March madness-Ikram Sehgal

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Salman Taseer’s hand-picked police hierarchy failed to pre-empt the well-coordinated terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. This ambush was to be expected. With police diverted from their given duties for political reasons, one should expect such disaster. Sacking the democratic govt was bad enough, why change the entire police structure? Many brave police jawans lost their lives saving the Sri Lankan players, few were injured, some seriously. Will anyone be taken to task for this most severe security lapse, virtually destroying Pakistan’s already precarious reputation as a safe destination? Given that the stakes for the future of Pakistan cricket were already high, this incident has probably put paid to international sports events in Pakistan. How can one ever begin to apologize to the Sri Lankans for this unforgivable failure? They had been brave beyond compare to come to Pakistan in such a situation despite all the dire warnings.

Didn’t PML-N leadership expect a desperate reaction putting Zardari in a corner by joining the long march, or was this deliberate provocation meant to invite such reaction and expose his credentials as a democrat? Chief Justice (on the loose) Iftikhar Chaudhry’s name is spelt “accountability”. Restoring him would have led to the undoing of the NRO, Musharraf’s parting gift (or kick) to Pakistan. Chief Justice (occupant) Dogar is needed to guarantee Mr Zardari’s future. For the record both the major political parties have a vested interest in resisting the notion of accountability. Our Magna Carta, the “Charter of Democracy” which Mian Nawaz Sharif refers to endlessly, is ominously silent on retribution for corruption and nepotism.

A decade in the Musharraf-cold has not changed the PML-N and PPP penchant for confrontation, at the cost of democracy, or for that matter, the nation. Salman Taseer revelled in the hatchet man role when reason and logic should have prevailed. All the governors (and most government functionaries in critical positions) were hand-picked by Musharraf after due “loyalty” clearance by Musharraf’s talented cousins, Nadeem Taj and Nadim Ijaz who were DG ISI and DG MI respectively (an amazing coincidence that would put even a monarchy to shame). Would Salman Taseer, a Musharraf-appointee, be averse to a return to authoritarian rule if the present system (Zardari included) collapses?

The worst democracy is far better than the best form of dictatorship. The hapless people of Pakistan want neither bad democracy nor good dictatorship, they simply want good governance, a good part of good governance being equitable justice at one’s doorstep, at a cost not beyond the reach of the common man. The people of the country are mostly ambivalent about the Sharia and its impending implementation in Swat, most want the justice portion only, in exclusion of the strict enforcement of Islamic laws. With the situation in the NWFP (particularly in Swat), fraught with long-term consequences for Pakistan as a nation, the lawyers could have elected to delay their protest in the larger interests of the nation.

Governor’s rule must be lifted immediately. The provincial assembly should elect a new leader from the PML-N, clearly in majority, pending adjudication of the Sharif brothers’ disqualification by parliament. While lawyers have every right to continue with their long march, if back in power, the PML-N government should have no logistics role in facilitating it. How can any provincial government become party to hold the federal government hostage? Since the buck stops firmly on the governor’s desk during governor’s rule, Salman Taseer can conveniently be made the “fall guy” for both the political blunder and security lapse.

Being COAS Pakistan Army, Musharraf force-multiplied his presidential powers manifold into a virtual monarchy, Zardari does not have the same latitude and it would be wise for him not to test the patience of the rank and file. He has already overdrawn on his credit with the uninformed ones. The pressure Richard Holbrooke is bringing publicly to bear on his behalf on the Pakistan Army has a political backlash. If the present situation persists in Pakistan, will the rank and file continue to emulate their chief in being deaf, dumb and blind? Kayani certainly does not want to end up as the “Gorbachev of Pakistan”. Democracies in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh should get used to grudging acceptance by the army and tacit agreement on critical issues. Barely two months ago Shaikh Hasina romped to an outright electoral victory; democracy in Bangladesh is now subject to the enormously disturbed emotions in the army, a fluid situation where anything is possible.

A tragedy of unimaginable magnitude unfolded in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) HQ at Peelkhana, Dhaka. The Director General (DG) Maj Gen Shakil was addressing an annual conference of officers in the BDR Durbar Hall when a handful of Deputy Assistant Directors (DADs), equivalent of JCOs or Warrant Officers, along with BDR jawans, took control of the armoury. They then proceeded to murder in cold blood, shooting and/or bayoneting more than a 100 plus officers. Even some families, including the DG’s wife and 9 year old son, were brutally murdered. No civilized country can tolerate such absolute outrage. It is shocking that the Bangladeshi media irresponsibly gave these murderers space to voice their demands despite knowing they had indulged in murder, rape and plunder. They are accessories to the gruesome crime!

Given atrocious advice a shaken Shaikh Hasina offered “general amnesty”. Only when a resolute army moved tanks into position did the mutiny collapse. The delay and vacillation allowed the mutineers to put on civilian clothes and melt into the population. Many were caught, including the ring leader Tauhid Alam, others are being hunted down. A tearful Shaikh Hasina had to face angry officers at a meeting called to contain widespread resentment in the army. Gen Moeen Ahmed has his hands full keeping the emotions of his rank and file in check; their loyalty to the democratic process the Bangladesh army husbanded into place is being severely tested.

The due process of law must be exercised speedily in bringing the killers to justice and sentences carried out expeditiously; they cannot be spared. Vigilante justice can take over in the absence of swift retribution; worse, the army’s command structure can break down. Even in the 1857 Indian War of Independence, or “the Indian Mutiny” as the British call it, that many officers were not killed in the whole year as in one bloody, brutal day in Dhaka.

True the Border guards have both arduous and hazardous duties and their salary and working conditions are not comparable to that of the army. Conversely corruption is rampant because opportunity exists in the very nature of the job, and all the time. Their genuine grievances needed to be addressed but, because of the unacceptable route they adopted, there is no option but to disband BDR immediately and replace it with a completely new force with the core from the army, with both operational and administrative control under the Ministry of Defence.

Caesar-clones in both Pakistan and Bangladesh must beware of the “Ides of March”, as historically man-made disasters engulf Pakistan and Bangladesh in late February, with the situation unravelling precipitously during March. The question is, will better sense prevail, can the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Caesars survive the usual “March madness”?

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

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