A problem for another day? Ghazi Salahuddin

As the sense of things falling apart deepens every passing day, it is hard to focus on any one aspect of the national crisis. The situation in Pakistan’s frontier regions does seem to be very critical, with increasing pressure from militants and continuing ambivalence about what our rulers want to do about it. Meanwhile, the economic downturn is becoming more and more alarming. And the leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party are engaged in mutual recriminations.

One way of portraying the state of the nation would be to simply recount all the big headlines of the week. But that would demand a more extensive projection of events that this space would allow. In fact, just one day’s developments can open a wide window on the entire scene. For instance, on the same day – Thursday – that saw a violent demonstration by small investors at the Karachi Stock Exchange, Baitullah Mehsud told the ruling coalition in the Frontier to step down in five days or “prepare itself to face the consequences”.

Also on Thursday, US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) released its latest survey, conducted in June, to report that eighty-three per cent of Pakistanis want President Pervez Musharraf to be removed and the judges to be restored. Irrespective of the range of error that such surveys contain, there should be no doubt about the level of support that the lawyers’ movement has generated and about its political implications.

We do not know what the present leadership of the PPP had anticipated when it decided, in defiance of the Bhurban declaration that it had signed on March 9, to evade the two issues that the people are most concerned about. Perhaps it thought that other concerns would overshadow the otherwise urgent matters relating to the judiciary and the presidency. After all, the nation is beset with so many dire challenges and there is this argument that the restoration of judges is not as important, say, as the economic depression that has touched all lives.

But the fact is that the betrayal of the expectations of the people has played a large part in creating the current state of gloom and anxiety. This reminds me of how the rulers have repeatedly ignored the consequences of expedient moves that they have made. Nothing exemplifies this lack of forethought more glaringly then the rise of the militants not just in the tribal areas but across the country. One could see it coming, beginning with Ziaul Haq’s potentially foul involvement in the Afghan jehad in the eighties.

A report in The Guardian this week reveals, on the basis of newly released US official documents, that the Pakistani government gave substantial military support to the Taliban in the years leading to the September 11, 2001 attacks. We had certainly acknowledged diplomatic and economic links with the Taliban but the US documents refer to sending of arms and soldiers.

A State Department briefing paper dated January 1997 said that for Pakistan, “a Taliban-based government in Kabul would be as good as it can get in Afghanistan”. Significantly, it added: “Many Pakistanis claim they detest the Taliban brand of Islam, noting that it might infect Pakistan, but this apparently is a problem for another day”.

A problem for another day? Well, we know how issues that are sought to be swept under the carpet can eventually become a serious threat. When we look back at our recent history, we have several examples of disastrous consequences of leaving problems for another day. In fact, the entire equilibrium is disturbed in this process. That is what has happened in the case of the deposed judges. If you remember, Asif Ali Zardari made that statement at the end of May about Musharraf being “a relic of the past” and about people telling his party that they want Musharraf’s ouster more than they want bread or electricity. What, then, has he done about it?

Consider, also, the enigma of Lal Masjid. There is no doubt that the operation mounted in July last year was totally disastrous. It served to bolster the cause of militancy and led to a series of suicide bombings. But where did Lal Masjid come from? Why were its transgressions ignored for such a long time? Who had patronised the entire movement in its initial phase?

Even now, one feels that there is no concerted plan to confront the threat of militancy in the country, particularly in the tribal areas. A larger focus rests on the moves that are being threatened by the American and the NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. The sovereignty issue is certainly paramount. At the same time, the Talibanisation of any part of the country undermines the writ of the government.

This threat has apparently reinforced the forces of obscurantism and fanaticism across the country. PPP, we should accept, is a party that endorses liberal and moderate values. It has been in power for about four months. Still, the overall drift is in the opposite direction. We have evidence of this in many different contexts. As I said, the newspaper headlines tell the story of a decline in progressive and liberal sentiment. Our social sectors have continuously regressed and though the present government is not responsible for the fact that Pakistan stands at number 137 in the UNDP’s Human Development Index, corrective measures are not so much in evidence.

On Tuesday, Aurat Foundation launched a report in a seminar in Islamabad that said that there was a sharp increase in incidents of aggression against women during the last three months. This observation was based on data collected from different sources, including the media, police stations, hospitals and state-run shelter homes. The report also underlines an alarming increase in suicides. It said that in the first quarter of the year, 66 women committed suicide while in the second quarter, this figure rose to 126. Rape cases also increased in the second quarter – 107 against 60 in the first quarter.

This statistical computation hides from our view the human dimension of our social crisis. However, nothing can be more damning for our present rulers than this trend in the brutalisation of our society. Whatever else they may be doing, they must not leave this problem for another day. Otherwise, we may all be swept away in this rising upheaval.

It may seem incongruous to suggest that the restoration of the deposed judges should be a part of any strategy to deal with these issues but just think about it. Take another look at the main findings of the IRI survey.

The writer is a staff member.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Source: The News, 20/7/2008

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