Jewish Journal


June 17, 2011

3 small changes in Pakistan



A screenshot from private television channel SAMAA TV showing Sarfaraz Shah pleading with the paramilitary Rangers sepoy. Sarfaraz's brother works at SAMAA TV. The original footage was shot by a Sindhi TV channel cameraman who happened to be at the park filming for a programme. He has since gone into hiding.

It has been an unusual week in Karachi. Three things have happened, which I’m almost tempted to define as change. It feels like an imperceptible shift in the way things are done in Pakistan.

The first case: The murder of a journalist

A Pakistani journalist called Saleem Shahzad was killed for the work he was doing. Our spy agency, the ISI, has come under fire for this killing. The criticism is severe. Opinion pieces have appeared across the media and in talk shows but one of the strongest ones was Ejaz Haider’s open letter to ISI chief General Pasha.
It talks about how there is no accountability for the ISI: “And what has the agency you head done so far [in the Saleem Shahzad murder case]? Nothing, beyond getting an unnamed official to say that while the “unfortunate and tragic death of Syed Saleem Shahzad is a source of concern for the entire nation”, “the incident should not be used to target and malign the country’s security agencies”. Well, sir, to me this is totally unacceptable. What makes the security agencies exempt from criticism or accountability, especially if they are considered enemies by the very people they are supposed to protect?”

There has been mounting criticism for years on the ISI’s support for radicals and militants. The blowback is hitting our cities, especially Karachi where I face a daily onslaught of unsolved terrorist hits. I hope that somehow our policymakers and government are able to see that this cannot continue. No matter what the US wants.

The second case: A budget discussion

The second happening that made me consider for a split second that perhaps a new thinking is emerging, or a new kind of fearlessness is emerging was closer to my turf. We’ve just emerged from budget season. In my state’s (province) legislative house, the Sindh Assembly, elected representatives opened a discussion on the budget for 2011-2012. In all the 10 years of editing Sindh Assembly budget discussions, never have I (as far as I can remember) come across such apt criticism: An MPA from the ruling PPP stood up and asked how come the socio-economic lives of people in Sindh had not changed for years even though each time the government announces a “people-friendly” budget?
I wanted to cheer MPA Dr Sikander Mendhro (who is generally a well-respected and educated politician). He had hit the nail on the head. While what he said was not new insofar as the word on the street is concerned, what was new is that he had articulated it in the house of lawmakers. That was a first.
He also pointed out that even though we give more and more money to development schemes, 40% of them are embezzled by corrupt officials. If you ever travel to rural Sindh – to the villages outside, say Sukkur – you will wonder where the hell the hospitals, clinics and schools are. Where has the money been going all these years?

The third case: An extrajudicial killing

The third thing that happened to make me believe that something was changing was the extrajudicial killing of a young man in a park where a paramilitary force was on patrol. Violence in Karachi means that our understaffed police need a helping hand. The Rangers were on duty and one of them shot a young man they thought was mugging people in the park. The Supreme Court took notice of the killing, whose gruesome video surfaced. The chiefs of police and the Rangers were removed from their posts. Justice may not have been entirely served for the families but for the first time ever, as far as I can remember, heads rolled.
The fact that there were three instances of candid calls for accountability, including one that went through, made me believe that if just kept pushing – civil society, the media, the courts – then somehow it would stick. Are we finally reining in the institutions that should serve the people? We may be a long way away from the kind of oversight that you see in other countries, but I’m glad that this week something changed, finally.

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