By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
What else can an energy deficient country like Pakistan dream of than discovering it owns one of the world's largest coal reserves -- estimated at more than 185 billion tonnes. Surprisingly, since the discovery in Tharparkar district of Sindh by Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) in 1992, nothing significant has been done to tap this opportunity.
Not a dirty word
Talking about secularism at a time when supposedly educated people, including parliamentarians and politicians are 'warning' the government not to tamper with these blasphemy laws, or else face the 'consequences'
By Beena Sarwar
Those far more qualified than I, people I respect immensely, have already contributed most thoughtfully and thought-provokingly to this series on the case for a secular Pakistan initiated by The News on Sunday. What I will add is a personal political point of view based in my own understanding of the issue.
First of all, the very fact that this discussion is taking place in a mainstream newspaper -- even though it is in English, which limits its outreach -- is something to appreciate.
Secondly, the discussion is taking place at a time when Pakistan, indeed the world, finds itself polarised as never before. Never before have we seen such extremes jostling for ascendency at the same time. In Pakistan, the extremes are most visible in the attire people, particularly women, wear out on the streets (from jeans to burqas), the gatherings and functions they attend (from religious gatherings to musical evenings, fashion shows and wild underground parties), what they are reading (religious literature to Communist readings that would have landed them in jail in the Zia years), the television and films they are watching (religious shows to uncensored films on DVD, and Indian films at mainstream cinemas), and how they express their views (through writings, art, music, seminars and peaceful candlelight demonstrations to violent protests and suicide bombings).
The entire gamut is there, from the extreme left to the extreme right, from wild permissiveness to ultra-conservatism -- the latter apparently on the rise not just in Pakistan but around the world. In fact, this ascendency of the Right is so strong that the demons of religion-based militancy unleashed during the Zia years can take down even those who adhere to the late General's world views: a Zaid Hamid can lose even as Gen Zia wins, as the UK-based researcher Anas Abbas interestingly posited it. The charismatic right-wing cult leader, who had sucked into his fold youth icons like the fashion designer Maria B and rock singer Ali Azmat, had to go into hiding not because progressive Pakistanis prevailed against his virulent pan-Islamist, anti-India world view, but because he offended his own.
This is a time when the 'blasphemy laws' as they are applied in Pakistan are causing a worldwide uproar because of the injustice they perpetuate; of course the extreme right defends them with vigour that threatens to escalate into violence and topple the government.
We're talking about secularism at a time when supposedly educated people, including parliamentarians and politicians are 'warning' the government not to tamper with these blasphemy laws, or else face the 'consequences'. It is ironic that such a warning was issued recently by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, President of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q). Ironic because Shujaat represents a party formed with the blessings of the 'liberal' and 'secular' Gen. Musharraf in the name of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder and a man who was nothing if not genuinely liberal and secular in his beliefs.
Secularism is not a dirty word. As discussed in earlier articles in this series, it is not antithetical to religion, and it is not anti-religion. To me, secularism means the separation of religion and politics. It implies recognition that religion is a personal affair for each individual and that no one has the right to impose their own religious beliefs or the laws of any religion, on others. This is something that many religious scholars agree on, including Islamic scholars.
The problem is that those who disagree are quite okay with imposing their views violently. In the polarised post-9/11 world, this has cost countless people their lives -- a prominent example being the murder of Dr Mohammad Farooq Khan, the moderate religious scholar and vice-chancellor of Swat Islamic University.
We can now have this debate in the pages of this English-language newspaper, 20 years after Gen. Zia's departure, because those who hold these violent beliefs consider us to be irrelevant. So is the situation hopeless for people like us? No, because these discussions are not taking place in a vacuum. There is a lot of questioning going on in Pakistan at various levels about religion and its role in the state. These discussions are taking place in many languages and at many fora. Thousands if not millions of activists, political workers and ordinary citizens in Pakistan share the belief that religion should be a private matter, which should not be imposed violently.
The rise of the Internet -- according to one estimate, as many as 18 million Pakistanis have Internet access -- means that people have other alternatives to share information that the dominant news media sidelines. Blogs or facebook pages like SecularPakistan or SayNoToTheStateReligion may not have millions of followers but their readership is growing. Amidst the cacophony of jihadist views that regularly find space on radio and television networks are also voices that courageously question the role religion has been given in Pakistan. The trickle may not become a flood anytime soon, but neither is it about to dry up and disappear.
The much-publicised polls purporting to find out what Pakistanis want, pose questions in a way that makes it difficult for people to respond reflecting the complexity of their realities (for a good analysis of one such poll, see 'Pakistan in polling vs. Pakistan in practice' by Kalsoom Lakhani http://bit.ly/PkPoll). If Pakistanis are asked to choose between religious and secular values, most will -- in public at least -- choose religion. We are on the whole religious-minded people. But deep down most of us have what I would define as secular values. That is, in general, we live and let live.
If the proportion of those who try to pressurise or force people to adhere to their beliefs has grown over the years, we all know why. Gen. Zia boosted a humourless self-righteous worldview during his repressive regime, 1977 to 1988. He introduced aggressive media and education policies fostering a pan-Islamic, 'jihadist' world view, controversial laws ostensibly based in religion, brutalised society, encouraged the rise of vigilantism, and rewarded those who adhered to his idea of a 'good Muslim'.
All this served to condition Pakistanis to pay lip service to religion and to wear it on our sleeves (or foreheads, in some cases). We loudly applaud those who appear to be the most pious -- but we still vote for those who are not. In fact, Pakistanis have never voted the religious parties into power. Typically obtaining at most three or four percent of the total votes in general elections, the religious parties got their highest number of votes (about 11 %) during the 2002 elections when six of them joined hands and the leaders of the mainstream political parties did not participate. In the 2008 elections, the MMA won barely 2.2 % of the vote.
Most of this country's 60 plus years have been spent under unconstitutional and military governments, who stay for an average of a decade, introduce controversial laws and artificially boost the economy before they are forced out. Civilian governments are left to clean up the mess. Their incompetence, corruption and weaknesses are played up and before long vested interests are baying for a regime change.
It is time to let the democratic political process continue. Let debate and dialogue continue. Stop being scared to say 'secularism'. Demand a repeal of controversial, flawed laws imposed by dictators in the name of religion. Religion cannot be used as a pretext for injustice, violence and murder. Overhaul the education system and syllabi and don't allow the preaching of hatred at the pulpit. This will be the greatest service we can do to Pakistan and its people -- and to the much-misrepresented religion that most Pakistanis follow.
The writer is a journalist and a freelance filmmaker
What makes Ilyas Kashmiri qualify for the title of the "specially designated global terrorist"?
By Amir Mir
Ilyas Kashmiri, the fugitive chief of the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), the first Pakistani jehadi leader to have been tagged by the United Nations and the United States as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for his al-Qaeda connections, has now been described as a "terror successor to Osama bin Laden" by none other than the CNN.
The CNN labeling makes Kashmiri the world's most wanted militant after Osama bin Laden because he is probably the only fugitive jehadi who is not only wanted by India and Pakistan but also by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France. It was on August 6, 2010, that the United States Treasury Department, in conjunction with the United Nations, named the 46-year old Ilyas Kashmiri as a "specially designated global terrorist," putting him in the same league with Osama and his second-in-command Dr Ayman Zawahiri, men to whom he has pledged allegiance. Stuart Levey, US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in his official statement that Ilyas Kashmiri has supported terrorist attacks against Pakistan government personnel and facilities, besides planning the assassination of [Army Chief] General Ashfaq Kiyani, which was eventually abandoned due to al-Qaeda's strategic considerations.
Now the CNN has reported in its November 10 investigative story that going by the estimates of the counter-terrorism officials in three continents, 'Kashmiri is one of the most dangerous men in the world today'. "If Osama bin Laden is al-Qaeda's spiritual leader and Egyptian cleric Dr Ayman al Zawahiri its philosopher, Kashmiri is the organisation's military brain. As one US official put it recently, in the CNN report, Kashmiri is "the key ingredient in the bad stew of senior terrorists who are planning operations in the region and beyond."
While a cloud of mystery shrouds Kashmiri, he is on the record as swearing allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar as far back as 1999 when he told a Pakistani journalist Amir Khakwani in an interview: "We folks have taken oath from Mullah Omar and we consider him as Ameerul Momineen. We have absolute permission from him to go to any place and engage ourselves in jehadi activities". Kashmiri disclosed: "I have learned the art of war from the Arabs. The Arabs fighting in Afghanistan, including Egyptians and Palestinians, have adopted a separate style combining the war strategies of the Russians and Americans. I am an expert in that style. We have trained our boys also in that mode so that they can fight better than the Indian regular army commandos".
Currently operating from Pakistan's largely lawless North Waziristan area bordering Afghanistan, Ilyas Kashmiri is the ameer of the Azad Kashmir chapter of the HUJI, whose Pakistan chapter is led by another al-Qaeda-linked jehadi, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was named by Benazir Bhutto in her posthumous book as a principal suspect in the October 18, 2007, attempt to kill her in Karachi in a suicide bomb attack, shortly after her homecoming from self-exile. The HUJI chief has emerged as a new international jehadi plotter who is being described as the most important guy linking al-Qaeda with Western recruits. American and European security agencies believe Kashmiri is trying to infiltrate highly trained terrorists into Europe and the United States to launch Mumbai style terrorist attacks.
As things stand, Pakistani intelligence sleuths on the ground and the American drones in the air are out to hunt Ilyas Kashmiri in the trouble-stricken tribal areas, amidst fears in Islamabad that if yet another major terrorist strike is conducted either in India or in the West, Pakistan could suffer massive retaliation this time. On February 25, 2010, during the Indo-Pak foreign secretary talks, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao handed over three files to her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, containing dossiers of Pakistani nationals allegedly involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. And Kashmiri was one of them. The dossier detailed Kashmiri's activities and links to the Mumbai terrorist attacks, claiming that his Brigade 313 was mentioned in conversations between the 26/11 attackers and their Pakistan-based handlers.
The Brigade 313 has been found to be behind many high-profile attacks and bombings inside Pakistan, including the October 2009 audacious commando assault and siege of the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. Interestingly, the Brigade 313 also has a website whose landing page has the words "Al-Qaeda Brigade 313" in the center, besides inscribing the names of Harkatul Jehadul Islami, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah, and the Movement of Taliban in Pakistan in the four corners of the page. Further surfing of the website would show images of slain al-Qaeda leader Mustafa Abu Yazid and ideologue Abu Yahya al Libi on the left side of the page, and an image of Commander Ilyas Kashmiri on the far right.
The extent of the danger being posed by Kashmiri can be gauged from the nature of the charges brought against him by the US Justice Department in January 2009 when a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Illinois indicted him for terrorism-related offenses in connection with a terror attack against the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark which had published odious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Going by the charge sheet, one of the Kashmiri's jehadi operative, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American [originally named Dawood Gillani and now serving a life sentence in US for terror-related offenses] chased the main targets for the Mumbai attacks by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The US Justice Department had concluded in its charge sheet that Kashmiri was working with David Headley in late 2008, immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, to plot new terrorist attacks by infiltrating highly-trained terrorists into America and Europe.
While being questioned by India's National Intelligence Agency, which was given access to him in the UN in June 2010, Headley revealed that he had been taken to Pakistan's tribal belt on the Afghan border in 2009 to meet Kashmiri. As per his confessional statement, Kashmiri subsequently sent Headley on another trip to survey possible targets in India. One of the places he had video-taped was the German Bakery in Pune [which was quite popular with foreigners] and was subsequently targeted with a bomb that killed nine people, including two foreigners.
Some recent findings by Western intelligence agencies say Kashmiri is a key facilitator in al-Qaeda's plan to carry out Mumbai-style commando attacks in Europe, particularly in Germany, France, and England. According to these reports, Ahmed Siddiqi, a German national of the Afghan descent, told his American interrogators in Afghanistan that he and some other 'white jehadis' were part of a conspiracy to launch a commando attack in Europe. Siddiqi, who was trained under Kashmiri's command before being arrested in Afghanistan in June 2010, further told interrogators that at a campfire chat in North Waziristan earlier this year, Ilyas Kashmiri told him that he had already dispatched advance teams to Britain and Germany. These revelations led to a spate of unprecedented number of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal area, which are still continuing, with an aim to target the 'white jehadis' who are being trained to take part in the possible European attacks.
Ilyas Kashmiri has also been named in a charge sheet filed by the Pakistani police in connection with the November 2008 murder of Major General (retd) Amir Faisal Alvi, the former commanding officer of the Special Services Group (SSG) of the Army who was killed because of his role in fighting Taliban militants in the country's tribal areas. Kashmiri, who is clearly more than just another jehadi commander, was born in Bhimbur in the Samhani Valley of the Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir on February 10, 1964. He passed the first year of a mass communication degree at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. But he could not continue his studies due to his heavy involvement in jehadi activities. The freedom movement in Kashmir was his first exposure in the field of militancy, then the HUJI and ultimately his 313 Brigade. Kashmiri lost an index finger and one eye while fighting against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan as a junior commander in the 1980s. Therefore, in his various pictures, he is seen wearing aviator sunglasses of different colours.
After the war ended with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, Kashmiri turned his attention towards the 'jehad' in the Indian administered part of Kashmir as a commander of the HUJI, , led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar. But sharp disagreements with Qari eventually led Kashmiri in the mid 1990s to launch his own faction of the HUJI. He is reported to have conducted several major guerilla actions in India, including the 1994 Al-Hadid operation in Delhi to get some of his jehadi comrades released. His second-in-command at that time was none other than Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, who has already been convicted for the 2001 beheading of an American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.
While waging 'jehad' in Jammu Kashmir, Kashmiri was captured by the Indian Army near Poonch [in the mid-1990s] and sent to prison, where he had to spend the next two years before managing a jail breaking and returning to Pakistan. Kashmiri was once again made to resume his cross border ambushes against the Indian security forces. As Indian troops carried out a raid into Pakistani part of Kashmir on February 25, 2000, killing two dozen civilians including several women and children, Kashmiri is reported to have led a retaliatory raid in the Nakyal sector of Jammu Kashmir the next day and kidnapped and beheaded an Indian army officer whose head was then paraded in the streets of Azad Kashmir. However, soon afterwards, he fell out of favour with his powerful spy masters, when he refused to serve under the command of a junior jehadi -- Maulana Masood Azhar, who had just founded Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) after being released from an Indian jail in the wake of an Indian plane hijacking.
As Kashmiri resisted his khaki bosses, he was arrested in 2003 in connection with the investigations of a failed attempt by two suicide bombers to kill General Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003. But he was released a few months later in March 2004. He was once again picked up in 2005 after he refused to close down his cross border jehadi operations in Jammu Kashmir, only to be released a few months later. Kashmiri apparently did little until Musharraf decided to carry out the bloody Operation Silence in the heart of Islamabad against the fanatic Lal Masjid clerics and their followers in July 2007. But afterwards, he rebuilt his jehadi network and reactivated his 313 Brigade in the HUJI, while collaborating with the fanatic Pakistani and Afghan Taliban cadres in the Waziristan region. It was in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation that he moved his operational base from his home town Kotli to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Temporarily switching from the freedom struggle in Jammu Kashmir to the Taliban-led resistance against NATO forces in Afghanistan, Ilyas Kashmiri established a training camp in the Razmak area of North Waziristan and shifted most of his warriors from HUJI's Kotli military training camp in Azad Kashmir. He soon became a target of the American drones and was reportedly killed in a predator attack in North Waziristan on September 14, 2009 along with Nazimuddin Zalalov, a top al-Qaeda leader. Yet, hardly a month after his reported death, Kashmiri re-surfaced and promised retribution against the United States and its proxies [in an October 13, 2009 interview], saying the Americans were right to pursue him. "They know their enemy quite well. They know what I am really up to," Kashmiri added.
Since then, he seems to have established himself as the chief of al-Qaeda's shadow army -- Lashkar-e-Zil (LeZ), which is a loose alliance of al-Qaeda-and Taliban-linked anti-US militia which has distinguished itself by conducting unusual guerilla operations, like the one that targeted the CIA's Forward Operating Base in Khost on December 31, 2009, killing seven CIA officials. The CIA base was at the heart of a covert programme overseeing drone strikes by remote-controlled aircraft along the Pak-Afghan border. Keeping in view Ilyas Kashmiri's guerilla skill and his wide relations with Pakistani and foreign militants, terrorism experts describe him as the most dangerous man for India, Europe, and the United States. Even Pakistani agencies suspect his involvement in a series of suicide bombings in Azad Kashmir, targeting the Pakistani security forces.
Usually described as the 'commando commander' amongst his cadres, Kashmiri has proved himself to be a survivor so far who has a knack for staying alive against all odds. And he is set to become a legendary jehadi figure the more he is targeted by the American drones and the longer he survives.
Victim No 38
The death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi has brought the ugly issue of blasphemy laws back to light again
By Aoun Sahi
The Nov 8, 2010, verdict of the Additional Sessions Judge Nankana Sahib district in Punjab against Aasia Bibi has once again stirred a debate about the misuse and lacunas of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Like many other cases, in Aasia Bibi's case, the complainant was a local Qari Mohammad Salam who was not present at the place of occurrence of the alleged crime. He was informed about the incident on June 19, 2009, by two female Muslim co-workers of Aasiya Bibi that five days earlier, on June 14, Aasia had uttered blasphemous remarks about the Prophet and the Quran.
The two sisters, Mafia and Asma, admitted in evidence that a quarrel took place over water that Aasia brought for drinking. Both the sisters declared it as "unclean" and refused to drink it. This initiated a heated debate among the women over the issue of religion.
"On June 19 my wife was forcibly brought out from our house by an angry Muslim mob who shouted that she had committed blasphemy. They forced her to plead guilty and to seek pardon," Aasia's husband Ashiq Masih tells TNS. Aasia is 45 and a mother of five children.
On the same day, the police registered a case against Aasia Bibi under section 295-C of blasphemy laws on the complainant's evidence -- that she confessed her guilt before the religiously charged mob and arrested her.
A year and a half later, the Additional Session Judge of Nankana district accepted this as evidence and convicted her, though she took "oath on the Bible in front of court and said that she had never passed such derogatory and shameful remarks against the Holy Prophet and Holy Quran." She had further stated, "I have great respect and honour for the Holy Prophet as well as Holy Quran."
It is a strange case in many ways. "The judge not only considered the extra judicial confession as evidence to convict Aasia Bibi but also did not allow the defence lawyer to argue for his client. Her defence lawyer was present in front of the court only once during the case, and on Nov 8 before awarding her death penalty, the judge ordered everybody except Aasia Bibi and Qari Salam to leave the court including the lawyers," says Peter Jacob, executive director of National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), an organisation that records blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
According to him, in an overwhelming majority of blasphemy cases in Pakistan, law is not strictly followed both by the police and the lower courts. "According to Section 156-A, no police officer below the rank of SP can investigate a blasphemy case. But even this rule is not observed by the authorities. Even in Aasia's case a sub-inspector investigated the case initially."
The data collected by NCJP shows that since 1986 (the year when 295-C was made part of PPC by General Zia) 1058 people (456 Ahmadis, 449 Muslims, 132 Christians and 21 Hindus) have been charged under the blasphemy laws. Thirty-four people (16 Christian, 15 Muslims, 2 Ahmadis and a Hindu) charged with blasphemy have been killed out of court. Eight among them were either killed by policemen or their fellow inmates in jail or 'committed' suicide in police custody.
Aasia Bibi is the 38th woman who has been charged under the blasphemy laws in the country. "In all the known cases, charges of blasphemy appear to have been arbitrary, based on malicious accusations levelled by individuals against minority groups or to settle personal vendettas," says Mehboob Ahmed Khan, legal advisor Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
A common feature of accusations of blasphemy is the manner in which they are uncritically accepted by prosecuting authorities, who themselves may face intimidation, threats and accusations should they fail to accept them. "The trial procedures in cases involving charges of blasphemy, including registration of FIR and investigation, do not meet international standards for justice," he says.
Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws are derived from the British Colonial Penal Code of 1860. Originally, this code contained only a few clauses protecting the sensibilities of religious people. In 1982 and 1986, amendments were introduced to the blasphemy laws by General Zia that imposed strong punishments including capital punishment.
Naeem Shakir, senior lawyer of Supreme Court who has presented more than a dozen alleged blasphemers in the courts, believes that the definition of blasphemy under section 295C is relatively open-ended, and the arrest of a person reported to have committed blasphemy requires no warrant. "No preliminary investigation is required before the filing of the First Information Report (FIR) by a local police officer. Once the testimony of a reliable person has been registered, the FIR is filed and the person arrested. The law also makes it binding that only a Muslim judge can hear such cases."
The trial in blasphemy cases is never conducted under established principles of criminal law. "The courts are always under pressure of the Muslim clergy who along with religious zealots throng the court room and display banners and placards demanding death to the accused. The verdicts are given in an environment that is hardly conducive for any judicious dispensation. Although the convicts have been mostly acquitted by the superior courts but the record shows that after their release they are obliged to leave the country for fear of being killed," says Shakir.
Shakir suggests that government needs to take some steps to stop the misuse of blasphemy laws in the country. "A procedural change in the registration of FIR can be adopted and if the case is proved to be false the person who makes the accusation should be given strict punishment."
Our governments are aware that the blasphemy laws are misused but they lack the political will to amend these laws. In 1994, the Pakistan Law Commission presided over by the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, expressed concern about the abuse of authority by the police when dealing with blasphemy cases and the misuse of the law for ulterior purposes by various political and sectarian organisations, and decided to send a draft of the blasphemy laws amendment bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology for further scrutiny. Maulana Kausar Niazi, then Chairman of the Council for Islamic Ideology, said to the press that "the law needs modification to ensure that it is not abused by unscrupulous elements for their selfish ends". He further mentioned that the procedure for police registration of a case, the judicial level at which it should be considered and the suitable criteria for admission of witnesses have all to be looked at thoroughly. But it never happened.
In 1993, the PPP-led government also tried tabling a bill in the parliament which would make the false imputation of blasphemy an offence punishable with imprisonment for up to 10 years. The bill also required the police to obtain a warrant from a magistrate before arresting people on complaints of blasphemy.
The government, however, failed to get the support from its allied political parties in the parliament and the bill was never presented.
The most recent effort in this regard was tried by former president Pervez Musharraf. He announced on April 21, 2000, at the Convention on Human Rights and Human Dignity in Islamabad, that he would amend the blasphemy laws in order to end its abuses and to promote equality. The proposed reform would have amended the procedures related to the filing of the FIR and specifically provided for preliminary investigation and scrutiny by the Deputy Commissioner prior to filing an FIR. However, on May 16, 2000, following pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and threats of a three-day nationwide strike, Musharraf backtracked on his assurance.
The situation meanwhile has worsened during recent years as the maximum number of blasphemy cases were registered in 2008 and 2009 (108 and 112 respectively).
Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, is confident that the government will bring some procedural changes in the registration of FIR of blasphemy cases. "I will go to all stakeholders and request them to help the government bring some changes in the blasphemy laws to save the lives of innocent people. I hope we will be able to
Why can't we repeal the blasphemy laws?
By Ammar Rashid
Much has been said about the need to repeal Pakistan's dreaded blasphemy laws in the wake of the repeated tragedies that have visited Pakistan's minorities (as well as Muslims) in their name. There is little one can add to the already abundant evidence and rationale (both theosophical and secular) that demonstrates the need to do away with this draconian and oppressive section of the country's Penal Code.
I believe, however, that now is an appropriate time to make an assessment of how this rather gargantuan undertaking may be achieved. What, it may be asked, are the major political barriers preventing a repeal of this clause from Pakistan's law books? Further, is it possible for these barriers to be overcome any time in the near future?
On paper, the removal of the offending section (295-C) from the Pakistan Penal Code requires a simple majority in the National Assembly, which is a theoretically possible task for the nominally centre-left coalition of the PPP-MQM-ANP to undertake, albeit with some independent support. But even an amateur observer of Pakistani politics would acknowledge that such an occurrence would be wishful thinking at best. The recent, discouraging remarks of the Federal Minister for Minorities regarding possibilities for repeal are proof enough of the sorry lack of interest in any such initiative.
What prevents any of our relatively secular parties from taking such a step? It seems quite evident that the maintenance of their respective voter bases is not contingent on pandering to religious sensitivities -- in fact, much of their politics, especially as of late, has been based on opposition to religious xenophobia.
The broad reasons behind this reticence aren't too difficult to ascertain; the coalition, beset as it is with the disproportionately immense crises of economy, security, natural disasters, resource scarcity and ethnic strife (to name a few) and under attack from all quarters for its (real and imagined) shortcomings of governance, does not wish to entangle itself in a debate in which it could potentially be branded as antithetical to the supposed Islamic ideals of Pakistani statehood. In Pakistan's context, it is an understandable, though admittedly unfortunate concern.
It is necessary at this stage, however, to identify specifically the nature and capacity of the likely opponents to such a move, both within and outside the legislative paradigm. Within the parliament, the most obvious threat comes from the dubious coalition partner, the disproportionately important JUI-F, a party that has perfected the art of threatening to quit government in order to gain intermittent political concessions. It is likely that the mere mention of the blasphemy laws will prompt a flurry of protests from the only Islamist party in the parliament -- history suggests, however, that the credibility of its threats is tenuous, now especially so, given its numerical weakness in the National Assembly.
The major parties in the opposition, the PML-N and PML-Q (or MML for that matter), are the wild cards in this parliamentary equation, upon whom much will hinge. Though both have a history of socially conservative politics and have often pandered to the worst instincts of the religious right, they are distinct from the Islamist parties in that their social constituencies are not exclusively constructed upon the temporal articulation of religious sentiment. The North Punjab trader community, for instance, which constitutes the backbone of the PML-N voter base, will not search for other political patrons simply because of the party's support for a repeal initiative, notwithstanding the community's nominal discomfort with any such attempt. Notwithstanding the existence of certain xenophobic lobbying groups amongst the Leagues' urban support base (such as the Khatm-e-Nabuwat Movement), there may still be much room to sway the opinions of the higher echelons of the Muslim Leagues -- even if it is only for tacit consent for repeal.
It is likely that the most organisationally potent opposition to any repeal attempt will come from outside parliament -- in the form of the street cadres of the religious right (including the unelected Islamist parties, the Madrassah networks and their militant counterparts) in urban and peri-urban areas. It is that image, perhaps, that most unsettles any mainstream party thinking of supporting a review of the blasphemy laws -- the image of thousands of bearded men marching in the streets, rhetorically chastising the offending parties for 'betraying the Prophet to serve Western interests', while symbolically de-linking them from the modicum of religious legitimacy that they feel they must possess to politically survive. It is perhaps fear of the culmination of this image that is the single biggest factor preventing the mainstream parties from removing a law that they have little material interest in maintaining.
This particular fear is all too real and needs to be tactically understood by all those interested in any improvement in the treatment of Pakistan's minorities. For citizens, progressive associations and civil society, the imperative to organise and demonstrate their presence on the streets to oppose this mob is absolutely crucial. Without oppositional street presence, the xenophobes will win without a fight.
But even greater responsibility lies on the media, especially its electronic variant, hugely influential in the contemporary age. In some senses, the mainstream parties' fear of the rampaging mobs is predicated on their belief that the media will electronically magnify the marauders into what appears to be an expression of overwhelming public resentment. The PPP, in particular, has reason to fear that any such agitation will be projected in continuation of the dominant media narrative of popular dissatisfaction with the government amongst the 'masses'.
The electronic media in Pakistan has an historic opportunity before it, therefore, to help generate the consensus required to remove the perpetual sword of Damocles from above the heads of Pakistan's minorities. If it so wishes, it can achieve this task as skillfully as it has done so on many other politically contentious issues in the past, at little cost to its interests or viewership. Whether it chooses to do so or succumbs to reactionary impulses remains to be seen.
The road towards the removal of Pakistan's blasphemy laws is fraught with much difficulty and requires a considerable exertion of political will, rhetorical skill and organizational acumen, on part of Pakistan's major political parties, progressive groups, civil society and vitally, the media. But it is, as argued, achievable if the stakeholders can look past short-term reactionary perceptions and display some long-overdue empathy towards our battered minorities of their own accord, instead of being shamefully chastised into it under understandable international duress.
The writer is a development professional based in Islamabad. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
Will Thar coal change the country's destiny or remain its best kept secret?
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
What else can an energy deficient country like Pakistan dream of than discovering it owns one of the world's largest coal reserves -- estimated at more than 185 billion tonnes. Surprisingly, since the discovery in Tharparkar district of Sindh by Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) in 1992, nothing significant has been done to tap this opportunity.
According to a brief of Sindh Mines Department, the estimated energy content of Pakistan's coal reserves is equivalent to 2,000 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas which is about 28 times higher than Pakistan's proven gas reserves of 30 TCF. These coal reserves have the potential to provide 200,000 MW for the next 100 years and save more than $4 billion per year in Pakistan's oil import bill.
Whenever the government has talked about exploration of these coal reserves and electricity generation from coal powered plants, criticism has come from different quarters -- like environmentalists, world donor bodies and the population likely to be displaced due to this initiative.
In April this year, World Bank went to the extent of outrightly refusing to finance coal exploration in Thar due to environmental concerns. However, it expressed its resolve to promote clean energy initiatives in the country and help it overcome the energy crisis.
The question is: Can Pakistan afford to miss this opportunity and continue to suffer from the ever-widening energy-supply gap? Or should it look out for solutions to financial and environmental problems hampering progress in this regard?
In a bid to avail the second option, the government seems to have recently started an aggressive marketing campaign. The latest overture in this regard has been the holding of Coal Forum in Houston, USA -- the energy capital of the world -- in collaboration with Pakistan Chamber of Commerce USA (PCC-USA). The aim obviously was to dispel some misperceptions about coal being an environmentally hazardous source of energy and invite global energy corporations to invest in Thar coal power project.
PCC-USA President Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi tells TNS via email that environmental concerns were valid till a few years ago but now clean coal technologies are available that have reduced the adverse impact. "The coal gasification pilot project initiated by the team of Dr. Samar Mubarakmand is a step in the right direction," he says.
Kundi adds World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions do look down upon coal but for a developing country like Pakistan there are other financial sources available in Middle East, China and Far East.
He says PCC-USA strongly feels that negotiations on bilateral Investment treaty (BIT) between US and Pakistan should be put on fast-track so that investors feel more confident in investing in Pakistan. "Besides, Pakistan's foreign office should work with the US State Department to remove the travel advisory on US citizens travelling to Pakistan," he adds.
Kundi says Pakistan is a large country and travel risk is only limited to Afghan border areas. US investors and technology companies should not be apprehensive of travelling to large cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to meet with Pakistani counterpart.
He tells TNS their next step will be to organise a delegation of US companies to visit Thar and other coal mines to assess the potential and appreciate the work done by organizations like Thar Coal Authority. "We will arrange a follow-up forum after the delegations visit in 2011".
However, the concerns amongst the local populace of Thar seem to remain unaddressed.
Gulab Rai, Programme Coordinator, Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) tells TNS the environmental concerns are quite real and must be addressed before going ahead with the exploration. "As coal fields consist of about 51 per cent land of Tharparkar district, there will be a huge displacement of people from there. Tharparkar is the world's most densely populated desert inhabited by 91,000 people. Moving them from here and settling them at another place is a Herculean task."
Rai who was involved in an environment study conducted in the area says the biggest concern is depletion of natural aquifiers: "There are three acquifiers -- one at the surface, second just above where the coal is and the third lies beneath the layers of coal," he says.
In case of open pit digging to extract coal, the first two aquifiers have to be done away with. "Even the drainage of water will be a problem as releasing it in Run of Kuch area would trigger a row with India."
The other method is called coal gasification in which the coal is converted into gases without digging for. This is a clean and hi-tech process and Pakistan has recently started working on it.
He says Engro Group, working in partnership with the Sindh government to set up a coal powered-plant in Thar has hired services of Haigler Bailey, a consultancy firm that has conducted environmental impact studies in the area. Rai says they have set up a control room to assess impact of coal-powered energy generation on area's vegetation, species, moisture content in the air, direction of wind, dust pollution and humidity. It is hoped the study helps in finding ways to conserve the environment of the area to the maximum.
Rai says there's a government plan in place to lay a pipeline to bring 300 cusec water from Indus. If implemented, this may help meet the demand of water required during power production process.
An official in Sindh Mines Department says that the only way to exploit this potential is to give exploration licenses to foreign companies who want to produce electric power from coal. "No one will extract coal for the purpose of selling it in the market," he says.
The official who does not want his name to be printed says there are strict instructions to them to not talk to media. "The country is wooing foreign investors. Any bad mouthing by media can spoil the efforts," was what exactly they were communicated. This is something very close to what Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, said to participants in Houston. He had advised them not to pay heed to media reports about the situation in Pakistan which according to him were mostly exaggerated.
Another reason he could not speak on record was that only Aijaz Ali Khan, Secretary Coal and Energy Development Department, Government of Sindh, was the official authorised to do so. He was part of the delegation that went to the US and has not yet returned, he adds.
The official says that the coal extracted in Pakistan is going mostly for consumption in brick kilns. Only a couple of cement factories in Balochistan consume local coal as fuel. On the other hand, he adds, every year Pakistan imports 4.5 million tonnes of coal from countries like South Africa and Indonesia. This coal, unlike the Pakistani one, has low sulphur content. "The imported coal is washed and processed to remove impurities. This technology is so far not available in Pakistan," he adds.
He shares with TNS that German and Chinese firms had earlier started worked in Thar. They left as they were denied the rate of 7.5 cents per unit which they were demanding for producing electric power from coal.