Standing up to terror

THE grief and anger at Thursday’s act of terror in Karachi should not make us oblivious to one stark truth: it was terror directed at our way of life. Benazir Bhutto and her party may have their quota of denigrators, but no one can deny that the throngs that greeted her and the festive atmosphere that prevailed in the nation’s biggest city on that fateful night also served to highlight a value system in which bigotry, intolerance and oppression under cover of religion have no place. We salute those who lost their lives, we share the grief of the women rendered widows, we lament the loss of breadwinners for scores of families, and we agonise over the fact that many of the injured will pass their lives as physically disabled. But their sacrifices have not gone in vain, for they have conveyed a definite message loud and clear to the terrorists: the people of Pakistan will not bow down to terror. No matter what the cost in terms of casualties and human suffering, we have as a nation demonstrated to the people of the world watching the drama on Karachi’s streets that their resolve to stand up to terror remains unimpaired. The terrorists may kill and maim and destroy, but the Pakistani people have made their choice clear: they stand their ground and reject fanaticism that thrives on human blood.

By standing on the top of the truck all along and showing her face to those present along the route and to the millions glued to TV sets worldwide, Ms Bhutto, no doubt, showed courage, more so because her enemies had threatened to kill her. But it must be asked of the PPP leaders, was not the slow crawl necessary? The authorities will, of course, be blamed for the security lapse, and controversy already surrounds the jammers. Rahman Malik, former FIA director and now one of Benazir’s close confidants, alleged that the jammers had not been provided, while Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao denies this. There is no doubt a full inquiry will be ordered, and the faces behind the suicide bombing will be unmasked. But of greater importance is the nation’s collective attitude during election season which is soon to descend on us.

Basically there are two issues here: one, the government should make no attempt to use the terrorism threat — genuine though it is — to curtail the freedoms associated with campaigning. In South Asia, processions have been an integral part of political mobilisation since the Raj days, and the government must see to it that adequate security arrangements are in place to pre-empt acts of terror and ensure peace during what obviously will be a very hard-fought election. Two, all political parties must unite to reject religious extremism, led as it is in most cases by semi-literate fanatics. All political parties, of course, have their own socio-economic agendas and plans for the future, but they must realise that only a united political front by all mainstream political parties can crush the monster of terrorism. If this means getting the Sharifs on board, then let it be so. In any case, the Sharifs will be back in three years, or perhaps earlier as they have announced. Then why not make the entire process less acrimonious?

Who defines innocence?

THE Supreme Court’s latest order vis-a-vis the Lal Masjid makes for disturbing reading. In a decision that raises more questions than it answers, the SC directed the government on Thursday to pay compensation to the legal heirs of the ‘innocent’ victims of the deadly Lal Masjid operation in July. For one thing, how is it to be determined who among the 94 civilians killed in the operation was indeed innocent and who died as a result of taking up arms against the state? Or does the order apply to everyone killed in the operation, irrespective of their role in the showdown? It is an established fact that the Lal Masjid and its affiliated madressahs were a hotbed of militancy and stockpiled with sophisticated weapons. Besides housing armed students, the compound was also believed to harbour both tribal and foreign militants. Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid, the two brothers who ran the mosque, had repeatedly threatened suicide attacks across the country. Even before the siege itself, the Lal Masjid brigade had taken the law in its own hands on several occasions, once going so far as to kidnap foreign nationals. During the operation itself, Abdul Rashid ostensibly chose to fight to the finish along with a core group of heavily armed militants. True, the government’s approach in the preceding months was deeply flawed and decisive action late in coming. But in the end it had no choice but to physically engage those challenging the writ of the state and posing a serious threat to the lives of law-abiding citizens.

Safe passage was offered to anyone willing to surrender and hundreds of students did leave the compound unscathed. While some students may have been confined within the mosque against their will, there is sadly no way to distinguish between them and the terrorists. For these reasons it is worth asking if all those who died deserve to be portrayed as victims. They may have been brainwashed from an early age but there is no getting around the fact that many of the students were armed to the teeth and posed a grave danger to society.

A question of health

IN a metropolis of millions as Karachi is, an acute dearth of public toilets is cause for great alarm. It can have serious repercussions on the people’s health and environment. Successive city governments have failed to overhaul a decrepit sewerage system as well as provide public toilet amenities. Statistics show a marked rise in cases of gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections amongst lower-class women who stay without food or water when away from home for long stretches because of the absence of private or public washrooms. Moreover, girls in some government schools are forced to discontinue their education for the same reason. However, apart from assuaging issues of shame, filth and discomfort, the promotion of public hygiene and clean toilets can reduce diarrhoea and urinary tract infections considerably.

Then again, the construction of public sanitary services cannot be a random endeavour. India’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) is an initiative for the provision of public toilets, which include Women’s Sanitary Complexes and can serve as a model for a similar venture in Karachi. In a sprawling city with long distances to be covered, the need for such conveniences is so obvious that it is surprising why the administration has not taken up the issue for all these years. It is time the city government — with some NGOs pitching in — takes up this project. The need is not just for toilets but clean toilets. Some facilities which have been built from time to time have suffered from lack of maintenance and cleaning and have very soon become unusable. The city government must also ensure that the new facilities it builds have technology that addresses issues such as water shortage. In our hazardous hygiene scenario, these toilets need to be self-cleaning with regular monitoring by staff of the concerned department.

Let’s call a spade a spade

By M.P. Bhandara

EVENTS are moving with such rapidity and uncertainty that we must hold on tightly to our seats. The excitement of the moment excludes serious consideration of the direction in which we are headed. Washington views Pakistan as an unstable nuclear state with large swathes of territory in the Frontier virtually out of our sovereign control.

The touchstone of Pakistan’s importance to the US is its reliability as a front-line state in the so-called anti-terror war. Pakistan must be propped up politically, economically, militarily, internationally to be a secure ally.

As a consequence of this logic, a political package was crafted in Washington. President Musharraf, a proven ally, is to be matched and interfaced with Ms Bhutto, a putative ally. She has the right ‘fit’ from the US point of view — a leader of a political party with a vote bank, liberal pro-US views and gender appeal. The unwritten assumption is that President Musharraf needs a wider and more ‘liberal’ political base.

A coalition between the president and Ms Bhutto has been brokered. All irritants in the way, such as Bhutto’s corruption cases, have been swept under the rug in an amazing volte-face.

Is the Musharraf-Bhutto coalition likely to hold? The first reality test is: terrorism. I have earlier written in these columns about the perception in the Pashtun lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan that this civil war in our tribal lands and Afghanistan is a war of national liberation. The proud Pashtuns have never accepted a foreign military occupier.

Ever since Afghanistan as a state came into being, Pashtun nationalism has been synonymous with Afghan nationalism. The western forces in Afghanistan, and by extension the Pakistan army, are perceived to be a foreign occupation army. The West — and the Pakistan army — are fighting a losing war. It boggles the imagination as to how Ms Bhutto’s government, if any, will better enable the Pakistan army to better fight this war.

The nationalists know all the nooks and crannies of their land, and have the support of the population. For them, guerilla warfare is a centuries-old inheritance and being a shaheed a heavenly prize; for the Americans, it is a half a million dollars compensation for a dead soldier. At the time of writing, the insurgents hold over 300 of our jawans and officers as POW — a number which rises day by day.

I have earlier stressed in these columns that there is only one solution to this so-called war on terrorism. Islamabad (i.e. the ISI) should broker a deal between Mulla Omar, the US and the Afghan government on a twin agenda: the exit of US and Nato troops within a short timeframe and in return secure credible assurances from Mulla Omar that no Afghan government of the future will permit terrorism to be nested in its territory.

Since any deal depends on the relative strength of the contestant parties, the Pakistan army must prove its fighting mettle to overwhelm the nationalists in Waziristan, albeit for a temporary period, for a negotiated face-saving truce. The Americans should forget about exporting democracy and gender rights to Afghanistan and mind their own business. Their missionary zeal for pontificating about vice and virtue is as jarring as that of the Taliban.

If the US is not prepared to seriously consider a compromise agenda, Pakistan should officially opt out of the terrorism war. There is a limit to helping an ally. We have lost over 1,000 troops in the war, and yet an ungrateful US says ‘do more’. Our answer is: ‘no more’! Any attack on Pakistan soil by the US should be considered a hostile act and prompt retaliation by the Pakistan army.

The Security Council should be moved to stop any US aggression, and Pakistan must be strictly neutral in the war between Pashtun nationalism and the US. The onus is on western forces to ensure that the nationalists do not enter or leave our tribal lands. This policy change does not signal an unfriendly relationship with the US. Consider: the Indians have not raised a finger in support of US war aims in Afghanistan, yet remain Washington’s favoured partners.

The second area of uncertainty relates to the elections. Given the phenomenon of the suicide bomber, will it be possible to hold large-scale campaigns in an election year? On polling day, how many voters will venture out for fear of the suicide bomber? Even if each voter is screened, who will screen the camps? Holding elections in most parts of the Frontier today is near impossible. Would a voter turnout of 15-20 per cent constitute a credible election?

A peaceful election is only possible after Pakistan signals an exit from the Afghan war. It might be useful to hold an all-parties conference to try to arrive at some consensus on the spillover of US war aims and the future governance of the tribal areas. For those who fear the revival of the old Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus, remember the Marxist saying that history enacts itself as a tragedy but repeats itself as a farce.

Prior to 9/11, the Al Qaeda movement never involved the Afghans. Today, if it exists at all, it is in the Muslim ghettos of the western world. The pre-9/11 Taliban story is yet to be written. The truth might be quite different to today’s accepted wisdom. Whatever Mulla Omar’s shortcomings, he also had some virtues: he was honest and his successful banning of poppy cultivation was very creditable. Mr Karzai by contrast has American mercenaries to keep him where he is.

The US assumption that Ms Bhutto can garner sufficient votes in the 2008 election to be prime minister is also highly questionable. Her ratings in the opinion polls have fallen steeply ever since she wanted her sins of pelf to be whitewashed by the grandiloquent sounding National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Yet another sad day for Pakistan.

The writer is a member of the National Assembly.

The welcome and the blast

By Naushaba Burney

I GUESS we have to accept that we, the Pakistani people, are still stuck in the piree muridee mindset. How else to explain that the major metropolis of Karachi was cheerfully exposed to murder and mayhem despite tall talk about security? And for what? A political leader was returning to the city after a longish absence. The welcome she received was the kind given only to a saint.

Perhaps Benazir thought this was still the Pakistan of 1986, having been away for far too many years to understand that she was returning to a country where violence has become endemic. But what happened to her party people here in Karachi? Couldn’t they smell trouble? All over the world, leaders today race to their destination on city roads at top speed to pre-empt murderous attacks by wacky or misguided individuals or groups with sick agendas. Like her spellbound admirers, Benazir too must have been in a trance to agree to spend endless hours on Sharea Faisal.

I must admit that even a sceptical writer like me enjoyed the festive atmosphere created by her arrival. Lulled by the euphoria fanned by the excited TV channels, the normally preoccupied Karachiites went through their day and night with one eye on their TV sets, loving the vibrant welcome that revived memories of the city that was.

The city’s changes are not mirrored in the people’s attitudes and thinking, unfortunately. Surely it’s time the people changed too. How can we still go on living in our own make-believe world. In an era when science and technology are in the process of creating a somewhat more logical, rational and pragmatic mindset worldwide, we haven’t budged an inch from our obsession with heavenly souls and others we imbue with mystical attraction. The saints of Sindh have us in thrall deeply. Love and romance figured large in BB’s welcome.

A turbaned rustic said he had a dream. In his dream Shaheed Bhutto asked him to go to Karachi to welcome his daughter, so here he was. Others, when asked if they weren’t afraid of getting pushed around or hurt, shook their heads with a smile. Their looks suggested that laying down their lives for her was a small price to pay to be in her vicinity.

For a political leader’s welcome, there was a total absence of any political slogans, nor did the banners and placards highlight issues and problems. Instead, there was utterly uncritical and unquestioning adoration for ‘our Quaid’. Even when provoked regarding her collaboration with a dictator, groups of jiyalas happily answered: ‘She’s doing it for democracy.’

Every second person celebrating her arrival expressed his conviction that his joblessness and financial difficulties would soon be over, now that the roti-kapra-makan lady was back.

The swelling human wave at the airport broke into song and dance sporadically and with abandon, as if there were no tomorrow. The crowd appeared lost in some dream world. What about their heroine’s corruption cases? Questioned on this by curious reporters, not one in that massive gathering bothered to counter the charges. Such mundane matters were irrelevant to them and they remained rapt in the magical aura that in their eyes surrounds their leader.

Only a strong spiritual fervour and abnormal veneration for their leader can explain the fact that the massed public on the roads suffered the sun, wind, hunger, thirst, lack of toilet facilities and other acute discomforts for close to 24 hours. Yet their exuberance and excitement never flagged. Benazir Bhutto’s arrival was pure drama. The TV channels of course went to town over it.

Just when I thought that the festive, buoyant welcome showed that, given half a chance, Karachi can display an exciting and happy face, the lethal bombs blasted away the prevailing euphoria.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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