Dawn Editorials 16th May 2023


IT was a strange sight to behold. Islamabad’s Red Zone, one of the most sensitive and jealously guarded areas of the capital city, was besieged yesterday by hordes of stick-wielding men without so much as a warning shot being fired by the state.

Islamabad Police — usually so zealous and trigger-happy when facing down protesters — stood by sedately as individuals backed by the sitting government first scaled and then broke through the gates leading to the protected area.

Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — which prohibits the gathering of four or more persons in an area — was still in effect in the capital, but for the first time, it seemed the state had no interest in seeing it enforced.

The interior minister, otherwise quick to appear on TV screens whenever needed to ‘justify’ all manner of highhanded means to ‘maintain public order’, was nowhere to be seen. To top it off, the state quietly restored access to social media after days of closure, seemingly to amplify the ‘reach’ of the event.

While our ruling classes are no strangers to the ‘rules for thee and not for me’ style of governance, yesterday’s example was more than a little egregious.

The government is currently in violation of the Constitution over its refusal to hold due elections to the KP and Punjab assemblies, yet it expects the Supreme Court to play by the rules.

It complains that the judiciary is ‘protecting’ Imran Khan, even as it has the executive branch of the state — which ought to have been enforcing the law yesterday, without prejudice as to who had shown up to protest — acting in complete subservience to it.

Elsewhere, inside the highest court of the land, the elections implementation bench decided to give ‘negotiations’ another shot. It was clear from reports of the proceedings that the judges were acutely aware of the developments unfolding outside the Supreme Court’s walls.

While talks are, indeed, the best solution to Pakistan’s festering political crisis, there is very little hope that they can accomplish much in this poisoned atmosphere.

Instead, the chief justice’s decision to impose another ‘second chance’ on politicians indicates that he may have come to the realisation that his court should not have gotten tangled up in a fight that it cannot control.

With the government knocking loudly on its gates, it may not be easy for the court to settle the matter — unless a full-court bench is formed to break the current deadlock.

With some actors looking to divide and ‘conquer’ the Supreme Court, it is important for the top court now to show that it is united within. The breakthrough the country needs might be in the chief justice’s hands; will he deliver it?

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2023

Census concludes

WITH the seventh census wrapping up yesterday, officials have released the provisional population figures tallied thus far. According to the numbers, Pakistan is home to 246.5m people, an increase of nearly 40m souls as compared to the 2017 head count. Expectedly, Punjab leads as the most populous federating unit, while Balochistan is the least populated province. The exercise had been extended five times in order to facilitate the general elections — whenever they are held. According to the census commissioner, there will be no more extensions. However, as the final numbers emerge, the million-dollar question arises: will the fresh head count be accepted by the country’s multiple stakeholders? Or will it be dogged by controversy much as the sixth census was, which resulted in the seventh exercise being held before time?

Despite the fact that this was supposed to be the nation’s first digital census, indicating minimal chances of fraud and manipulation, controversy was never far from the head count. From government partners, such as the PPP and MQM, to opposition parties, such as Jamaat-i-Islami, to nationalist parties in Sindh, there was widespread criticism of the exercise by political actors, despite the administration’s efforts to assuage concerns. For example, both the MQM and Jamaat used the alleged undercounting of Karachi to protest against the lack of transparency in the census. As per provisional figures, the megacity’s population stands at 18.6m, a growth of only 2.55m since the 2017 census. Certainly, if the heavy migration towards Sindh’s capital is anything to go by, the current figure is debatable. At the other end, the JI has argued the ‘actual’ population of Karachi should be around 35m. However, only independent demographers, with no political agendas or vested interests, can comment on the authenticity of the national head count. We cannot continue to have flawed censuses and conduct the exercise prematurely because the previous count raised doubts. Perhaps the best solution at this point is to accept the numbers as they stand, and work to improve the process so that there are minimal complaints about the eighth census a decade down the line. Continuous bickering about figures, and endless extensions will delay elections further, and affect the planning process. Therefore, all political forces need to make their reservations clear, accept the count and work towards improving the enumeration process.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2023

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