DAWN - Editorial; May 15, 2007

Published May 15, 2007

After the bloodbath

THE enormity of the crimes committed in Karachi on Saturday and the full extent of the damage done to the city’s social fabric now seem to be sinking in. One is appalled that the police should have abstained from their duty and disappeared without a trace, throwing a city of more than ten million to the wolves. The total chaos in the administration is evident from a top police official’s “disclosure” to a foreign news agency that he did not know who had placed containers at traffic junctions to block the movement of traffic. It would be incorrect to say that the law and order machinery had collapsed; instead, what happened was that the entire law-enforcement machinery was sidelined, allowing unidentified apparatchiks to run the show. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the opposition parties have blamed each other for Saturday’s killings and given lists of their “martyrs”, but for the people of Karachi the issue is far grimmer than the blame game, because the spectre of ethnic violence is haunting the city.

Since the mid-nineties, Karachi has had ethnic peace. Even though bomb blasts in mosques, attacks on foreign missions and murder of diplomats occurred, the ethnic violence that rocked the city in the eighties and the first half of the nineties appeared to belong to the past. All communities in what is called mini-Pakistan decided, and rightly, that peace and harmony were in their interest and in the interest of future generations. There have been some bitterly fought local and parliamentary elections, accompanied by violence, but there was no ethnic trouble. Saturday’s events shattered this idyll. Mercifully, the ethnic trouble was localised, and all sides appear keen to contain the menace, but one should keep one’s fingers crossed.

However, no comment on Saturday’s bloodbath would be complete without a look at the larger picture. That very day, President Pervez Musharraf addressed a massive gathering in Islamabad organised by the PML. How people were brought to the place where the president addressed them and whether they were really party workers are issues of lesser importance; what is more pertinent and perhaps shocking was the singing and dancing going on at the rally at a time when the nation’s biggest city was burning and bleeding. It would be wrong to say that those at the rally did not know what was going on in Karachi. By mid-day, thanks to the TV channels, the entire country knew about Karachi’s trauma, but the rally organisers continued with what appeared to be a celebration — which the president called a demonstration of the people’s power. Gen Musharraf used similar words to describe the MQM rally in Karachi. Was it really a manifestation of the people’s power on Saturday that bodies were lying on Karachi’s roads with no one to pick them up? What was the president thinking? Or was he at all?

On behalf of the entire nation, we demand a judicial probe into Saturday’s carnage. The crimes committed that day are too horrendous to be ignored. The nation has the right to know why the police and the fabled paramilitary Rangers disappeared, who barricaded key traffic junctions and was manning some of the roadblocks with weapons in hand, what party or organisations the killers belonged to, and whether the Sindh government did all that it did on Saturday on instructions from Islamabad to frustrate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s programme in Karachi.

Pakistan Steel’s profitability

AFTER decades of controversy and gross inefficiency, it seems that Pakistan Steel is finally on the mend. Ever since it became operational in 1985, PS has been dogged by allegations of corruption and would have been fiscally crippled long ago had it not been for massive debt restructuring. The situation today, however, is strikingly different. According to its chairman, PS is running at almost 85 per cent of installed capacity and is expected to make an operational profit of between Rs1.5 and Rs2 billion in 2006-07. This is a remarkable turnaround for the lumbering giant that was until last year being described as a “failed project” and “a bottomless pit”. Indeed, this was the reason repeatedly put forward to justify its privatisation and subsequent sale at an incredibly low price. In a major setback for the government, that deal was annulled by the Supreme Court in a judgement whose reverberations are being felt to this day. The apex court had held that the transaction lacked transparency, was conducted in “indecent haste” and did not reflect the mills’ true worth.

Given the current upturn in its fortunes, it can be asked whether there is any good reason to sell Pakistan Steel. The prime minister, for his part, believes that commercial activity is the “exclusive domain” of the private sector and that the government’s role should be limited to policy-making. Though workable in more advanced economies, this approach does not always serve the interests of a developing country. The sale of state assets may add to the government’s revenues but does not necessarily increase productive capacity. For that to happen, investment is required in new projects instead of the private sector simply taking over running concerns. This argument is equally applicable to the sale of Pakistan State Oil, bidding for which was due to take place earlier this month but has now been put off until June. A hugely profitable concern, PSO dominates the local petroleum market and keeping it under state control is critical in terms of increasing the country’s strategic oil reserves. A major rethink is required on the privatisation front and nothing must be done in haste.

Why this double standard?

THE rough manner in which around 25 Women’s Action Forum activists were rounded up by the police in Lahore on Friday reflects the administration’s double standards regarding protests and demonstrations. One has seen how the police are reluctant to move against religious groups holding protests but think nothing when it comes to beating up human rights activists. One clear example of this was seen a few years ago over the mixed-marathon issue: religious parties which violently disrupted a mixed sporting event in Gujranwala were treated differently than peaceful protestors in Lahore who were baton-charged. Noted HRCP activist Asma Jahangir had her clothes torn on that occasion. This double standard was witnessed again last Friday. WAF activists had gone to Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s house to protest against an alleged deal between the government and the clerics of Lal Masjid. They had barely arrived at the venue when the police came and took them to a police station from where they were released later. Some women complained of high-handedness while one said that the police threatened to throw acid on her face. It is indeed shocking that the police should have behaved in such a crude manner with women protestors.

Civil society groups have condemned Friday’s police action and vowed to continue their protests. They have a right to hold protests and demonstrations provided they are peaceful, which in such groups’ cases they always are. The female students at Lal Masjid have in the past violated laws and not been taken to task. If the government can round up peaceful demonstrators in Lahore it can — and should — take action against those who commit crimes and threaten peace and security.

Caught in the web of a crisis

By Syed Sharfuddin

A MEDICAL dictionary defines schizophrenia as the condition of a “split mind” which refers to the schizophrenic’s disassociation of himself or herself from reality. A major symptom of this disassociation is that the patient refers to himself in the third person rather than as “I”. To such a person, everything is a jumble. Ask any political leader in Pakistan what is the state of the country today and you will begin to wonder why his or her answer matches the description of a schizophrenic mind.

What happened in Pakistan on Saturday was nothing less than a bizarre combination of two opposite extremes — a celebration in Islamabad fully backed by the ruling party in the centre and a cycle of violence costing 41 deaths and damage to property to the tune of millions of rupees in Karachi that was officially denounced by the governing party in Sindh.

No doubt, there will be a robust debate and analysis in papers on who was responsible for all this merrymaking in Islamabad and mayhem in Karachi. But given the schizophrenic condition of the nation, you can put your money on the odds that everyone will hold the other responsible for what went wrong on May 12, 2007.

Looking back at the chain of events, no one can be spared the blame. The president, who should be above politics, decided to address the ruling party as their chief patron on the assumption that failure to turn up at the Islamabad rally would be misunderstood domestically and abroad as the lack of popular support for him in the controversial reference he sent to the Supreme Court in March.

The PML-Q was guilty of organising a public function in front of Parliament House without any approval from that august body. The PML-Q runs the parliament by a majority vote. In a democracy, rallies are organised not by parties in power but by opposition political parties and other interest groups who feel that their voice is not being heard in parliament.

The ARD is equally to be blamed for politicising the court case against the Chief Justice. There has not been a single day when it has not tried to make political capital out of the judicial proceedings. It appears that the ARD wants the honourable judges inside the Supreme Court to first read the political message coming out from the protesting streets and being flashed on their TV screens before reaching an impartial decision.

That is surely non-democratic and an obstruction to the independence of the judiciary. The function of civil society, political parties and the media being the whistle-blowers on the violation of democratic principles by the government, technically ended the day the Supreme Judicial Council started hearing the barristers defending the Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court alone has the constitutional right to judge the merit or otherwise of the case. But the component political parties of the ARD want something else out of the issue. They are using the Chief Justice for political means.

Ironically, the Chief Justice is also prepared to heed their call. The ARD wants that the people should come out on the streets against President Musharraf in the same fashion as happened in the last days of Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969. What the ARD is forgetting, however, is that two other powerful political parties — the PML-Q and the MQM — are supporting President Musharraf on the reference.

The ARD is also forgetting that the end result of Ayub Khan’s political demise was another general taking over the reins of the country.

If the ARD is not careful and keeps stoking the fires leading to an emergency or another drastic measure that would involve curbs on fundamental freedoms, and the armed forces taking over the function of maintaining law and order in the country, the cherry may not fall in its lap.

Instead, it may end up landing on the shoulder of another army general which will be a great setback to the hard and arduous journey so far made by the country in the transition to democracy.

The PPP and PML-N should have had the political foresight to know that the MQM, which was holding a major rally in Karachi on May 12, would not allow a show of force by its rival parties in the same city on the same day. There is no questioning the fact that Karachi is the heart of the MQM vote bank. No one in their right mind would have allowed rival political parties, especially during the Chief Justice’s lecture tours of Pakistan bar associations, to come to their city and confuse the people about which political party ruled the hearts and minds of people in Karachi.

The MMA is responsible for not keeping the opposition united. While they are the official opposition in parliament, they have never been a part of the ARD, even though they have been sometimes eager to sit with its component parties on one platform. It is also not clear what influence the MMA exercises in the design of the opposition strategy of the ARD. Sometimes the MMA is with the alliance and at other times it is not.

Finally, the honourable Chief Justice was ill-advised in refusing to take a helicopter to address the Karachi bar association. Since he claims that he is innocent and the charges levelled against him by the government in the presidential reference are baseless and hold no ground for corruption and misuse of authority and resources, he should not have declined the offer made to him by the Karachi administration to use the government helicopter to fly to the Karachi bar association from the Quaid-i-Azam airport.

Saturday was one day which would have justified fully the use of the government helicopter by the Chief Justice to avoid further violence and destruction of property on the way from the airport to the bar council.

Pakistan is fast mimicking the politics of another unfortunate brotherly country in the region where the ruling party and the opposition frequently tested their strength of ideas and popularity not in parliament but on the streets and caused irreparable loss of life and property of innocent citizens. The situation in Bangladesh became so pathetic at the beginning of this year that there was no alternative left except for the army to intervene in politics, albeit discreetly in the name of a civilian and neutral caretaker administration.

The Bangladesh constitutional poll deadline expired in January 2007. Elections are now postponed indefinitely. Pakistan too has an election coming up in six months time and it does not help anyone, not least the voters, to make an appraisal of parties on the strength of the crowds they hire or gather, even if their rallies are genuinely attended by their true supporters.

An important aspect which is lacking in an election year is the absence of a debate on issues that affect the common man. The economic and social agenda for political parties to cover in Pakistan is infinite. The parties need to come out clean on what they intend to do for uplifting the despicable condition of millions of people who are least interested in issues of terrorism, extremism, Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear non-proliferation. What these people need is a programme which gives them not slogans or leader headlines but a decent meal at the end of the day and a secure future for their children with education, health and jobs for all.

Except for the technocrats in government, no one, not even the ruling PML-Q, is concerned about the real issues. What dominates news headlines are the cheap political stunts of a minister or a party leader distributing relief goods to the people or announcing plans to turn the country into a land of honey and milk in the next few years, without any concrete measures to back up such claims.

Political issues comprising the question of the president’s two offices, the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the media are important; but they are not so important to those who have no jobs, no future and no hope.

On media freedom, the electronic media has a long way to go. The coverage of major political events on some independent TV channels for the last few months has been superficial and at best comparable to a running commentary of a popular sport. The media must go through a self-charted learning curve. The government must not lose patience with the media even though at times it may be justified to direct its ministers not to waste their time answering personal questions fielded by the numerous roving reporters of these channels.

The writer is a former special adviser for political affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, London.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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