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Staring into the abyss

The people of Pakistan are at their wit’s end after one year of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government. Inconsistent and contradictory economic policies have rendered industry and trade in free fall, unemployment is rising (including the impact of the incremental trend of layoffs), and inflation has broken the back of the poor while causing pain and suffering in the middle class. The rich too are feeling the pinch, although of course theirs is a case of even a dead elephant being worth a fortune.

The first contradiction to come to the fore is the drive for increased tax revenues by methods that smack of coercion rather than smart policies. Despite the much-touted increase in the number of tax filers, revenues have failed to rise as the government expected. In fact there has been a massive shortfall in revenue targets. Failing on the direct taxes front, the government has fallen back on regressive indirect taxation without thinking through the consequences. At a moment when exports are flat, it makes little sense to impose more indirect taxes on major export industries such as textiles.

Nothing of note can be pointed to in the government’s policy basket that could inspire and sustain hope in better days to come. Many old issues have once again raised their ugly heads.

It is a matter of both wonderment and grudging satisfaction that the problem of torture of suspects in police stations and unofficial torture cells has caught the imagination of the media in recent days after incidents of the death of suspects in police custody hit the headlines. While the unprecedented media attention to such practices, especially in Punjab, is to be welcomed as an airing of the dark underbelly of our law enforcers, there are troubling questions that need answers.

Is routine, systematic torture of suspects by police something new? Is it not a fact that everyone seems to know but no one mentioned until lately? Are reporters and journalists whose beats these are unaware of the police’s standard modus operandi? Why have these abuses not been in the news earlier and consistently despite being common knowledge? Part of the answer may lie in the inadequacies and striving for comfort zones of the media itself. But the real culprit is a brutal, inefficient, corrupt police force inherited from colonial days whose thana (police station) culture remains untouched because of an absence of political will to establish the bona fides and rights of the citizen vis-a-vis the state. Hopefully human and legal rights defenders will now take this issue to some logical conclusion by continuing their efforts to expose such malpractices and thereby put pressure on the government to rein in a police force off the leash.

Not only did we have the travesty of the Police Order 2002 foisted on us by the Pervez Musharraf regime, a move that gave ‘autonomy’ to a police force that hardly had anything in its track record to commend it, subsequent governments have also chosen to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the ordinary citizen at the hands of our so-called protectors. Law and order concerns in big cities have given birth to trigger-happy (and therefore arguably ill-trained) Dolphin Squads and other such outfits, whose philosophy appears to be ‘shoot first, ask questions later’, irrespective of collateral damage in terms of the lives of innocent passersby. Placing the citizen and his/her rights centre-stage in our dispensation has gone abegging and cries out for attention.

The incidence of blasphemy accusations is another problem that not only refuses to go away, it recurs with monotonous regularity. In Ghotki, Sindh, the other day, the Hindu community’s shops and properties were destroyed by an ‘enraged’ mob after charges of blasphemy were filed against the Hindu owner/teacher of a local school. The problem with such incidents is that even the alleged blasphemy cannot be reported since that would fall within the purview of blasphemy itself! So the public is none the wiser in such cases what exactly transpired to elicit such mob rage.

However, such incidents also have another, darker side. The notorious Mian Mithoo and his brother Aslam are suspected to be behind the mob ‘vigilantism’. They have been involved for years in forcibly converting and marrying off Hindu girls in Tharparkar. Any such opportunity to do down the target Hindu community is therefore treated by them as a ‘blessing’. The only chink of light in this case is that the alleged blasphemer is under police protection, where we can only pray and hope he will be safe until the law is able to take its course. But even that process is not without problems. Since the alleged blasphemy cannot even be spoken in court, no one is the wiser whether justice will in the end be done.

If the domestic scene appears to give the impression of ‘business as usual’ (whatever happened to the PTI’s slogan of ‘change’?), on the foreign front too there are troubling developments. The US-Taliban talks for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Afghan war have broken down, irretrievably or not only time will tell. Fighting has intensified in the country in the aftermath of the interrupted peace process, with US President Donald Trump boasting that the Taliban were being hit harder than ever. That may be so, but how is this spurt of offensive actions going to change the arithmetic of the Afghan war? Simply put, the Taliban have succeeded in their guerrilla war of attrition in wearing down the political will of the Americans to stay engaged. All Trump is looking for (or at least that was the case before the breakdown) is a face-saving exit before his 2020 re-election run. For a while, the exertions of Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha smacked of throwing the Ashraf Ghani government and all those opposed to a return of Taliban rule to the wolves, a la the US retreat from Vietnam that led inexorably to the fall of South Vietnam to the tenacious forces of Ho Chi Minh (whose 50th death anniversary just passed on September 2). A rampant Taliban attempting to seize power outright could lead to a fresh outflow of refugees fleeing what may turn out to be an intensified inter-Afghan civil war, with or without a US troop presence. Welcome to the mess another imperial power promises to bequeath to us and the region as a whole.

The Kashmir crisis has stirred Pakistan into action. But our protests and diplomatic efforts have badly exposed Pakistan’s limited options and helplessness. The world is not interested in wresting the UN Security Council-mandated right of (limited) self-determination to the people of Kashmir. The powers-that-be are only trying to prevent tensions escalating to a clash between Pakistan and India, with its concomitant risk of nuclear war.

Last but not least, the present dispensation, which is now being described aptly as ‘hybrid’, may fall flat on its face if the last year’s performance is any guide. If so, what will happen in the face of staring into the abyss of no credible political alternative?

Rashed Rahman, "Staring into the abyss," Business Recorder. 2019-09-17.
Keywords: Economics , Economic policies , Tax revenues , Kashmir crisis , Vigilantism , Unemployment , Pakistan , America , Kashmir , India , PTI