DAWN - Opinion; December 25, 2008

December 25, 2008


Trapped in hysteria

By I.A. Rehman

THE escalating tension between India and Pakistan exposes the efforts powerful elements in both countries are making to change the Mumbai raiders’ failure into a success — for a clash between the two major South Asian states was obviously one of their prime objectives.

There were many matters of serious concern to the people that one wished to take up today but these have to be passed over because almost the entire population of the subcontinent has been trapped in conflict hysteria. Little attention is being paid to the colossal loss the two countries are inflicting on themselves by diverting all their energies into pursuing a course mature people might loathe to adopt.

As was feared, in both countries professional warmongers are choreographing a waltz of insanity and politicians in authority are afraid of falling out of step. Hawks in the opposition parties see in the situation opportunities to further their electoral prospects. This will harm both countries, Pakistan to a greater extent than India.

A ball-by-ball coverage of petty happenings is inflicting nerve-racking strain on the ordinary people. For instance, a delay in a flight’s scheduled departure is interpreted as cancellation dictated by an ominous turn in the security climate and distressful rumours sweep the land at supersonic speed. The flight is rescheduled barely 15 minutes later but corrective information travels at a snail’s pace and many are no longer listening or are in no mood to revise their first reaction.

A TV channel announces the Indian claim that a letter from Ajmal Kasab has been delivered to the Pakistan High Commission. The next moment the news strip says “the High Commission has not received any letter” and the insinuation introduced in the line by dropping ‘as yet’ is clear. Only a few minutes later comes another — “the High Commission has received the letter”. This kind of phurti (indecent haste) reminds one of a half-baked cricket commentator who begins a sentence by praising the batsman for a brilliant shot and closes it on his offering a dolly catch. What is the harm in allowing a situation to crystallise before rushing to spread consternation?

The race to be the first to cause a scare does not allow quite a few to wait for a turn of events that they can pounce on as an omen of doom. Anyone who counsels restraint must be denounced as a coward lacking the mettle of patriotism. A search is made for people who can condemn a Pakistani cultural troupe for visiting India at the present juncture. Has anyone assumed the power and the right to change geography? Whatever may happen in the short run, India and Pakistan have to live side by side as permanent neighbours and prudence demands the avoidance of actions and words that either country, or both, may eventually find impossible to live down.

It is not clear whether an overheated media has tricked the government spokesmen into talking more than they should or whether it is the other way round. The need to advise the Pakistani gladiators (the Indians have their own counsel) to eschew banal cliches and reduce their contribution to gloom is manifest.

For instance, statements such as ‘we do not want war but will resist with full force if a conflict is imposed on us’ amounts to stretching the obvious. Of course, in the event of conflict, however unwelcome, the people will do their duty but the real issue is how will their resistance be organised? That the defence forces are prepared to meet any eventuality is reassuring. But only up to a point, for no country’s security can be guaranteed by the defence forces alone. An equally crucial role belongs to the people.

However, the citizens can play their part best only if they know what they are defending or fighting for. The slogan ‘my country right or wrong’ is a throwback to the days when the people used to be their rulers’ galley-slaves. Today’s Pakistanis will fight for their country with the requisite fire in their hearts if they know exactly what is what and are convinced of the justness of their cause.

Unfortunately, the official spokespersons do not appear inclined to take the people into confidence. For instance, we are told that Pakistan is not isolated. The authorities should have in their possession facts and information on which this claim is based. Withholding such facts and information from the people causes confusion, to put it mildly. Why can’t we be told about the nations siding with us?

Are our supporters China and the US or Canada, Germany, the UK or Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Nigeria? If a country is with us only in private and not in public, it should be deleted from the list of friends that can be depended upon. Is Islamabad alive to the risk of a repetition of 1971 when soldiers and citizens both were fed false tales about powerful friends’ intervention on Pakistan’s side?

Things will be better managed if the government admitted to the people that it is not up against India alone. The stark reality is that over the past 30 years the authoritarian rulers (and the elected ones who were unable to defy their legacy) have destroyed Pakistan’s credibility in the councils of the world and the present government will compound its problems by not disowning this inheritance. The Foreign Office is being taken to task for not taking a stand in the Security Council while it ruled against some organisations and individuals although the critics know very well the limits of vacuous rhetoric.

The impression one gets is that the government is banking to a great extent on American keenness to ensure that Pakistan is not forced to withdraw its troops from the western front. This is much too rickety a bridge to promise safe passage. The danger in assuming the situation on the western border to remain unchanged should be obvious. Is it impossible to admit the possibility of a shift in the US strategy about Afghanistan and the Taliban? Where will Pakistan in such a situation find itself?

Much good will accrue by admitting that Pakistan has been pushed by the enemies within into a marsh from which it cannot extricate itself by bluff and bluster. Rootless confidence and simulated panic are two sides of the same coin that no one should rely upon. Pakistan most of all needs today to break out of the make-believe world of armchair warriors and concentrate on winning the international community’s diplomatic support. Instead of looking all the time for ways of diverting India and the US from whatever they might be suspected of Pakistan must look for support in the rest of the wide world.

For this it will not be enough to find brilliant counsel. More important is the need to check Pakistan’s brief. It will win the day for this country only if it is based on truth and a verifiable commitment to justice at home and abroad. Any other course will be an invitation to disaster.

Barbarism in Swat

By Khurshid Khan

SWAT’S Sangota Public School was blown to smithereens on Oct 7, 2008 — a dark day in the history of the area.

This convent school was established in 1964 by Miangul Jahanzeb, popularly known as Wali sahib, the last ruler of Swat who not only donated land for the school but also provided generous financial aid for its construction and operations. It was renowned for its quality of education in the entire Malakand region.

This epitome of architectural perfection was situated in a beautiful and enchanting location on the left bank of the meandering and bounteous Swat river, spreading the light of education. Most of the teachers were Irish nuns who had devoted their lives to educating Swat’s children. They arrived in the bloom of their youth and returned in the autumn of their lives. They also educated the young girls in neighbouring villages and hamlets, without any thought of financial gains, teaching them the same courses as were being taught in the school in the morning.

A co-education system was in place until the 1990s but after the establishment of Excelsior College, the boys were shifted there and from then onwards only girls were admitted to this prestigious school. The school was closed on the DCO Swat’s orders because of the turbulence and volatile atmosphere in Swat much against the wishes of the students’ parents. The school administration decided to vacate the premises and as soon as it was vacated, it was razed to the ground by militants the next day, as was the premises of Excelsior College.

The first school in Swat was established in 1922 by Miangul Abdul Wadood. Both boys and girls were educated here until the primary level. It was not until 1926 when a separate school was established for girls. His successor Miangul Jehanzeb established a network of schools and colleges in the whole of Swat, Buner, Shanglapar and Indus-Kohistan which were then a part of the Swat state.

Education was not only encouraged but free. Scholarships were awarded and students were sent to western countries for higher education. Those who completed their education were given attractive employment. Thanks to these incentives, people swarmed to Swat for education. Students from Dir, Chitral, Malakand, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi and other parts of the country turned to Swat for education.

After the merger of Swat state in 1969, several other schools and colleges in the public sector were opened, especially girls’ schools and colleges. Private schools also emerged. Gradually, Swat came to be regarded as a centre of learning by adjoining districts. But this evolution of education was strangulated by the militants in 2007 and 2008. Swat is now being pushed back to the pre-1922 period. Even then there were no militants who destroyed their own people.

Adjoining districts Shangla, Buner and Dir have suffered equally adverse effects. The people of these areas sent their children to Swat for education but now they are compelled to send their children to Peshawar, even to Punjab, where expenses are comparatively high.

Meanwhile, back to the Sangota Public School. The religious extremists and rival private schools generated negative propaganda against it but parents were not taken in by these rumours and continued to send their children to school there. They knew that not a single student had been converted to Christianity.

The people of the nearby villages looted the furniture, libraries, computers and other precious accessories of Sangota Public School and Excelsior College after their destruction declaring it war booty. The vandalism and looting continued all day. Security forces stationed in the overlooking mountains watched this humiliating process but still remained silent and unmoved. Eyewitnesses say that even if the forces had fired in the air, the looting would have stopped.

Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan in a BBC interview alleged that the school had been following a co-educational system and was also preaching Christianity. Therefore, its signs had to be obliterated. But what about the scores of other schools where there was no linkage whatsoever with co-education or Christianity? Why were these demolished?

There may be two hidden motives, i.e. to discourage education and increase poverty in Swat. Ignorance and poverty breed extremism and this is actually happening in Swat. Unemployment is on the rise. People are drawn towards militancy because they are given a handsome remuneration for becoming one of the Taliban. State-of-the-art weapons, handsome salaries and the assurance of paradise in the hereafter are some of the temptations that lure the youth.

These young men are the major source of strength and power for militant leaders. Through them militants have succeeded in banishing the influential people of Swat and have compelled political leaders to kneel before them. Police do not dare to patrol the areas and the army is very cautious in its movements and operations here.

The barbaric Huns destroyed the Gandhara civilisation in the 5th century AD and burnt to ashes educational institutions including the university at Taxila. Today, all the laboriously constructed educational institutions are once again the victims of vandalism. Precious cultural antiquities are being destroyed. These barbaric activities are certainly the handiwork of a strange and peculiar mindset.

It is shocking and surprising that as schools and colleges in Swat are being levelled to the ground one after the other, the people do not protest and the government is averse to taking serious action. Parliamentarians are also silent spectators. Their tongues are tied and their hands fastened.

The process of Talibanisation is progressing in Swat. There are many simple-headed people there who either openly or secretly support the movement, all in ignorance and clearing the ground for it. The valley is fertile and all the ingredients of building and maintaining a civilisation are there in abundance. In spite of possessing all these valuable resources, if we still keep silent, then barbarism will certainly replace civilisation in the valley.

One hopes that the demolition of educational institutions, especially of girls’ schools, does not mean that the people of Swat will stop educating their children. After all, the wheel of time is not meant to reverse its direction; it must move forward.

Currency crisis hits retired UK expats

By Miles Brignall

IN many ways they are the chosen ones — the generation of Britons who retired to mainland Europe on the back of the big leap in house prices, safe in the knowledge that they had good pensions to keep them in their old age. However, this week all is not well in the villages of France and the coastal resorts of Spain.

The fall of the pound sterling has left many couples’ plans for the good life in tatters. The change has left anyone who lives in the eurozone and relying on UK-based pensions or savings, coming to terms with a dramatic fall in their income. From the sun-drenched Spanish costas, to the wind-lashed Breton coast, Britons who have moved abroad are undoubtedly feeling the pinch.

David and Christine Edwards are typical of many when they say they have suddenly started to feel the effects of the pound’s slide. The pair, who took early retirement and live in a small village near Chateauroux, right in the centre of France, say they have just started growing vegetables — partly in response to seeing their income falling away.

The couple brought their four children up in Gillingham, Kent, southeast of London, and worked for the Inland Revenue for 41 and 17 years respectively. Like thousands of others who upped sticks in search of the good life, they rely on their UK-based income.

“When we sold our family home, we put the proceeds in a UK e-savings account,” David says, “I wish we’d transferred the money into euros — we’d have now been about a third better off.”

But despite all this, they say they are staying in France, for one reason: they love the lifestyle. “It’s like England was 40 years ago, and it would take a lot to make us give it up now,” says David.

Another couple who have noticed the difference in their income as a result of the pound’s collapse are George and Coral Luke, who moved to the area just north of Dijon in Burgundy in 2004 and have seen the value of their pensions decline significantly in recent months.

“We both took early retirement because of ill-health and live on our local government and civil service pensions, plus incapacity benefits — all of which are paid in pounds,” says George. “The prices in French shops have risen dramatically this year and the exchange rate hasn’t helped,” he adds. “Our incapacity benefit is paid straight into our French bank account. A few months ago we would get EUR440, but when I looked at our last statement, I noticed that it had fallen to EUR397 — and it looks set to get worse.”

He says they used to eat out once a week, but have had to cut back. Meals that used to cost GBP14 are now costing closer to GBP20, even though the price in euros is the same.

Eleanor O’Kane, editor of Living France magazine, says the pound’s fall has inevitably led some families to put their plans to move out to France on hold. Others are choosing cheaper areas or buying in partnership with friends or family.

“Most are still in love with the idea, because the draw of the country itself is so strong, whether it is because of the food, wine, countryside, healthcare or the lifestyle France offers. Increasingly it is young families that have been frozen out of the UK property market who are looking to move for a variety of reasons. With French buyers now accepting prices 10 per cent to 15 per cent less than advertised, it can still work.”

While French movers have tended to be better off, some of the Brits who moved to Spain are really suffering.

After the collapse of the Spanish property market left many expats living in negative equity, the decline in UK savings interest rates and pension payments may prove a blow too far.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that plenty of Brits are taking advantage of the exchange rate to cash in by selling up.

Bruce Borrie at currency firm Baydonhill says: “We are seeing a lot of clients, who have previously bought properties in Europe, selling and then changing the proceeds back into sterling at a very preferential rate. They are getting more for their euros than they ever have before.”

— The Guardian, London