Thursday June 20, 2024

Making the national divide worse

Did Nawaz Sharif suddenly decide that he needed fresh accolades before assuming the N-League presidency?

By Shafqat Mahmood
May 30, 2024
People carry a giant Pakistan flag while watching Beating the Retreatceremony on the eve of country’s Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan-India Wagah border post near Lahore. — AFP/File
People carry a giant Pakistan flag while watching "Beating the Retreat"ceremony on the eve of country’s Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan-India Wagah border post near Lahore. — AFP/File

As ridiculous ideas go, nothing could be more absurd than declaring May 28 a public holiday twenty-six years after the nuclear explosions. This had not happened before – and did not even occur in the two previous governments led by the current ruling party. So why now?

Did Nawaz Sharif suddenly decide that he needed fresh accolades before assuming the N-League presidency? Or is there something even more sinister as some in the media are suggesting? Like, for instance, disrupting court proceedings to delay Imran Khan’s possible acquittal in the cipher case.

Whatever the reason, this sudden holiday made no sense. Given the challenges we face, we should be working seven days a week rather than sitting at home twiddling our thumbs; just because the ruling party is fulfilling some agenda or the other. As someone who has been involved with education, I can tell you that these sudden disruptions play hell with the entire examination schedule. New dates have to be given – redoing the entire roster, putting extra burden on teachers, facilities and especially the children who have ordered their studies according to a given timetable.

Some brake has to be put on such discretionary powers. Actually, we need to place a brake on many discretionary powers, but this particular one creates too many problems. The yearly calendar of holidays – which does indeed exist – must be strictly adhered to. No exceptions. Let us give rigid and sacrosanct predictability to our businesses, our state machinery, our education system – indeed to the entire nation. This emperor-like impunity to declare off-the-cuff edicts must end.

Sadly, this is not the only absurd and deplorable thing that is happening under the watch of the N League governments in the centre and Punjab. At a time when polarization in politics and within state institutions is at its peak, at a time when loud voices are being raised by the country’s intelligentsia for a grand national dialogue, and at a time when political stability is being considered a prerequisite for economic progress – even the IMF is suggesting it – we have one incident after another making the national divide greater.

The vicious attack by apparently transgender persons on Raoof Hasan, the PTI information secretary, is a barometer of how low we have sunk. Not only that the attack itself is disgraceful, but it is also a real shame that not a single perpetrator has been arrested even a week after the incident. Whether this was a motivated attack or just a vicious street crime, the inaction by the Islamabad police is sad and certainly not doing the government’s image any good. Given the sensitive nature of the crime – spokesperson of a major political party being assaulted – a daily bulletin should have been issued indicating the progress of the investigation. No such thing. Not a word. Silence.

Again, at a difficult time for the nation, when reconciliation should be uppermost in the mind of everyone who loves the country, we see the ugly sight of bulldozers bringing down parts of the PTI’s central office. It is the secretariat of arguably the largest political party in the country but nobody cared. Let us assume for a minute that the PTI’s paperwork was not in order; let us also assume that notices had been issued to the party in the past and not complied with, this was one occasion when the law should not have been blind. This was a time for restraint. Restraint for the sake of that much-abused expression: the national interest.

The term ‘national interest’ is much abused because in the past great crimes have been committed in its name. But it can also be a massive engine of growth and do much good in society – provided a national consensus emerges on its basics. While such a consensus is a distant dream, there seems to be a fairly widespread agreement within the intelligentsia that a national dialogue is the only way towards it.

If one accepts this, every action has to be measured on this basis. Thus, anything that leads to reconciliation is a net plus for the nation. Conversely, anything that increases polarization cannot be in the right direction. The two incidents in Islamabad – the attack on Raoof Hasan and the sealing of the PTI office – are sad examples of actions that have increased polarization and a sense of despair.

Polarization is an ugly word, and we are in the thick of it. Punjab is also beginning to contribute its share. The defamation law passed by the Punjab Assembly is a dangerous piece of legislation that has been designed to keep the media and political opponents in check. The media is rightly incensed but it is the political parties that should be most worried. The to and fro of national politics may be raucous and loud but it is what gives democracy its corrective punch. This defamation law pushes towards silence – and silence is a mode of dictatorship. It is certainly not something that brings the nation together.

Another action by the federal government has widespread ramifications for national reconciliation. Election tribunals are a mechanism of dispute resolution, and the perception of a fair system depends on their independence and credibility. Perception of fairness is critical because it alone can bring closure to seriously disputed and divisive results. Being conscious of this, the Election Act stipulates serving judges to act as tribunals as they have the authority of their substantive office to ensure justice.

And this was beginning to happen with the Islamabad tribunal judge, Justice Tariq Jahangiri, asking difficult questions regarding the National Assembly seats. The possibility of other judges taking a similarly independent stance was scary, to say the least, for a government that is in office because of a hugely disputed election. It first tried to delay the appointment of other tribunals by not notifying judges suggested by the chief justices of the provincial high courts. When further delay became impossible, an ordinance was issued amending the Election Act to appoint retired judges to these tribunals.

This is rightly being seen as an attempt to manipulate the outcomes of election petitions. Since the election is such a divisive issue, the corrective action of independent election tribunals was critically required. But by this one act alone, not only has the government sabotaged the neutrality and independence of tribunals, but it has also dealt a severe blow to the prospects of national reconciliation. Reconciliation depends on righting the wrongs wherever possible. If instead of moving in that direction, steps are being taken to persist with the wrong, how will reconciliation come about?

It is in this context that the offer of a dialogue made by Rana Sanaullah, political adviser to the PM, seems hollow. His government is doing everything possible to make reconciliation impossible. Mr Shehbaz Sharif is using what can only be described as intemperate language about members of the judiciary and roundly abusing his political opponents. Against the backdrop of this rhetoric, calls for a political dialogue can at best be termed hypocritical.

It may be a cry in the wilderness, and in this cynical world extremely naive, but one can only implore everyone to take a step back. Divisive measures may serve a temporary purpose but such successes are illusory. Salvation only lies in coming together.

The writer served as the federal minister of education

in the PTI’s federal government. He can be reached at: