All posts by Neha Ansari

Neha Ansari is a journalist from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a second-year MALD student at The Fletcher School. Previously, she worked as a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune, an English Pakistani daily newspaper and a partnered publication of the New York Times.

Wannabe Tahrir Square: Pakistanis Reject Orchestrated “Revolution” Led by Firebrand Cleric

Islamabad’s D-Chowk was to become the next Tahrir Square. There, a ‘revolution’ led by a Pakistani-Canadian Islamic Law professor, Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, sought to compel the Pakistani elected government to let go of their power, dissolve the legislative assemblies, and make way for elections. While the people of Pakistan supported the goals sought by Dr. Qadri, they did not support his method of achieving those objectives, and ultimately rejected the firebrand mullah and his orchestrated Pakistani Spring.

Dr. Qadri, who began appearing in the media in November 2012, presented an ultimatum to the government in January to step down and hold fair elections. But the people of Pakistan, also in favor of holding elections, reacted with neither jubilation nor relief. Rather, they were confused about who Dr. Qadri was, where he had come from, and who was supporting him. Soon after the ultimatum, the media began an investigation into Dr. Qadri. His credentials, his dual nationality, and his political connections were all scrutinized. Despite being unknown in Pakistan, Dr. Qadri was well-established in the West after his fatwa against terrorism propelled him into the spotlight and earned him invitations to speak at think tanks and the World Economic Forum. “Terrorism and violence cannot be permissible in Islam,” he said to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2010 during an interview. In the eyes of the international community, he represented the benign Islamist, an Islamic scholar willing to speak out against violence.

Fast forward to the present and Dr. Qadri, claiming to wage a battle for the people of Pakistan, was increasingly perceived as loud, irritating, and sensationalist with questionable motives. Although the people had not asked him to fight for them, he somehow became the face of the change Pakistanis want. The public want elections to take place soon. They want a smooth transfer of power, but the present government, seen as corrupt and inept, had been delaying elections for months on the pretext of some logistical or bureaucratic matter. The government should have dissolved the assemblies and appointed a caretaker government in November or December 2012, but instead elections were put on the backburner. Some speculated that President Asif Ali Zardari wanted to circumvent the constitution and get re-elected for another five years by the same National Assembly in which his party has a majority.

People agreed with Dr. Qadri’s call for change, but not with the way he was demanding it. His public grandstanding was seen as disruptive to Pakistani democracy. When Dr. Qadri launched his ‘million-man march’ that shut down Islamabad for three days, fears of another military intervention fueled further political instability. As the people and the media witnessed the perseverance of Qadri’s followers’ on the streets, the Supreme Court gave orders for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection to a corruption case in which he allegedly received kickbacks. The Supreme Court verdict jolted the executive who convinced Qadri to end the march.

The Supreme Court’s verdict created further frustration with and suspicion of Qadri. An accusation circulated that Qadri, funded and supported by the military and intelligence agencies, was working with the Supreme Court to derail democracy by disrupting the political process in such a way that a military response would be the only means by which to restore stability. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani public rejected Qadri and his ‘revolution.’ The people wanted the government to transfer power to a caretaker government and to hold elections, but they did not want Qadri to coerce the president into carrying this out. In the public eye, Qadri was and is the face of Pakistan’s security establishment, even though the Pakistan Army issued a statement distancing itself from the cleric. From the public’s perspective, his victory would mean the installation of the military or a military-backed government unrepresentative of the people and their wishes.

Ultimately, it appears that Qadri’s protest against the government was successful. He and Prime Minister Ashraf signed the Islamabad Long March Declaration, ensuring that the government will be dissolved before March 16 this year and that elections will take place ninety days after, under a caretaker government. That the movement was peaceful, a rarity for Pakistan, marked a significant victory. However, Qadri’s campaign was an ignominy for the people of Pakistan and while Qadri claims success, the Supreme Court verdict is what truly pressured the ruling party to discuss the establishment of the caretaker government with other coalition members. The people rejected Qadri’s wannabe Tahrir Square and its unruly path to force the government to act. Instead, Pakistani citizens chose to work within the framework of their constitution to protect their democracy.

Drones: A Losing Strategy

A war or military strategy is defined as an over-arching policy to achieve military goals, while a tactic is a specific method used in the execution of a strategy. Categorizing the use of drones as a tactic diminishes their impact and significance. The U.S. drone campaign is not a mere counterterrorism tactic, but rather a strategic choice by the United States to fight a distanced, low-cost war. Portraying drones as combat instruments is indulging in reductionism.

This military strategy of a detached, wieldy and inexpensive war fought by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may have started as a tactic to counter terrorism in Afghanistan. But extending the use of drones to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and potentially to places such as Mali, is a strategic choice that changes the nature of the war. In October, The Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is looking to add another ten drones to its fleet of thirty-five, as the robotic aircraft becomes more and more central to the agency’s worldwide counterterror campaign. “The UAVs are growing in importance while the rest of the military campaign is receding,” according to Noah Shachtman of Brookings Institution.

This shift signifies a radical transformation in U.S. counterterrorism strategy towards drone warfare. The United States no longer has a strategy that merely utilizes drones as a tactical instrument, but one that is predicated on their use. Adding more drones as the U.S. nears the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan is evidence that the United States is gearing up for its UAV-defined war of the future.

But what is wrong with having drones as a military strategy? Plenty. Making drones the face of warfare raises thorny ethical, legal and political issues. Obama’s “kill list,” the open-ended definition of a ‘militant’ (any man of military age who happens to be around or in a ‘suspected gathering’), the secrecy, and the lack of checks and accountability in the program are problematic. The countless civilian casualties and the ambiguity of drone strikes’ accuracy have prompted substantial reservations.

Drones are legal in Afghanistan as the law of war applies there. But in Pakistan, the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is murky due to the tacit consent of the Pakistani military. Moreover, U.S. drone strikes have not met the requirements of proportionality, discrimination and military necessity required by the application of IHL. In Yemen and Somalia, the law of war simply does not apply, and targeted killing in these two countries is illegal.

The unabated use of drones as central to America’s war policy is not a sound concept on the political front either, as drones have fueled anti-Americanism. Despite international derision, the United States is adding more drones to its fleet, further developing the technology, and funneling resources to the UAV campaign. This is interpreted as American intransigence and hubris, which is further complicating America’s relationships around the world.

More alarmingly, casualties from the drone program bolster Taliban and al-Qaeda propaganda and recruitment. The more civilians the U.S. kills via UAVs, the more people will be likely to support, even join, militant organizations, rendering the strategy ineffective. This UAV-centric policy will not be successful because the U.S. will not be able to kill its way out fast enough as al-Qaeda franchises mushroom in other ungoverned areas of the world, taking in a growing number of recruits.

Now imagine these abovementioned features not simply as concerns about America’s current drone program, but as facts of future war. The United States is setting a dangerous precedent for the world. Experts recognize that “what was once considered an immediate response to an exceptional threat to the United States is now a permanent and institutionalized feature of U.S. foreign policy.” Because the United States is not being held responsible for the casualties and lack of transparency of the drone program, countries such as China, the United Kingdom and Israel may follow suit. This could lead any powerful country to pre-emptively strike their foes without warning, hesitation or a mandate. And the blame for such practice will fall on America.

The only way out of this untenable scenario in the future is more transparency and accountability today. To start, the CIA should acknowledge the program’s existence. Subsequently, the United States should reduce the drone program as it draws down in Afghanistan and, once again, retain drones as tactical instruments of counterterrorism, with limited scope and clearly defined parameters for legal use.

Sedition Laws: India, at a Juncture, Trying to Save (Democratic) Face

Speaking in 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru–India’s first Prime Minister–expressed concern about the country’s sedition law, a provision of the Indian Penal Code designed to punish individuals or organizations engaging in acts that were deemed to be against the interests of the state. Calling the law “highly objectionable and obnoxious,” Nehru warned that the sedition law, a holdover from the days of the British Raj, “should have no place…in any body of laws that we might pass.” Taking it a step further, he concluded that “The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

Today, the law not only still exists, but is readily used by the government to suppress freedom of speech. More worryingly, as the Central and state Governments battle a series of corruption scandals, the sedition law is desperately pulled out of the bag to silence government criticism and civic resistance. The continuing existence and exercise of India’s sedition laws have raised serious questions about whether democratic principles are being sufficiently upheld in the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ This law is archaic, pernicious and contradictory to democracy – and it needs to be repealed.

The sedition law, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860, was enacted right after the 1857 mutiny by Indian soldiers against British colonial rulers in an effort by the British Raj to contain and crush future resistance. Chapter VI of the Section describes sedition as: “Whoever by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in India shall be punished with transportation for life or for any term…”

In the most recent and high-profile manifestation of the law, political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition for the “displeasing and obscene” content he had produced and posted on the web. The cartoons in question–titled “The Gang Rape of India”–illustrated a woman draped in the Indian flag being tugged at by a politician and a bureaucrat, the Indian Parliament drawn in the shape of a toilet seat, and Ajmal Kasab (the lone surviving terrorist of the November 2007 Mumbai attacks) drawn as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution.

The images are disturbing. They are powerful. But are they seditious? No.

The use of the law to crush dissent is not limited to high-profile artists and dissidents. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 3,500 cases of sedition and “waging war” against the country were filed against villagers who were peacefully protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant near a fishing village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The Hindustan Times reports that the figure is closer to 7,000. The fishing community is against the construction of the Kudankulam power plant over fears of safety, especially after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan in March 2011. But instead of condemning the ludicrous charges, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh instead claimed that the protests were the handiwork of foreign, mostly American, environmental NGOs.

Meanwhile, Trivedi’s arrest caused public outrage among Indian civil society. Journalists reminded the country that Mahatma Gandhi, too, was charged with sedition by the British in 1922. The Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ambika Soni, raised the sedition issue at a Group of Ministers (GoM) meeting, where it was decided that the Indian Home Ministry would be asked to review the antiquated clauses of Section 124A. Indian Finance Minister and the GoM chairman, P. Chidambaram, agree that the law needs to be revised so as to “differentiate between anti-India and anti-government protests.”

However, such revisions will not suffice. In 1962, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that people could be only charged with sedition if they incited violence, clearly distinguishing between violent hate speech and dissent. Despite the verdict, the sedition law has been applied indiscriminately, including against magazine editors, journalists, academics and intellectuals, including renowned writer Arundhati Roy, who was accused of sedition when she claimed that Kashmir is not an integral part of India. As past efforts to fine-tune or change the parameters of the law have failed, the latest statements by the government do not inspire confidence.

Trivedi’s arrest has sparked debate, causing some rumbling in the Cabinet. But the law of sedition needs to be repudiated, not revised. The review of the law has formally begun, but differentiating between anti-India and anti-government dissent is not the point. As Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly observed: “filing police cases against peaceful protesters happens in China, not in a rights-respecting democracy.”

If India wants to be taken seriously as the world’s largest democracy, it needs to start acting like it, and soon. Its people are getting impatient.

Judicial Activism and Executive Transgression Plague Pakistan

On June 19, Pakistan’s Supreme Court convicted former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of contempt of court and ruled that he could not hold office, an unprecedented act of confrontation between the pro-military judiciary and the elected executive. To avoid a similar disqualification, Gilani’s successor and now Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf pushed through controversial legislation that made it legal for the Prime Minister as well as the federal and provincial ministers to disobey the court and remain in office.

Ashraf’s pushback was the most accelerated legislative effort in decades. Pakistan’s two legislative houses acted in a diligent way to save their necks from the Supreme Court’s newfound activism. Such was the self-serving urgency that they passed legislation nullifying the court order in just a matter of two days. In their rush, the lawmakers ignored that the legislation violates Article 8 and 14 of the Pakistani constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Pakistan’s democratic government is now unaccountable to its judiciary.

The court ruling is the latest salvo in a battle between pro-military bureaucrats and elected civilian officials. In this conflict, pro-military forces have accused successive civilian governments of corruption, often filing legal charges, and usually bringing them down through coups d’état.

Prime Minister Ashraf’s desperate legislation – widely considered a quick fix – was related to the National Reconciliation Ordinance, an executive order issued by former President Musharraf to bridge the gap between the military and the government. The NRO protected prospective government officials from corruption charges—in effect, allowing the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband and current president, Asif Ali Zardari, to return so that Bhutto could run for the premiership. But in 2009, a year after Musharraf had resigned and Zardari had replaced him, the Supreme Court declared the NRO unconstitutional, striking another blow in favor of military-dominated government. This was the beginning of the court’s foray into judicial activism.

With the NRO decision struck down, the corruption cases against President Zardari and hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats re-opened. One earlier development that piqued the interest of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was the release of $60 million in Zardari’s frozen assets from Swiss accounts after the NRO was passed. In 2008, Pakistan’s attorney general had written a letter to Swiss authorities asking for the release of the assets as the corruption charges were mala fide. The Supreme Court declared this act by the attorney general unlawful and asked the government for a letter to be written to the Swiss authorities for the legal proceedings to be restored.

But no one wants to write the damn letter! The court ordered Gilani, as head of the government, to pen it, but because he was loyal to Zardari, he ignored the court’s orders. This one piece of paper just cost Gilani his job and has caused the judiciary to be at loggerheads with the executive over his tenure. The result has been extreme political instability and a prevalence of conspiracy theories predicting military coups. The military, meanwhile, is not explicitly involved in this fight, but the government claims that the generals support the judiciary’s activism, along with the media.

After Gilani did not submit a reply to the court on the July 12 hearing, as President Zardari had signed the controversial immunity bill a day before, the unrelenting Supreme Court decided to give more time to Raja Pervez Ashraf, who is nicknamed “Rental Raja” by the media for allegedly taking kick-backs for renting expensive electricity. He was asked to write a letter to the Swiss authorities and submit a report to the court. Despite Ashraf’s immunity legislation, the Supreme Court ruled that laws applicable to Gilani are also applicable to Ashraf and many petitions have already been submitted to the Supreme and High courts challenging the immunity. Hence, the Supreme Court bench maintained that action would be taken against Ashraf according to the law if he did not write the (damn) letter.

But most Pakistanis do not care about any damn letter. They want electricity, cheap fuel, and, most of all, food and security. The dispute over this letter is causing instability and flight of capital, both of which severely hurt the people’s economic prospects.

Occurring during an election year in Pakistan, this power struggle will continue until the poll happens, while public grievances will be put on the back burner. All eyes will be on the two caviling pillars of state and on whether Prime Minister Ashraf keeps his job. Pakistan’s state institutions will continue to be dysfunctional: the democratically elected government will continue to be unaccountable and disobey the court, while the judiciary will continue to police the executive.

Amid all this squabbling, the average Pakistani – who faces electricity shortages, no jobs, skyrocketing inflation, and rampant violence – will continue to wonder why a damn letter is so important.