Delaying the return

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s advice to Ms Benazir Bhutto to delay her return to Pakistan serves to add to the political uncertainty prevailing in the country. In his Monday’s TV interview, the president said Ms Bhutto should return after the Supreme Court ruling in the dual offices case that it is currently hearing. In its decision of Oct 5, the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for the presidential election with the caveat that the results should not be notified. It now all depends upon what the court says finally about the legality of the Oct 6 exercise. Three weeks before the presidential election, the PPP announced that its chairperson would return home on Oct 18. While the party has been preparing for Ms Bhutto’s return, quite a few of her statements reflected her concerns about her safety. The PPP chairperson wants a bullet-proof car, and the government, too, has promised full security to her. However, Monday’s statement by the president sounds enigmatic, and the PPP, apparently taken aback, had not reacted to the presidential request till these lines were being written. People are also bound to wonder whether the question of delaying Ms Bhutto’s return has anything to do with the fate of the National Reconciliation Ordinance, which, apart from being controversial, has been challenged in court. One wishes the president had been asked to elaborate on the reason for his advice to Ms Bhutto.

Meanwhile, Mr Shaukat Aziz’s announcement on Monday that caretaker governments will take over in the centre and the provinces ‘after Nov 15’, and that the parliamentary election will be held in January assumes that the Supreme Court’s judgment will go in favour of the victor of the Oct 6 presidential election. We do not know what option the president will exercise if the apex court upholds the petitions and declares his election null and void. In his TV interview, the president merely said he would make a decision after the judgment was made. That only makes things look scary, because he has pledged to the SC to doff his uniform ‘if elected’. One of the options the PML leadership has often talked about is an extension in the present assemblies’ lives by a year. In such a case, a general election will take place in early 2009. Can the nation afford to wait that long given the gravity of the problems it is facing?

Ms Bhutto’s return as scheduled will make no difference to the situation. Let her return and run her party from here rather than from Dubai. With the non-PPP opposition in disarray, her return will enable her to mobilise the moderate political forces against the extremists now on the war path. This is something that does not go against the military-led government’s own policy to develop a national consensus against fanaticism at a time when it seems to be spilling out of the tribal belt. All eyes are now fixed on the apex court, and one hopes it will announce its judgment at an early date so as to end the present state of uncertainty.

Threat of radicalisation

THE setting up of a ‘law and order’ force is the latest from Maulana Fazlullah, the self-proclaimed, virtual ruler of Swat. The country-mullah has been emboldened to take this step because the government has been looking the other way all this time when he was busy broadcasting threats to the local people to abide by Shariah laws or face his wrath. It’s been a step-by- step advance on the radical cleric’s part, which amounts to more than just testing the waters. Next came the setting up of a summary trial court under Islamic law which Fazlullah himself heads at his village, Imam Dheri. Besides, vigilante volunteers are going around at his behest in Swat to enforce religious law. Attempts by extremists at blowing up a second-century BC Buddha rock carving, too, have gone unnoticed. Is it any wonder, then, that the mullah’s henchmen, whom he calls his commandos, are now patrolling the area using a squad of some 15 vehicles mounted with machineguns, to maintain ‘law and order’ and to ensure smooth running of traffic? What’s next on his agenda? Here’s a full-throttle attempt at Talibanising society which is being allowed to go unchecked for unknown reasons.

The withering away of the state is no more a Marxian axiom in parts of Pakistan today; but the state has been withering for all the wrong reasons. There is no hope for a utopia emerging in the dangerous bargain. This march backward to the dark age brought about by the Taliban in Afghanistan just before 9/11 is now engulfing large parts of the Frontier province. While North and South Waziristan may be the extremists’ outposts, huge tracts of settled areas such as the Peshawar-Kohat-Bannu-Tank belt and now Swat falling to home-grown Taliban rule is a serious cause for concern.

The shadow of the Lal Masjid operation in the heart of Islamabad, too, still lingers. It is far from over as far as the cousin-cleric of the slain firebrand Abdur Rashid Ghazi is concerned, who has been made the custodian of the mosque under Supreme Court directives. The rhetoric coming out of the place is as lethal and laced with threats as to remind one of Ghazi’s intolerant ways of imposing Shariah. With parliamentary elections round the corner, the constitutional crisis over Gen Musharraf’s eligibility for another term in office and the challenging in court of the national reconciliation ordinance hanging in the balance, there’s a need to do more than just fire-fighting the threats posed to society by extremists. Ignoring the emerging radical threat will bring no bliss, much less order to the chaos spreading all around.

These faulty ATMs

FAULTY automated teller machines (ATM) seem to have become a regular occurrence right before Ramazan and Eid — and this year is no different. A report in Thursday’s paper highlights the problems many frustrated customers faced because they were unable to withdraw cash from ATMs in Karachi. This is especially upsetting as it is right before the Eid holidays when cash is needed more. ATMs are supposed to be convenient but they have become problematic with customers running from pillar to post trying to draw cash from various ATMs across town. When a decision was made two years ago to allow account holders to avail of ATM facilities of other banks, one had thought banks would better equip themselves to handle the increase in transactions that would take place or at least ensure their ATMs were always functional. That has not happened. Instead customers complain that ATMs are simply out of order, do not have enough cash and one often hears of people not being able to withdraw cash from the ATM but having their account debited nonetheless. What is particularly disappointing is the banks’ indifference to their customers’ complaints. What else explains their inability to fix the problem of not having enough cash in their ATMs at this time?

It is time to ask why the banking ombudsman has not acted on the issue of faulty ATMs or other customer complaints against banks. It was hoped that with the introduction of a banking ombudsman in 1997, consumer complaints would be addressed and action taken against erring banks. For whatever reason, that has not happened and frustrations on the faulty ATMs at least are growing. This makes it necessary for the banking ombudsman to step in and order that all banks ensure that their ATMs are always functional and always stocked with cash.

Social aspect of fasting

By Jafar Wafa


FASTING is, in any case, a severe form of religious rite – abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk, not because of being unable to afford the ‘luxury’ of eating and drinking but only because of obedience to the Almighty’s command.

That is why the Hebrew word for fasting is “afflicting one’s soul”, and the Jewish concept of fasting is that of penance, all their fasting days, like Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, falling on certain sad days of their history.

It was, perhaps, because of this severity that the Holy Quran introduced this form of piety gradually and step by step. In the beginning, it pronounced: “O, believers! Fasting is prescribed for you, so that you may ward off vices” (Al-Baqra: Ayat 183).

In between, there is a piece of solace: “this fasting was prescribed even for those before you” (same Sura, Ayat 184). Then comes another consolation in the next Ayat in these words: “Fast a number of days”, followed by exceptions for certain categories of persons – “those who are sick or on journey, who should fast the same number of days later and those who can fast with extreme distress, there is a ransom, the feeding of a needy person, although it is better that one fasts oneself.”

It is after all these introductory observations that the “number of fasting days” is specified in these words: “The month of Ramazan in which the Quran was revealed as a guidance for mankind…”. This Ayat glorifies the month of fasting to offset the severity of the religious obligation of fasting for a whole month. The exact words are: “whosoever is present, let him fast the month” (2:185). This expression is such that it can be taken to imply that fasting is for those who are present in the month of Ramazan in areas where the month of fasting is determined as a ‘calendar’ month which leaves out the arctic and Antarctic regions.

The ‘enlightened’ persons may be of the view that Islamic fast is also akin to mortification of body for Divine pleasure which is the approach of Yogis and Jains in our part of the world. And as mentioned in the opening para, similar approach appears to be that of the Jews.

The Quran, while prescribing fasting during Ramazan and specifying certain concessions for the sick and those on journey, says that “Allah desires for you ease and not hardship” (2:185). In general, the Quran enunciates the Divine rule: “Allah does not task a soul beyond its capacity” (2:286). In accordance with this rule, Islam made modifications to remove the severity of fasting as was practised by the Jews – Yom Kippur on 10th of Tisri and 9th of Ablast “from eve to eve”, a duration of 24 hours, requiring the person who fasted to express remorse and mortification. Jesus Christ, perhaps, deprecated this aspect when he advised his followers: “And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that every one will see that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16).

The Islamic fast is only from pre-dawn to dusk, say about 12 hours i.e. after eating at Sehri time (before day-break) till breaking the fast at Iftari time soon after sunset. Thus fasting, according to this schedule, becomes a bearable religious exercise. The lunar month keeps changing from summer to winter in both the hemispheres unlike the solar month which is fixed. Taking an extreme position like fasting continuously for days together, which borders on ascerticism, has been prohibited in Islam.

The Islamic fast is not only abstinence from food and drink but also from foul acts and thoughts, the object being attainment of piety, not subjecting oneself to self-mortification. On the individual plane, it is an exercise for the angel in men and women to get an upper hand over the animal in them.

Instant accessibility

By Hajrah Mumtaz


ON the hillsides of Murree, the buses run at irregular intervals. There are no schedules or systems by which people may learn of prevailing road and transport conditions. Until recently, this lack of access to information posed a significant problem for the people whose houses dot the slopes, many of them a long, hard climb from the nearest metalled road.

Travellers had to leave their houses early and wait indefinitely by the road until the bus arrived. If they happened to miss the bus, they had to wait several hours — and wait by the road, because they could miss it again.

However, increasingly inexpensive cellular technology has meant that the people of the Murree tehsil are now spared such tedium. They simply call someone, a relative or a shopkeeper, located further along the road to ask whether the bus has been past. This way, they can time their climb up to the road with the approximate arrival of the bus.

Sixty million cellphone connections in Pakistan, and counting … given that a few million souls must currently be under 18, a significant proportion of the adult population enjoys access to a cellphone. And while many of us smile when the butcher, maid or carpenter pulls out a cellphone, the fact is that cheap cellular technology has brought about an unrecognised revolution in the skilled urban workforce.

It seems to be a win-win situation: electricians, plumbers, repairmen, etc have access to more work, the people employing their services can do so more conveniently, and those with a creative bent of mind have conjured up niche markets.

In Lahore, for example, Tanveer needed to supplement his earnings as an electrician. An enterprising gentleman, he realised that while Defence had a large number of cheap fast-food joints, none ran delivery services. And meanwhile, the nearby Lahore University of Management Sciences had a hungry but transport-deprived student population. So he spread the word: call on his cellphone and he’ll deliver meals from any or all of the area’s eateries for a small fee. The fee wasn’t much, but neither were his overheads. There are now a fair few one-man meals on wheels services operating in Lahore’s Defence.

Similarly, a vegetable seller in Karachi’s Bath Island also runs a home delivery service through his cellphone, having tried unsuccessfully for years to get a landline number.

Running a house involves daily niggling headaches such as burnt-out electrical sockets, a malfunctioning stove or a roach problem. In the bad old days, you either went to the technician’s shop or, if he had pull within PTCL (since getting a connection was no easy task), called the shop’s landline number.

If the technician was any good, chances were that he’d be out on a job. His chota would promise faithfully to relay the message that your drains were blocked — and immediately forget. After waiting a day in ankle-deep water, you’d return to the shop or leave another message … and so on.

Today, you merely call the plumber on his cellphone and he may well come round as soon as he’s finished the job at hand. Because he’s reachable all the time, he can do that many more jobs a day and the homeowner, meanwhile, doesn’t have to move an inch. Many people, in fact, don’t even know where their technician’s shop is located since such emergency numbers tend to circulate amongst the residents of a given locality.

The reason Pakistan took to cellular technology like a fish to water is not because we love to talk, but simply because they’ve made our working lives that much easier.

Email: hmumtaz@dawn.com

Checking on cheques

Middle East Press : The Jordan Times

ACCORDING to the current Jordanian law, an individual may be jailed for paying with a “bad” cheque. If a cheque bounces, a sentence of imprisonment is almost automatic because of the widely held view that cheques are a form of currency that must be valid and honoured at face value.

The fact that the number of bad cheques has increased recently to crisis level prompted many people to insist on having harsh penalties applied for issuing such cheques.

This is a reasonable demand, but the issue that troubles human rights activists is that the incarceration sentence for bounced cheques is rendered irrespective of the intent of the cheque giver. In other words, even when there is no criminal intent to defraud or deceive the recipient of the cheque, the criminal sentence is imposed…

The issue is complicated even more by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which … says that no one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation...

The key word in Article 11 is, of course, “merely”, which has generally been interpreted to imply that without finding criminal intent, no person may be criminalised and jailed “merely” for issuing a cheque without sufficient funds.— (Oct 9)

Too young a breadwinner

Middle East Press : The Egyptian Gazette

MORE than 2.5 million children aged between six and l2 are in full-time work. This figure, courtesy of the Central Auditing Agency, is rising for many reasons. However, the biggest motive for sending pre-teens out to work is poverty.

Instead of imbibing knowledge and getting an education, these children are schooled in the workshop, where the curriculum is that of the school of hard knocks, especially if the workplace is unhealthy and the treatment by their employers and elders leaves much to be desired.

The quarries in Minia Governorate in Upper Egypt employ thousands of children in dangerous conditions. They carve out a living at the cost of their basic human rights. Occasionally, the ministries of manpower and education along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the media call for solutions to this problem to no avail.

Children’s rights are supposedly enshrined in international agreements and in Egyptian law, but they are not properly enforced in this country. A child who has been physically or mentally abused will not make a balanced adult citizen. If children need to work, their human rights must be respected. They should have access to social services, healthcare and education.

Above all, they must be protected from exploitation by their employers. — (Oct 10)



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007

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