Commissions and conspiracies

by Muhammad Ismail Khan

Normally, with the findings of a fact-finding commission being made public, it is intended that there will be less air for ambiguity and, instead, a junction will be reached before further inquiry and action is taken. Something similar might have been felt by the ruling party when the report on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was about to be released by the UN Commission that was tasked to look into the tragic event. Now comes the report, and the opponents have not only questioned the report but also the commission.

Critics of the commission lie in the extreme, ranging from those who are not buying the report to those who believe that the commission has nothing new in it. Though technically opposite to each other in terms of content-buying, the two stances are united in the belief that the commission wasted time and money, begging a question if the appointment of a probing commission was even justified in the first hand.

The answer is: yes, it was. The justification for its appointment comes from the presence of such positions with regard to the commission and its report. Even though there are fewer people in the public who completely rejected the report, the commission was necessary to satisfy the answers of the first group. Without the commission, this group would not only have remained eternally convinced with their details of the event but also have tried to convince others. At least people can now double-check what is being said.

Understandably, it is the second group that is giving a tough time to the government lately. Instead of rejecting the report completely, they are questioning the appointment of the commission, which, they believe, published what was already known. These journalists, as they tell us, already knew most of the events and the UN did nothing but collated all those news reports and interviews already circulating in the air.

While the point is well taken, not all the journalists knew about all the sets of events. In many cases, their conclusions were based on deductions from specific interviews. The difference between them and the commission is that its report should serve as a single, reliable pool of information.

In the absence of such a report, the end result is often a distortion of the story, which is a classic reminder of how partial wisdom can corrupt the soul. Such a distortion, after all, builds on the incorporation of a perspective of specific observers while discarding many others — commonly found in conspiracy theories. Such commissions, therefore, are the best way of addressing the distortions floating in the media.

As a reminder of how commissions serve in setting the record straight, one would like to refer to two of the notable commissions set up in the US: the Warren Commission that looked into the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963; and the 9/11 Commission which looked into the events related to the September 11, 2001 attack.

In the case of the 9/11 Commission, among the 160 witnesses being asked to publicly testify, a few said that they felt as if there were bombs blowing up the building. The same thing was observed in Kennedy’s assassination where there were multiple theories about the assassination, and the involvement of multiple persons. Contrary to conspiracies, the commission had to gauge the facts against what was being said. The point is that even if a witness said so, there are concrete reasons to ignore an individual’s ‘feelings’ or ‘thinking’.

The same needs to be understood in Pakistan: just because some witnesses happen to disagree with a specific politician, this does not mean that his words are full of wisdom. Yet, what one sees is that, instead of offering the complete picture, a deliberate selection of events is projected which is then endorsed by the selective guest list in talk shows. On the other hand, the commission cannot merely rely on two or three persons; instead, it conducted 250 interviews. After all, for the commission, the person being given attention and the one being ignored share equal importance. Even journalistic ethics would have demanded listening to the person accused, instead of sticking to a single plot only.

This is not to exculpate anyone. Instead, if anyone is indicted for avoidable negligence, there is no reason why he should not be punished. But reaching a conclusion by indirectly referring to a person is senseless. Perhaps, for this very reason, the role of commission becomes important, as it has to rely on concrete evidence instead of ambiguous thoughts about how one individual appears to specific individuals. That, by itself, hits against those who are now questioning the appointment of the commission.

A light unto ourselves

by Zaair Hussain

A passionate cry for educational reform in Pakistan is almost always a welcome voice. Recently, a personality of some stature and prominence put the ‘almost’ in ‘almost always’ and advocated the immediate commencement of classes specifically designed to ensure that our youth takes the inherent enmity of India as an article of faith and never forgets that New Delhi is hell-bent on the destruction of Pakistan.

Contained within this suggestion is a cocktail of two of the most self-defeating traits of our country: an identity that stems from a negative root (“to be a proud Pakistani is to oppose India”), and a xenophobic victimisation complex that strips us of ownership of our own destiny and imagines it inevitably in the malicious hands of another.

Pakistan’s problems are a growing legion; they have encircled us, besieged us, and even now advance upon us with a menacing gait and a grim determination. We have ridden out to meet them in the field, armed not with solutions but with accusations.

We, who must walk every day through the ashes and the flames, would deny our own volcanoes. Every eruption of violence and instability is placed upon the heads of external sources, most commonly RAW, who promptly shrug their shoulders and issue perfunctory denials. We, in turn, heroically nurture our grudges — real or imagined — into a full-blown enmity curriculum for our children. There is little to suggest that RAW is a competent enough agency to destabilise Pakistan single-handedly in the first place, but it is jaw-dropping how many of us have clawed our way atop in the sheer face of credulity and declared that no instability or violence in Pakistan could arise from within.

We have clung, white-knuckled, so long to the notion of a state with ‘barbarians at the gate’ that many of us simply cannot adjust to the new reality: they are inside, these new barbarians, within us, amongst us. Decades of self-conditioning against an external threat have left us woefully ill-equipped, emotionally or mentally, to deal with the home-grown nightmare of the Taliban. Those we considered our faithful pawns against the Soviets have since become, whether through indulgence or neglect, harbingers of a twisted and starkly imagined dark age.

But because their hides resemble our skin, and in their growlings we hear faint echoes of familiar words, we resort to what is familiar and comfortable: blaming India for everything that goes awry, though the average Pakistani has infinitely more in common with the average Indian than with a member of the Taliban, or the RSS. Our frankly bewildering denial that anything could be the fault of our own has created a victimisation complex, rendering us unable to face our problems, let alone address them.

What safety will we sacrifice by teaching our children that Indians are human? We do not rely on a ragtag militia for our defence, that any sag in nationalistic fervour will ensure the immediate storming of our borders. We enjoy the protection of a large, professional army; we have no reason to sabotage from kindergarten any chance of a peaceful coexistence, which will greatly benefit our own country.

I am no single-minded pacifist, content to secure our borders with positive thinking and pixie dust, and that is precisely because I believe Indians are people too. People everywhere can be paranoid, vicious and untrustworthy. But if our identity as a separate people becomes indistinguishable from our frenzied opposition to India, what is there left to protect?

We are drowning in the fallacy that patriotism is nothing more than rejectionism. To believe this is to believe that love and hatred are synonymous — an absurd notion. In some ways, this paradigm was initially inevitable: in the hellfire of partition was forged a gleaming antagonism, stronger than any steel. Our creation left us scarred and we looked to our army rightly for our safety, and mistakenly for our identity.

I do not denigrate our soldiers; they are often the bright line between us and the darkness without. If called upon, they will no doubt hold the line — bravely, heroically — but it is not their function to move us forward. For that, we must look elsewhere, to institutions that have nothing to do with opposition. We must look to our educators, our philosophers, our young men and women naïve enough to envision a better future and stubborn enough to bring it about in the face of all obstacles. We must realise that we consummated our rejection of greater India decades ago, and turn our passion towards blazing a new path, our own path.

For all our endemic problems and our crippling poverty and our moments of shame, we are not a nation with nothing to be proud of. In times of crisis, our people have rallied together with a humbling generosity to lift their stricken countrymen and women back on their feet. We have the largest private ambulance service in the world, a wonder wrought by the hand of an exceptional man and a nation eager to support him. In the midst of drab grey skies, the intense luminance of some of our musicians and artists and poets left the whole world dazzled. Despite the allegedly impermeable chauvinism of ‘the masses’, we were the first Muslim majority country to elect a female head of state. Two years ago, we formed an impossible alliance across deeply divided classes to overthrow — peacefully, bloodlessly — a dictator who had become a tyrant.

Our identity must be anchored to these and all other points of rightful pride to harness the true, full measure of our own brilliance. We must aspire to be more than a rejection of India, a shadow cast by its flame, and create our own light.

Parents teach their children to be wary of strangers; it is a natural reaction to the heart-stopping fear of their offspring’s naiveté and vulnerability and cannot be grudged. But to educate them thus is a different matter entirely; we are not encouraging caution, but hatred. And to consummate this hellish curriculum, we are teaching them to use the unknown, demonised the other to escape personal responsibility. If these are the lessons we value, our only hope as a people is that our children are headstrong enough to ignore us.

LNG Verdict: Further Sign of Military-Judicial Nexus?

The Supreme Court’s verdict against a billion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply contract on Wednesday has been met mostly with uninterest, most people seeming to view it as a routine matter of the court policing a lack of transparency in the awarding of government contracts. While I will certainly not suggest that lack of transparency is not a problem, there are a few items about this particular case that I find curious. Namely, the little talked about relationship between the court and the military in this case.

CJ Iftikhar ChaudhryThe first curious thing about the case was that it was a suo moto action. That means that the court took it upon itself to take up the case without a complaint from any party. This might be the case, but if there was a problem with the award of the contract to French company GDF Suez, why did no other company make a complaint?

This brings us to the next curious fact: the company that supposedly had the lowest bid was Fauji Foundation – an investment group run by former military officers.

[The Supreme Court] took up the natural gas deal case after media reports that Pakistan had lost $1 billion when senior petroleum ministry officials ignored the lowest bid by the Fauji Foundation, an investment group run by former military officers, and European company Vitol, and chose France’s GDF Suez.

So, the government took bids for an LNG supply contract and awarded to a French company. The Supreme Court, without any complaint from another company, took it upon itself to step in and void the contract. One of the losing bidders just happens to be tied to the military.

This would be curious enough by itself, but the situation becomes more so when we take a step back and consider the context for this action.

Pakistan is presently suffering a severe energy crisis. Actually, the energy crisis is one of the top reasons that people are unhappy, and also a top reason why Pakistan has had difficulty attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The contract with GDF Suez would have provided 3.5 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas supplies every year for six years. Surely this would have gone a long way towards solving the energy problem and attracting new foreign investment.

LNGOf course, making progress on energy and foreign investment would also be seen as a success for the present government, which the court has constantly attacked. Cancelling this contract is also seen by foreign analysts as a means for the Chief Justice to assert his own power as supreme.

One analyst said a Supreme Court seen as intrusive would be bad for business, in a country struggling to keep its budget deficit at the levels required under politically sensitive reforms the International Monetary Fund is pushing for.

“To what extent is the action on the part of Chaudhry great and to what extent is it stifling matters?,” asked Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.

“This issue of cancelling a deal because it wasn’t transparent is a tool by which the judiciary asserts itself because ultimately it is also a power.”

Then there is the fact that the military is involved. Following Ahsan Iqbal’s (PML-N) recent statements that there is a “third force” trying to cause a clash between judiciary and government, one must wonder if there
is some relationship here. Is this all part of an effort to execute a ‘coup by judiciary’?

Awarding of government contracts should be transparent, fair, and in the best interest of Pakistan. The government should not give away contracts to one company if there is a better deal from another. Also, the government should not give away contracts to former military officers if some other company can do a better job. The fact that the Supreme Court has inserted itself into this situation without being asked by party to the contract process raises serious questions about whether the court is being honest and transparent itself.


A Moment for Optimism

by Farahnaz Ispahani for The Daily Times

The passage of the 18th amendment and its signing by the president has been rightly hailed by a broad spectrum of civil society as a landmark achievement of the PPP government, supported by its allies like MQM, ANP, JUI-F and the opposition party PML-N — in fact all political parties represented in parliament. It indeed represents a triumph for the policy of reconciliation pursued by the PPP government in line with the legacy of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to take along all political forces. At the same time, it also constitutes a rebuff to sceptics, who all along have been expressing doubts about the sincerity of the president to forego his powers and the ability of the constitutional committee to finish the assigned task.

In fact, the passage of the 18th Amendment is unique in the sense that, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, a sitting president has willingly surrendered his powers to parliament and the prime minister. The constitutional package enjoyed the backing of all the political forces and the provinces, as was the case when the 1973 Constitution was drawn up. The president, contrary to the claims of his detractors, emphatically declared at the signing ceremony, “I am particularly delighted that the 17th Amendment has been repealed.”

The spirit with which all the stakeholders worked to cleanse the constitution of the aberrations introduced by successive dictators is indeed an unprecedented phenomenon. The Parliamentary Constitutional Reforms Committee led by Senator Raza Rabbani, which worked for over nine months, to firm up a package of 102 constitutional clauses, deserves unqualified accolades and the gratitude of the entire nation. Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani was spot on when he described it as a dividend of the policy of reconciliation, while addressing the National Assembly.

Another point worth noticing is that the obstacles faced by the constitutional committee in resolving some of the more contentious issues indicate how difficult an assignment it was. These developments have also vindicated the government’s stance to tread cautiously in resolving constitutional issues and avoiding the pitfalls of any hasty action. The repeal of the 17th Amendment through the passage of the 18th Amendment have made parliament sovereign, restored the powers of the prime minister as originally prescribed by the 1973 constitution, satisfied the provinces with regard to provincial autonomy and cleared the obstacles to good governance.

It is an undeniable reality that when the present government assumed power, the country was standing at the edge of a precipice. It faced the snowballing phenomenon of terrorism and religious extremism — a formidable threat. The armed insurgency in Balochistan needed to be contained. The unconstitutional steps of the dictator and aberrations introduced in the constitution required to be undone to put the democratic process back on track. The reinstatement of the deposed judiciary and constitutional and administrative complexities in this regard needed to be resolved amicably. Provinces and the federal government were at loggerheads on the question of distribution of resources. The economy was in a fragile state, marred by food shortages, power crisis, rising unemployment and burgeoning poverty.

The situation was not an enviable one for a representative government to land in. Granted that, during the last two years, it has not been able to resolve all these issues in entirety, but one thing beyond any reproach is that it has exhibited remarkable political will, determination, commitment and honesty of purpose.

It would, perhaps, not be out of place to mention some of the achievements of the government in all these areas. As for the war against terrorism, the government can rightly claim success in having halted the advance of the militants. Swat is an excellent example. The strategy evolved by the government, in consultation with the army and other stakeholders, and the determination shown by it in the face of heavy odds led to a complete ouster of the extremists from the area. The handling of the IDPs and their rehabilitation, with the military playing a major role in the effort, is also an unparalleled achievement. Despite retaliatory suicide attacks by these defeated elements, the government has not shown any weakness in its determination to eliminate the scourge of terrorism.

The Balochistan initiative, ‘Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan’, in consultation with national political leaders, government and legislators of Balochistan, represents a major political initiative to resolve this conundrum. The resolution of the resource distribution dispute between the provinces and the Centre through the 7th National Finance Commission Award is yet another achievement of the government, ungrudgingly acknowledged across the political divide.

In tackling the power shortage, the government has not been found lacking in commitment to fix this malady on a priority basis. During the last two years it has successfully set up three power plants of 200 MW each and another 1,000 MW plant will soon be available for integration into the national grid system. Shortly, 250 MW will be available from the rental power plants installed so far. Other measures such as the import of electricity from other countries are also being considered. The government has also taken steps to meet the long-term energy needs of the country. It is going ahead with the multi-billion dollar Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Both countries have already signed a gas sales agreement to import 750 million cubic feet of gas per day, to generate 4,500 MW of electricity. During the recently concluded Strategic Dialogue with the US, commitments have been obtained for US help in tiding over the power shortage.

The grant of self-rule to Gilgit-Baltistan, restructuring bilateral relations with the US, a tripling of US aid for Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Scheme, ‘Waseela-e-Haq’ initiative, the Benazir Employees Stock Option Scheme, which gives 12 percent share of state-owned industrial units to workers, the Benazir Green Tractors scheme, restoration of the deposed judiciary, abolition of the emergency, PEMRA law of 2007 and the resolution of net hydro-power profit for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and gas development surcharge to Balochistan, are some of the other measures that could be the envy of any government.

Nevertheless, it is true that the government has not yet succeeded fully in certain crucial social sectors and the economy in a way it would have liked to, due to a resource constraint and because of the battle against terrorism and rectifying constitutional distortions.

The successes in these areas present a moment of optimism. We hope that the government will be able to consolidate these gains and will also be in a better position to concentrate more vigorously on grappling with our economic issues, especially with the energy crisis and poverty alleviation, during the next three years.

A Fresh Perspective on Independent Judiciary

Dr Rubina Saigol is a respected human rights activist, researcher, and academic who has been widely published on Pakistani society. Her column in today’s Tribune, “Judicial independence and rule of law,” is a fresh perspective on the current struggle between some elements of the judiciary against the parliament.

A new controversy appears to have erupted on the national scene. Once again the hotly contested terrain is the independence of the judiciary to ensure rule of law in the country. A group of lawyers have argued that the new mode of judicial appointments prescribed in the 18th Constitutional amendment amounts to an attack on judicial independence and the hallowed notion of rule of law.

A competing perspective offered by other lawyers, including the iconic leader of the lawyers’ movement Aitzaz Ahsan, is that judicial independence is not compromised in the new procedure. Still others contend that the executive and the legislature, as elected representatives of the people, play a role in the appointment of senior judges, a practice followed in the US. Eminent lawyers like Babar Sattar have pointed out on various occasions that judicial independence is guaranteed through the security of tenure — a judge who knows he cannot be arbitrarily removed is potentially capable of judgments that reflect independence.

At the heart of the seemingly purely legal debates are deeper issues regarding how we as a nation want to organise our social, moral and political existence. It is the right of the elected representatives to make and amend laws and the constitution in line with the aspirations of the people whom they represent. The judiciary certainly has the right to review laws that may contradict fundamental rights or other important provisions of the constitution. Nevertheless, the growing tendency to constantly reject everything that a duly elected parliament enacts reflects a negative trend that, if taken too far, can end up negating the will of the people.

The danger is that if left unchecked, such a trend may entrench non-elected state institutions so deeply in society that they come to dictate everything — from morality to legality. This would turn liberal parliamentary democracy on its head and in the process, overturn popular sovereignty. Quite apart from the imminent danger of judicial dogmatism, there is a need to explore the notion of rule of law critically. An Enlightenment Era construct, the rule of law implies that society will be governed through a set of agreed upon rules and regulations that would be consistently and equally applied to all citizens and no person would be above the law.

Rule by a set of consensual principles would replace arbitrary and whimsical rule by individuals. Power would be invested in institutions that represent the larger collective rather than in individuals. Further, it would not be exercised in the interest of repression but for the larger good. This, however, is the ideal. In reality, the pretension that the rule of law is a value-neutral, impartial concept does not stand up to scrutiny. Societies are divided along the many axes of class, gender, religion, ethnicity or sect.

Laws, in countries like Pakistan, are made by people who hail from powerful classes and are mostly males who belong to a particular religion or ethnic group. Laws, therefore, are not neutral but reflect the interests of a particular class or gender. Judges, like everyone else, are a part of society. Irrespective of how honest and upright they might be, they too are subject to the human propensity for prejudice, for they too are rooted in a culture divided by religion, ethnicity, class and gender. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us have our biases and preferences. This is not meant to take away from the dignity of the honourable judges of the superior judiciary but merely a reminder that since most of us are located in fractured, unequal and hierarchical societies, an independent judge does not mean that he/she is freed of all prejudice and bias that comes from personal belief.

Despite the courage shown by our judiciary in the recent past, especially in their rejection of military rule, they are ultimately fallible. While they have become symbols of hope and aspiration and are under pressure to deliver justice, it should not be the case that all other public institutions, especially representative ones, should become hampered in their work because of the misplaced, though understandable and natural, desire for justice. Liberation from tyranny is strongest when it means freedom from our own prejudice as much as independence from another institution.