Ex-generals’ wisdom

MIRZA Aslam Beg’s views about the freedom struggle in Kashmir and his recipe for the territory’s liberation deserve to be taken note of, for they come from a retired general who played a leading role in Pakistan’s Afghan and Kashmir policies. Even though an elected government had come to power in November 1988, it was President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Mirza Aslam Beg as army chief who called the shots in foreign policy matters and succeeded through manipulative politics to sideline Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It goes without saying that the Kashmiri uprising following rigged elections in 1987 had an indigenous character. It attracted world attention and drew the sympathy of freedom-loving people because it was a spontaneous reaction to an election that India had rigged to foist a puppet regime on the people of Kashmir. Till then, Islamabad’s policy had been to give moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmir people’s struggle. However, the induction of jihadi organisations in both Kashmir and Afghanistan with full support from the ISI transformed the situation to the disadvantage of the people of Kashmir. From then on, the world media would speak of terrorism from across the LoC rather than the freedom struggle in Kashmir.

The patronage of the militant organisations had disastrous consequences for Pakistan, for they became a government within a government. In Afghanistan, even after the Soviets pulled out, the ISI-supported Taliban captured the country after a protracted civil war whose ultimate victims were the Afghan people. Today, the remnants of those Taliban have turned Swat and Fata into battle zones, having inflicted on the army casualties which run into thousands. Now Mirza Aslam Beg would like to boost the jihadi organisations and in the process help Taliban terrorists kill Pakistani civilians and soldiers of the same army whose chief he once was.

The lot that gathered in Rawalpindi at Tuesday’s seminar, held by the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen’s Society on Kashmir Day, have nothing to their credit. Their conscience did not rebel when the men in khaki shred the Constitution, jailed or hanged prime ministers, flogged dissidents and gagged the media. Mirza Aslam Beg especially mouthed some outlandish ideas: he spoke of the ‘strategic defiance’ of America by Iraq in the run-up to the first Gulf War and then sent troops to Saudi Arabia for Gen Schwarzkopf’s benefit. He also had no qualms of conscience about shamelessly pressuring the judiciary and perverting the electoral process by distributing Rs140m to his favourite parties to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to defeat the PPP in the 1990 election. The terror that stalks Pakistan today owes its birth in no small measure to the ex-ISI chiefs who were there at the Rawalpindi meeting. The least good these retired generals can do is to keep quiet. Their criticism of another retired general, President Pervez Musharraf, may be justified, but that does not make them heroes. It is amazing to note that what has stirred these men is not any love for principles but a spirit of vengeance against President Musharraf, who had some truth to say about his community.

When the axe falls

THE government’s decision to trim development spending to prevent this year’s budget from going haywire due to the ballooning deficit was not unexpected. After the State Bank of Pakistan’s warning that the growing fiscal imbalances on account of escalating global crude and food prices could knock over the budgetary targets and upset efforts to contain the rising price inflation, it was anticipated that the axe would fall on development projects. What is disturbing is the ad hoc approach that has been adopted. It has not been announced how the cuts are to be executed — are they to be across the board or is every individual project to be reassessed to determine the priorities? This exercise is important to decide which projects should be allowed to proceed and which sectors can afford a slowdown. This is no doubt a difficult decision to take given the low level of development and the rising incidence of poverty. But it has to be taken.

It is not even known what implications the cuts would have and how much money would be saved. Even the country’s economic managers express their ignorance of the size of the total saving but insist that the fiscal deficit could expand below six per cent of the GDP against the target of four per cent if development spending is not slashed to narrow the gap between resources and expenditure. It is nevertheless assumed that the saving would be somewhere in the vicinity of Rs70-80bn, that is, close to the oil subsidy of around Rs72bn borne by the government so far in the first seven months of this fiscal.

The rising global oil prices and consequent fiscal deficit is not the only challenge facing the country. The widening trade deficit of above $8bn, spiralling inflation (Dec inflation stood at 8.8 per cent) and sliding foreign inflows of money should also be worrisome. The fiscal imbalances are forcing the government to borrow excessively to finance its budget, and hampering the fight against inflation. Given the enormity of the government’s current financial woes and its lavish unproductive expenditure, the cut in development spending alone is unlikely to produce the desired results.

Sri Lanka: war once again?

SRI LANKAN President Mahinda Rajapakse’s claim on the occasion of his country’s 60th independence day that terrorism was “receiving an unprecedented defeat” rang hollow as dozens of people were killed in suspected rebel attacks in the days leading up to the celebrations. That the majority among them were civilians — their numbers included seven students and their baseball coach killed by a suicide bomber at a Colombo railway station — indicates the extent of insecurity for the common man. Unfortunately, the government’s recent decision to scrap the 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tiger rebels has not proved to be a wise move. For while peace was tenuous even under the truce, there had at least been a semblance of hope that, with the help of the Scandinavian monitors, some political solution would be found to the long-festering ethnic divide that has resulted in the death of close to 70,000 people. What has also stacked the odds against the Sri Lankan government is the wielding of new weapons by the rebels who of late have been using air power to bombard military positions.

Sadly, the politics of confrontation continues to dominate the scene, a fact underscored by the absence of opposition parties from independence celebrations. The opposition has many grouses against the president including the decision to abrogate the truce. This failure by the politicians to come to a consensus decision, despite several proposals for a joint approach, is strengthening the hand of the rebels, who though numerically weaker are proving more decisive in action. Also, while there is little support for the militants, the stern treatment meted out to ordinary Tamils on account of security concerns, will alienate many from government policies. Already there is a crisis with thousands displaced from their homes and living in camps. There is a growing feeling that matters are heading towards a point where full-scale civil war cannot be ruled out. Politicians can no longer afford to be divided, and keeping the security of common citizens as their first priority, must jointly arrive at a political solution that would address Tamil grievances without allowing the country’s integrity to be jeopardised.

Long shadows

By Murad Moosa Khan

‘When small men cast long shadows, the sun is going down.’

— Venita Cravens

ON the way to the Hawkes Bay and Sandspit beaches is the village of Grax. Many of us stop here to buy cold drinks and other eatables from the small cabins present on either side of the road. As part of the Community Mental Health programme of my university we used to hold a mental health clinic here every month.

Although by katchi abadi standards, Grax is better than many others, the village has many social, physical and civic deprivations. During one of our visits, the community health worker expressed concern about a girl who appeared ‘mentally disturbed’. She lived about a mile from the centre. We went to visit her at her house.

A small cordoned-off area with two small rooms, a small area for the kitchen and a toilet with open drains constituted the ‘house’ of 75 square yards, perhaps a little more. The father of the girl was unemployed, the elder brother suffering from some sort of ‘mental imbalance’. A number of semi-clad children were milling about — presumably brothers and sisters. Their only source of income was a buffalo.

The health worker was right. The girl did appear unwell, “for the past three years,” her mother told us, “since the birth of her son”. He died a month after being born. The girl talked to imaginary voices, was frightened of others, and laughed to herself. She had run out of the house many times. Unable to afford medicines or have her treated on a regular basis, the family kept her tied to a tree. The result: badly infected wounds with pus and blood oozing out from both ankles.

Long abandoned by her husband — older than her by many years — she now lay on straw matting in the corner of one of the two small rooms, oblivious to her surroundings. She appeared not to have had a wash in weeks. I tried to engage her in conversation but she looked past me, and I was unable to penetrate her secret world. I asked the mother the girl’s age. “Fifteen...,” she said; the words echoed in my ears.

While we read about the fabulous growth rate of seven per cent and higher, the Karachi Stock Market making a record 14,000 points, a Porsche showroom opening in Lahore and of the economic ‘miracle’ that is today’s Pakistan, the picture on the ground tells a different story. The story of the girl I related above is illustrative of the lives of millions of Pakistanis today.

Officially, a third of us live below the poverty line. Another quarter probably lives just above it. That makes more than half of 165 million living in poverty. That is a very large number of people. We have become a country of marginalised and disenfranchised people ruled by a small but powerful group of people who have concentrated wealth and power around themselves.

The contradictions in our country are simply astounding. We are a nuclear power but cannot pick the garbage off our streets. We have one of the largest standing military forces in the world, yet cannot provide security to our own people. A report in this newspaper a few weeks ago informed us that Rs65m were spent on the medical treatment of 18 government ‘bigwigs’. Yet there are villages in Punjab where every other man is carrying a scar in the lumbar area, because he has had to sell his kidney to pay off his debts.

We have one of the highest rates of child mortality, hepatitis, rabies, depression and cardiovascular diseases. More than 30,000 women die in childbirth and more than 6,000 people commit suicide every year. Millions of our countrymen, women and children are deprived of basic necessities like clean drinking water, housing, education and healthcare. They have no recourse to justice. They have no rights.

This, sadly, is 21st century Pakistan. While many nations of the world move in an upward direction, for every step we take forward we take two back. Underlying all our problems is a serious crisis of governance. Today, corruption in Pakistan is not only institutionalised, it is, more worryingly, internalised as well.

We have no qualms about not paying our taxes or jumping the traffic signal, or asking for bribes. Lying, cheating, cutting corners, trampling on the rights of others, breaking the law and having no remorse afterwards, and corruption have now become part of our national and collective psyche and accepted norms.

This is not only obscene but unethical and immoral. It is immoral to let young mothers die in childbirth as it is not to provide clean drinking water to every household. It is unethical to force people to sell their body parts to pay off debts, as it is to not deal with social conditions that cause people to commit suicide. And it is obscene to buy yet another Lear jet or another tinted glass Mercedes for the use of ministers while hundreds and thousands live in abject poverty.

Is there a way out of this morass? Can the sinking ship of this country be saved? Can something be done to help the young girl in Grax and countless thousands who are suffering in silence like her? Yes, it can and must be. We need to declare an emergency in the education and health sector.

We need to do away with the corrupt feudal system. We need to have respect for the law. And all our processes must be strongly anchored in integrity. Nepotism, favouritism and cronyism should attract the heaviest punishment as should corruption in any form, shape or size. We have no time to lose.

This country was bequeathed by the Quaid to honest, hardworking, law-abiding and decent Pakistanis, and not to the crooked and corrupt who trample on our rights, who have no respect for the law and are a law unto themselves.

Pakistanis deserve better than this. All we want is to live a decent and peaceful life, where our life and property are safe, where our children can go to proper schools, and if they fall sick, receive good medical care. Surely, that is not asking for too much?

Let not the long shadows of small men be cast upon us. Let not the sun go down on this beautiful country that has immense natural and human resources. We have to reclaim it from the corrupt and the crooked. The time to stand on the sidelines for us has long past. We are paying the price of our own impassiveness. We have to raise our collective voice, whether we are doctors or engineers or teachers or lawyers or housewives or students or shopkeepers or businessmen. We have to follow the immortal words of Pablo Neruda who said, “Rise up with me — against the organisation of misery”.

The writer is professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University, Karachi.


OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Palestinians want to enjoy their rights

Gulf News

FOR a few days after Jan 22, Palestinians were free to take charge of their own supplies instead of being at the mercy of the Israelis. The desperation in Gaza was evident when Israel recently tightened its grip, denying fuel and even food to Gazans, while increasing its air strikes, resulting in many deaths.

What are considered normal rights, Palestinians see as the ultimate — to obtain food and necessities. That freedom was experienced when Hamas knocked down the Egypt/Gaza border wall on January 23, thereby ending Israel’s blockade. Egypt has now decided to reseal the border following talks between Hamas and Egyptian officials. The declaration by Hamas that it would cooperate with Egypt to restore border control is a positive move which comes at an important time. Indeed, the Islamist movement should be involved in negotiations concerning the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. This should also be put into a broader perspective in which both Hamas and Fatah resume talks on bridging gaps for the sake of unity and justice.

Furthermore, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar’s statement that the two would “operate channels at the local level at the crossing and along the border” is a significant development and a welcome move.

But the bottom line is, Palestinians are exhausted; they have reached the ultimate stage of depression and all they can think about at this point is how to feed their families. Now they are left pondering when and if they will ever enjoy such a basic human right as freedom again. It is to be hoped that for their sake future talks will lead somewhere. — (Feb 4)

Wedding bells in Paris

Khaleej Times

FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally said “I do” to his girlfriend, Carla Bruni. He married the supermodel-turned-singer at a low-key ceremony at the Elysee Palace on Saturday, keeping the media at bay.

It was a whirlwind romance in every sense of the term. Last October, the president divorced his second wife, Cecilia, and within a few days, he was apparently introduced to Carla by a mutual friend. And the rest is history.

The couple’s courtship period sparked several controversies when they toured Egypt and Jordan.

India heaved a sigh of relief when Carla said that she was giving the India trip with the president a miss because the presence of the then French-First Lady-to-be during the official tour would have been in breach of a few protocols.

But it’s not clear whether the ordinary French people will be too eager to shower their good wishes on the marriage. The French economy doesn’t seem to be doing too well and there are several domestic issues that need to be taken care of.

President Sarkozy has often been criticised for neglecting domestic issues while he toured foreign countries, mixing business with pleasure.

Even on Saturday, the president couldn’t devote much time to the wedding celebrations as the Chad crisis kept him busy.

But the couple seem to be ready to face all big challenges that lie ahead. And the president seems to know how to strike a balance between his public and private life! — (Feb 4)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008


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