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The main fault lines

December 29, 2010

THE question regarding the issue that topped the list of people’s concerns during the year that is coming to an end will elicit a wide variety of responses, depending on the respondent’s belief, domicile, economic condition and social status, thereby providing an idea of the factors that have caused sharp divisions in Pakistani society.

On two points, though, a nation-wide consensus is evident. First, regardless of the four markers mentioned above the people are likely to describe their growing impoverishment as the most important aspect of their plight. There will also be broad agreement on the factors contributing to the process of the under-privileged people’s pauperisation — lack of adequate employment, disruption of economic activity caused by shortage of energy, low wages, a high rate of inflation and an inadequate social security net.

Secondly, there will be near unanimous indictment of the state for its failure to provide relief, especially to the poor and marginalised sections of society.

However, neither of these two factors appeared for the first time in 2010. It will also be agreed that the first factor is very largely a by-product of the process mentioned as the second factor. Thus, in the final analysis all the problems and hardships faced by the people will be attributed to poor governance.

An inquiry into the causes and consequences of poor governance in 2010 will reveal a most intriguing paradox. On the one hand, the outgoing year offered an unprecedented example of inter-party understanding evident in the adoption of the 18th and 19th Amendments to the constitution. None of the political parties represented in the parliamentary committee that drafted these amendments had all its demands met in the unanimously agreed drafts and yet all of them hailed these measures as revolutionary steps in the right direction.

On the other hand, the same political parties failed to agree on measures necessary to resolve the crises in the political, economic, social and even judicial arenas. The government must of course be held primarily responsible for the aggravation of the various crises confronting the state. But the performance of other elements involved — the political parties in the opposition, the media and civil society — too brought them little credit. They were more interested in deriving political capital from the government’s problems and its discomfiture than in helping it to meet the threat to the well-being of society and not merely to the ruling coalition.

The way some political parties chose to defend the interest of their vote-banks while opposing the reformed general sales tax proposal or tried to placate the militant extremists, or prescribed impractical remedies showed that all talk of national unity was merely hot air.

Thus, the absence of a workable plan to guarantee national survival and recovery through a non-partisan approach to issues was the principal fault line that threatened Pakistan in 2010.

Out of the other fault lines noticed in 2010 three posed the more significant threats to the people.

First, the issue of involuntary disappearances became uglier when dead bodies of some of the missing persons were found abandoned in different parts of Balochistan. A large section of society came to believe that these killings formed part of a design to frustrate the efforts of the apex court, the judicial commission and civil society organisations to trace the disappeared persons, and the reasons are obvious.

These killings cannot be dismissed as simple murders because if those responsible for these crimes only wanted to liquidate their victims they could do so without bearing the cost and running the risk of holding them in captivity. These were not cases of abduction for ransom either, for no report of ransom being demanded was ever received. Besides, the political affiliation of most of the victims and their views on Balochistan’s tribulations suggest political motives behind these killings. What matters, above all, is the perception of the Baloch community that they are being punished for demanding their rights.

The question of involuntary disappearances in Balochistan has capped that federating unit’s alienation from the state, and the threat to national integrity has been enhanced by some political parties’ decision to indulge in partisan politics.

Secondly, the ding-dong battle over women’s rights revealed a fault line which could cause Pakistan much greater harm than is generally imagined. The government did a few things designed to promote women’s rights, such as the enactment of a law to check sexual harassment at the workplace, the appointment of a woman as ombudsperson to take care of women’s grievances and the declaration of Dec 22 as Women’ Rights Day, but its performance did not match its rhetoric. It did not do enough to realise the Millennium Development Goal No 3 or the obligations acquired under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and Security Council Resolution 1325.

Apart from the various forms the denial of women’s rights takes, 2010 saw an increase in obscurantists’ hostility to women’s elementary rights, such as the right to mobility and education.

That brings us to the third and perhaps the most dangerous fault line — the enhanced threat from the religious orthodoxy. The victims included non-Muslim communities, women, Muslim sects disagreeing with militants’ practices they insist on calling Islamic, the democratic polity and the justice system.

Throughout 2010 the state remained the target of militants who ravaged minority communities’ prayer houses, caused massacres at shrines and targeted critics and dissidents. They were able to attack security posts and personnel largely because the state’s policy of appeasing the extremists guaranteed the terrorists safe havens and logistics support throughout a larger part of the country.

Two developments in this area offered a bitter taste of things to come. Firstly the worldwide humanitarian reaction to the award of death penalty to a Christian woman on a blasphemy charge instead of persuading the clergy to reflect on the demerits of an admittedly flawed law led to a hardening of its obscurantist posture. The text of a man-made provision (Section 295-C of the Penal Code) has been raised to the level of a divine injunction and attempts to reform the law are being resisted with fanatic frenzy.

Secondly, the Federal Shariat Court, while striking down some provisions of the Protection of Women Act, has tried to supplant the mainstream judiciary, and repudiated much of the salutary work done by the Council of Islamic Ideology in 2006 when it stressed the urgency of amending the Hudood laws. Pakistan may not be able to survive the retrogressive push the orthodoxy has apparently chosen to administer to the state in anticipation of support from religious parties parading as democratic outfits.