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DAWN - Editorial; July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007


At the bar of justice

IN a country where national institutions have been repeatedly undermined by military usurpers as well as elected authoritarians, the higher judiciary is now being seen as the sole custodian of public interest. The executive branch appears interested only in self-preservation and the furthering of personal or group objectives. The malaise, however, is not restricted to those now occupying the seat of power. Indeed, most governments that have held sway over the years and decades have been guilty on this score. The legislature, meanwhile, has been reduced to a raucous assembly whose members are concerned primarily with settling personal and party scores, not law-making. The standard of discourse in the houses is far from high. Mindless desk-thumping and verbal abuse are the forte of the treasury and opposition benches alike and, sadly, this state of affairs is unlikely to change even in the event of free and fair elections. Politics is a family affair in Pakistan, a matter of legacy, and the intellectual calibre of the National Assembly may remain as dismal as ever if the same old faces continue to dominate the house. As far as national institutions go, that leaves only the armed forces and the less said on that count the better.

On Saturday, the Chief Justice of Pakistan reminded the judiciary of its historic responsibility at this critical juncture in the life of the nation. Preserving the sanctity of the Constitution and ensuring the rule of law, he said, must be a priority if the popular trust reposed in the courts is to be maintained. As the architect of the judicial activism that has done the country proud in recent years, the CJ is more than qualified to exhort his colleagues to higher standards. If it weren’t for the Supreme Court, Pakistan Steel would have been sold for a pittance to the frontmen of the politicos who may have instigated the ill-advised reference against the CJ. The ‘disappeared’ and their families would still be suffering in silence had the apex court not taken notice of their plight, putting the state on notice on that count and questioning, publicly, the unbridled powers enjoyed by the intelligence agencies. This is a key area where one hopes the SC will continue to focus. The country’s intelligence agencies have become a virtual state within a state, operating without let or hindrance and pursuing an agenda to which even the executive branch is sometimes not privy. Prior to his suspension in March, the CJ had made it known that he would be looking into the all-powerful agencies to define, once and for all, their prescribed role in the affairs of the state. This pending task ought to be tackled with tenacity and vigour.

Others areas where it is hoped the Supreme Court will take the lead include social evils such as honour killings, exchange marriages, child abuse and the scourge of jirgas. Access to justice and the hurdles created in its way by the easily influenced police is another case in point. At the same time, the rapacious ‘development’ lobby with its contacts in the executive branch must be brought to book if Pakistan is not to be turned into a concrete jungle. Ideally, these are issues for the legislature to examine and rectify, but many of its members are complicit in these irregularities and succour cannot be expected from that quarter. All eyes, then, are on the judiciary.

Drafting a code of ethics

BY issuing notices to some private TV channels on Saturday for airing gory scenes of violence, Pemra has again opened the debate on what constitutes an acceptable code of ethics. One thing is for sure: this decision is not for Pemra to make, especially since its past record has shown that it acts arbitrarily, like blocking TV transmissions showing the government in an unfavourable light. Media organisations need to work together and evolve their own code of ethics and stick to it, instead of being lured by a popularity ratings contest in which ethics take a back seat and all that matters is getting the story across, no matter how gruesome. Having their own code will prevent Pemra from periodically clamping down on the electronic media on one pretext or another. It was hoped that the voluntary self-regulating code of conduct drafted by the Pakistan Broadcasters Association would have been approved by now but the issue seems to have stalled since it was first proposed in June. One hopes that the matter will be resolved soon. This is especially important given the rapid increase in the number of television channels.

There are many things to consider when drafting a policy on what should be shown in times of conflict and violence. Viewers have a right to accurate information but must they be shown images of mutilated bodies or people dying on live television? What about respecting the rights of the dead? As for the families of the dead or injured, information rather than images should do. Since repeated exposure to dreadful images either brutalise society or desensitise it, what is the option for the media? Television has to toe the line between what is objective reporting and what is sensationalism, or news as entertainment — the latter being a new trend as each channel tries to outdo the other in attracting the most viewers. For its part, Pemra can play its role as a watchdog but not as an enforcer. It often cites “national interest” as a reason to penalise channels, which is just another form of intimidation. These backhanded tactics must come to an end.

Suffering of Iraqis

IN the violence that has taken hold of Iraq ever since the American invasion of 2003, the scale of suffering endured by ordinary citizens tends to be overshadowed by the debate on the political upheaval there. On Friday, the UN appealed to the international community to provide $129 million for the education of displaced Iraqi children in neighbouring Arab states, pointing out that a quarter of the two million Iraqis who have fled their country are of school-going age. Giving a more detailed view of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, a recent joint report by the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq and Oxfam states that 43 per cent of Iraqi citizens live in “absolute poverty”. It says that more than half the population is without work and adds that malnutrition rates among children are up from 19 per cent before the invasion to the current 28 per cent. Meanwhile, the international community has looked the other way, with statistics showing that humanitarian assistance has declined drastically since 2003, deepening the crisis for most ordinary Iraqis who do not have access to even basic necessities like water and sanitation.

Such neglect by the international community, and indeed by Iraq’s own government, is not only criminal, it can even lead to a worsening of the political situation as more and more embittered young Iraqis take to violent forms of protest inside the country and as refugees in neighbouring states. In such a situation, it is necessary to keep in mind what is happening in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. The consequences of injustice and deprivation, the crises there have spawned militancy in the Middle East and beyond. The need is for spending a greater amount on the legitimate needs of average Iraqis in order to ensure that hunger and desperation do not drive them to further destabilise the region.

A journey to the Nilgiri Hills

By M.J. Akbar


“MY name Kennedy, sir!” exclaimed the chauffeur of the black Ambassador driving me up to the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, from Coimbatore airport through a blaring city, quiet woods and picture postcard valleys to a 6,000-feet high perch in the Blue Mountains.

He glanced back to confirm my curiosity. “Born day Kennedy died. Father thought good man,” he explained.

Kennedy proved to be a driving encyclopaedia of Coimbatore’s virtues: four medical colleges, 28 engineering colleges et al, but was just a shade apprehensive about one statistic. A quarter of this Tamil city’s population was from next-door Kerala. “Kerala no space for legs,” he added on a forgiving note.

As behoves a good chauffeur, Kennedy was an incisive analyst of national as well as regional politics. He approved warmly of Abdul Kalam and turned 120 degrees to shrug at the worthy Tamilian scientist’s successor. He had heard about only one of the candidates for vice-president, Najima Abdullah.

Like any shrewd pundit, he laid out the analysis but reserved final judgment lest time might prove him wrong. He was eloquent about his state. Jayalalithaa had polled only 15 lakh votes less than the DMK-led alliance; Vijayakanth 28 lakh votes; in many constituencies Amma (Jayalalithaa) lost by less than 1,000 votes, 500, even 200! I asked about the future. “DMK, free TV, two-rupee rice. TV going only to DMK worker, rice going to Karnataka, Kerala, selling Rs12.”

I had no idea whether his figures were correct, but only a very courageous person would argue with the authority in his voice. When, like a weasel journalist I did check later, these were the facts: Vijayakanth had launched the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam in September 2005, positioned himself as the “Karuppu MGR” or “Black MGR”, contested 232 of the 234 seats, picked up 8.33 per cent of the votes, or nearly 28 lakhs, and although he was the sole person in his party to actually win a seat he had taken enough votes away from Jayalalithaa to ensure her defeat.

The Nilgiris are a gentle range, the valleys undulating and verdant, the hills flecked with floating garlands of clouds. Builders have hammered smallpox marks on the face of nature with rows of tightly strung matchbox houses. The thirst for occasional pleasure and permanent status will, of course, only rise with economic growth, as greater numbers enter the holiday-home class. Aesthetics is not necessarily a handmaiden of success. Kennedy slows down and to the left spreads the green bowl above which Lawrence School, Lovedale, has been built. “Fully viewpoint,” says Kennedy, and I agree.

Other points are less than fully viewpoint. The town just before we enter the army haven at Wellington is a mess of modern mismanagement: roads dark with broken tar, traffic at both cross and illogical purposes, policemen bored with their thin benefits, small shops that have miraculously preserved a sense of dust despite the generous sprinkle of rain.India changes as you cross the gates into defence discipline and budget. The tar isn’t different, but it is cleaner. It is a realm of order; work by the clock, leisure by the clock. Stuff happens outside. Things happen in Wellington.

Lt. Gen. Bhaskar Gupta (Gurkhas, as his distinctive soft hat confirms) offers a brisk and hospitable welcome. I learn, with added pleasure, that he is from Bengal; his father was in the army as well. Naturally we slip into Bengali as often as circumstance and vocabulary will permit. He invites me for dinner at 2000 hours. Informal, even a kurta will do, although it is not advisable: the clouds can dissolve without notice, and the temperature can drop by 10 degrees. The locals wear a sweater at all times. (Tourists from Tamil Nadu, in my considered view, come only to be able to wear a sweater).

But the lecture the next evening is tie and jacket, as is the reception at the mess later. Abashed, I find my small suitcase is without any ties to formality. Who can conceive of a tie in half-baked Delhi? I am promised a regimental tie. Kennedy has the rest of the answers. We head off to Ooty to find a jacket.

A Shrine to Our Lady of Health, followed by a wine shop, the Holy Spirit Church, a notice welcoming the imminent presence of Charing Cross and a wax museum pave the way to Ooty. A lovely British cathedral dominates one side of the city; the other side of the road is largely the property of an Afghan called Baba Seth, who arrived many decades ago, possibly along with dry fruit and built up one of the finest car collections in the South.

His heirs now live in the traditional manner, by selling off their inheritance, bit by bit. Inevitably, Charing Cross has gone native, and been renamed Charring Cross by more than one shop. I am taken directed towards the upper floor of Mohan’s where the lights are switched on but the dust left in place.

A proud sign promises “Service Quality Value since 1947.” The jackets are double-breasted, and top half of a suit. The salesman has no qualms about selling me only the top half. While the service is kind, the material of good quality, the suits were probably made in 1947. Stopping at the Savoy for a cup of tea, I ask for a table with a view. The young man is charmingly honest. “We don’t have a view,” he says.

Before dinner Bhaskar points to distant lights from the lawns of his glorious residence at the top of his Wellington mountain. That is where Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw lives. The army remembers its field marshal with respect and affection. The conversation with senior officers from all the services over dinner is splendidly convivial, and the morning alarm is birdsong.

The past has been improved but not changed at the exquisite Wellington Club. Bhaskar Gupta was the last golfer to get a hole in one, says a scroll of honour. The librarian unearths just the book I was looking for, a 1941 biography of Gertrude Bell, the British civil servant instrumental in making Faisal king of the newly created Iraq in 1921, although Faisal had never set foot in the country before he accepted the British-sponsored crown.

About 240 officers are selected each year for the Staff College course through a written examination. This splendid institution is gate to the haven of senior command.

The jacket was the easy part; I simply didn’t wear one. The regimental tie constituted summer formal. They didn’t buy my bluff; they were just being decent to a thoughtless civilian. The auditorium, everyone in dark suit, was stiff with discipline, but eyes and faces were relaxed. This was both reassuring — there was absolutely no chance of getting booed; and discomfiting — you don’t want your audience to be too polite either.

There was no doubt about the interest. Islam and terrorism is not a favourite subject anymore; it seems to be the only subject anyone is interested in. I suppose the only reason I get invited is because I have some familiarity with both Islam and English grammar. Lots of people have one or the other.

The questions were articulate, and rid of either ambiguity or hypocrisy, which was a relief because the answers were offered in the same vein.

Early next morning, before goodbye, I put on the regimental tie, albeit briefly. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

The writer is editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, New Delhi.

New role for elder politicians

GLOBAL politics has just gained its own version of the Travelling Wilburys, the 1980s band that brought together Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and George Harrison in a gentle tribute to their own greatness. Last week Nelson Mandela launched the Elders, a group of former world leaders that aims to "support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair".

Tony Blair –– who has gone solo with a one-man peace mission of his own in the Middle East –– has not joined, but Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, and Jimmy Carter, the former US president, have. Along with former Irish president Mary Robinson and retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, they aim to offer impartial wisdom based on experience.

In Mr Carter's words, the group will "fill vacuums - to address major issues that aren't being adequately addressed". It would be easy to mock the whole thing as a makework scheme for ex-leaders who cannot let go. The fact that the Elders have been sponsored by Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel adds to the fear that this is the point where soft rock celebrity meets peacekeeping.

Mr Mandela's significance is one reason the group has the potential to be more than this. The absence of calm voices in international debate is another. International relations can quickly become hysterical: the Elders cannot hope to change the fundamentals of global politics, but wise advice can only be a help.

–– The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007