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A little less ambition, please

Updated May 29, 2018

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THE PML-N is bent upon on keeping the entire country guessing. From Panama to the Qatari letter to the differences between the two brothers to its dollar policy and its election strategy, there is little the party is saying with one voice.

Hence, while Nawaz Sharif seemed to be sticking to his notion of a confrontation with the powers that be, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi claimed his leader had been misquoted.

Then, Mian Sahib asked for a national commission to look into his Mumbai statement and to decide who is guilty of treason.

Inevitably, the hapless Abbasi was asked about his boss and predecessor’s demand and in his bid to do (yet again) some damage control, the prime minister provided a broader and more palatable agenda — to unveil hidden facts about all the events since 1947. A tall order indeed.

He asked for consensus among the parties after the election to form this truth and reconciliation commission, without explaining what hidden events he had in mind.

Truth be told, the interference in politics by non-civilians is, perhaps, our worst-kept secret. Didn’t Javed Hashmi know a coup would be carried out through the judiciary, years before it actually happened? And he made sure that all of us knew this.

And yet, there were few raised eyebrows; instead, there were a few voices of support for Abbasi sahib’s suggestion.

Perhaps this is because few want to question a call for a truth and reconciliation commission. While we still haven’t stopped sniggering at those who called themselves ‘Nelson Mandela’ after a few days of imprisonment, no sneers or scepticism confront the demand for a TRC.

The actual experience of a truth and reconciliation commission is far from perfect.

But it’s the wont of cynicism to dismiss all notions romantic and also unrealistic political dreams. So here comes a bucket full of cold water.

Born of the South African experience at the end of apartheid, the TRC was suggested as a form of restorative instead of retributive justice, which would help a country and society heal by coming to terms with its past. The aim was to hold public hearings where victims as well as oppressors could share their experiences.

But there were practical reasons for this form of justice. The TRC may have come at the end of apartheid but the end of the regime did not mean that those who perpetrated violence during it could now be identified and punished.

They were part of the system, present at many posts. Pursuing and prosecuting them could have led to chaos at a time when it was in everyone’s interest to smoothly move towards election. Hence those at the helm came up with a different idea of justice — where instead of retribution, the simple telling of truth would repair a fractured society.

So, our good-intentioned prime minister feels his quaid might get some closure if those who wronged him will stand up and confess to how and when various PML-N governments were destabilised or attempts made to do so; in other words, a TRC would mean that the Asghar Khan case would be left where it is without any retribution for those accepting or giving the money.

There is no doubt Mian Sahib would like a more retributive option — to try Gen Musharraf and perhaps even the intelligence chief who asked him to resign — but Abbasi knows that a truth and reconciliation commission may be a more ‘doable’ option. However, even in this case, the consensus he wants to forge cannot simply include the political parties but also the military.

But why will the military join the process? It’s hard to think of a single reason why. Had such a commission been part of the ‘deal’ in 2007, the institution might just have been compelled to. But at present, sitting pretty, as it is, it’s hard to imagine the institution being interested.

And will it be able to get its retired officials to attend — considering that retired generals Aslam Beg and Asad Durrani can barely agree on what happened in 1990? And what about the bureaucracy that was part and parcel of our authoritarian history?

But then, for those who think a truth and reconciliation commission offers all that its title claims, the actual experience of the TRC is far from perfect. It has its fair share of critics, especially those who suffered the excesses of the apartheid regime (the experience elsewhere appears to be no different). They felt that justice was not delivered without punishing those who had been at fault. There were also efforts by the other side to block the process.

For instance, F.W. de Klerk, who appeared before the commission to apologise, approached the courts to stop being implicated in a case of bombings in the 1980s in the commission’s report. Another former president, P.W. Botha, refused to appear before the commission.

But perhaps the most important difference between what the prime minister is asking for and what most truth and reconciliation commissions around the world have in common with each other is that the latter tend to be established to look into widespread human rights abuses by the state. From South Africa to Kenya to Morocco and East Timor, the objective is to document the tales of oppression and give a voice to the abused.

But what the prime minister and his predecessor are asking for is far different. While they may have been imprisoned under military regimes and been treated unfairly, they have hardly been victims of severe state violence.

While we may need such committees to perhaps address the grievances of many (individuals as well as communities) who have suffered at the hands of the state, mainstream political parties, especially the PML-N, have not really been victims in this sense. Political parties should consider a dialogue with the military (once suggested by the PPP’s Farhatullah Babar), instead of a truth and reconciliation commission.

The divisions within our political elites need addressing — but there are less grandiose ways of doing so than drawing parallels with apartheid and asking for a TRC.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2018