Dawn Editorials 10th May 2023

Manipur violence

THE BJP’s passion for identity politics has set off communal polarisation between the mainly Christian Kuki tribespeople and the predominantly Hindu Meiti majority in India’s northeastern state of Manipur. More than 50 persons have been killed, churches burnt down, and thousands displaced in the violence that broke out on Wednesday in the BJP-ruled state. The trigger was a plan by Kuki students to hold street protests against moves to declare the majority Meitis a tribal community at par with the Kukis, something the prosperous and better-educated Meitis had never wanted previously. Ethnic fault lines are not new to the volatile state that borders Myanmar. But the hardening of the religious Hindu identity among many, though not all Meitis is new. Yet, the underlying factors for the Christian-Hindu stand-off are scarcely religious. It is about land. As revealed recently by the BJP’s former governor of India-held Jammu & Kashmir, political and economic interests often converge for the BJP to destabilise social cohesion for private profit. The garb of Hindu nationalism was a decoy to promote crony business interests in Kashmir, as per the governor’s bold interview.

Pressure on land has been growing in Manipur, and one of the reasons given for the Meiti quest for tribal status relates to the community’s need to move beyond its overpopulated base in the state capital of Imphal, to seek land in the hill forests, hitherto reserved for tribespeople. It is feared the tussle could open the door for big business to exploit. The current Meiti chief minister leading the state’s first BJP government is a defector from the Congress party. The man who supervised the defection was curiously also named by the former J&K governor as a conduit between Hindutva ideologues and business interests close to India’s ruling establishment. Corporate greed apart, a growing refugee crisis with roots in Myanmar, and lives disrupted by climate change are compounding Manipur’s pain.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2023

Return to the fold

AFTER a rupture lasting around 12 years, the Arab League has opened its doors to allow Syria’s return to the bloc. Damascus was suspended from the organisation after the start of the brutal Syrian civil war, as punishment for Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on the opposition. However, much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and with Mr Assad’s government having the upper hand in the conflict — thanks largely to Russian and Iranian help in fending off the challenge from the rebel alliance — the Arab world has decided to let bygones be bygones. Of course, there are some malcontents; Qatar, one of the major backers of the Syrian opposition, says it will not resume full diplomatic relations with Damascus, while a spokesman for the US State Department has said that America does “not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League”. The US, which was amongst the staunchest proponents of regime change in Syria, should not lose too much sleep over the developments, especially when most Arab states favour re-engagement with the Assad government.

The Syrian civil war, part of the Arab Spring uprisings, started off as a popular movement against Mr Assad’s authoritarian rule. Soon enough, however, the conflict developed into an ugly sectarian confrontation, as terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and IS began to dominate the opposition, especially its armed factions, promoting a violent communal narrative against Mr Assad’s minority Alawite community, which has strong representation in Syria’s corridors of power. The conflict also had a geopolitical dimension, for while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah came to the defence of the government, the US, Turkiye and most Arab states supported the opposition with arms and funds. What followed was a disaster for Syria, with over 300,000 civilian casualties and millions of Syrians displaced, many making perilous journeys to Turkiye and Europe to escape the bloodshed. It is hoped the Arab League’s re-engagement with Syria — which appears to have been given a boost by the Saudi-Iranian thaw — succeeds in permanently ending the civil war so that the Syrian people can rehabilitate their country, and that eventually the government and the opposition can reach an agreement to share power democratically. Moreover, the Arab states need to raise a strong voice against repeated Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty through hundreds of air strikes, many of which have hit civilian areas.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2023

The die is cast

IMRAN Khan has been arrested, and the Rubicon crossed. The breakout of fresh hostilities between the PTI and the state means any hopes of a negotiated breakthrough in the ongoing political stalemate can be put to rest.

The interior minister has said Mr Khan was picked up for failing to join a corruption investigation involving an alleged land transaction against money owed to the state by property tycoon Malik Riaz.

However, recent developments — in particular, Mr Khan’s fresh confrontation with the armed forces — seem to suggest that he may have been picked up for an entirely different reason.

The fact that it was the Punjab Rangers and not the Islamabad Police which were sent in to nab him from the Islamabad High Court’s premises seems to support the latter thesis.

The nature and locus of the protests that broke out following Mr Khan’s arrest yesterday signal that public anger is also directed at the military. Video footage recorded at various protests suggested that the people were angry enough to cross lines no one dared cross before.

The events of the last 13 months have seen the military’s past — especially with respect to its political meddling — rapidly catching up with it amidst Pakistan’s unprecedented polycrisis.

When he recently once again accused a senior intelligence officer of conspiring to assassinate him, Mr Khan was well aware that he was, in fact, pointing a finger directly at the present military leadership.

Mr Khan has, over the past year, rallied enough public support behind him that his words now carry a weight that the establishment seems to feel it can no longer ignore.

However, removing Mr Khan from the picture solves nothing. Instead, as the protests yesterday showed, arresting him may have deeply fractured the historic compact between the people and the country’s armed forces.

Violence and confrontation are never an answer to political challenges, especially not when the economy is on the ventilator and the people looking to vent their anger over the daily despair that now defines their lives.

The provocation of Mr Khan’s arrest has only led the government and establishment deeper into controversy and will engender even greater public distrust in their policies. This is the last thing the country needs, teetering as it is on the verge of an all-out default.

No matter how strongly the current military leadership wants the public to forget its role in political engineering, it cannot simply wish away perceptions that have solidified over months and years.

The government, too, needs to undertake serious confidence-building measures if it wishes to rebuild trust with the citizenry. As long as elections continue to be postponed and the public silenced, continued confrontation will only drive even more wedges between the people and the state.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2023

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