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Selected News/Columns/Editorials of 10.03.2016

Is Pakistan self correcting? 


The writer is a member of staff.The writer is a member of staff.

Perhaps this is getting a little ahead of the game, but it’s worth saying nonetheless. There is a good chance that we are witnessing a turning point in our recent history. A series of developments in the recent past indicate that the country is being steered in a direction that leads away from a growing role for religious forces in public life, and towards a conception of state and society that we might call ‘liberal’.

The cynics amongst us say no such thing is happening, that the developments are superficial, and more driven by more pragmatic considerations rather than a deeper change of heart at the top. They may be right, but thus far both sides — those allowing themselves a modicum of optimism and those pouring cold water on the idea — are only surmising. They’re connecting the dots differently from each other rather than presenting any clinching evidence to substantiate their position. 

Examine: The tightening noose

Here’s why I’m allowing myself some optimism. 

There are reasons to believe that the changes we are seeing on the surface have deeper roots.

The civilian leadership has recently surprised us with a few moves. The prime minister (and his team) has stood up to two of his core constituencies, and has remained steadfast in the face of a third constituency that was never his but was always one he was fearful of. 

The two core constituencies are the traders and the ulema. The non-core constituency is public-sector labour unions. The government has remained on track against the trader community with its efforts to get them to file their returns, even if it has worked to try and come to an understanding with them first by developing a voluntary tax compliance scheme. If the scheme fails, which it will in all likelihood, the withholding tax on bank transactions by non-filers is likely to remain because it has acquired a momentum of its own now that it has proven itself to be a decent revenue earner as well. 

The other core constituency is the ulema, who have been left complaining loudly about the women’s protection bill passed by the Punjab Assembly, as well as the stricter enforcement of laws against hate speech. Long before the ruckus around the women’s protection bill, Maulana ‘Diesel’ was already on the warpath, saying madressahs were being targeted under NAP, mosques were coming under surveillance (نگرانی), and congregation leaders were being picked up for giving sermons described as ‘hate speech’ by the Punjab government. 

Read: Religious parties reject women protection bill

Thus far, the government has stood its ground in both cases. This newfound will on the part of the government to defy its core constituents is something new and could presage a change in its electoral strategy altogether. 

In the third case, the government has withstood the challenge from PIA workers in an unusually strong way. The previous Nawaz Sharif government was famous for its fear of the public-sector unions and their nuisance power on the street, to the point that those appointed to lead the drive towards privatisation grew visibly frustrated at being told to soften their approach to the point of becoming ineffectual. 

Much of the legislation required for privatisation was passed successfully in those days, but when it came to reforming the entities themselves, the real meat of the privatisation process, they used to demur. 

So it is with some interest that I’ve watched the government take an unbending stand against all three constituencies. All three are groups that in the past the Sharif brothers have either been fearful of, or sought to embrace. So when they defy or shun them today, and remain steadfast in that posture for months on end, turning a deaf ear to the bleats of protest coming from these camps, part of me does wonder whether something fundamental has changed.

Know: Pakistan on path to rapid economic growth: World Bank chief

There is another reason to believe that the changes we are seeing on the surface have deeper roots.

Consider this: most officers in the army of the rank of general have had at least some sort of direct experience of operations in the fight against militants. The lower officer corps has been one step further. They have had direct combat experience against the militants. They have watched their fellow officers die in battle in large numbers. 

Then there’s the tragedy at the Army Public School.

Direct experience has a way of teaching you things that no amount of reasoning, cajoling (چکنی چپڑی باتوں سے منانا) and tempting can. Couple this with the growing Chinese embrace, which has a material dimension to it. Pakistan’s relationship with China is no longer just a rhetorical partnership restricted to supporting each other’s position in the UN. Now there are facts on the ground, growing economic stakes, a long-term vision unfolding and even more importantly, a growing military partnership that is largely hidden from public view. 

What is not hidden from public view, however, is the disdain the Chinese have for religious militancy, and the deep concern with which they view the prospects of instability in Afghanistan spilling over into their backyard in Central Asia. This concern is revealed in their participation in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, amongst other places.

So we’re seeing unusual things happen across the board. In arenas from economic, to military to cultural, something big is changing. There is a new willingness to take on those who thought themselves beyond the rules laid down by the state. It’s true that the tightening of the noose remains selective. Malik Ishaq and Qadri are gone. Abdul Aziz and Masood Azhar are still around. But doesn’t it in fact make sense to prioritise rather than open all fronts at the same time?

Those who have taken up arms against you come first. Those who have taken up the loudspeaker against you can have a few more days under the sun. It might be too soon to say that things are changing for sure, but today we have more signs pointing in that direction than we have ever seen before. Let’s give history a chance before making up our minds.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016


Good tidings from Lahore 


WHILE the Punjab government is yet to answer for its policy on the religious extremists, its shadow-boxing with the National Accountability Bureau and the orange train mega scandal, it will be unfair not to recognise some of its recent initiatives.

Most commendable is the first Punjab Gender Parity Report jointly prepared by its Urban Unit, the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women and a British NGO. The full report is yet to be released but some of its features disclosed on Monday testify to the quality and relevance of the project.

The report draws upon the data collected by the Gender Management Information System on women-related matters. The six themes under focus are demographics/governance, health, education, economic participation, legal rights and violence against women. Although much has become known over the past few decades about the denial of women’s rights and discrimination against them, the facts now revealed will cause widespread dismay and concern.

Punjab has done well to focus on gender parity and violence against women, among other things.

For instance, in statutory entities (commission, committee, board, syndicate, council and authority), women have merely 10pc of the seats of board chairpersons, secretaries, and directors, and their representation jumps to 20pc only in the category of members.

Labour force participation rates and wages show significant gender disparity.

Women involved in the 93,264 family cases and 10,325 custody/guardianship cases pending in courts need legal aid, but free legal aid offered by the Punjab Bar Council is grossly inadequate. In 2014-2015 only 12 of the 49 applicants received aid and barely four of them were women.

Cases of violence against women increased from 5,391 in 2012 and 5,387 in 2013 to 5,967 in 2014 and 6,505 in 2015. The conviction rate fell to 1pc in 2015 when only 81 offenders were punished as against 378 in 2012, 316 in 2013, and 211 in 2014.

The authorities promise to prepare the gender parity report every year. This should help in keeping track of improvement/regression and regularly compute the investment-return ratio. Ultimately, the usefulness of the report and the data repository will depend on the government’s ability to devise and implement appropriate action plans.

The role of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women again underlines the potential of such institutions at both the federal and provincial levels as agents of change. The other commissions can perhaps do equally valuable work if they are allowed the resources, human and material, and the freedom to operate that the Punjab entity has been fortunate enough to do. Another achievement of the Punjab government that should do immense benefit to the people is the computerisation of the land record in the rural areas. Regardless of the unnecessary controversy as to who started the ball rolling the project has brought huge relief to the landowners by reducing the oppression of the patwari.

As the keeper of land ownership documents in the monumental scheme of maintaining land records designed by the British, the patwari was one of the most important functionaries. He was also the key person for recording changes (dakhil kharij/intiqal) in land ownership necessitated by the process of inheritance or any other form of transfer. Instead of issuing a land ownership sheet (fard-i-haqqiat), promptly and for a fraction of a rupee he often used his discretion to delay the matters and charge exorbitant fees. In pre-emption cases involving big landlords he could charge incredibly high amounts and literally decide the matter before it reached a court.

The patwari’s post has not been abolished but he has been relieved of the functions of issuing land ownership certificates and recording land transfers. The entire land record of the revenue estates (rural) in the province has been computerised and modern record centres have been set up in the 143 tehsils. The costs for copies of record have also been cut down and the centres are reported to be issuing 100,000 ownership documents per day.

Computerisation is also said to have helped correct and cleanse the record and delete wrong, fictitious or misleading entries. This by itself is a significant accomplishment, and it should now be possible to eliminate chances of manipulation by corrupt functionaries and their associates among the land grabbers as was done on a vast scale during the disposal of evacuee lands.

One should like to hope that computerisation of land records in the urban areas, that is still kept in the manner devised for the rural land, will be taken up without much delay.

Finally, the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act deserves to be defended as vigorously as it is attacked by the entrenched women-baiters. One cannot understand why this measure has caused greater consternation in the obscurantist camp than the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enactments. The provision that is being attacked (and ridiculed) the most says that “in case of an act of grave violence if the life, dignity or reputation of a woman is in danger” the court may order the husband, who has already committed “an act of grave violence”, to move out of the house. The provision may be criticised for leniency to the culprit and there is no reason for the clerics’ violent reaction. Perhaps they are so used to the idea of women being thrown out of the house by their violent lords that a reversal of the parties’ fates is not acceptable.

Like any law that aims at curtailing the privileges of the dominant gender the present enactment should not be presented as a perfect law. Civil society itself has pointed out a few areas in which it needs improvement. The demand that violence against women should be made a criminal offence or that the law should be made comparable to the central bill as adopted by the National Assembly in 2012 merit serious deliberation that should never end. Also one should like to hope that the district committees envisaged under the law do not fare as badly as the district vigilance committees under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016

WASHINGTON: Having twice failed to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Obama administration is discussing ways to help preserve the prospect of an increasingly threatened two-state solution, United States (US) officials said.

One possibility under discussion is to issue an outline of a deal to end the nearly 70-year-old conflict on such matters as borders, security, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Such an outline could range from a brief description of core tradeoffs the two sides might need to make to a detailed set of "parameters" like those that former US President Bill Clinton laid out for the parties in late 2000.

Under one scenario, the outline could be enshrined in a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution to give it greater international standing for a future US president or the parties whenever they might resume peace talks that collapsed in April 2014.

"It's one of the ideas that they are talking about," said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Resorting to a UN resolution would require a major shift in long-standing US policy, which has mostly opposed use of the UN as a forum for pressuring Israel. The US has repeatedly insisted it is up to the two sides to directly negotiate over their differences.

Another possibility would be for US President Barack Obama to make a speech laying out his principles for a settlement.

US officials have no expectation peace talks will resume before the end of Obama's term in January 2017 and they played down the odds of any quick decision on how the White House might help preserve a two-state solution.

"People in the government are asking the question what can we do to keep the two-state solution alive, and they're generating ideas," said a senior US official.

The ideas had not yet risen to senior White House staff and Obama is focused on other issues including militant Islamic State group, Iran and Cuba, the officials said.

Two separate peace efforts, by George Mitchell and US Secretary of State John Kerry, have failed during Obama's seven years in office.

Two-state solution dying on Obama's watch?

A two-state solution long seen as the most internationally acceptable outcome envisages a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, and an Israeli state that absorbs some of the settlements Israel built on occupied land in return for mutually agreed land swaps.

Such a solution appears remote because of ongoing Jewish settlement building; a split between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions; preoccupation within the Palestinian Authority about who may succeed 81-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas; and a wave of Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car rammings of Israelis.

The Palestinian attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two US citizens since October, while Israeli forces have killed at least 179 Palestinians, 121 of whom Israel says were assailants.

Current and former US officials have warned that a failure to break the impasse could lead to greater conflict and that continued occupation of Palestinian land puts at risk Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state.

Former officials also cite a deepening cynicism on both sides regarding peace, making it ever harder to achieve.

"In the absence of negotiations, actions on the ground are making it more and more difficult to see how a two-state solution could be achieved," said Martin Indyk, Obama's former special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"I think there is a real concern on the part of the president and the secretary of state," said Indyk, who is now executive vice president of the Brookings Institution think tank, "that instead of achieving a breakthrough to a two-state solution, the two-state solution will die on their watch."

PM, COAS in Saudi Arabia on 3-day visit

HAFAR UL BATIN (Saudi Arabia): Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is being welcomed by Saudi Defence Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman and other high-ranking officials at the King Saud Airport here on Wednesday. Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif is also seen.—APPHAFAR UL BATIN (Saudi Arabia): Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is being welcomed by Saudi Defence Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman and other high-ranking officials at the King Saud Airport here on Wednesday. Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif is also seen.—APP

HAFAR UL BATIN (Saudi Arabia): Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived here on Wednesday on a three-day official visit on the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

He was received at the King Saud Airport by Saudi Defence Minister Muhammad bin Salman and senior officials.

Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and Special Assistant to PM on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi are accompanying the prime minister on the visit.

From Hafar ul Batin, the prime minister went to King Khalid military city, where he attended a dinner hosted by the Custodian of Harmain al Sharifain.

The prime minister will attend the concluding ceremony of the “North Thunder” military exercise on Thursday, along with leaders of other countries taking part in the exercise.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016

Displacing Palestinians

GIVEN Israel’s track record, there is nothing surprising about the latest UN report which speaks of the “alarming” rate at which the Likud government has stepped up its demolition of Palestinian homes. 

As Robert Piper, the UN coordinator for Palestinian territories, wrote in response to a query, the number of Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel in the first nine weeks of the current year has overtaken the total figure for last year. 

Those homes and structures, including a school, were built by international donors, and as a Norwegian official involved with the project said “tens of millions of dollars of donor assistance” were at risk of demolition. 

The eventual aim behind these demolitions is to deny the Palestinians the right to a state of their own on their land. 

Against this background, the State Department’s reaction last week was commendable. Reacting to the spike in demolition activity, the department spokesman said such acts call “into question the Israeli government’s commitment to [the] two-state solution”. 

The truth is that in utter disregard of denunciation by the UN and world opinion, Israel has continued its Lebensraum policy by ejecting Palestinians from their ancestral homes and building more and more settlements, which the International Court of Justice has already declared illegal. 

Israel has annexed the Golan Heights, which belong to Syria, and the much-publicised ‘disengagement’ from the Gaza Strip is a hoax, for it continues to control its air, land and sea exits.

As for the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria, it aims at changing the territory’s Arab-Islamic character by razing Palestinian homes and by nibbling at Arab territory. The number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank now stands at 800,000. 

Will American Vice President Joe Biden’s coming visit to Israel make a dent in the Likud government’s hard-line policy? 

Let us note, this is an American election year. Which means none of the hopefuls in the race for the White House will say a word that could annoy America’s powerful Israel lobby.

Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016

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