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Archive for June, 2008

This past weekend, news of the new Pakistani offensive against militants in the northwest dominated media coverage of the country. On Sunday, media outlets reported that Pakistani paramilitary forces “pushed fighters belonging to an Islamic militant group farther from Peshawar…and destroyed unoccupied bases and houses belonging to members of the group.” Headlines following these developments yesterday deemed the offensive “a success,” and reports noted government statements that said Pakistani security forces effectively took control of the militant area in the Khyber region. Interior Ministry spokesman Rehman Malik told Reuters, “It has been a successful operation. No collateral damage has been reported. The writ of the government has been established…Peshawar is totally safe. We won’t allow anyone to disrupt the peace of the city.” The AFP also cited statements by Malik, who told reporters that troops had found several “torture cells” and private jails. “An illegal FM station used for spreading ‘hate speech’ was also destroyed,” he added.

Despite the government claims of “success,” some media outlets were skeptical in their coverage. An article in the NY Times, entitled, “Pakistani Forces Appear to Push Back Militants,” reported the leader of the militant group pushed from Peshawar, Mangal Bagh, “appeared to remain unscathed.” The Times added,

Mr. Mangal Bagh’s fighters, operating out of Khyber agency, which is adjacent to Peshawar, have been kidnapping residents and threatening the city over the last two months. In a sign of conciliation, Mr. Mangal Bagh, a former bus cleaner and bodyguard who rose in the last three years to become the head of Lashkar-i-Islam, or the Army of Islam, said in a telephone interview with a Pakistani national newspaper, The News, that he had told his volunteers not to resist the Pakistani forces. He said he considered them brothers.

Although the operations conducted by the Frontier Corps were deemed a success, none of Bagh’s “heavily armed men” were killed. In fact, television crews accompanying the paramilitary forces on Sunday as they destroyed the Bara houses of more than 20 commanders of the Army of Islam “said the buildings had all been vacated.” BBC News reported that many of them “are reported to have moved to the remote western mountains near the border with Afghanistan.” If that is indeed the case, then perhaps this “success” is not as rosy as the government first depicted.

Moreover, Bagh’s militant group is not part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organization of Taliban-linked groups that suspended all peace agreements and negotiations with the government this weekend. The Guardian reported that they have “not adopted their [TTP] tactics of suicide bombings and attacks on the army.” Nevertheless, the Army of Islam appears to be the main target of the army so far, which, implied the Guardian, may be because of their control over much of the Khyber area, “which includes the Khyber Pass, a crucial supply line for Nato troops in land-locked Afghanistan.”

According to the UK news source, locals in the Khyber region denounced the operation, insisting that Bagh “had brought law and order to an area which, when under government control, was notorious for smuggled goods, drugs and kidnappings.” One local trader in Bara told the Guardian, “There is peace here – what is the point of the operation?…Mangal Bagh is not a bad man. The problems are elsewhere.” Reuters cited another Bara resident, “standing by the debris of Bagh’s house,” who said, “He [Bagh] brought peace and got rid of the criminals in our area. He’s good for us.” The AFP likewise quoted Bagh’s older brother, who told the news agency, “Lashkar-e-Islam was not involved in terrorism but it was working to oust criminal elements.”

So what do all these conflicting reports ultimately mean? Was this operation truly a “success” if it targeted a militant group already cooperating (reportedly) with Pakistani forces? Bagh himself appeared puzzled by the operation. Reuters reported, “He said he did not know why security forces were attacking because his group did not harbor foreign militants or have links with the Taliban or al Qaeda.” More importantly, the main members of his group were reportedly not even in Bara, but instead had “gone home,” as Bagh had directed. Despite their exodus from the area, their homes were still destroyed, and spokesman Malik made the grand sweeping gesture that “Peshawar is totally safe.” However, locals in the area appeared more disgruntled with the operation than welcoming of the paramilitary troops. The TTP, the group actually associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, apparently used it as an opportunity to suspend peace negotiations with the government and will no doubt relaunch a more overt offensive against Pakistani forces. So let me ask the question again – given the circumstances of this operation, its intention, and its subsequent ramifications, was it right to call it a “success”? Perhaps before using this term lightly, we should clearly delineate who our enemy is and what exactly we are fighting for. [Images from the Wash Post and Reuters]

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Although political developments (i.e. the Nawaz Sharif by-election controversy) caused quite a stir in media coverage of Pakistan this week, reports related to the militant and Taliban threat also garnered significant news attention. On Thursday, militants in the NWFP reportedly torched a state-owned hotel/ski resort in Swat. According to BBC News, “The nighttime attack follows sporadic clashes this week between militants and security forces and arson attacks on several [ten] girls’ schools.” The Daily Times added that in addition to these arson attacks, these suspected militants also killed a PPP leader [Abdul Akbar Khan] a tribal elder, and their family members. Despite these reports, however, the Times reported that “Taliban leader Ali Bakht denied his organization’s involvement in the attacks, saying they went against the spirit of the peace accord.” The BBC quoted militant spokesman Muslim Khan who said, “Our target is the security forces, we have nothing to do with the hotel.” Instead, he blamed “illegal mountain log cutters,” otherwise known as the “timber mafia” for the attacks because they did not want the government-militant peace accord to succeed. Nevertheless, noted the BBC’s Barbara Plett, the security situation in Swat has been deteriorating despite the one-month peace agreement currently in place.

The recent rise in attacks by Taliban-linked militants reportedly operating from Pakistan “is a real concern” for the current war in Afghanistan, said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today. According to CNN, “Gates said he hopes a newly announced Pakistani effort to clamp down on Islamic militants in its northwestern tribal districts will improve the situation in Afghanistan, where the allied death toll hit a monthly peak Thursday.” He told reporters at the Pentagon today:

What has happened is that as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups by the Pakistani government … the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups, and they’ve therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us.

Despite the increased concern from both the U.S. and Afghan camps, Gates did acknowledge that Pakistan’s new government has recognized this problem and that “these groups’ activities are a problem for the Pakistani government as well as for those of us in Afghanistan.” On Thursday, Dawn reported that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher will arrive in Islamabad next week “with a message of support for Islamabad’s new strategy of empowering the military to deal with militancy in the tribal areas.” Deputy spokesman at the State Department, Tom Casey, “noted that Pakistan’s new strategy for dealing with terrorism brings together political parties, the military, and some of the traditional leaders in Fata to ‘reiterate their opposition to extremism and their desire and willingness to combat it.’

An editorial in Thursday’s edition of the Daily Times also lauded the Pakistani government’s effort against the militant threat in the country. Entitled, “Problem Number One Finally Gets Attention,” the piece reported that PM Yousaf Raza Gilani has designated Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Ashfaq Kayani “the principal for the application of the military effort,” essentially putting him in charge of tackling violence in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area]. The meeting resolved that “Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used against other countries, especially Afghanistan, and under no circumstances would foreign troops be allowed to operate inside Pakistan.” Those attending the meeting were also unanimous in concluding that terrorism and extremism were the gravest threat to Pakistan’s national security. The editors at the Daily Times asserted,

There is no doubt that war against internal terrorism is Pakistan’s war. In many ways it is more dangerous than any war we have fought in the past because it is within our national borders. We are distracted by other concomitant crises that need to be addressed; but by not deciding which one to tackle first, we are endangering Pakistan. Politically speaking, some people say that our problem number one is the restoration of the judges, but the world thinks that Pakistan is sitting on a powder keg watching “long marches” of another kind that are accorded much lower priority by us. So let us get our act together. Once we have countered the creeping loss of territory to the terrorist warlords there will be time enough to put the nation’s judicial system right.

The dynamic between Pakistan’s internal war against terrorism and the external tensions increasing with the U.S. and Afghanistan [due to cross-border attacks] was addressed further in a Council on Foreign Relations interview with Teresita Schaffer, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies‘ South Asia program. When asked to discuss the essential “disconnect” between the U.S. and Pakistan since the country’s February elections, Schaffer said,

…The top priority for the United States is essentially border control: preventing the Taliban in Afghanistan, where of course we have troops, from taking sanctuary in Pakistan; preventing their movement back and forth across that border. For the Pakistan government, the top priority along the Afghan border and in that area is closing down suicide bombing within Pakistan. They are dealing with an internal insurgency…But what they most want to see is an end to suicide bombing, and an end to the phenomenon of insurgents taking control of pieces of territory inside Pakistan.

This reported “disconnect” between the U.S. and Pakistan was not all that surprising given that this new government was essentially elected by a highly-charged, anti-American constituency [who are not all extremists, by the way, note the Samad Khurram episode last week]. Nevertheless, these forces were perhaps able to “come together” when they realized that fighting this militant threat was in their common interest. However, Washington had to first understand and respect that this was not the same “Pakistani ally” they were once used to. Likewise, Pakistan had to comprehend the need to prioritize this extremist threat, a force that terrorizes its country’s civilians and endangers its national security. Only then, could this “disconnect” have any chance of being resolved. [Images from BBC News, Getty Images]

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On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court postponed the by-election in the constituency where PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif would have run, before the  controversial Lahore High Court ruling on Monday, [see previous post].  Following Monday’s development, supporters of Nawaz’s party reacted with outrage, and PML-N lawmakers staged a walkout from the National Assembly on Tuesday. According to The News, the party’s parliamentary leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan asked the government to clarify its position as to who was making the policies of the government, adding, “What was going on eight years back same is happening again as check post has been established all around the constitution avenue to protect the PCO judges of the Supreme Court.” Khan reportedly alleged the federal government was protecting the PCO judges [for more background on the PCO judges versus those fired by Musharraf, read this post] and asked the PPP to clarify its position on the issue.

Following these developments, PM Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that the government would challenge the court decision to bar Nawaz and requested that the Supreme Court would postpone the by-elections in the NA-123 constituency until the final verdict from the appeal was decided. A separate report from The News noted that Gilani made the statement “in a bid to cool down the charged sentiments of the PML-N…” However, Dawn, in its coverage, reported the announcement seemed to fall short of the PML-N demands of the PPP, and noted the ruling party could have taken a more “clear stand on the legitimacy” of these PCO judges. However, noted the Daily Times, Gilani “denied allegations leveled by angry PML-N workers that the PPP-led government was protecting the PCO judges.” BBC News quoted deputy Attorney General Raja Abdur Rehman, who said, “Our plea is that under… the Pakistani constitution, election disputes should be heard by election tribunal and not the high court. High courts have no jurisdiction to hear such cases.”

According to the AFP, although the Pakistani Supreme Court told Nawaz Sharif today to appear for the next hearing on June 30, “his lawyer said he would not come because he does not recognize judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf under emergency rule last November.” The lawyer, Akram Sheikh, told reporters, “The courts are bound to give relief and dispense justice, no matter if someone is able to appear before it or not.”

According to the BBC, “Correspondents say the Lahore court’s decision has exacerbated tensions between the PML-N and the main party in the governing coalition, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).” Although the government’s appeal was obviously meant to appease the PML-N, the increasing tensions between these two parties further shows how polarized the judiciary issue has become. Although the restoration of the judges is by no means a simplistic topic, its black-and-white depiction by many of the parties involved is problematic for the acceptance of any proposed solution. [Image from Reuters]

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Kamil Hamid, a student from Islamabad, passed on a contribution piece to CHUP by Nabiha Meher Shaikh, a graduate from York University, where she majored in women’s studies. Below, Nabiha delves into a discussion about the subcontinent’s hijra community, known as “the third gender,” [the full article was originally posted on Nabiha's blog, I am Woman, Hear me Roar]. Although the evolution of this community is deeply rooted in the region’s history, there is still not a lot known about these hijras and they are largely ostracized from society. Although they are technically allowed to vote and contest in elections in Pakistan, [see a related post by Chowrangi], hijras are often denied basic education and work opportunities, and are rejected by most families. Below, Nabiha, who has spent much time researching and interacting with the hijra community in Pakistan, discusses their background and current obstacles [Image from a photo essay by Dennis Drenner]:

The word hijra is an Urdu word meaning eunuch or hermaphrodite. However, in reality, hijras are very diverse and most join the community as young boys. Hijras consist of hermaphrodites, as well as women who are unable to menstruate and lead the “normal” female life, consisting of getting married and producing children. However, a great number of hijras are men, who identify themselves as more feminine then masculine.

The hijras are an ancient community in the Indian subcontinent with members in Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are classified as the third sex and have their own gender role. Serena Nanda describes them as “man minus maleness” and “man plus woman”. They are not considered either because of their inability to reproduce. In the Indian subcontinent, great emphasis is placed on one’s ability to have children. Someone who is unable to have children is not considered a true man or woman. Therefore, hijras are a separate identity, who fit into neither category.

The traditional occupation for hijras consists of begging for alms when bestowing blessings on male babies and at weddings. They are notorious for knowing when a baby boy is born and arriving at the right house to sing and dance and demand alms. Most of their songs are about pregnancy and their dances are mostly parodies of pregnant women. It seems ironic that these hijras, who are unable to reproduce, are seen to have the power to bestow fertility blessings on brides. Nevertheless, because of increasing Westernization, the traditional roles of hijras are no longer in as much demand as they once were. Moreover, with an increasing middle class that has access to other forms of entertainment such as cinemas, hijras are no longer required for diversions. A great number of them are turning to prostitution, which goes against the hijra ideal of asceticism.

All “true” hijras are required to undergo an emasculation operation called nirvan. Nirvan means rebirth and most hijras see this operation as their rebirth into the hijra form from the male. Only after this are they granted their special powers of blessings and curses. This operation is against the law in India; therefore, it is done behind closed doors.

Although most hijras dress as women, they engage in activities that would be considered inappropriate for women of the subcontinent, such as dancing in public. They almost seem to be a caricature of women because hijras wear their hair long and wear saris and other traditional female dresses, whereas in modern subcontinental society, the upper and middle class women cut their hair and wear more western clothes.

Although most identify with Islam, they do not seem to have a conflict with being part of a community that worships the Mother Goddess instead of Allah. Most of them fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, get buried instead of cremated, and, if they get married, have a Muslim wedding called a nikkah. Most of them also adopt Muslim female names. However, their acceptance into Indian society is due to Hinduism more than Islam, particularly because many Hindu deities are linked to the hijras such as Arjun, Vishnu, and Shiva. Because hijras are able to identify with different figures in Indian mythology, they are tolerated and were traditionally very respected as the third sex.

The British rulers in colonial India stripped the hijras of the laws that granted them the protection they received under Muslim rulers and regarded them as a menace to society. Because the hijras did not fit the category of male or female, the British passed laws that required the hijras to wear turbans to distinguish them from women. Hijras in India are actively involved with raising awareness on issues, such as the problems related to discrimination against hiring hijras in certain jobs because of who they are. Hijras are not allowed in most restaurants, even when they have the money to eat. The treatment of hijras in hospitals is an issue of great concern because whenever one is admitted in hospital, the doctors never know whether to place them in the male or female ward. Some hijras are actively involved in raising awareness about AIDS because it is estimated that one in three hijras in Bombay are HIV positive.

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By(e)-By(e) Nawaz?

On Monday, media outlets reported that a high court in Lahore disqualified former Prime Minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif from contesting in this week’s by-election. According to Reuters, “Sharif was barred from the general election in February because he had been convicted for the hijacking of then army chief General Pervez Musharraf’s plane in 1999. But he was later cleared to contest the by-polls due on Thursday.” However, today, Sharif’s party spokesman Siddiqul Farooq told the news agency that the PML-N leader was barred once again “based on conspiracy.” Farooq added, “It’s a political decision.” Another Sharif spokesman “said the Lahore High Court ruled on Monday that Sharif was disqualified from running in the election because he had been convicted of a crime.”

Although Nawaz will undoubtedly appeal the verdict, the disqualification still marks a political setback for this former PM’s journey back to the Parliament. Moreover, the outrage that will certainly follow from his party supporters could potentially be destablizing to the country. [Image from Reuters]

 UPDATE [1345 EST]: The Associated Press, in an updated newswire, reported about 100 PML-N supporters in Multan have already burned tires in the street following Monday’s announcement that Sharif was barred from running in Thursday’s by-election. PML-N spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said the ruling made Pakistan look like a “banana republic,” and criticized the PPP and Asif Ali Zardari, asserting, “[The PPP] could let the courts continue to play mockery with democracy in this country, continue to play mockery with the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan.” According to Nasim Zehra, an analyst and fellow at Harvard University’s Asia Center, the ruling raised questions about the independence of the court, which could work to Sharif’s benefit, and added, “The net effect of this will be more pressure on Zadari and the PPP to restore the judiciary.”

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Media outlets reported that 16 Pakistani Christians were kidnapped by militants in the NWFP on Saturday, although sources reported that they were released hours later. News reports differed on the number of people kidnapped. Although several sources, including The News, reported that 25 Christians were abducted, more recent wire services confirmed that the number was actually 16. A resident of the Christian Colony, the site of the kidnapping located in Peshawar, told The News, “There were a large number of people gathered at around 8 pm and were preparing for worship when armed men broke into the building and picked up 25 to 40 Christians in pick-up vans.” The news agency added, “Sources said that the militants had warned the residents of the Christian Colony to vacate the building as it was once part of a local Madrassa. The Christians were not ready to vacate the property.”

A senior police official confirmed to the Associated Press and Reuters that the men were kidnapped while they were praying, although he noted the number abducted was much smaller than eyewitness reports. Media outlets reported that following successful negotiations with the militants, police officials secured the release of the abducted Christians early Sunday. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly condemned the act, telling reporters during a parliamentary session, “We condemn this act and, despite the recovery of the abductees, an enquiry will be held to uncover the faces behind the incident.”

Although news outlets reporting on the development today noted that in recent years, “there has been little violence specifically targeting Christians” in Peshawar, the story nevertheless presents an opportunity to discuss the overarching plight and persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. According to the CIA World Factbook, Muslims make up 97% of the country, while other religious groups (Christians and Hindus) comprise of only 3%. Moreover, of the Muslim population, 77% are Sunni, while 20% are Shias. A recent piece in the LA Times reported that there are approximately 6,000 Christians in Pakistan, adding, “religious equality is the elusive Pakistani dream.” The news agency noted, “Because of restrictive laws, they are barred from equal pay, educational opportunities and housing. Intimidated by rising Islamic extremism, many are afraid to wear any outward symbols of their faith. Dozens are in jail on the basis of draconian blasphemy laws that forbid anyone to defame Islam.

What are these blasphemy laws? According to BBC News, “Sentiments on the ground against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan became serious only after 1977 when General Zia ul-Haq introduced a blasphemy law to please the religious parties supporting his martial law.” Ultimately, the law mandates that any “blasphemies” of the Quran are to be met with punishment. However, because of the ambiguity associated with such legislation, human rights activists say it has been manipulated by extremists in order to persecute religious minorities. According to the BBC, the law was also misused by Muslim landlords in Pakistan’s countryside “to grab land from Christians by framing them in blasphemy cases, especially in the Punjab province.” Moreover, the LA Times noted it was used to “rid neighborhoods of unwanted minorities,” although government officials deny such charges.

These laws carry a penalty of life imprisonment and even death, often without evidence “or any penalty for false accusations.” The Times piece cited a 2007 State Department report, which noted that no person has been executed for blasphemy. However, a Christian man in May of last year was sentenced to death following two years in prison, for telling “a group of Muslims to lower their noise because his family was mourning the loss of his nephew, whose body was laid out in his home. The men accused him of blasphemy.” This past Wednesday, media outlets reported that a Muslim man was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. According to Felice Gaer, of Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a former chairwoman of the commission, “Blasphemy is used as a weapon…Once charged, you can be in prison for years while your case is adjudicated.”

Inter-religious violence and persecution does not just stop with the Pakistani Christian minority, however. The country’s sectarian tensions are also significant within this context. According to Amir Mir at the Monthly Herald,

Available figures indicate that, between January 1989 and May 31, 2005 a total of 1,784 Pakistanis were killed, and another 4,279 injured in 1,866 incidents of sectarian violence and terror across the country. This averages out to over 100 persons per year over the past 17 years, with no end in sight.

The BBC News reported [in 2004], “Most sectarian violence in Pakistan takes place in the province of Punjab and the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, in Sindh province,” although attacks also occur in Balochistan. A feature in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Vali Nasr, author of the The Shiite Revival, who discussed a suicide bombing that struck Shia processions for Ashura in February of last year, noting, “In Pakistan, it is not a battle like in Iraq. But in Pakistan, you have the same violence … driving the conflict…We are going to see increasing occurrences of the bombings like we’ve seen over the weekend.” Although parallels between the Iraqi sectarian conflict and the tensions in Pakistan are questionable, the violence that is occurring in the country is significant and troublesome. Just two days ago, nine people were killed and 30 were wounded in suspected sectarian violence in northwest Pakistan. The town, Parachinar, reported the AFP, “was rocked by bloody sectarian clashes in April in which some 50 people were killed.” Although Shias are the minority in Pakistan, they account for a majority in Parachinar.

The simmering sectarian tensions and the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan are issues that cannot be ignored, particularly by a coalition that was democratically elected and claims to represent the Pakistani people. In the case of yesterday’s kidnapping of the Pakistani Christians, the government must do more than just issue statements condemning these acts and ordering “probes.” They must look inward at the very issues that have allowed such disparities to occur in the first place. [Image from the BBC]

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Today, I happily stumbled upon an article on the DVD release of Pakistan’s “first slasher film” in the Washington Post’s metro-targeted publication, The Express. Originally entitled Zibahkhana, [which literally translates from Urdu to "Slaughterhouse"], the film’s official English title for Western consumption became “Hell’s Ground,” and was released last year. The Express, in its review of the movie, noted,

Watching ‘Hell’s Ground’…feels like splitting open the head of an obsessive film buff. The movie is crammed to bursting with references to American horror and cult flicks like “Pink Flamingos,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Friday the 13th,” not to mention allusions to less well-known international fare like “Maula Jat” and “The Living Corpse.

The film’s writer/producer/director is Omar Ali Khan, a former film critic himself who reportedly funded Hell’s Ground, his first movie “with profits from his ice cream shop in Islamabad, which is decorated with movie memorabilia from Hollywood and its Pakistan equivalent, Lollywood.” For all of those fellow Islamabad-ites (or Isloo-ites), that shop was the oh-so-popular, Hotspot. Khan also runs the informative website, The Hotspot Online, which catalogs hundreds of reviews of films from Hollywood, Lollywood, and of course, Bollywood. The director, in collaboration with British producer Pete Tombs, ultimately developed a “fairly straightforward low-budget horror film” that attempts to cram every horror film cliche known to Western audiences. However, noted a movie review in TIME magazine, “it’s the distinctly Pakistani touches that keep the film rollicking along.”

The set-up is simple and familiar – five teenagers lie to their parents so they can drive five hours to a rock concert. The Express wrote, “Of course they make a wrong turn and are set upon by zombies. Of course there’s a homicidal maniac on the loose. Of course that nice old woman hides a horrible secret.” The media outlet added, “The movie is completely derivative, but that seems to be Khan’s intention.” In fact, the main characters are Westernized stereotypes – the innocent heroine, the pothead, the wild girl, the shy guy, who speak a mix of English and Urdu throughout the film. The fact that Khan included these Western archetypes in the Pakistani context further exemplifies why “Hell’s Ground” appealed to moviegoers on both sides of the pond, and why the movie has won numerous awards and critical acclaim throughout the world, including the 2008 Jury’s Award for Best Film.

Why is the hype surrounding this film significant? The TIME reviewer wrote, “…here in Pakistan…the capital city doesn’t even have a movie theater and the country’s barely breathing film industry hasn’t produced a scary movie since the 1970s…” Releases of films like Zibahkhana, or Hell’s Ground and their subsequent positive reviews in the international film arena ultimately bodes well for perceptions of Pakistan, a country that is none too familiar with stereotypes of extremism, violence, and conservatism. Moreover, the increased number of movies from different genres contributes to the diversity of Pakistan’s developing film industry. In CHUP’s past interview with Pakistani filmmaker Mehreen Jabbar, she commented on the revival of Pakistani films, noting, “I think Pakistan needs all kinds of films. It needs a thorough revival of the film industry which means that all genres and themes should be welcome.” The release and subsequent success of “Hell’s Ground,” not just in Pakistan, but in the West as well, is therefore a significant development in this context. Below is the full trailer of the film, [now available on DVD]:

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Zardari, the Godfather?

Today, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari announced that he would decide when the judges sacked on November 3, 2007 would be reinstated.” Interesting, coming from a man who isn’t an elected member of Parliament, but who still calls the shots. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the iconic 70′s film, The Godfather. Granted, Zardari is not the Don of an Italian family in New York [see images]. Instead, he’s the leader of the majority party in Pakistan. However, their modus operandi is eerily similar. Just like Vito Corleone ran the show for his family, Zardari — at least according to the Pakistani media — often overshadows members of his party who were actually elected to power – including Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

The Daily Times reported, “Talking to senior journalists and columnists at Punjab Governor’s House, he said the judicial crisis was one of the major problems Pakistan was facing and that no one could assess the situation better than he could.” Dawn newspaper reported that in his statements, Zardari “downplayed” the recent Long March, asserting, “We know what to call a long march. We know when to call a long march. We know how to conduct a long march. And when the People’s Party calls a long march, then Pakistan will see what a long march really is.” Nevertheless, he asserted the government’s commitment to restoring the judges in a “legal and constitutional manner,” which was further emphasized when they paid the deposed judges their salaries for the last seven months. It would be interesting to see if the PPP’s package to reinstate the judges could be an offer the Parliament can’t refuse.

At the same news conference, Zardari also made several references to the fate of President Pervez Musharraf. According to The News, he emphasized that “the day is not far away when the PPP would induct a man of its own choice in the presidency.” He added that the party “would soon bring a president of its own as it has done in the case of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.” Although both Dawn and The News noted Zardari’s emphasis on the central role the PPP would play in choosing a new president, an article in the Daily Times quoted him saying, “All ruling coalition parties will be consulted regarding the nomination of [the] future president.”

The role of Zardari in the current government is not surprising given the prevalence of personality politics in the country. This dynamic generally results in the rise of charismatic political figures, often at the expense of party politics. Although this may be a political reality in many countries, the case of Zardari is particularly interesting because of his constant references to “democracy,” and his polarized depictions of “anti-democratic forces” versus the democratic process. Today, for instance, he emphasized, “We will follow her [Benazir] and take revenge from anti-democratic forces through democracy.” The fact that Zardari, unelected but unofficially leading the country, can make such statements, is ironic.

 

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It has been quite an eventful few days for Pakistan. First, following the end of the lawyers’ “Long March” [see related post] this past week, the movement’s top leader, Aitzaz Ahsan promised more protests today. Although he did not provide a future date for these protests, “his comments indicated that the lawyers did not intend to ease their campaign for the restoration of the judges – a subject that threatens to split the new coalition government and hasten the demise of the unpopular president,” reported the Associated Press. Ahsan asserted to the news agency, “There will be other marches … there will be bigger marches.” The recent Long March, which culminated in Islamabad late Friday, “was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital’s history.”

How successful was this Long March and what purpose did it serve? According to the Daily Times, the march essentially “ended without any roadmap for future strategy leaving many, who wanted the leadership to announce an indefinite sit-in until the reinstatement of the sacked judges, flabbergasted.” The intent of this rally was to pressure the ruling coalition to restore the judiciary, a subject that has been both contentious and polarizing for the country since President Musharraf fired dozens of judges last year. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has already pulled his party members out of the Cabinet over the issue, and has subsequently allied himself with the lawyers’ movement. Like Nawaz, noted the AP, “The lawyers have said restoration of the judges should precede and not be linked with any changes to the constitution.”

Two Dawn columnists had very interesting takes on the Long March and the overarching issue today. In a piece by Irfan Husain, entitled, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose,” the columnist wrote,

The idealists out on Islamabad’s streets make the point that we cannot have real democracy without an independent judiciary. True. But equally, we cannot have an independent judiciary without democracy. So if the long marchers succeed in toppling the frail democratic government that is struggling to establish itself in Pakistan, who gains?

Husain goes on to write, “If the standoff between the lawyers and the government continues, and the resultant paralysis in Islamabad persists, I have little doubt that we shall soon hear voices calling for the army to take over yet again. Those left out in the cold, and those who have traditionally fed on the crumbs from the table of military juntas, are probably already sharpening their knives.” Another Dawn columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee expressed a similar sentiment today, [you can also read CHUP's recent interview with him]. He asserted,

How much has this ‘long march’ which was not a march but a drive…burdened this deprived nation and its thirsty and hungry people? If street thinking or street power is to be believed, the funds for the lawyers’ movement and for this culmination have emanated from the coffers of Mian Nawaz Sharif and his brand of Muslim League, whose coffers were and are filled to the brim with the nation’s money.

In an assessment by the Daily Times today, the newspaper’s editors wrote, “The movement is clearly converging to confrontation with the PPP, which will create undue instability and hurt the economy currently being discussed in the National Assembly. After the PML-N ducked out of it, the PPP emerges as the sole custodian of the budget 2008-09, and the hardship it promises even as it tries to alleviate the suffering of the poor with concessions will weaken Islamabad’s will to fight all the battles facing it.”

We all obviously recognize the symbolism of Pakistan’s judiciary, the merits of the lawyers’ movement, and the wrong in initially firing the chief judges. However, at what point do we also recognize the detriment that such a movement is having on our nation’s economy? The potential detriment to the already fragile democratically elected coalition? Yes, the lawyers’ movement and their supporters want justice, but at what cost? This is not to say we should abandon such a cause, but instead reevaluate our approach.

Another noteworthy development from this weekend occurred on Saturday, when Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, a politician from Balochistan, announced that he would be “willing to represent only the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), and not other Baloch forces, in talks with the government,” reported the Daily Times. However, Marri added that if the BLA asked him to talk to Islamabad, “as an elder of the Baloch nation,” he would present his terms and conditions as, “the Punjabis must vacate Balochistan.” He told the news agency from his Karachi residence yesterday, “The other issues are all domestic and could be discussed later on…I can coexist with a pig but not with a Punjabi.” Currently, no one knows who heads the BLA, a militant tribal organization whose stated goals include driving the Pakistani and Iranian military personnel out of the province, so that a sovereign Baloch government can be established. Although some suspect that Marri may be “the real force” behind this movement, he told the Daily Times on Saturday, “Why are you asking me to confess my guilt at this old age? If I were younger, I would not be giving you an interview. I have always said that the real fighters are the ones who are doing it with weapons. I wish I were younger so that I could go straight to the hills and fight for the Baloch cause.” Although not much media attention has been paid to the conflict in Balochistan, Marri’s comments this weekend exemplify the underlying tensions still evident in this province, and their potential ramifications for the entire country, [For more background on the Balochistan issue, read this past post.]

Finally, in other security-related developments, media outlets on Sunday reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send his forces into Pakistan “to fight militants operating in the tribal areas there.” BBC News reported, “His concerns about their increased infiltration into his country are shared by many of Afghanistan’s allies.” Moreover, such concerns were exacerbated further by statements released by Beitullah Mehsud and other Taliban-linked leaders, who have vowed to send fighters across the border into Afghanistan to combat Afghan and foreign forces, [see related post]. When asked to comment on these threats, Karzai told Reuters, “This means that Afghanistan has the right of self defense…When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same…” The Afghan president has long pointed to the Pakistani tribal areas as the root of the Taliban problem, although the BBC reported that his statements Sunday were the most harsh to date.

Karzai’s statements today were significant given the string of recent assessments on the situation in the tribal region. Last month, a spokesperson from NATO noted that attacks in Afghanistan rose by 50% compared to the same period last year, a development partly due, he said, to the recent deals between Pakistan and militants. This assessment was echoed in a recent Pentagon briefing by the top outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, “who criticized what he called the lack of pressure on militant groups operating from Pakistan’s tribal areas,” reported the BBC. According to the Washington Post, McNeill asserted during the press conference,

…although record levels of foreign and Afghan troops have constrained repeated Taliban offensives, stabilizing Afghanistan will be impossible without a more robust military campaign against insurgent havens in Pakistan.

The Post added, “McNeill criticized Pakistani efforts to crack down on that threat, and — offering his unofficial view — described the political situation in Islamabad as ‘dysfunctional.’ He also criticized efforts by the Pakistan government to negotiate peace deals with insurgents on the frontier, saying past agreements have led to increased attacks across the border in Afghanistan.” He told reporters, “What’s missing is action to keep pressure on insurgents.” For example, noted the Post, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani “has for four months failed to agree to attend a meeting that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States have held in recent years on border problems.”

How has Pakistan responded to Karzai’s threat so far? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told media outlets Sunday that the country “would not tolerate any violations of its borders,” adding, “Pakistan did not interfere with other countries and would not allow any interference in its affairs.” BBC News quoted him stating, “We want a stable Afghanistan. It is in our interest. How can we go to destabilize our brotherly country?”

The question that remains is how can Pakistan respond to this mounting criticism of its government’s current policy with militants? Yes, there is pressure from Afghanistan and its allies to take a stronger hand with these militants, but there is also increasing pressure on this new democratically elected government to distance itself from Musharraf’s past policy with the United States. Moreover, anti-U.S. sentiment in the country only grows with incidents like we saw this past week, [see related post], making it increasingly more difficult for Islamabad to appease all sides.

If this post shows anything, it is that this new government is overwrought with issues that only promise to increase over time. Not only does Islamabad have growing tensions with Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States, but also a number of problems at the domestic level. What should the government address first? Moreover, what problem can this coalition ultimately solve?

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CHUP recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with renowned newspaper columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee. He is the author of Dawn’s Cowasjee Corner and the chairman of the Cowasjee Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to students seeking higher education opportunities. Born in Karachi in 1926 to a Parsi family, Cowasjee is regarded as the “guardian” of the city. In a recent NPR piece on the writer, Steve Inskeep noted, “People in Karachi take his columns seriously. He’s the kind of writer who’s willing to compare some provincial official to an out-of-touch French king.” Cowasjee is fearless in his columns, a man not afraid to criticize the ruling government, and CHUP was honored to be granted a brief (very brief if you note the responses) interview, [Image from Dawn].

Q: In your recent interview with National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, they cited your newspaper column, Cowasjee Corner, in which you referred to Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, as “that man of great perception….” Do you believe Pakistan has strayed from Jinnah’s original vision for this country? If so, why?

Yes. Lack of leadership.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest issue currently facing Pakistan?

Complete absence of law and order.

Q: As someone who has been deemed the “Guardian of Karachi,” how much do you feel the city has changed in your time there? What is the best and worst thing about Karachi?

Overpopulated. Lack of basic amenities. A large slum.

Q: What led you to become a columnist at Dawn newspaper? As a journalist, have you faced many obstacles in publishing columns that are exceptionally critical of the ruling regime?

Boredom – [that I] have to face the whims/fancies of my editor.

Q: The Cowasjee Foundation is your philanthropic organization that provides scholarships to students wishing to pursue higher education. What inspired you to establish this foundation?

Family-generated funds, [the foundation was] founded five generations ago.

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