertise and other assistance that the observers at the conference will be anxious to offer.

There will be greater opportunity then also to look more constructively at the removal of the non-tariff barriers which, as much as Pakistan’s other objections, stand in the way of a fuller implementation of the South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement. There will also then be a more constructive discussion of transit facilities on which there will be particularly exigent demands by Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Female militants’ show of force

By Zubeida Mustafa


IN ITS latest issue, the Time magazine titles its cover story as “The truth about Talibanistan” which it claims is gathering strength in Pakistan’s “wild borderlands”. Last week events took a new turn.

The show of force by the Lal Masjid strongmen and the Hafsa madressah’s female guardians of morality in Islamabad was an indication that the tentacles of the Taliban are spreading rapidly to the heart of the federal capital.

Is this surprising? Not really if one has been following the Musharraf government’s policy vis-à-vis the militants of all shades and hues. Not long ago the general was on friendly terms with Islamist groups when he astutely used them to pursue a policy of destabilising Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. The Islamic fundamentalists preaching jihad against the ‘infidels’ were provided full protection, and even assistance, by the authorities.

The religio-political parties on their part have served another purpose for the military regime. Musharraf has used them to neutralise the mainstream secular parties, notably the Pakistan People’s Party, PML (Nawaz) and the nationalists in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP. As a result of a policy which actually bestowed favours on the constituents of the MMA, the Musharraf government did not have a level playing ground for all parties.

As a result the religious groups which had never won more than five per cent of the popular vote in a general election received a tremendous boost and found themselves in office in two provinces.

To be fair to the army chief, he has not been the only one pursuing this strategy of using the jihadis as an active tool for conducting the country’s foreign policy. This strategy was first adopted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Afghanistan when Sardar Daud was at the helm in Kabul. Surprisingly Bhutto had not learnt from his experience of the 1965 war in Kashmir when infiltrators dispatched from Azad Kashmir had failed to trigger the much awaited uprising in the Valley.

When Ziaul Haq used the Islamic militants in Afghanistan – with a spiritual zeal that he shared with them – he succeeded in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the Americans were also a party to this unholy game.

Subsequent civilian governments in Pakistan with the ISI’s cooperation – or was it the other way around? -- expanded this strategy and employed it in Kashmir. This time there was no military victory and Kargil was a clear demonstration of the danger to peace posed by proxy wars.

Then came 9/11 and President Musharraf’s famous U-turn which forced the government to modify its strategy somewhat. Officially the parties resorting to terror were banned and their funds were seized. The madressahs which produced the foot soldiers for the jihadi were to be registered and regulated. But the fact is that there was no comprehensive crackdown on the jihadis. The assistance they received from the government may have been withdrawn. But they no longer need that help. Having grown and developed over the years they are now quite capable of fending for themselves. What is more important, many of them continue to be patronised and protected – if not by the official structures of power, then by rogue elements. The stage has been reached that even this protection is not so crucial for their existence any more. They are satisfied so long as the powers that be turn a blind eye to their existence and doings. On rare occasions when an attempt is made to curb their power, there is invariably a confrontation and the state is forced to retreat.

Last week’s events came as a watershed of sorts because they took place in Islamabad and amounted to the militants’ testing of the waters there. The religious extremist parties have now moved from the foreign front to their mission of ‘cleansing’ domestic society. Posing as the self-appointed custodians of our morals, they are willing to break the laws of the land to achieve their ends. They are thus asserting themselves to set up a parallel system which will ultimately be designed to undermine the authority of the state by resorting to force.

It is distressing that the madressahs have been allowed to get away with their blatant defiance of the government which has climbed down when matters have reached a head leading to a confrontation.

Only recently a madressah that had been built illegally on encroached land in the federal capital and had been demolished was allowed to be rebuilt after the girl students of the Jamia Hafsa occupied a children’s library throwing down the gauntlet before the government. Seventy-six mosques in Islamabad have been declared illegal but the CDA cannot touch them now because a ‘dialogue’ is supposedly in process with the militants.

The government’s madressah reforms project has yet to take off because of the madressahs’ refusal to register with the authorities. Now many are said to have registered but only after the registration process was relaxed and the madressahs were not required to submit information they were reluctant to give such as the source of their funding, details of the courses taught and so on. The bulk of the funds earmarked by the government to bring madressahs into the mainstream has lapsed because they were rejected by these institutions as they did not want any controls.

Many of the madressahs have emerged as a major threat to the social and political integrity of Pakistan. Previously, they were irritants because of the parallel foreign policy they were running. Now they have grim social and sectarian implications.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group points out that most madressahs are linked to politico-religious parties whose agendas their students are mobilised to promote. Being involved in what the ICG report terms the “business of the fatwas”, the madressahs compete “to win over members of rival sects” leading to intense inter-madressah competition that “fuels socio-political conflicts even within families and neighbourhoods”.

They also disseminate hate material – written as well as oral, through the Friday sermons – with a no-holds barred approach.

The government must now seriously consider getting off the fence and taking on squarely the groups spreading sectarianism, violence and disaffection. By allowing them to grow because of his failure to act, President Musharraf has created a problem for himself as well as the country. He must be clear about this that terrorist groups fostered by those in power ultimately devour their patrons. Remember the end of the story of the Sikh rebel leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.

From here to eternity

By Hafizur Rahman


IF you want to see a large motley group of people imbued with the noblest feelings of godliness, radiating sentiments of the deepest compassion for the suffering, simply brimming over with the love of God, and apparently determined to live a life of piety, go to a graveyard.

I don’t mean that only the dead can have all these attributes and that the combination of so many worthy qualities is not possible in a living human being. It is. It happens every day, almost every hour of the day, though only for a short while.This group of saintly persons is the crowd that has just participated in the funeral prayer of a dead person and is waiting for the last rites as the grave is being dug. It has always seemed to me that this gathering of mourners, which includes hardened sinners (and sometimes even confirmed criminals) of all kinds and grades, will not be the same when they leave the graveyard and go home.

This peep into the future that lies in store for all of us, this rubbing of shoulders with the dead, the “trailer” of the feature film in which we all must play the leading role one day, should serve to chasten us and transform us into better and more decent human beings.

At least this is what appears from the mood that prevails in the graveyard. This is what one would gather from the changed conversation and from the talk of morality, the torture of the grave and the horrors of hell.

But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down. You have to take your hat off to the great resilience these temporary prophets of doom display. For no sooner are they outside the confines of the graveyard and the tragic atmosphere emanating from it than everyone is back to normal.

Satan, who had been left at the entrance of the graveyard comes forward and holds our hands again, leading us confidently through the tried and familiar ways of worldliness with all its attractive sins – and crimes. Everyone according to his individual capacity resumes his thoughts and pursuits. The lugubrious conversation of the burial place, the proximity of the Great Reaper, all are left behind and forgotten – till the next funeral.

Perhaps this is as it should be. If all these people were to be really carried away by the goodness produced by their fleeting contact with death, and were to continue in the pious attitude of humility even as they left the precincts of the cemetery, they would head straight for a monastery, or its Pakistan equivalent, and pass the rest of their days in prayer and penance. What would happen then?

To count only a few of the good things, all commerce and industry would come to a halt. Places of entertainment (including the so-called dens of iniquity) would probably be turned into branches of the Bait-ul-Maal. Cinema houses, abandoned by their owners-turned-saints, would be grabbed by maulvis wise enough to resist the exodus to the monasteries, and promptly fitted up with loudspeakers to prevent students, infants, pregnant mothers, and the sickly old from sleeping.Video games, parlours and billiard saloons would be converted into ration shops and family planning centres. And generally a doleful air of assumed saintliness would prevail among the steel-willed population left behind and determined to carry on with life as usual.

Of course there is every chance of this remaining population being struck with piety the next time they attend the funeral of a friend or relation. But if they are clever they will give graveyards a wide berth and leave the burial of their dear and near ones to the municipal authorities.

Coming back to the last rites, there are people who are unaffected by the mournful proceedings of a funeral and the final interment.

For them it is a fact of life that must be taken in the stride, particularly if one has to join in a funeral every other day, as it happens in big cities. For them, conversation is the spice of existence and the funeral prayer a short interruption after which the dialogue with those present can be resumed from where it was left off.That is, after a brief reference to the tragedy occasioned by the death, they must revert to the hot topic of the day. This could be their dollar accounts, the turgid state of Pakistan’s politics, the (fresh) daily statement of the federal minister of information, and the social activities of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the acting Chief Justice, or even the indiscretions of President Bush of the United States.

At suitable intervals the qualities of the deceased may be cursorily referred to, not forgetting the inevitable mention of how he or she had a premonition of death only a few days ago and the subject of the conversation is taken up again with the former animation. Whether this kind of mourner is the gregarious type who can’t do without talking, or belongs to the category whom the atmosphere of the graveyard inspires to spiritual and moral outpourings. I don’t think he is seriously affected by the presence of death.

It is one of our national traits to moralise and harangue. We just can’t let go of any opportunity to make a speech before so many people gathered perforce. In a way, a captive audience is at our disposal. It can neither run away, nor, because of the solemnity of the occasion, ask us to shut up. We thus have a field day. The chance for spouting worn-out clichés and time-torn platitudes simply cannot be missed.

Everyone knows what is going on; that no utterance is to be taken seriously. And as the parting prayer is said over the filled up grave, all the numerous pious sentiments and noble intentions remain hovering over the silent tombs, while we turn towards home.

Detainees’ rights

'GUANTANAMO," IN popular parlance, refers both to the US military prison on land leased from Cuba and the legal process (such as it is) made available to the 395 suspected terrorists and collaborators imprisoned there. In both senses, Guantanamo is an embarrassment to the United States.

President Bush, who once suggested that he wanted to close Guantanamo, shows no signs of doing so anytime soon, though Secretary of Defence Robert M. Gates recently told a House committee that he favoured moving military trials for detainees to the United States. Although closing the Guantanamo facility certainly would remove a blot on the U.S. image, where prisoners are held is less important than whether they have a meaningful opportunity to assert their innocence.

Despite two US Supreme Court decisions finding fault with the legal protections for Guantanamo detainees, they still are not guaranteed meaningful review in a civilian court.

Of the 395 inmates, the administration has indicated that it will prosecute no more than 80 using the military commissions established last year by Congress — tribunals that need not operate in public and at which some coerced evidence will be admissible. The first trial under this system was short-circuited last week when David Hicks, an Australian, pleaded guilty to materially supporting terrorism. The rest of the detainees are entitled only to a determination of whether they are "enemy combatants."

The population at Guantanamo — once nearly 700 — has always been a mixed bag. The facility has housed truly dangerous adherents of the Taliban and Al Qaeda along with wannabes, hangers-on and innocents caught up in the post-9/11 dragnet in Afghanistan.

Almost half of the original inmates have been sent to other countries, and others may be released. But the possibility that some will continue to languish at Guantanamo without adequate due process is a continuing scandal. The remedy is obvious: restoring the inmates' right to contest their confinement in court by seeking the ancient Anglo-American writ of habeas corpus.

In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that, under federal law, Guantanamo inmates could petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which forces the government to explain to a judge why it is holding a prisoner. But Congress has sought to block that avenue of appeal with legislation purporting to strip the inmates of habeas protection.

That mean-spirited mistake could be rectified in two ways.

The Supreme Court could rule that Congress has no right to strip Guantanamo inmates of habeas protection. The seeds of such a decision were sown in a high court ruling in 2004 in which Justice John Paul Stevens noted that habeas corpus is a right that predates the Constitution, "throwing its root deep into the genius of our common law." The Constitution allows Congress to suspend habeas corpus only "in cases of rebellion or invasion."

Even better, Congress could undo its own error by enacting the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007, cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). The legislation would not be a "get out of jail free" card for inmates, whether obscure or "high value." It would merely ensure that all detainees have their day in court.

—Los Angeles Times



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