Dawn Editorial 28th May 2024

Attacking minorities

WHILE Pakistan has watched many perish in the cauldron of sacrilege, the state has done little to turn down the flames of hatred. Yet another appalling incident was witnessed on Saturday in Sargodha’s Mujahid colony. A Christian man was accused of desecrating religious scriptures and subjected to violence by a pack of fanatics who were bent on lynching him. The mob, which was carrying sticks and weapons, surrounded his home and attempted to break in; electricity meters and outdoor air conditioner units were wrecked and set alight. Although the police arrested 26 people, with a case against 44 nominated and “300-400 unidentified suspects”, it also, reportedly, slapped a blasphemy charge on the critically injured victim. The assault is an eerie reminder of the Jaranwala carnage last year when an enraged mob set upon the settlement and razed a Christian man’s house. The Joseph colony butchery in 2013 is seared in national memory, when more than 100 homes were ransacked and set alight. But Pakistan’s sad truth is that such barbaric episodes will persist without pragmatic solutions to contain vigilantism, leaving scores homeless, robbed of livelihoods and even imprisoned for years as few lawyers gather the courage to fight their case. Those that do can face lethal consequences.

Our past patterns do not offer assurances. The cycle of banal condemnations, arrests for appeasement and token flag marches reeks of the state’s inability to confront this psychosis. Sadly, mobs turn into executioners due to the authorities’ helplessness before these elements. Thus, accountability for instigators is just as important as making corrupt officers answerable. Perpetrating atrocities in the name of religion is unpardonable and allegations without concrete evidence and due process are crimes of power and greed. Bigoted elements are also empowered by slipshod policing and dismal conviction rates. Besides, the blasphemy laws have been misused to persecute minorities, usurp property and settle personal scores. According to rights groups, predominantly Muslims were targeted by the criminal exploitation of these edicts; Mashal Khan and Salmaan Taseer are prominent names that come to mind. All this necessitates a review to avert malpractice. Political commitment to interfaith harmony, neutralising hate speech and religious manipulation, educational reforms focused on acceptance and appreciation for religious communities are a compelling need. Pakistan’s power elite too must break its silence and pledge protection for the persecuted.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2024

Afghan puzzle

WHEN it comes to counterterrorism cooperation with the Afghan Taliban, we are moving in circles. While the authorities say that anti-Pakistan terrorists have havens in Afghanistan — particularly the banned TTP — Kabul’s de facto rulers insist this is not the case.

The Taliban position, however, is difficult to believe in the face of evidence that various militant groups are indeed active in Afghanistan. Once more, the state has raised the issue of cross-border militancy, with the interior minister and Nacta chief telling a presser on Sunday that the TTP, backed by “enemy intelligence agencies”, were responsible for the deadly March attack in Bisham in which five Chinese workers and one local were killed. The military had issued a similar statement a few weeks ago. Mohsin Naqvi called on the Afghan Taliban to prosecute the suspected terrorists, “or hand them to us”. The interior czar did not rule out unilateral action if Kabul failed to act.

Several attempts have been made to take up the TTP issue with the Afghan Taliban, but the results have not been positive. For example, the matter has been discussed using official channels, while delegations of ulema and tribal elders have been dispatched to Kabul to communicate Pakistan’s concerns. The state has also taken cross-border armed action after TTP terrorist attacks targeted Pakistani troops.

Yet, none of these measures has resulted in a cessation of terrorist violence. Therefore, different approaches are required. Unfortunately, there are few good options, and the authorities will have to work with the Afghan Taliban.

Expecting the Afghans to crush the TTP is an unrealistic expectation, as Kabul’s rulers are not likely to take armed action against their ideological comrades, particularly if the Kandahar-based Taliban leadership has anything to say about it. Pakistan should, instead, demand that TTP fighters be relocated far from the border, and insist that the Taliban should take full responsibility to ensure no terrorist group is able to stage cross-border attacks.

Moreover, the Central Asian states have aired similar concerns about Afghanistan-based terrorist groups. Pakistan should work with these states, as well as China, Russia, and Iran, to pressure the Taliban into taking effective CT moves. The Taliban are particularly keen to attract Chinese investment due to their global isolation. Islamabad should coordinate with Beijing to ensure that investments are made only if the Taliban take concrete CT steps.

While the Taliban should do more to prevent cross-border terrorism, Pakistan must also ensure that internally, no space is available to the militants and their sympathisers. In the recent presser, the Nacta head listed numerous Pakistani suspects who had played a key role in the Bisham attack. Unless these elements are neutralised, it will not be possible to have the upper hand over terrorist groups.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2024

Persistent scourge

THE challenge of polio in Pakistan has reached a new nadir, drawing grave concerns from the Technical Advisory Group for polio eradication. In a recent meeting held in Qatar, the group highlighted the alarming resurgence of the virus in Pakistan, a setback that places us in a position worse than even war-ravaged Afghanistan. It has come to be so that polio is not only a national health crisis but an international embarrassment. Travel restrictions imposed on Pakistani citizens are a clear indicator of the global community’s scepticism with Pakistan’s public health framework. Certification for polio vaccination is mandatory, yet many destinations still administer polio drops upon arrival, reflecting distrust. Despite extensive eradication efforts, we have now reported this year’s third polio case, with all three victims originating from Balochistan. The latest is a 12-year-old girl from Killa Abdullah, a district that had remained polio free for three years. Compounding this tragedy, three additional environmental samples have tested positive, bringing the total to 140 for the year.

Polio’s unyielding presence in Pakistan is fuelled by a combination of factors: inadequate vaccination coverage, the targeting of polio workers in conflict-prone areas, and, most unfortunately, a general mistrust of vaccines. These obstacles have turned Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar into reservoirs of the virus, posing a constant threat to vulnerable children. Addressing this crisis requires a well-thought-out approach. The government must ensure community engagement to address this challenge. Public awareness drives should stress the importance of drops and counter disinformation. Religious leaders must be enlisted to foster trust and encourage participation in vaccination drives. Militancy must also be rooted out. Equally crucial are the availability and accessibility of vaccines, particularly in high-risk areas and the strengthening of surveillance systems to promptly respond to outbreaks. The path to a polio-free Pakistan is not insurmountable. With a collaborative effort, we can overcome this scourge for all generations to come.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2024

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