Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What’s going on?

With the pace of events suddenly picking up, April so far has been a real roller coaster. That mood of elation at the end of March, after the vindication of the long march, has quickly evaporated. It is now becoming hard to focus attention on any one aspect of the issues that are whirling around. Putting things in a proper perspective is becoming difficult. What seems obvious, though, is that almost all our ruling ideas are under attack. And, in an existential sense, our rulers do not seem to be able to find a way out, round, or through this cluster of crises.

For sometime, it appeared that the grainy video of a girl being flogged in public somewhere in Swat was an appropriate point of reference to underline the most crucial challenge that we confront as a country and as a society. I was in Lahore to attend the council meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and was able to attend the rally that was held on April 4 to protest against an atrocity that symbolises the spirit of Talibanisation, a process that the establishment has somehow connived in protecting.

Now, the debate that was prompted by the emergence of the video was also very instructive. I do not have the space here to recount all the points that were made by elements that are spread across our political spectrum. It is not surprising that there are people who would seek to pooh-pooh the reality of the incident or to circuitously justify the punishment. A really tragic dimension of all this is the prevaricating attitude of our comrades in the Awami National Party, who lead the administration in the Frontier.

There is, however, no doubt that society is being hopelessly divided and perhaps the Taliban constitute a useful dividing line. Responses to the Swat video, irrespective of when and how it was made, could have enabled the ordinary citizens to sort out their feelings and thoughts about the surge of the Taliban. Of course, we know about the more brutal acts that are committed by the militants and the videos of which they themselves circulate – videos that no television channel would dare to show to their audience.

Unfortunately, this drawing of a clear line between those who have sympathy for religious extremism and others who aspire for a liberal and a democratic polity has become difficult because of varying perceptions about the role that the United States is playing in its/our war against terrorism. The drone attacks are consistently cited by many as an explanation for much of what the Taliban are doing – as if these attacks are mounted by the innocent people or the security personnel who are killed in terror attacks in various parts of the country.

Hence, it may be pertinent that the nation’s attention has shifted to our enigmatic dealings with Washington in the wake of the visit to Islamabad by Obama administration emissaries, Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen. What happened in their negotiations with our top functionaries became as critical as their pronouncements in New Delhi that they later visited. Analysts and commentators are nearly unanimous in their description of the present state of Pakistan-US ties. There is little doubt that these ties are now at their lowest ebb. For once, the trust deficit has been publicly acknowledged from both sides.

One disturbing feature of this relationship is that Holbrooke made this remark in his New Delhi press conference on Wednesday: “Leadership is absolutely vital and India plays a critical role in that regard. We cannot settle Afghanistan and many other world problems without India’s full involvement”. Pakistan has rejected this assertion and said that all states are equally important in efforts to resolve regional matters.

There are some other crucial manifestations of this new stance of the US administration, including conditions that are included in the bill moved in the House of Representatives to provide $ 1.5 billion annual assistance to Pakistan for a period of five years. One clause requires Pakistan “not to support any person or group that conducts violence, sabotage, or other activities meant to instil fear or terror in India”.

What does all this mean? Well, another crucial issue exploded on Thursday when the murder of three Baloch nationalist leaders, whose decomposed bodies were recovered in Turbat the previous evening. Quetta and other parts of Balochistan erupted into violence and there were demonstrations also in Karachi. A number of Baloch leaders made very strong statements about their loss of faith in the very idea of Pakistan. Protests over the killing of the Baloch leaders are continuing.

Another major cause for concern is the arrest of 11 Pakistanis in unusual daylight counter-terrorism raids across northwestern England. Actually, they arrested 12 persons and all but one of them were Pakistanis and it led to Britain and Pakistan trading accusations about fighting terrorism. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quoted as saying that two-thirds of the terror plots investigated in Britain originated from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, terror attacks continued in the country. Questions were raised about the validity of the Swat peace accord after Maulana Sufi Muhammd wound up his peace camp in Swat and shifted to a place near Batkhela in Malakand Agency, saying that peace could not be restored unless President Asif Zardari signed the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation.

During this weekend, Islamabad and Rawalpindi were under threat of terrorist attacks and a warning given by intelligence organisations to the Interior Ministry said that “anything can happen anytime anywhere”. This warning necessitated stringent security measures and hundreds of suspicious people were detained during a crackdown in and around the two cities on Friday. One Taliban commander reportedly said that “the day is not far when Islamabad will be in the hands of the mujahideen”.

With all these critical developments taking place at different levels, the violence that took place at the Arts Council in Karachi on Wednesday may not be considered very important. But the cancellation of the second Shanakht Festival after vandalism by the workers of the Pakistan People’s Party is something that stirs serious thoughts about our ’shanakht’ – identity. The five-day festival, meant to present theatre, art and photography-related events, was really well conceived. It aimed to promote a sense of belonging to the country with popular participation in artistic and cultural activities.

What happened was that the exhibition included a painting that was clearly offensive to the supporters of the PPP. In the first place, it was manifestly an act of poor editorial judgment on the part of the organisers. They later admitted their mistake and offered apology. But the issue did not necessarily have to result in such violence and the cancellation of the entire festival. It only shows that in these times of anxiety and depression, situations can easily get out of hand.

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