DAWN - Opinion; July 02, 2008

July 02, 2008


Enemies become neighbours

By Kamila Shamsie

THE day before Tehelka’s London summit ‘India-Pakistan: designing a new future’ one of the organisers told me that Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s federal information minister, had pulled out of the conference, and I calculated that the female representation of the speakers had just dipped by 20 per cent.

Of the four remaining women speakers there were Naiza Khan and myself on the Art and Cinema panel, Mehbooba Mufti speaking about Kashmir, and Robin Raphel discussing relations between South Asia and the West.

As panel after panel of suited men took their place on the podium Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, joked that he was the only man in the Tehelka team, and the women who had been in charge of the organising — and who were moderating the panels — clearly just wanted to be surrounded by men. But the sadder reality was that the conference reflected how largely male-dominated the political worlds of India and Pakistan are, notwithstanding the few highly visible exceptions.

At the start of the conference, I confess to thinking that the only panel which had more than one female speaker — the art and cinema panel — was going to be little more than lightweight distraction from the heavy-hitters of political life. What were Hasan Zaidi, Mohammad Hanif, Naiza Khan, Karan Johar, Prasoon Joshi and I doing in the middle of discussions and lectures by Jaswant Singh, Gen Asad Durrani, Mushahid Hussein, Sartaj Aziz, Farooq Abdullah, et al., not to mention the mission statements sent by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari?

We certainly couldn’t add to anyone’s understanding of the political ins and outs of India-Pakistan relations — but worse, it soon became apparent, that even those fields of creativity and entertainment we consider our domain were being hijacked. How could we artists and writers and film-makers trump anecdotes about Shaikh Abdullah feeling neglected by Quaid-i-Azam, or of the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan meeting for discussions on a bench surrounded by lotus flowers? How could we, creators of fiction, come up with more fantastic stories than that of the ISI as a bringer of peace, or of the RSS as an organisation with respect for Muslims?

But as the conference wore on it quickly became obvious that the culture panel, as well as the youth panel (which stretched the meaning of ‘youth’ to include those in late middle-age) could at least bring something refreshing to the table — a movement away from ‘already stated positions’ and a willingness to discuss, rather than score points against each other. The ‘scoring points’ generally took the form of someone from India mentioning the phrase ‘cross-border terrorism’ and someone from Pakistan scrambling into defensive posture — it was somewhat depressing, though occasionally also amusing, to see how initial statements of respect for the other and a desire for peace could give way at the slightest provocation to this attacking-defensive paradigm.

And so it was a relief of a strange sort to come to the culture panel at which Tehelka’s co-founder, the ever-intelligent and articulate Shoma Chaudhury, dispensed with all the insincerity and started straight off with the assertion that for most Indians, herself included, Pakistan is a largely scary and alien Other — though she went on to talk of the ‘shocks of recognition’ that accompany the moments when the alienness falls away to reveal a neighbour in many ways familiar.

She pinpointed her first shock of recognition as accompanying her reading of Mothsmoke — and described how, despite this shock of recognition, the interview she later conducted with Mohsin Hamid was an antagonistic one, because she brought her own continuing prejudices to the interview and Mohsin responded with angry defensiveness.

In many ways, the introduction was the most honest moment of the conference, encapsulating within it so much that is problematic in India-Pakistan relations — the misconceptions and prejudice that lead to defensiveness and hostility. But it also carried with it hope — those attitudes can change, the prejudicial questions can give way to a far more nuanced understanding and a desire to build bridges.

On both sides, Indian and Pakistani, there seemed little to counter the view that India’s view of Pakistan is desperately partial and one-sided, while the same is not so of Pakistan’s view of India. ‘Ask any Indian to name three terrorist groups based out of Pakistan and they’ll do it; ask them to name three artists or writers from Pakistan and you’ll get a blank look’ as someone summed it up.

Fifi Haroon, asking a question from the floor, suggested that the flow of movies, books, etc., from India into Pakistan is far greater than the flow in the opposite direction, and so there’s a question of ‘access’ that emerges. True enough, but we can’t complain that Indians don’t watch Pakistani films when we in Pakistan would much rather watch Bollywood ourselves. That Pakistani films such as ‘Khuda kay Liye’ and ‘Ramchand Pakistan’ are now finding their way into India is at least a move in the right direction. As far as English-language novels are concerned, a number of Pakistani writers are finding publishers in India where none are forthcoming in Pakistan.

None of this is to imply that art and cinema alone can bring peace. But if the political propaganda between the two countries continues to ease up it allows a greater space for writers and artists to convey across the border those ‘shocks of recognition’ which turn enemies into neighbours and makes it harder for the politicians to sell the idea of the Demon Next Door.

In the end, though, it may be the economic imperative that drives most efficiently through all the prejudices and misconceptions. ‘India needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs India,’ one of the speakers said. Why? Because Pakistan stands in the path of India’s access to the mineral and gas rich Central Asian states. Perhaps the real peace pipe will turn out to be a peace pipeline.

The writer is a novelist and author of Kartography and Broken Verses.

Clinging to survival

By Cyril Almeida

LET the Americans bomb us. In Fata, northern Pakistan, wherever they think militants are hiding with their predators, supersonic bombers and helicopter gunships. Let them pummel militant hideouts and sanctuaries until they have fired their last cruise missile and bunker buster.

This was the recommendation of a retired bureaucrat and scholar with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Pakistan.

The suggestion came in response to the question I ask people who believe that Pakistan is fighting America’s war, not our own: what would you do instead? Stunned by his answer, I asked why. Better that the Americans bomb us, he replied, than our army turn to Gen Hamid Gul for its orders instead of Gen Kayani.

According to my interlocutor, we — people with superficial knowledge inside the media echo chamber — didn’t understand the nature of the Taliban’s power. Their locus of power is the mosque, not the ISI headquarters, so unless their locus is destroyed — metaphorically — militancy will not be defeated. Short of that, sending in the Pakistan army to take on the militants in a social milieu that is hostile to any outsider, foreign interference will cause the rank and file in the army to, at best, disobey direct orders or, at worst, defect.

So if this war is militarily unwinnable but American expediency demands that the militants be bombed, self-interest demands that we let the Americans do it themselves, he explained. If Pakistan wants to be around to pick up the pieces after the Americans leave, he reasoned, it’s essential that we have a disciplined, unified army.

It is about as controversial as an opinion can get. For those defending the sovereign Pakistan chimera, a foreign presence on Pakistani soil is an anathema. But this ignores the fact that $70bn have flowed into this country since 2001 and that the Americans have 35,000 troops in Afghanistan. Such numbers have a logic and power of their own. Then there is the anti-military camp. Having crossed swords with our politicians more often than with an enemy, the military’s popularity is at its lowest ebb — the secession of East Pakistan perhaps being the only comparable point. Inflicting new pain on the country to save the army is a bit too much for all but the most rabid, dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the army today.

Yet, the suggestion by a thoughtful, patriotic man that the Americans be allowed to bomb us signals how dire our predicament is. Pakistan has kicked down the road the problem of militancy and extremism for so long that easy solutions — if they ever existed — are no longer an option. As things fall apart and the old system collapses, people are no longer contemplating a measured, cautious response.

The Pakistani landscape is increasingly a frightening one: the frankenstein of militant Islam is on the prowl inside the country; the state has frozen as its monopoly on violence has been shattered; the rabid, Islamist Gul and his cohorts are out to finish the job that Zia began; and a frightened, clueless political elite is wringing its hands.

Even so, perhaps we have not reached the stage of letting the Americans bomb us. A newspaper editor recoiled in horror at the suggestion. Not out of any sympathy for the militants, he explained, but the fear of losing his own way of life. Barely will the first American bombs have fallen on militants that symbols of the US or the West will be attacked in Pakistani cities. Soon vice and virtue squads will start patrolling the streets, scything down the population in the name of Allah and all that is good. The argument that the Pakistan army be kept unified at all costs was dangerously close to having the tail, a unified army, wag the dog, the country itself, he suggested. Agreed. But if the militants need to be hammered — and hammered quickly — maybe the Americans should be ones to do it after all. Our home-grown options are not very encouraging. Counter-insurgencies, we are told, are best fought by some combination of paramilitary and police forces in coordination with political and administrative officials. By all accounts, these forces are not up to the task here. When the Frontier Constabulary rolls into town or the first police checkpoint is set up, the militants melt away, only to return later to wage a sophisticated war of attrition that frightens our troops and saps morale.

Meanwhile, the politicians are abdicating their duties. The ANP has become a peace-monger, desperately avoiding decisiveness because it is divisive. The People’s Party is fighting an internal war without an interior minister. The man tasked with protecting the homeland, Rehman Malik, has spent months trying to secure a peace deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the man who ordered the murder of the woman, Benazir Bhutto, Malik was meant to protect. Nawaz is obsessed with the judges and his right-wing proclivities lead him to spout woolly talk of Islam and peace. Which leaves the army. In Rumsfeld-speak, there are a few known unknowns and other unknown unknowns here. The army high command acquiesced to the civilians’ demand that the government negotiate with militants, but the generals’ reasons for doing so are not known. Some believe that the army needed a breather. Others argue that Gen. Kayani was trying to convince his generals that the army needs to be re-orientated towards counter-terrorism rather than its current, India-centric vision.

Who has won this battle we do not know. We do know that violence briefly flared up in Kashmir recently. And we do know that the government has handed over to the army operational control of the latest thrust against the militants. But it’s not at all clear that the army is itself up to the task. The Pakistan army went into Swat last year promising that by Dec 15 the resort at Malam Jabba would be open for business. Last week, the abandoned motel there was burned down.

So if no one is going to — or can — do anything about it, then let the bumbling Americans go in and put a new kind of fear of God into the militants. A pounding will not bring peace. But as the militants have grown bolder and are looking to grab territory, this is the time to hit them and hit them hard. Madness? Perhaps. But what isn’t mad is to fear both the militants and the state; the militants, because they want to snatch this country away and the state because it doesn’t seem capable of doing much to stop that from happening.


Is the budget pro-poor?

By Sadia M. Malik

THE newly inducted government that found itself in the midst of a host of internal and external challenges soon after its induction was confronted with the daunting task of presenting the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Steering the economy and dealing with all these problems is a daunting task and we must allow some time to the present government.

The budget is one of the most important documents that sets out the priorities and targets of any government in terms of social and economic development. Whether the targets set by the government at the beginning of the fiscal year are met by the end or not is an important criteria to judge the performance of the government but at this point, it is too early to say anything about that. What we can analyse objectively at this point are the priorities set out by the present government and the potential impact of the measures that it intends to take to address the economic problems that are gripping the country at present.

In particular, since the mandate of the present government is based upon its egalitarian philosophy of improving the wellbeing of the ordinary people and to promote the development of the people, for the people and by the people, it seems pertinent to analyse its priorities and the potential impact of the budget on the lives of ordinary people especially those belonging to the lower income groups.

Let us start by examining some of the positive features of the current fiscal year budget. The commendable feature is that the government has not budgeted any real increase in the defence budget and decided to present the intra-sectoral allocation within the defence budget for discussion in the parliament. What will pay off in the long run in terms of releasing additional resources is to review how efficient and transparent this allocation is within various heads. It is also commendable that the government intends to provide incentives to the agriculture sector that has been neglected by the previous governments. This will have positive repercussions on not only poverty reduction but also for ensuring food security and stabilising food prices.

In terms of direct relief measures, the government has allocated a substantial amount for the Benazir card scheme that pledges to provide Rs1000 per poor family as identified by the Nadra data base. While this is a commendable step, previous experience throughout South Asia shows that apart from huge management costs that are associated with such schemes, they end up with problems such as poor identification and targeting as well as leakages.

It is not clear how much of an impact the Rs1000 handout will have on easing the burden imposed by mounting inflation particularly that related to food items. Food inflation has been record high and since April 2008, it has been estimated to be 25.5 per cent as quoted by the Economic Survey. The withdrawal of subsidies from fuel, power and wheat; and an increase in general sales tax is going to exacerbate inflation even further. It is not hard to conclude that in such a situation, the positive impact of direct relief measures such as raising the salaries of government employees and the Benazir card scheme will be offset by the ever increasing inflation leaving the poor worse off in the ultimate analysis.

No matter how creative these relief measures are, they are nonetheless meant to provide temporary relief. What is needed in the long run is to provide opportunities to the people in terms of health and education and thereby empower them by enhancing their capabilities. The budget in this sense is quite a disappointment. The allocation for health and education have increased nominally (the allocation for health sector has increased from Rs18bn to Rs19bn and that for education from Rs24.3bn in the previous year to Rs24.6bn in the current year) and after accounting for inflation, these allocations have declined in real terms.

This is a pity taking into account the fact that some of our health and education indicators are even weaker than those of Sub-Saharan Africa. Our infant and maternal mortality rates are one of the highest in the world. For the past ten years, the government has been allocating less than one per cent of its GDP (between 0.5-0.6 per cent of GDP) on health. Research in Pakistan has been showing consistently that one of the greatest income shocks amongst the low income groups in Pakistan is the medical expenditure and it is important to realise that increasing access to health in an equitable manner is tantamount to fighting poverty.

In terms of education, the recent Education for All report indicates that Pakistan is host to the highest absolute number of out of school children in the world after Niger. This is quite an embarrassing situation and the government seems to be completely oblivious as is evident from the priority given to this critical sector in the current budget. What are even worse are misplaced priorities within the education sector: 75 per cent of the total allocation for education is directed towards the Higher Education Commission. This is an unfair allocation both on grounds of efficiency and equity in public finance.

It is highly recommended that the government rethinks its priorities regarding social sector development. Past experience shows that whenever governments attempt to reduce fiscal deficits, social sector allocation that is already low is the first one to be slashed. While it is too early to predict this but overall the strategy of this government in reigning in the fiscal deficit is no different from the previous governments. Instead of devising a strategy that generates revenues by expanding the tax net and by curbing tax evasion, the government has relied on indirect taxation, the burden of which falls on the poor and the middle income groups.

Progressive taxation on capital gains, real estate, and other sources of wealth is absent whereas sectors such as agriculture and services remain exempt from taxes as ever. Such a regressive taxation policy is bound to increase inequality that is already on the rise.

It was hoped that the current government would realise that achieving fiscal discipline and increasing revenues is important, but not on the backs of the poor. If the government wants to address the challenges of inflation, rising inequality and poverty, it must devise a progressive taxation policy that relies less on indirect taxes and more on increasing the tax-GDP ratio by extending the tax net to untaxed sectors. Moreover, given the dismal human development indicators there should not have been any compromise on the allocation as well as the utilisation of social sector spending.

The writer is the director of Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre in Islamabad.

Déjà vu all over again

By Gwynne Dyer

READING the first reports about the accusations against Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, I had to check the date at the top of the page. Has there been a time-slip?

Is this file ten years old? For Anwar to be accused of sodomy again, ten years after he last challenged the position of Malaysia’s prime minister and ended up in jail for sodomy (a crime in Malaysia), stretches the notion of coincidence to the breaking point.

Ten years ago the prime minister was Mahathir Mohamad, the long-ruling autocratic leader who had made Anwar his deputy prime minister. The two men fell out over economic policy and Anwar’s too-obvious ambition, so he was charged with corruption — and, for good measure, with sodomy. His credibility had to be destroyed, and so a former employee was persuaded to lay a complaint against him.

Anwar is a married man with six children. That does not mean that he could not be guilty of homosexual rape, but there were many questionable elements of the case, including the fact that he was beaten almost to death by the national chief of police in person after he was arrested. Nevertheless, Anwar was convicted and sent to prison. His political career seemed over.

Mahathir finally retired at the age of 78 in 2003, and the courts overturned Anwar’s conviction for sodomy the following year. He was freed from jail, but because the corruption conviction was not also quashed, he was still banned from running for office for five more years. The opposition coalition had come to see him as a leader, however, and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, became the head of the opposition in parliament.

Then, early this year, Malaysian politics went into overdrive. In the March election, the ruling National Front lost the two-thirds majority in the national parliament that it had held for the past forty years, emerging with a narrow majority that could easily crumble if only a couple of dozen of its members defect to the opposition. As they well might, given the way Malaysian politics is played.

The dominant population in most of what is now Malaysia is the Malays, a seafaring people who converted to Islam in the 15th century. Under British rule, however, huge numbers of Chinese and Indian workers were imported — and their descendants now account for 40 per cent of the country’s 26 million people. The immigrants quickly came to dominate the economy, while the Malay majority remained mostly rural, less well educated, and much poorer. Malaysia has prospered greatly since then — but the National Front that was created to preserve this deal was always in power, and the country was not really a full democracy. Much time has passed, however, and last March’s election showed how much has changed. The new state government in Penang cancelled the Malay preference rule as soon as it took power last March, and in Kuala Lumpur last month Anwar Ibrahim claimed that thirty National Front members of parliament were ready to defect to his coalition, which would give the opposition a majority in the national parliament.

Then suddenly last week, a 23-year-old man who volunteered to work for the opposition during the election earlier this year, and then became an assistant to Anwar, accused him of sodomy. Anwar immediately took refuge in the Turkish embassy, fearing that the next step would be assassination.

Anwar left the embassy again after getting a promise from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that he would not be harmed, but he could be arrested at any time. The National Front government, even if it did not set the whole thing up, certainly plans to let it play out. When Badawi was asked what he thought about Anwar’s denials, he said it “was common for an accused person” to claim he was innocent.

This is a very dangerous game. The blood and fire of 1969 seem far away from the prosperity of modern Malaysia, but it was the pro-Malay preferences of the 1970 deal that made it stable. Now that deal has to be reshaped into something less unfair to the minorities. Malaysia can do it the easy way, or the hard way. It may choose the hard way.

— Copyright Gwynne Dyer