DAWN - Editorial; September 26, 2007

Published September 26, 2007

Wajih in the race

THE lawyers have sprung a surprise on the nation by proposing Mr Wajihuddin Ahmad as a presidential candidate. This would now appear to vindicate the government spokesman’s claim that by deciding to contest the election the lawyers have accepted the existing assemblies as the electoral college for the presidential election. All this gives a new twist to the constitutional drama being enacted in Islamabad. Until Monday’s unexpected announcement, the retired Supreme Court justice had shown no proclivity for politics, though there is no doubt he proved himself to be a man of principles when he refused to swear allegiance to the 2001 Provisional Constitutional Ordinance. As he told the DawnNews channel, he had no illusions about the outcome of the contest, but his idea behind the decision was to help lawyers win their first battle for democracy. The nomination will now ensure that the presidential polls are contested and General Musharraf is not given the dubious honour of being ‘elected unopposed’.

The opposition has been caught unawares by the turn the situation has taken and the various parties are now seen scrambling to adopt a ‘correct’ (read expedient) position on the presidential election. As a result what we have at the time of writing is a bundle of contradictions with various political leaders adopting a stance that amounts to their going back on what they have been saying for some time. The PML-N is the only one to have extended support to Mr Ahmad’s proposed nomination without reservations. The PPP, while reacting positively, is now considering the option of putting up its own candidate. As for the MMA, its own house is so divided that the lawyers’ move has confounded the confusion in their ranks. Qazi Hussain Ahmad’s promise to support Mr Ahmad’s candidature is intriguing given the JI chief’s zealous pleadings with the MMA leadership for quitting the assemblies en bloc. If his plea is accepted it would leave the electoral college without the MMA men and women, apart from the handful in the Senate. This too is hypothetical since the resignation issue that has been talked about for nearly two years has eluded a definitive decision. And now we have the NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani opposing the dissolution of the provincial assembly saying such a move could benefit Al Qaeda. This muddies the political waters even further.

That leaves us with many ifs and buts and the Supreme Court has yet to give a decision on the uniform issue. Pakistan is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy and the current situation epitomises this truth. We have a general in uniform insisting on being elected president by the outgoing assemblies. The state’s coercive apparatus is busy rounding up the regime’s opponents. The bewildering array of President Musharraf’s opponents have now decided to give legitimacy to the electoral college by taking part in the stage-managed presidential polls to take place on Oct 6. Let us hope the outcome of it all does not mean a regression to unbridled despotism.

Well played, Pakistan

THERE could be only one winner and it was the Indians that held their nerve when it came down to the wire. The inaugural Twenty20 World Cup was up for grabs until the very last over and few could have hoped for a more exhilarating finale to an event that has added a brand new dimension to the world of cricket. The purists may wince — perhaps rightly so — but this distilled, raw-spirit version of the game has proved to be a massive hit with the paying public as well as those who follow cricket on television. Twenty20 may lack the subtlety of Test cricket or the sustained cunning of the 50-over format but no one can say that temperament isn’t tested. The meek may inherit the earth but they aren’t going to win too many twenty-over matches. That is not to say, however, that cricketing skill doesn’t come into it — natural talent must be a given. The primary point of departure is that application over four overs can do the trick, as opposed to a day and a half in Test cricket. Make of that what you will. Is Twenty20 a crass form of cricket that appeals to the lowest common denominator or a version of the game that must be adjudged on its own unique merit, not its shortcomings in comparison to ODIs? You be the judge.

For the young Pakistan team that almost lifted the cup, there was certainly no disgrace in defeat. A side that wasn’t expected to make it past the Super-Eight round played with relish and a camaraderie that has been absent for quite some time. Too often in the recent past, Pakistan have played their cricket with the enthusiasm of office workers; another day, another dollar. Cricket is their bread and butter but the members of this new-look team seem to have retained a sense of why they took up the game to begin with — for the sheer delight of it. It can’t be a chore, surely. The sustained versions of the game may well find him out but it seems that Shoaib Malik is the right choice for skipper. Misbahul Haq, at the ripe old age of 33, has come into his own, Shahid Afridi earns a place as a bowler who can bat and Umar Gul is downright menacing. And then there are Mohammad Asif and Younis Khan. This is a side that must be persevered with.

Protecting against dengue fever

WHILE the adage “prevention is better than cure” can be applied to a number of illnesses anywhere in the world, it must be particularly true in Karachi’s case where dengue fever is once again on the march. In keeping with their past record, the city authorities have failed to respond to a threatening situation and have so far shown little inclination to eliminate its source — the mosquitoes. In many areas, overflowing drains and stagnant pools of leftover rainwater have provided an ideal breeding ground for these harbingers of disease. Considering that viral haemorrhagic fever, a more deadly manifestation of dengue, killed some 50 people in the city last year, besides causing severe health complications in hundreds of others, it is no surprise that the government has decided to reactivate the health department’s dengue monitoring cell.

Hopefully, the data that the cell will collect will form part of a long-term strategy to control a disease that could become a regular feature after the annual rainy season in Karachi. In fact, it is feared that this year too, in the absence of proper facilities, the hospitals will have a difficult time handling the number of dengue fever cases coming in, leading to several fatalities. It is for this reason that general guidelines must be issued on a regular basis to inform the public of precautionary measures that can ward off mosquito bites. The use of long-sleeved clothing and insect repellent and sleeping under mosquito netting are some known precautionary steps to guard against mosquito bites. While individual efforts are important, one cannot over-emphasise the civic authorities’ responsibility of eliminating the dengue virus-carrying mosquito. This calls for a cleaning-up campaign in the city to drain off stagnant water collected in low-lying areas and empty plots. Such precautions will have the added advantage of protecting against the malarial parasite, again borne by mosquitoes.

Requiem for a freedom fighter

By Mahir Ali

ON A midwinter afternoon in 1928, pistol shots rang out in the heart of Lahore. They were aimed at an assistant superintendent of police, J.P. Saunders. He wasn’t the intended target, though. The two young men who ambushed him were actually lying in wait for the superintendent, J.A. Scott.

Thus it was that a case of mistaken identity lay behind what subsequently was recognised as a significant moment in India’s struggle for independence.

It was an instance of unprovoked violence that launched the cycle of events that led to the killing. On Oct 30 that year, members of the Simon Commission — an all-British body established to report on the Indian political situation — were greeted by peaceful protesters when they arrived in Lahore.

Scott ordered a lathi charge and personally assaulted Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent Hindu nationalist who was among the leaders of the protest. When Rai died less than three weeks later, it was widely assumed that Scott’s blows had hastened his demise.

The secular Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) did not share Rai’s vision of an India divided along confessional lines but venerated him as a patriot and interpreted the treatment he had received as symbolic of British contempt for ‘natives’. The organisation’s young firebrands decided to strike back. Various other factors contributed to their attitude, not least widespread resentment, particularly among the youth, over M.K. Gandhi’s decision earlier in the decade to suspend the non-cooperation movement following the Chauri Chaura riot in UP that resulted in the death of 22 policemen.

Furthermore, at least some of the HSRA activists strongly felt that independence from British rule would not suffice if it merely entailed a transfer of power from white sahibs to brown sahibs.

Inspired, inter alia, by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, they looked forward to dynamic changes in the political and economic structure of society. A precocious 21-year-old by the name of Bhagat Singh stood out among them, alongside the likes of Sukhdev Thapar and Chandrasekhar Azad.

Vengeance wasn’t the only motivating factor behind the plan to kill Scott: the act was not only intended to serve as a warning to the shock troops of the Raj, it was also meant to inspire freedom fighters on the lookout for an alternative to Gandhi’s strictly non-violent strategy.

Bhagat Singh had witnessed the attack on Lala Lajpat Rai, and it was he who was supposed to shoot first during the ambush scheduled for Dec 17, 1928, exactly a month after Rai had died. Earlier that day, a colleague, Jai Gopal, had informed them that Scott had reported for work as usual. It wasn’t true: in fact, he was unable to tell the difference between Scott and Saunders.

When the latter emerged from the police station at about 4pm, Bhagat Singh realised he was the wrong officer and shouted a warning to his comrades, but it was too late. A crack shot by the name of M. Rajguru had already pulled the trigger, killing Saunders instantly. Bhagat Singh used his pistol, too, but a subsequent forensic investigation revealed he was effectively pumping bullets into a corpse.

The gunfire was heard far and wide, but only one British officer emerged from the police station to investigate. He ran back inside when Azad, who was covering his two comrades, fired in his direction. The only policeman who gave chase was chief constable Charan Singh. Reluctantly, the HSRA militants shot him, too.

They didn’t have an escape plan, having assumed that some sort of a police encounter would follow their act of violence, but it didn’t happen. The perpetrators were all able to leave Lahore in the days that followed.

Bhagat Singh wasn’t nailed for the Saunders killing until an even more dramatic episode in his brief career as an activist: bomb blasts in the central legislative assembly in Delhi on the day that the Defence of India Act was due to be promulgated.The idea behind the explosions, carried out by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, was to make a noise loud enough for the deaf to hear, rather than to cause bodily harm — which is why the low-intensity incendiary devices were hurled at unoccupied benches, at a reasonably safe distance from the gathered luminaries, who included Motilal Nehru and M.A. Jinnah.

The two bomb-throwers then showered the smoke-filled assembly with pamphlets and subsequently courted arrest: the idea behind their plan was to attract attention to the cause they espoused.

Both of them were sentenced to transportation for life for this transgression, but ballistic evidence and betrayal by former comrades meant Bhagat Singh also faced trial for the Saunders murder. He, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to hang after refusing to offer a defence.

The nearly two years Bhagat Singh spent in prison were at least as important as his experience of militant activism in the evolution of his political consciousness and, had he lived longer, chances are that he would have made more valuable contributions to the struggle for freedom. However, by then he was convinced that laying down his life was the best thing he could do for the country he loved.

He retained his capacity for reckless bravery until the end, but there is no evidence of any plan — or even desire — to escape from the Central Jail in Lahore where he spent his last days. His reputation was enhanced, meanwhile, by virtue of his leading role in a hunger strike that led to better conditions for Indian political prisoners.

He read voraciously and wrote prolifically during his incarceration. One surviving request for books from a library lists titles by Karl Liebknecht, Bertrand Russell, Upton Sinclair and Nikolai Bukharin.

On his last day, his lawyer brought him The Revolutionary Lenin. When Bhagat Singh was summoned to the gallows shortly before 7pm on March 23, 1931 — the authorities having advanced the time of execution by 11 hours — he reputedly expressed the regret that he hadn’t been able to finish even the first chapter of the book.

In one of his prison tracts, Bhagat Singh offers a potent critique of terrorism as a political method, saying: “I am not a terrorist and never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.”

In another, he offers a well-reasoned argument against the charge from a devout fellow prisoner, angered by Bhagat Singh’s refusal to pray, that his atheism was a reflection of vanity. Decrying any system of belief that cannot “stand the onslaught of reason”, he says he has devoted his life to the cause of independence without any expectation of a reward here or in the hereafter.

Earlier this month, in the run-up to Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary this Friday, the Governor of Punjab, Khalid Maqbool, announced at a seminar that a memorial would be built to “the subcontinent’s first martyr”, where his possessions would be displayed.

That is a welcome move. He also deserves a place in history books, not least to reduce reliance on bowdlerised Bollywood versions of the past. To lionise him without acknowledging exactly what he stood for would be an insult to the memory of an exceptional freedom fighter.

The writer is a journalist based in Sydney


Polling purgatory

San Francisco Chronicle

WITH four elections over the next 13 months, San Francisco will need a quick, road-tested vote counting system. Instead, the city will be saddled with condition-laden machinery that promises weeks-long wait for results….

San Francisco has vastly improved from the ill-starred 2000 election when ballot boxes were found floating in the bay… But if the present impasse remains, get ready for a return to Flake City where voting is a random act.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen…is at war with San Francisco’s voting machine supplier, Elections Systems & Software, claiming the firm hasn’t followed through on state certification. She’ll allow the machines, but only under conditions that are unrealistic…

If you think it’s just a San Francisco problem, consider this. After this November’s city election comes a February presidential primary with a state-wide winner — and even the national picture — left cloudy while the results from the city’s 430,000 eligible voters are hand counted. Then comes the state election in June and another election the following November. There is plenty of blame to go around…

Voters deserve to be heard promptly… They don’t deserve to be pawns in power games. This is a situation where City Hall and Sacramento need to call off a confrontation and find a solution. — (Sept 24)

...Greenspan’s blunt words

Hartford Courant

ALAN Greenspan’s...Republican credentials, intellectual depth and understanding of economics are unrivalled. When he spoke as Federal Reserve chairman...people...listened. The attention...has changed only marginally since he retired.

What has changed is his old oracular style... That’s evident in his memoir, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, in which he accuses President Bush and congressional Republicans of having lost their way.

That must have hurt. Mr Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney felt obliged to respond. Separately, they “respectfully” disagreed with “my friend Alan”, as Mr Cheney called him. “Our fiscal record is admirable and good,” said Mr Bush. “After all, the deficit as a percentage of GDP is low relative to the 30-year average.”

But the deficit is shockingly high relative to the successive budget surpluses Mr Bush inherited in 2001...Mr Greenspan writes that both the president and the Republican-controlled Congress “swapped principle for power...”

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson unintentionally proved Mr Greenspan’s many points this week when he pleaded with Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling, which stands at $8.9 trillion. The government is expected to reach that limit next month and Mr Paulson wants to increase that by at least $850 billion “as soon as possible”... — (Sept 23)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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