Dawn Editorial 20th August 2023

Mayhem in Wadh

IT should be incomprehensible that any part of a country in peacetime would become a battlefield without the state doing all it can to restore law and order. Yet, what should be incomprehensible becomes plausible in Balochistan — the consequence of spectacularly skewed priorities pursued for decades. In the province’s Wadh tehsil, the collapse of a tenuous ceasefire has seen the resumption of ferocious clashes between two warring factions of the Mengal tribe. Local officials told this paper that two people have been killed and three injured in the exchange of fire using mortar shells and rockets. Daily life has been disrupted, with educational institutions, government offices, markets, and even clinics shuttered.

The conflict between the chief of the Mengal tribe Akhtar Mengal and notorious outlaw Shafiq Mengal should never have come about in the first place. Had there been any rule of law in Balochistan, Shafiq Mengal and his gang would never have been tasked with conducting parallel manhunts against suspected separatists in Khuzdar district where Wadh is located. Emboldened by this, the outfit allegedly committed a slew of serious crimes along the way, including robbery, kidnapping for ransom and murder; their links with violent sectarian outfits who wreaked havoc on the Shia Hazara community are a matter of record. The impunity was only somewhat curtailed when the lawlessness became too extreme to ignore. But there was no accountability. In fact, the ECP found Shafiq Mengal fit to stand for election in 2018 for the National Assembly seat from Khuzdar — his candidature, it is said, a ploy to remind Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the eventual winner of the seat, of the limits to his power. Against this backdrop is the suffering of the people of Khuzdar, one of the most backward areas in an already deprived province, for they must contend not only with a regressive tribal culture but also an entirely uncaring state. The neocolonial divide-and-rule approach must end now.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2023


Saving fishermen

AMONG the most impecunious and marginalised of society, naive fisherfolk have long endured the political chill in Pakistan and India ties.This hostility forces needless incarceration and delays release, destroying lives, livelihoods and families. Earlier this month, another fisherman, Jagdish, 35, died in a Karachi prison. His body has spent a fortnight in the morgue, awaiting transfer to India. The fifth foreign prisoner to die in captivity, he is yet another reminder of the hard positions taken by the two states and the erasure of humanitarian concern. As poor kin on both sides of the divide battle for survival, anglers waste away in dire conditions — they are criminals to be maltreated and kept underfed and without healthcare in grimy, choked prison cells. All this pain is in the name of an unsettled history and indiscernible maritime boundaries. Moreover, the rate of arrests is directly proportional to the temperature of tensions. Ordinarily, what they do would be perfectly plausible and far from illegal: fishermen do not cross territory; as eroded ecosystems drive shoals of fish into deeper, fresher waters, they simply follow their catch. Although interventions by human rights activists in both countries bring occasional relief in the form of prisoner exchanges, neither country has tried to seriously resolve the issue of hostage fishermen. Our maritime story should not be complicated. But since New Delhi’s illegal annexation of India-held Kashmir in August 2019, Pakistan-India ties have been frostier and hearts too hardened for compassion. Therefore, fishermen end up spending years more in jail than the prescribed six months; they frequently have arbitrary charges such as narcotics and terrorism slapped on them to face drawn-out trials and are denied consular access and legal aid.

Other than humanity, old traditions of courtesy, too, have been abandoned: for the first time during peacetime, India and Pakistan did not exchange formal wishes on their respective independence days this year, nor were sweets swapped at the Wagah-Attari border. Further, since 2019, this has been the longest period of downgraded missions due to a truculent Indian leadership. However, the issue of innocent ‘trespassers’ should not be emblematic of our fraught links. As humans cannot depend on the vicissitudes of Pakistan-India ties, fisherfolk deserve a no-arrest policy. In the end, both countries must use humanitarian, and not just political, confidence-building measures to rescue humanity.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2023


Catch-22

THE country’s superior judiciary remains in a bind. Ever since an eight-member bench led by the chief justice acted prematurely to ensure that the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act would be a stillborn law, several senior justices have, on different occasions, been less than enthusiastic about hearing major cases till questions regarding the constitutionality of the aforementioned law are firmly decided.

The issue arose again during the Friday hearing of a petition challenging the changes made last year by the PDM government to the country’s anti-corruption laws. Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, who is part of the three-member bench that has been hearing the long-running case, proposed the formation of a full-court bench to hear the matter, noting that since the SC had not yet issued a final judgement on the Practice and Procedure law, it may be best to refer the matter to a larger bench keeping in mind the implications of the case.

It may be recalled that, through the Practice and Procedure Act, the PDM government had sought to take suo motu powers and the prerogative to form benches away from the chief justice and hand them to a committee comprising the three senior-most judges of the apex court. Parts of the Practice and Procedure Act also made their way into the later Supreme Court (Review of Judgements and Orders) Act, which the SC struck down last week.

At one point in the ruling striking down the latter law, the chief justice observed that “it would veer towards irrationality to hold” that the legislature could supersede the CJP and enact a law taking away his prerogative to exercise and invoke jurisdiction under Article 184(3).

This would seem to suggest that the Practice and Procedure Act may meet a similar fate. However, the bench hearing the case seems caught in a Catch-22 situation, with a decision either for or against the law complicated by the apex court’s internal divisions.

The Practice and Procedure Act may never have become an albatross around the SC’s neck had the chief justice addressed the differences within his court early and in an amicable manner. He was asked repeatedly by his fellow judges to devise rules regulating suo motu and bench-fixing powers but refused to relinquish control over them.

When the PDM government moved to capitalise on these divisions for its own ends, he failed to rally support from within the institution behind him, to the judiciary’s general detriment. However, it is never too late to learn from past mistakes. The chief justice still has a month till his retirement. He must spend it tying up loose ends. Much time has been lost and grass trampled on in this fight between elephants. He must put it to rest.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2023

 

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