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‘We have to remain the watchdogs’

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN

A free-wheeling chat with well-known human rights activist Asma Jehangir on politics in Pakistan.


I think the message coming out of this is that the political leadership is out of touch with reality. No one can deny that on the streets of Pakistan, people were asking Musharraf to go. There were slogans against military in politics. There was complete clarity in that movement.

Photo: PTI

Fearless voice: Asma Jehangir is a campaigner for democracy in her country.

Asma Jehangir, Supreme Court lawyer and chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, is internationally renowned as a tireless activist of the rights of women, children and religious minorities; a fearless voice against military rule and a dogged campaigner for democracy in her country.

In an interview with The Hindu’s Pakistan correspondent, the Lahore-based Jehangir presents her assessment of the complex and difficult political situation in Pakistan. Exceprts:

Let’s start with the deal between Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. How do you see these talks between the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, the largest democratic political opposition party, and a military ruler?

A dialogue is always positive, and if it is transparent, and it’s for a principle, then I believe that it is absolutely essential. But the way this whole dialogue has been handled — I would prefer not to call it a deal and I hope it does not end as one — is the secrecy of it; the objective of it.

What is the objective?

To those of us who have been at the forefront of a movement that wants democracy, we feel this dialogue actually gave the army another lifeline. The lawyers’ movement (for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary) made Musharraf feel vulnerable for the first time and to take advantage of that would have been correct, but in a different way.

Had the political parties all got together and said, ‘General, you are vulnerable, you have seen that people do not like army rule. Let’s sit down and talk about exit of the army’, I think people would have welcomed that.

But the manner in which this has been conducted, the fact that the ISI chief was the political broker in London does not augur well. Benazir has just given a statement that even Nelson Mandela had negotiations with the apartheid regime. I hope she will reread her history.

Nelson Mandela came to negotiations after he had broken the apartheid system. He was saying ‘now that we have broken your back, how are you willing to hand over power’. Here, it is, ‘now that the lawyers have broken your back, how are we willing to adjust with each other’. It demoralised those who were asking for the army to stay away from politics.

Is this a message that the army’s role in politics is here to stay and the political parties have to adjust to it?

I think the message coming out of this is that the political leadership is out of touch with reality. No one can deny that on the streets of Pakistan, people were asking Musharraf to go. There were slogans against military in politics. There was complete clarity in that movement.

There is an argument that such an understanding (between Benazir and Gen. Musharraf) is required to prevent chaos; that “undiluted democracy” will lead to all sorts of forces rushing in…

There is that thinking. But, at the end of it, the argument is that a partnership between the military and civilians has never sustained itself. So what kind of partnership are you asking for?

Nothing (that was tried before) worked. Second thing is that there are moments in history; here is a moment when people in Pakistan have categorically said they are willing to come out and sacrifice. We have never before heard this kind of resentment against the military. This is a changed Pakistan. The mood has changed. You’ve never seen the judiciary take on the executive in this manner.

Do you not believe Benazir when she says that what she is doing is for democracy; that she is stripping a military ruler of all his powers, his uniform; that this is the best transition to a full democracy?

I have no reason to disbelieve her. But I think she’s being unrealistic if she thinks she can do it. And regardless of how laudable her reasons, there is a manner of doing it.

When there have to be negotiations, it must be between politicians. It cannot be with ISI chiefs, or high ranking bureaucrats. The whole manner of the negotiations shows who is in control and who wants to be in control.

It is unrealistic to think that Musharraf would have negotiations with People’s Party for giving up power. Why would he not want to have it with the people of Pakistan? If he is sincere about giving up, he can do it on television.

Is Nawaz Sharif the only politician now who understands the mood of the people? He seems to be saying all the right things.

Politicians always say the right things. We have to test them. I believe that activists and civil society in Pakistan have a very long struggle ahead. We have to constantly remain the watchdogs.

What does Nawaz Sharif’s proposed return augur for Pakistan?

If he comes, we would all welcome it. The politicians of Pakistan have a role to play here.

But he’s not a liberal politician. He is a religious conservative. He did not particularly like a free media; his civil liberties record was poor.

Yes, Nawaz had a dreadful record of human rights. And his understanding of the issues involved is rather bleak.

So why would you welcome him?

The reason I would welcome him is that I think the political leadership needs to be here, and we can challenge a political leadership.



In her elements: Asma Jehangir at an anti-war demonstration. Photo: AFP

The very fact that democracy is acceptable to people is not because you get pure leadership but that the system has its own dynamics.

If there are free and fair elections, and anti-Americanism is going to be big factor, do you think it could end up strengthening the hands of the religious extremists?

Anti-Americanism will be a factor but I certainly do not believe that, despite what the Americans have done, people are going to stake their lives on religious extremism just because they hate the Americans. They love themselves far more. Pakistan is very different to other Muslim countries.

I don’t fear that through a ballot, you will have religious militant extremists coming in. But if you don’t have a ballot, there is far more danger of this happening.

You were critical of the way the government handled the Lal Masjid issue…

It was not easy for the Human Rights Commission to take this stand on the Lal Masjid because many of our members are confirmed radical secularists and we have been against religious extremism, terrorism and militancy.

But we believe that if government can use excessive force against anyone, they can use it for us as well tomorrow.

Well, the government also tried negotiations and agreements in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but that has not worked either.

I don’t want to sound negative at all. To combat terrorism is in the interests of Pakistan; it is crucial for Pakistan. But as an informed citizen, I do not know what is happening in FATA.

So it is very difficult for me to make a judgment whether they are doing it the right way or not.

I can only say that I know that children and women have been killed. I know there has been no enquiry. I know this is not a transparent operation. I also know that political parties are not allowed to have any activities in FATA.

You are actually depoliticising the place and pushing the population into the lap of anyone there who is able to organise them.

I, as a citizen, can only see that terrorism in my country has expanded rather than reduced since Musharraf took over, and since September 11. We did not have the kind of Talibanisation in Swat and Dir and Mardan, and in FATA, even in pockets of Balochistan.

There were people saying after 9/11 that this may be a blessing in disguise for us. But it certainly has not been so far.

It did help to dismantle some camps that were operating cross-border in Kashmir…

It may have helped India but my first concern is about my own country, my own people.

Looking back at eight years under Musharraf, would you give him credit for anything?

If a Prime Minister does his duty, are you going to give him credit for it? I would give credit to somebody who has done something positive, for the well being of the people. I don’t give anybody credit for not killing me.

What Musharraf’s government has done that needs credit is that he did pass the Women’s Protection Law. It was not passed in the way we would have liked it, but it was a step in the right direction. Musharraf’s government put one-third women in the National Assembly. That is something we will give him credit for. But I will not give him credit for not beating him up.

What about the whole television, private news channels boom?

It was already in the pipeline. And Musharraf did not lock it, for whatever reasons.

Do you think any of the others would have made an effort to restore Katas Raj (a historic Hindu temple in Punjab province)?

These are patchwork. There is a dual policy. You cannot wish away things simply by making a speech. There has to be hard work behind these words. We find a huge gap between what Musharraf says and what he does.

Excuse my saying so, people outside Pakistan really do appreciate the Musharraf government a lot and find that he is extremely liberal. Those who have been victims of the wrath of this government do not think of him as liberal.

In this last month, there has been a lot of talk about 60 years, comparing India and Pakistan. And many commentators have raised questions about the future of Pakistan. How do you see it?

I would say that Pakistan survives because of the energy and the resilience of the people.

The leadership, particularly the military leadership — and this is something that people have now recognised — has committed mistake upon mistake. The country broke up because of them; the economy is in a mess because of them; wars with India happened because of them; tensions with Afghanistan are because of them… They are the ones who insisted on recognising the Taliban; they are the ones who later gave protection to Taliban; they are the ones who created divisions between the provinces.

The economy is not a mess. Seven per cent growth…

Seven per cent growth… we can see where that is going; to the cronies of the military and the military itself. The military is training civil servants and the police, they are heading health, education and humanitarian initiatives here. And nothing works; that is the best part of it.

It has become dysfunctional, the place. Musharraf’s devolution plan has come to naught. The police does not work.

Unfortunately even the military does not work. In a country where 150 soldiers have been kidnapped and there is no sense of urgency, it’s amazing, and depressing. Parliament does not work here; the judiciary was scandalous prior to the chief justice movement.

So what is working? Private schools? That’s it.

What is your prediction for the coming days?

It’s very difficult to predict what may happen. And I’m not saying that if tomorrow general elections are held free and fair, which I doubt will be done, that we will suddenly become worthy, and we will change course immediately.

We have a long way to go, but we have to give it direction, and we cannot do it with the military telling us how to lay down our policy.

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