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Selected news/columns/editorials: 05.04.2016

WASHINGTON: The United States (US) Navy awarded a $170 million contract for the manufacture of nine AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopters to Bell Helicopter, the US Department of Defense said in a statement on Monday. 

The combat helicopters will be manufactured and delivered to Pakistan under the Foreign Military Sales Program, the statement said. 

The Bell AH-1Z Viper is a twin-engine combat chopper based on the previous SuperCobra model developed for the US Marine Corps, Sputnik reported. It has a top speed of 420 kilometres per hour and a range of 610km. 

The contract awarded "for the manufacture and delivery of nine AH-1Z aircraft and nine auxiliary fuel kits for the government of Pakistan" is "expected to be completed in September 2018". 

"Foreign military sales funds in the amount of $170,173,188 will be obligated at time of award," the Defense Department statement says, adding that the Naval Air Systems Command is contracting the activity for the Pakistani government. 

Last April, the US State Department approved the Foreign Military Sale to Pakistan for the AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopters and AGM-114R Hellfire II Missiles and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of $952 million.

Read more: US approves billion-dollar arms sale to Pakistan

Earlier this year, the US approved a $700m sale of eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, to which India strongly objected. The sale was made in order to improve Pakistan’s precision strike capability, the US said.

In a document released in February, the US administration told US lawmakers that its Foreign Military Funding (FMF) to Pakistan would focus on seven priority areas "identified and agreed to with the government of Pakistan".

These include "precision strike; air mobility and combat search and rescue; counter-improvised explosive device and survivability; battlefield communications; night operations; border security; and maritime security/counter-narcotics in support of counter-terrorism aims".

The document, sent to Congress with the US administration’s budget proposals for 2017, identifies these areas as essential to enhancing Pakistan’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism capabilities.

Detoxifying the body politic

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

THE operation against militants in Punjab was long overdue. Both sceptics and believers of state policies had been watching out for it, locked in a ‘will it/won’t it/when will it’ debate. It’s kind of like the monitoring of Voyager 1 to see whether a manmade device could exit the heliosphere, the boundary separating the solar system from the rest of the galaxy. That occurred in the same year as Pakistan’s first democratic transition, which for some seemed equally improbable.

But the Punjab operation is about mining underground structures, not flying off into outer space. Blasting our way to the coal seam will not work even if the mine’s structure is kept secured. Toxic gases remain a hazard. Miners kept canaries in cages as an early warning system because poisonous fumes kill birds before people. Like canaries, religious minorities are vulnerable and have low immunity to toxicity in society.

Christians, the largest religious minority in Punjab, face three tiers of persecution — terrorist attacks by militants, lynchings by common people, and abandonment by the state. Terrorists have targeted Muslims far more than they have non-Muslims. But the lynching of minorities taps into a vein that army operations cannot address. Mobs have attacked and destroyed Christian settlements in Lahore, Toba Tek Singh, Gujranwala and Nankana Sahib. In Kasur, a couple was burnt alive less than two years ago. All incidents were triggered by allegations of blasphemy, and all were in central Punjab and not south Punjab, the apparent hub of radicalism.

Reams have been written on the state’s role. The radicalism cultivated during the 1980s; the Afghan jihad; patronage of sectarian groups and madressahs; re-promulgation of the blasphemy law during Zia’s regime; the Federal Shariat Court ordering compulsory execution for blasphemy, which triggered a deluge of allegations. But does the law’s existence sufficiently explain lynching and rioting? Is it a simple linear connection that the law spurs vigilantism? Or does the state’s inaction reflect a deeper problem?

Christians, the largest religious minority in Punjab, face persecution at three levels.

The first terrorist attack in Pakistan after 9/11 was on a Protestant church in Bahawalpur that left 16 dead. The following year, there were five terrorist attacks on Christians. But mob attacks predate that — in Shantinagar and Khanewal where almost 20 years ago, over 2,000 Christians were displaced by mobs who burned churches and destroyed homes. Blasphemy persecutions also predate 9/11. Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad committed suicide in protest in 1998. The right-wing consensus seems to be that while blasphemy against the sacred doesn’t affect the sacred, it hurts people’s sentiments, and that emotional distress must be punished and equilibrium restored with blood. 

We know blasphemy allegations are often a way of settling material conflicts such as property or business, and that people’s religious sentiments are exploited to create a frenzy. But what allows people to be provoked into barbarism? Fervent mobs declare Christians are agents or representatives of the Christian West. When did local Christians become such a proxy? Historically, they were not a conduit for revenge against the Christian colonisers of the Raj. In fact, accounts show that during the Partition violence, Christians marked their homes with crosses and were left alone by rioters. Even in the context of politically nurtured intolerance, what positioned them as ‘the other’?

I don’t claim to understand Punjab. But part of the problem could lie in the nature of Christian settlements. Initially, missionaries helped them establish segregated villages and settle as tenant farmers and labourers in new canal colonies. They got their own land in the model of the English parish and this kept them away from the stigma of the ‘chuhra’ past (where identity was turned into a slur), but it also distanced them from local politics and from connecting daily with the mainstream. This separatism plays out in other contexts of multiculturalism vs assimilation, or in conflicts amongst communities living on ethnic grids. 

Or maybe it has to do with Punjab’s forceful centralisation of religion. To accept the logic of Pakistan, Punjab had to compromise its other identity anchors because religion was the only thing that marked a distinction from Hindu and Sikh Punjabis. Language, affinity, music, culture, rituals — all had to be secondary. For Partition to make sense, religion and the willingness to fight for it had to matter above everything else; a threat to faith was for many an existential threat. No other province had to rethink its ethnic heritage to accept Pakistan, and could maintain multiple identities. 

It could also be the transmitted memory of the violence of Partition. The burning of villages and sacred spaces, killing and maiming, atrocities against the unarmed, perpetrator lurking inside each stranger — each being both victim and aggressor. No other province experienced with such intensity the horrors of Partition. 

The impulse to victimise before one is victimised has subsequently been ‘validated’ by history textbooks and official narratives, by markers of nationalism, by foreign policy, by being goaded to militarise and by ‘Darul Harb’ interpretations of religion.

Recent literature on Indigenous Australians establishes an intra-generational passing on of trauma, a ‘blood memory’ that leads to destructive behaviour, anger and violence. The point is not to excuse perpetrators as victims. Instead, I am wondering what we should do with the ghosts of 1947.

Psychologists tell us mob behaviour is shaped by the loss of individual responsibility and a sense of belonging heightened by group endorsement of such behaviour. But violent riots here dissipate within hours and don’t go on for weeks as in India eg Meerut in the 1980s, Mumbai in the 1990s, Gujarat in the 2000s. 

The main reason is that unlike in India, political parties and groups here are apparently not involved. Associated individuals may belong to certain parties, but it has not been organised political action or discourse. So far. But after the events of last week, when religio-political groups banded together on blasphemy — the very issue that has triggered violent riots — and were able to shut down Islamabad, and get assurances from the government while defending vigilantism, political mobilisation during riots has become an alarming possibility. And not only in Punjab.

The government’s compensation to victims matters only when it’s a part of reparations, a wider form of social repair. In this case that means arraying society-wide sensors for detecting and purifying the below-surface toxic fumes.

Meanwhile, Voyager 1’s power source is weakening, will soon stop transmitting power signals, and will have no other mission but to exist — perhaps in hopeful contrast to Pakistan’s democratic government.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.


Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2016

Panama Papers

The bombshell has been met with a predictable and swift response. No wrong has been committed and no illegality has been revealed in the so-called Panama Papers, according to the Sharif family itself and government spokespersons who have been activated to defend against the allegations. 

In matters of finance and taxation, snap judgements, particularly exonerations, are difficult to make. Whether Pakistani or international laws have been violated through the use of elaborate and secretive offshore companies and banking channels will be known in due course — at least in the international arena. 

Inside Pakistan, with the government controlling the tax authority and most of the relevant investigatory bodies, it is unlikely in the extreme that anything untoward will be discovered concerning the prime minister’s family and its financial dealings. 

Those implicated in the Panama Papers outside the Sharif family will also likely benefit — few government investigators, with the exception of perhaps NAB, will want the issue to linger in the public domain.

Even if no crime has been committed, the Panama Papers are an indictment of the ruling elite. The collective — the people — delegates the right to make decisions to elected representatives in order to maximise the greater good. But Pakistan’s ruling class is addicted to protecting its own interests and erecting formidable barriers to entry from outside. 

Why, it must be asked, do Pakistan’s rich feature so many politicians? The empires they have built suggest a visionary prowess, but only when it comes to their personal wealth and never when it comes to managing the country’s affairs. 

Rupee billionaires many times over, many of Pakistan’s leaders seem desperately unable to recreate that magic when they manage public monies and steer public organisations. 

The big players in the private sector are little better, always looking for state handouts and competition-eroding state interventions. Pakistan’s rich appear to have perfected the art of reverse redistribution — take from the needy and give to the greedy.

That is the real, and double, tragedy of a self-interested elite. Not only do they hold Pakistan back from realising its economic potential, they impose an ongoing cost on everyone else. 

What the Panama Papers reveal are elaborate schemes to avoid taxation and, likely, hide corruption money. That imposes an unjust cost on society. Because Pakistan’s elite avoid direct taxation, the tax structure is skewed towards indirect taxes. And indirect taxes, such as on essential foodstuffs, fuel and basic utilities, put a disproportionate burden on the very people the elected elite are meant to be representing. 

So when the Sharif family denies it has done anything illegal, what should be asked of them is, for every rupee of tax avoidance, who is picking up the cost? Surely, the first family should be setting the opposite example and leading on tax compliance. Raiwind is a palatial residence — are spectacular apartments in London necessary too? 

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2016


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