Dawn Editorial 14th August 2023

Stoking controversy

AMONGST the spate of laws rushed through parliament as the sun set on the tenure of the PDM coalition is the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023. The document in question amends the sensitive blasphemy law, yet what is distressing is that it was passed by the Senate this week without proper debate, and without many lawmakers even seeing the bill. A similarly haphazard method was employed in January when the bill was pushed through an apparently inquorate National Assembly. The bill, amongst other changes, enhances punishment for blasphemy, under Section 298-A, to life, with a minimum of 10 years. Moved by a Jamaat-i-Islami lawmaker, in the statement of objectives it is said that the changes are being made to counter “terrorism”, and to address disrespect towards the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) wives, family and companions. While the sacred personalities of all sects and faiths need to be respected, and blasphemy certainly cannot be condoned, questions arise about the intentions of this bill, especially when some Muslim sects are of the view that the changes may be a ruse to challenge their religious beliefs.

Firstly, such an important law should not have been rushed with no regard for parliamentary procedure, and no thorough debate. Secondly, complex historical and theological questions cannot be bulldozed through parliament, without major input from historians and scholars of all sects. The matters the bill addresses concern debates that have been raging within the body politic of Islam for 14 centuries. How such a stringent law can be approved by a handful of lawmakers is a matter of concern. The state needs to revisit the decision, as instead of addressing sectarianism, it may end up stoking communalism. Instead of lawmakers, such theological questions should be discussed by ulema and intellectuals, while clergymen of all denominations must promote the virtues of tolerance and mutual respect amongst their respective flocks.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2023

Jinnah to now

ON the day when Pakistan completes 76 years of sovereignty, and celebrates half a century of the implementation of its Constitution, there’s a palpable need to assess the present through the lens of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for this nation. His was an uncanny lucidity about matters of the state — the right to change dispensations and their policies rests with the electorate.

In a 1948 address to army officers in Quetta, he underlined that “executive authority flows from the head of the government … and therefore, any command or orders that may come to you cannot come without the sanction of the executive head”.

Earlier, on Aug 11, 1947, the principles of inclusiveness, impartial governance, rule of law, religious liberty, and social equality were made plain by the founder to the constituent assembly.

The founding fathers imagined an egalitarian, prosperous welfare state; one that thrived in harmony and justice with absolute civil supremacy. But decades after them, what emerged is entirely divergent from their beliefs. So this day begs the question: is ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ an ideal fading into a myth?

Our wounds and dilemmas are largely of our own making. For one, we reconstructed Jinnah — from a modernist to an orthodox — to suit prevalent narratives and enhance the power of clerics and the military in forming state policies.

Second, the continual infringement of the Constitution has left a faint watermark of what should have been a robust democratic culture. Recurrent military regimes arrested the political process. In fact, these have polluted political outfits that now, more often than not, collude with unelected elements to wrest power.

The military ruled Pakistan for three decades and has managed ‘chosen’ administrations. A recent glimpse of that was the hybrid model of the PTI-led government, which failed resoundingly, as have similar experiments.

This was replaced by a complete surrender of collective political space and a PML-N-led coalition was installed. Lastly, the rising tide of extremism turned Pakistan into a militancy hub.

Admittedly, there isn’t a magical way out, but stemming cronyism, corruption, and intervention is a good place to start. Salvation lies in retrieving Jinnah’s dream with the rule of law, education, health, welfare, and people power in a meritocracy. For non-political forces to usurp or derail the Constitution and cave into religious hardliners violates every ideal close to the Quaid’s heart.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2023

‘Reviving’ PIA

AFTER trying numerous ‘revival plans’ to turn around the lossmaking national carrier, Pakistani policymakers appear to have realised the folly of repeating the same mistake over and over again. They have eventually admitted that it is impossible to relive what many fondly remember as the ‘lost glory’ of PIA. Those happy days are long past; the airline is now moribund — both as a business and brand. The company’s liabilities and debt of Rs742bn far exceed its assets of Rs110bn. Its flight operations are shrinking, and it cannot fly to many international destinations owing to serious safety concerns. Even on domestic routes, it is facing stiff competition from younger private airlines. Every plan to restructure the company has met with strong resistance from its employees, as well as elements responsible for squeezing blood from it. Following a decision by the Cabinet Committee of Privatisation and an amendment to the PIAC law by parliament, the PDM coalition had recently included PIA in the long list of active privatisation projects. The previous law passed by the PML-N set-up in 2016 had prohibited the government from selling its majority shareholding in the airline to private investors or outsourcing its management. PIA’s privatisation plan was unveiled after Islamabad agreed to a strict fiscal discipline plan with the IMF last month to secure a short-term $3bn bailout deal to avert sovereign default. But the question is: will the government find a buyer for a brand that has lost all its prestige and demand? Conversely, would an investor put money in a virtually dead concern plagued by political and financial problems?

Recent reports suggest that the authorities do realise the potential difficulties in the way of PIA’s sale, and, hence, have drawn up a fallback plan to first restructure it and then hand over its management to private investors. Under this plan, the authorities intend to transfer the airline’s liabilities to a new holding company before outsourcing management. Indeed, with PIA’s accumulated losses projected to rise to Rs850bn by the end of this year, it is imperative to divest it of its liabilities before reaching out to investors for its sale or partnership in management.

Meanwhile, like previous strategies formulated for the airline’s revival, the new plan is expected to meet stiff resistance from employees as well as the forces of status quo who want to preserve their financial interests. While the government can allay the fears of the staff by creating a pool of surplus employees or offering them generous compensation if they are to be laid off, it will require strong political will to overcome the resistance of vested official interests. Regrettably, concerns remain that the new strategy will also collapse like the previous plans since it is not very different from them.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2023

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