Dawn – Laudable Saudi move

Editorial, 28 December 2019. Coming at the end of a year that has held quite a few shocks for Pakistani diplomacy, the news that Saudi Arabia is planning to convene a meeting of Muslim foreign ministers exclusively on the Kashmir issue deserves to be welcomed.

But some of the diplomatic jolts need to be recalled.

In March, the UAE invited the Indian external affairs minister to a meeting of foreign ministers of the OIC, without considering the opinion of Pakistan, an OIC founding member.

Then following 05 August, when India’s Hindutva government headed by Narendra Modi abrogated the special status of India-held Kashmir, there was no criticism of the move from the Arab side; those who condemned it included Malaysia and Turkey.

While the Arab stance reflected adversely on the acumen of Pakistan’s diplomats, it also underlined the cumulative mindset the Arab world has developed towards Muslims from other parts of the world. This mindset is one of indifference towards non-Arab Muslims even when they are victims of state brutality, as in occupied Kashmir and Myanmar.

Islamabad’s grief over Riyadh’s passivity was the greater because of the esteem in which Pakistan holds the Saudi leadership which is regarded as the Guardian of the Two Holy Places. For that reason, Riyadh’s reaction to Mr Modi’s criminality came as a blow to Pakistanis.

The media quoted official Saudi sources as saying that Riyadh wanted “the concerned parties in Jammu and Kashmir to maintain peace, and take into account the interests of the people of the region”.

Noting that Saudi Arabia was following “the current situation” in Jammu and Kashmir, it called for “a peaceful settlement in accordance with the international resolutions”.

While Riyadh, thus, walked a tightrope, Dubai’s response did it no credit whatsoever, for it said that Mr Modi’s Aug 5 action was “not a unique incident” in India’s history and that it was that country’s “internal matter”.

Against this background, the report that Saudi Arabia intends to call an OIC foreign ministers’ moot devoted exclusively to Kashmir comes as a breath of fresh air.

This can be called the most positive outcome of Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan’s one-day visit to Islamabad.

The Saudi initiative could be interpreted in two ways: either it is a move to placate Pakistan, especially after Riyadh put pressure on Islamabad to distance itself from the Kuala Lumpur Summit, or it shows a genuine Saudi interest in the plight of the Kashmiris who early next week will complete five months of the lockdown in their homeland which has been described as “an open-air prison”.

No date or venue has yet been notified for the planned OIC conference, but let us hope it is held at the earliest and that Qatar and Iran, both Saudi rivals, are also, as they should be, invited to make it a proper gathering of Muslim countries.


Dawn – Junaid Hafeez – Blasphemy

Editorial, 24 December 2019. For six long years, a gifted academic named Junaid Hafeez languished in solitary confinement inside the Multan Central Jail. The Fulbright scholar had returned to the Bahauddin Zakariya University to teach students how to think about the big questions in 2011.

He was passionate about poetry, prose and play-writing and wished to inculcate the same in his students.

However, he was arrested under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code after some allegedly blasphemous comments were attributed to him in 2013. One year later, the sole attorney brave enough to take up his case was gunned down in cold blood inside his office.

In a climate of extreme fear, Hafeez could never receive a fair trial. His parents implored the previous chief justice to look into their son’s case, as his mental and physical health was deteriorating inside the tiny prison cell. According to the Centre for Social Justice, over 1,500 citizens have been charged with blasphemy between 1987 and 2017.

While no one has been executed by the state, enraged lynch mobs have killed scores on the basis of mere accusation. Hafeez was not even safe inside his prison, as other prisoners had repeatedly attempted to take his life.

This week, a district and sessions court handed Hafeez the death sentence. A story that had begun differently morphed into a tragedy. But the story is not over yet. His defence attorney has said they will file for an appeal.

In the past, the higher courts have overturned the judgements of the lower courts, most prominently in the case of Aasia Bibi, who was sentenced to death by a Sheikhupura court. Years later, she was acquitted by the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement.

It is to be hoped that the superior judiciary will intervene this time as well. It is also time for Pakistan’s government to ensure the blasphemy law is not misused any longer to settle personal vendettas and professional jealousies, or target the most vulnerable communities.


Dawn – Police brutality

Editorial, 12 September 2019. In recent days, Punjab has emerged as a territory occupied by a brutal police force. The response to a series of custodial deaths has either been outright ridiculous, as in the case of banning smartphones to prevent any unwanted footage from escaping premises that are manned by policemen, or confused and disorderly.

The latest gory chapter began with the appearance of Salahuddin Ayubi, the ‘ordinary Pakistani’ who was nabbed while allegedly attempting to steal from an ATM machine and who later died while under police interrogation. Given the impunity with which the law enforcers operate, it is no surprise that others have since also made the list of victims of police brutality.

The custodial deaths have caused a stir, with many demanding police reforms in a country where accountability is still selective and where the institutions supposedly meant to monitor excesses against the people are either completely ignored or woefully underutilised.

In this regard, the National Human Rights Commission, which has been dysfunctional for many months now, is a case in point. The IG Punjab is scheduled to appear before the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights today, amid apprehensions that this opportunity for lawmakers to propose improvements may be lost because of the existing polarisation in parliament.

It is apparent that the PPP-proposed Torture, Custodial Death and Custodial Rape (Prevention and Punishment) Bill, 2015, did not catch the fancy of a divided National Assembly, which failed to pass the piece of legislation in the stipulated 90 days.

But lawyers say that the laws are very much there. There are sufficient legal provisions in place, not least courtesy of Police Order 2002, which governs the workings of the force in Punjab. And a basic on-the-spot remedy recalls that a magistrate can be asked to investigate custodial deaths under the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The government of Punjab has moved towards establishing some kind of a larger board, comprising people from various walks of life, to oversee police functioning.

Also, as opposed to a system where the violation of rules is an ailment exclusively afflicting low-ranking policemen, senior members in the hierarchy have now been warned that it is they who will be held responsible for any excesses committed under their watch.

These may all be useful ways of dealing with an increasingly desperate situation, and the suggestion that everyone should be bound by the existing laws makes eminent sense.

But what is also needed is for both the people and the authorities to avoid the strange logic that accepts, justifies and condones brutal and illegal police violence in all its manifestations inside the thanas, the improvised lockups and indeed in public spaces.

The job of clearing the mess has to begin somewhere. Why not begin at the place where it hurts and bleeds the most, ie right at the top?


Dawn – Growing humanitarian crisis

The scale of it is eye-watering: 1.9 million people excluded from the final list of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, published by the Indian government on Saturday.

Editorial, 03 September 2019. These are the people, mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims, that have been deemed to be ‘foreigners’ by virtue of being unable to prove that they or their forebears lived or entered India before March 1971, prior to which Bengalis were actively encouraged to migrate to India. Many have been living in Assam for decades, or have known no other home but India.

With the threshold for documentary proof high, and the appeals process long and murky, the process of updating the NRC has been mired in controversy given the BJP’s penchant for stoking anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.

Narendra Modi’s home minister has gone as far as to promise that the NRC will be implemented across India, to root out those who he describes as ‘infiltrators’ and has likened to vermin.

Given that discrimination and dehumanisation are often precursors to a potential genocide, it is little wonder that human rights groups are so alarmed. Over 1,100 people are already imprisoned in Assam’s so-called foreigner detention centres. There are fears that mass internment is impending, or worse, such as forced displacements and genocidal massacres.

If the Rohingya crisis of 2017, when hundreds of thousands were stripped of Burmese citizenship and forced to flee Myanmar into Bangladesh, seemed a colossal human tragedy, what may occur in Assam might well be even more unimaginably catastrophic.

Rendering people stateless is an inhumane practice.

If an individual does not legally belong anywhere, then no nation is responsible for ensuring their rights, survival or even existence.

While the 1954 UN Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons does ensure basic protections, denying individuals a national identity effectively denies them the right to have rights, and states have in fact used the revocation of citizenship as a political tool to punish opponents and critics, and even change demographics.

This is why even the handful of cases of Western-born IS fighters and collaborators being stripped of citizenship has been so contentious; though it is important to stress that, here, it is the lives of countless entirely innocent civilians that are at stake.

Rendering people of Bangladeshi-origin stateless, at risk of being alienated, killed or shunted about in internment centres and refugee camps, is an incalculable humanitarian crisis in the making.

India’s move in Assam will undoubtedly strain its ties with Bangladesh, which has shown no indication it will accept these ‘unwanted’ humans, but it is incumbent on both nations to negotiate a reasonable and humane settlement to this brewing crisis.

Bangladesh must come to some sort of an agreement with India, and soon, as well as reconsider its policies with regard to the status of the stateless Rohingya seeking refuge within its borders.


Pakistan Today – Ranjit Singh’s statue

Remembering an outstanding son of the soil

Editorial, 08 July 2019. The news about the erection of a life-size statue of Ranjit Singh at Lahore has been received without much controversy. Gifted to the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) by the SK Foundation UK, the statue would further promote brotherly relations with the Sikh community. Ranjit Singh conquered Lahore without shedding a drop of blood.

Unlike his predecessors, he ordered his soldiers not to loot the city. Maharaja Ranjit Singh is known for putting an end to the lawlessness prevailing in the province and securing Punjab against foreign marauders who frequently plundered Lahore and other cities.

He was a shrewd statesman who managed to keep the advancing British power at arms length both through diplomacy and by maintaining a strong army trained by European officers. Ranjit Singh was by and large a secular ruler whose court included a most influential Muslim minister.

The Punjab artillery too was commanded by a Muslim. The Maharaja therefore invokes a strong sense of pride not only in Sikhs living in Pakistan, India and abroad but also among many Muslims in Pakistani Punjab.

Now that a state-mandated 9-foot statue to commemorate a ruler considered a hero by many Panjabis has been installed, allowances will need to be made if other provinces attempt to do the same. For example there is the case of Nawab Muzaffar Khan of Multan who died fighting along with five of his sons while defending the city against Ranjit Singh’s army.

In Sindh, Raja Dahir is considered a war hero by many Sindhi nationalists. They are demanding through social media a similar memorial for a son of the soil who died defending his motherland.

India is today in the grip of Hindu nationalism and an intolerant BJP government. Stories about the lynching of members of minority communities particularly Muslims continue to appear in the media. Names of a number of cities and urban streets with Muslim connotations have been changed.

Ranjit Singh’s statue on the other hand conveys a message of religious tolerance. The move by Pakistan is meant to honour an outstanding non Muslim. This is in accordance with the Quaid-e-Azam’s vision of Pakistan being a modern and inclusive country.


Dawn – Repatriating ‘IS brides’

Editorial, 12 March 2019. The case of Shamima Begum has triggered a fierce debate in the UK on how to respond to the issue of citizens who joined the militant Islamic State group in Syria now seeking to return home. Born and raised in Britain, Shamima was just 15 when she left in 2015.

Discovered last month in a Syrian refugee camp, nine months pregnant and unrepentant, she nonetheless wished to return home.

Her statements triggered a wave of moral outrage in the country, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid leading the charge to block ‘terrorists’ from entering the UK, and stripping Shamima of citizenship, a move decried as effectively rendering her stateless, thus contravening Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

News of her newborn’s death emerged on Friday, a tragedy that might have been avoided had they been repatriated to the UK.

There has been some contrite policy revision since, with the Foreign Office indicating that it was mulling ways to bring children of British IS fighters back to the UK.

But with reports that two more British women of Pakistani descent similarly having had their citizenship revoked, the government insists such women freely chose to join IS and must accept the consequences, a legally and morally questionable position against citizens essentially brainwashed by a death cult.

In truth, the UK ought to reckon with the consequences of its past and current actions. Shamima, like many young British Muslims born to migrant parents, grew up against the backdrop of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War and racial profiling post-7/7, as well as the Brexit vote and Windrush scandal in recent years.

All these played heavily into the question of British identity and whether some citizens are more ‘British’ than others, a coded way of redefining the rights of non-white citizens as revocable privileges.

And while many migrant communities remain insular, clinging to regressive traditions, this cannot be seen in isolation to the racist attacks and anti-immigration rhetoric they’ve experienced since the 1960s.

These factors, and their analogues in other European countries, contributed to the alienation that made these so-called IS brides so susceptible to extremist propaganda and recruitment by IS.

Indeed, it is testament to how effectively the far-right agenda has permeated mainstream British politics that, instead of considering Shamima a citizen, a minor when she left, and likely a non-combatant, and debating how such citizens are to be repatriated, deradicalised and held accountable, the government is seeking to divest itself of a many-headed hydra it has had a large role in creating.

Britain, and the West at large, must realise the folly of this form of nativism. Instead of mulling over ways to denationalise their own citizens, the UK and the European Union must resolve this issue through deradicalising repatriation programmes that are premised on international human rights obligations, and compassion.


Dawn – Ban on Jamaatud Dawa

Editorial, 23 February 2019. The decision by the country’s civilian and military leadership to take action against Jamaatud Dawa and its charity wing, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, is significant.

On Thursday, the National Security Committee, with the prime minister in the chair, took the decision, with the Prime Minister’s Office later saying that the state cannot be allowed to “become hostage to extremism”.

The JuD is of course an avatar of Lashkar-i-Taiba, one of the many jihadi groups that dot this country’s landscape. However, making an announcement about the group’s proscription is not enough; if the state has evidence of the outfit’s involvement in militancy it should present the facts and pursue the legal course so that JuD’s leadership can face justice.

As has been witnessed for nearly two decades now, the state moves to ban militant outfits, but, in very little time they are back, up and running, with new names and the entire structure of violence intact.

For example, in 2002 the Musharraf regime banned a host of jihadi and sectarian groups, yet this effort had little practical effect because with a mere change of nomenclature, the groups continued to peddle hate and violence, making a mockery of the proscription.

Moreover, the establishment’s attempts to ‘mainstream’ violent actors, eg presenting them as legitimate religious scholars or relaunching the jihadi lashkars as political parties, have also failed to steer these groups away from violence and hate.

For example, a sectarian party has been repeatedly allowed to take part in general elections, but its senior leaders have failed to cease spewing venom.

History has shown that while low-level jihadi and sectarian party cadres perhaps can be deradicalised and mainstreamed, their leadership is committed to the ideology of violence and can only be silenced through the legal path.

These parties’ fundraising, communications and organisational systems must be targeted to put them out of business; imposing mere ‘bans’ is futile.

In the delicate post-Pulwama period, Prime Minister Imran Khan must be praised for saying that those who use this country’s soil to attack others are enemies of Pakistan. The government has now started to take action.

For instance, reports emerged on Friday that a key madressah associated with Jaish-e-Mohammad in Bahawalpur, another militant outfit accused of orchestrating cross-border attacks, was taken over by the Punjab government.

These moves indicate that the leadership has perhaps realised that taking half-baked steps against violent actors is dangerous for Pakistan’s internal security, as well as its external relations.

Now the elected leadership and the military establishment must take this campaign, as envisaged under NAP, to its logical conclusion by ensuring that non-state actors are not able to raise armed militias, and that those spewing hatred against other countries or spreading sectarian views are prosecuted.

It was unwise to allow these outfits to operate in the past, and efforts are needed to shut them down permanently.


Dawn – Domestic violence

Editorial, 13 February 2019. Once again, religious parties are creating hurdles in the passing of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Domestic Violence against Women (Prevention and Protection) Bill.

The bill was introduced in the provincial assembly early this week after being approved by the provincial cabinet in 2018.

The stated purpose of the bill is to prevent domestic violence against women and to protect them from sexual, psychological and economic abuse. If passed, women from KP or their guardians can file complaints to 10-member committees headed by district deputy commissioners, which will provide assistance to them.

Any person found guilty of abuse would be imprisoned for up to three months or fined up to Rs30,000 (or both) under the Pakistan Penal Code.

Undoubtedly, this will be a welcome move for the women of KP who deserve just as much security as their counterparts in other areas of the country. But whenever such laws are discussed, opposition voices are raised using the rhetoric of ‘culture’ and ‘family’.

It was only last month that KP appointed its first provincial ombudsperson for sexual harassment, after much resistance from certain quarters.

In 2016, Punjab passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, 2015. Over the years, Punjab has had the most instances of violence against women, or at least the most reported.

The law offers protection to women against a range of abhorrent crimes: domestic violence, emotional, economic and psychological abuse and cyber crime. Additionally, it provides protection, residence and/or monetary order in light of such offences.

Prior to this, Sindh had passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2013, and Balochistan passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2014. While these laws may have their deficiencies and loopholes, and are open to criticism and thus improvement, they are absolutely vital in recognising that violence against women is a crime in the eyes of the state.

Violence is another form of control, and there is no end to the many ways society attempts to ‘control’ women through judgement or coercion.

Inherent to these notions of control are knee-jerk reactions and deep-seated fears of women gaining independence, and men subsequently losing their power over them, which somehow translates into the breaking up of families for some. This is simply untrue.

And if families are indeed being kept together through fear and violence, that is not a healthy environment for any member of the unit to be in, in the first place, least of all the most vulnerable member, who has to suffer just to fulfil someone else’s abstract ideals.

Such regressive attitudes infantalise adult women by casting doubt on their decision-making faculties, and are used as a tool to justify oppression.

All women citizens deserve a life free of intimidation, harassment and abuse both within and outside their homes. Domestic violence is not to be taken lightly.


Daily Times – Callings from Kartarpur

Editorial, 02 February 2019. Away from the media limelight, much work has been done on the Kartarpur Corridor Project in Narowal, making possible its opening at the earliest and generating hopes of a durable peace between Pakistan and India.

Dodging bureaucratic hiccups, the government has acted swiftly to complete 40 percent work for the corridor project, since its launch in November last year.

Media reports suggest that roads are being constructed from the Gurdwara Baba Guru Nanak to the border point, and work on a bridge on the River Ravi and an immigration terminal at the border is going on round-the-clock.

A complex at the temple [Gurdwara] to accommodate up to a million Sikh pilgrims will also be ready within nine months. With such an influx of pilgrims in Kartapur, the economy of the area is expected to get a boost.

The Kartarpur complex will be on more than 1,000 acres, equipped with modern amenities including hotels to accommodate the pilgrims. The site will have an easy access to other cities housing the Sikh community’s heritage sites like Nankana Sahib, Hassan Abdal and Lahore, with dedicated road networks.

Reports from the other side also show a flurry of activity on the project. The Indian government has expedited work to acquire land for Kartarpur Corridor’s proposed integrated check post. The post will have facilities for the pilgrims on the Indian side.

Though the corridor eases pilgrims’ journey to the sacred temples [Gurdwaras], there is the cost of development too. The expected influx of pilgrims requires a huge infrastructure to accommodate them making their rituals and stay trouble free. The heavy construction is likely to alter the aura of scenic and serene surroundings of the Gurdwara.

Heritage preservation is often not a priority in plans for development works. We have seen the lack of regard for heritage sites along the route of the yet-to-be-inaugurated Orange Line Metro Train project in Lahore.

Fearing a massive change in the original state of the Kartarpur Sahib Complex, Sikhs in America and Europe have already launched an appeal to the Pakistani government to maintain Kartarpur Sahib Complex in its original state.

Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara dates back to 1521, and it stands in the middle of 100 green acres once tilled by Baba Guru Nanak. This makes the Gurdwara and its surroundings very dear to the Sikh community. Besides, the site holds a lot of promise for historians, architects, archaeologists as well as tourists.

Apart from challenges to maintain the complex in its original state, there is the matter of politics between the two states. The first-ever opportunity to push the two countries towards softening their border must be benefitted from.

India should accept Pakistan’s invitation to begin talks on the corridor. Pakistan, being the future host of Sikhs coming to its side without visa, has invited India to discuss the modalities, but the Narendra Modi government, which maintains a declared boycott of talks with Pakistan, is showing an unnecessary firmness on an important issue.

With general elections around the corner in India, the ruling BJP would not like to lose its vote base, mostly built around an anti-Pakistan rhetoric, by sending a delegation for talks. However, it can still open a backdoor channel to reach an agreement on the issue.

The Modi administration must not let the gains of the corridor be sacrificed at the altar of party politics. It must look at the bigger picture which has afforded the two sides of an opportunity to bring people closer and open more avenues for a durable peace.

Now, when the corridor is moving towards its completion, power corridors in Islamabad and New Delhi should also reset the policy environment to maximise the potential of this important development.


Afghanistan Times – Editorial: Not in Doha

Pressure mounts on Taliban to join peace talks, Afghanistan optimistic over peace prospects

Editorial – 08 January 2019. In the wake of Afghan Taliban leaders reluctance to talk with US in presence of Saudi and UAE officials at Riyadh on January 13, now they (Taliban) also rejected to hold talks with the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha Qatar which was set for today January 9.

Whatever might be reasons for refusing to talk in Riyadh and Doha, one thing is very clear that Taliban leaders are under tremendous pressure to have face to face talks with the Afghan government or members of peace commission.

Soon after the refusal of Taliban to talk with the Afghan government representatives, Afghanistan’s special envoy Muhammad Omar Daudzai announced flying to Islamabad on Tuesday. Daudzai is going to talk with Pakistani officials in on ongoing peace efforts.

In particular, Daudzai is likely to remind Pakistan of its frequent promises and commitments regarding “playing a role in face to face” talks between Afghan government and Taliban leaders. Similar promises were also made by Saudi Arab and UAE.

No one can neglect Pakistan’s influence over Taliban since early mid of previous 90’s when these scattered Afghans have been made united against what it called warring war made self styled commanders on the slogans of going to bring peace.

In recent months, the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made frequent flights to the region and held several rounds of face to face talks with Taliban leaders. On concluding of each and every round, Pakistan, Saudi Arab and UAE high ups have not made jubilation but even they claimed breakthrough to the deadlock between Afghan government and Taliban.

Taliban group willing to talk with American, Pakistan, Russian, Chinese and other foreign countries but they are reluctant to talk with the Afghan government. Taliban are not only insisting on their demands pertained to pulling US troops out of Afghanistan but even they are demanding a free zone along with crossing points with Pakistan.

Acceptance or honoring of such type of demands could be nothing else, disintegration of Afghanistan. There already exists unprecedented polarization in regional countries like India, Pakistan and Iran. And allocation of a safe zone to Afghan Taliban would definitely affect the whole South Asian Region, which might be harmful to global peace.

Instead of believing in hallow claims and commitments of certain stakeholders, Afghanistan needs to remain careful and alert at this crucial stage. Certain legacies of previous British Colonial era are bent up restoration of the Sikh Raaj in the region, which has badly affected Afghanistan couple of centuries ago.

Through one or other pretext certain visible and invisible hands are making attempts to fuel war flames in Afghanistan for meeting own and master’s nefarious designs. Militants remain loyal to foreign mentors and sponsors are holding frequent parlays along with Durand Line for discussing strategies to overcome and exploit the situation in Afghanistan.

Now at this crucial stage, responsibility rests with the Afghan politico-socio, religious leaders, tribal chieftains and law makers to be alert for saving the motherland of plunging into irreversible crises in future like of recent past happenings.

I can assure our Afghan brothers that present day Khalistanis are not likely to have designs on territories west of the Ravi, and definitely have no designs on territories west of the Indus or the Durand line.
All Sikhs do pray that Afghanistan again becomes a country where people of all religions are respected.