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April 22, 2018
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The crisis of Pakistan

Opinion

April 22, 2018

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Within the fog of politics lurks the crisis of Pakistan. If you look carefully, the phantom is morphing into a monster, with tentacles spread across the entire landscape. But our politicians and rulers do not seem to be able to make a sense of the threat that is building up in the present rather bizarre circumstances.

What makes this threat more menacing is the apparently wilful refusal of the powers that be to confront it directly and forthrightly. And for that, they will have to defer to opinions that are presently being suppressed – often in a harsh manner. In that sense, one aspect of the crisis is the shrinking of space for objective analyses and rational debate. Even the opportunity of seeking some guidance from high-value academic discourse that is professionally directed is rejected with disdain.

On the contrary, the very conduct of this discourse is sought to be controlled. Academic freedom on our campuses has always been restricted though the imperative of progress and enlightened advancement is to expand it almost limitlessly. This means that we have put our higher education in the reverse gear.

There have been a couple of instances where our universities were told not to debate a certain issue. I am not going into that, but one incident prompted editorial comment in English newspapers on Friday, including this one. It relates to the sacking of Ammar Ali Jan, the Cambridge-educated assistant professor at the University of Punjab, for being ‘needlessly vocal’.

One brief quote: “In a society where fascist tendencies are increasingly becoming pronounced, a teacher armed with a desire to inculcate a spirit of inquiry among his or her students is a dangerous entity”.

If fascist tendencies are becoming pronounced in our society, we can imagine the gravity of the crisis of Pakistan. It is instructive that we are talking about the environment that is fostered on our campuses which should otherwise be liberated territories in an intellectual context.

Ah, but there was the lynching of Mashal Khan on a campus and those criminals who pounced on him with their primitive passions were themselves students. We observed the first death anniversary of Mashal last week and were reminded that the message embedded in that act of savagery has not yet been fully understood by our rulers. This, to be sure, is another manifestation of the crisis of Pakistan.

The overall drift, then, is obvious. Incredibly, the crisis has begun to deepen at a time when national elections are just round the corner and the political parties are bracing up for a bruising contest for power. At some level, it becomes a no-holds-barred electoral combat. Each time there are complaints about opponents rigging and resorting to unfair means. Generally, elections are held in a conspiratorial ambience of doubts and suspicions.

So, what is the summer of 2018 like? Sadly, it is not even business as usual. After the disqualification of the former prime minister, while his party remains at the helm at the federal level, the ebb and flow of political and judicial manoeuvrings has destabilised the political situation. New cracks are appearing in the PML-N’s edifice. Imran Khan’s PTI is becoming a stronger magnet for congenital defectors. There are many uncertainties to contend with.

Anyhow, it would be natural to expect a blossoming of political activity, exuding a sense of excitement and freedom, at this stage in the electoral campaign. But that is certainly not the case. Anxiety about cases pending in the superior courts has combined with possible shifts in the people’s mood. It is becoming hard to predict the outcome of the forthcoming political contest. For whatever reason, there are palpable intimations of fear and intimidation.

There are also reasons to worry about some recent developments. One group of legislators from southern Punjab that defected from the PML-N has decided to launch a movement for a separate province. In addition, there is an unexpected and sudden upheaval in the politics of the Pukhtun belt, pushing dominant parties of the region in a difficult position. This would suggest that the election may not offer the expected clarifications to ease our political tensions, contributing thereby to the crisis of Pakistan. Mainstream parties are unlikely to be able to absorb these strong passions. Even if some of these stances are tactical in nature, designed to undercut this or that party, identity politics has a way of breaking out of its bounds. We have learnt this lesson in the killing fields of Karachi.

Judicial activism has occasionally cast a shadow on national affairs, apart from the legitimate consequences of landmark judgments on constitutional matters. In this respect, we are passing these days through an exceptional phase. I would hesitate to analyse or interpret this phenomenon. Still, it is interesting to see that not just judgments but observations made by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar can acquire political connotations. Or at least that is how the media deals with them. The latest example is that remarks made by him during his visit to Peshawar, on Thursday, were reported so prominently.

In fact, it was the lead story in national English and Urdu dailies. I am not going into any details but here are three headlines in the major English newspapers: ‘CJP questions KP govt claims of change’; ‘All words no work in KP, says CJP’; and ‘CJP blasts ‘poor governance’ in K-P’.

Finally, we have to be mindful of the ground realities that may nor may not have any bearing on the conduct of national politics. On Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released its 296-page report, State of Human Rights in 2017. This annual document is universally accepted as the most authentic record of the human rights situation in this country.

This time, the report has highlighted an increase in enforced disappearances and targeted violence against soft targets. While appreciating legal progress in other aspects of human rights in Pakistan, the report raised the issue of curbs on freedoms of expression and association. Presenting an overview of the report, HRCP spokesperson I A Rehman said: “One of the most fundamental human rights is of democratic governance, which remained under serious strain throughout the year....”.

Now, how much do our political parties understand the centrality of basic human rights in a democratic dispensation? We don’t know. And this disconnect is in itself a symptom of the crisis of Pakistan.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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