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Kartarpur may be the first drop of rain

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On November 09th, 2019, Pakistan and India opened the first-ever visa-free corridor between the two countries to facilitate the pilgrimage of Sikhs – a minority community in both India and Pakistan but with major chunk of its populace settled in India – to their second holiest site located in Katarpur, a border village in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Inaugurated on the respective sides by the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, the4.1 km long corridorconnecting­ Dera Baba Nanak Shrine in India with Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan – will enable more than5,000 devotees to visit the holy shrine everyday and is widely being regarded as the first drop of rain in the decade’s long history of the desiccated and conflictual relationship between the two neighbours.

An occurrence such momentous that it effectively exalted Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan as the most beloved figurefor Sikhs, besides actuating Prime Minister Narendra Modi to issue a rare and extraordinary message of gratitude towards his Pakistani counterpart, despite the contextual reality that later has been drawing parallels between the Indian PM and Nazi leader Hitler after the Indian government’s draconian venture in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) steeped the relations between the two countries to an unprecedented low.

The trudge to this landmark breakthrough was as arduous and bumpy as it could have been between the two nations that share a 07 decades-long history of the antagonism. Although, the demand of Sikhs to be granted access to the revered shrine – located just a few kilometers away from the Redcliff Line – is as old as the two antagonist nations, interminable strains in the relationship between the two countries proved to be an impediment in the way of this few kilometers of journey across the border.

Even as Pakistan extended the olive branch and Indian politician Navjot Singh Sihdu – who attended PM Khan’s oath-taking ceremony in August last year – was apprised by Pakistani COAS about his country’s readiness to open the “corridor of peace”, cynicism and suspicion from Indian side were axiomatic. Sidhu was barraged with denunciation back home for embracing Pakistan’s top military official, while the sciolists in Indian political and strategic community tried to conjecture about the “covert designs” behind Pakistan’s apparently benevolent move. Indisputably, India was not left with any other choice except for accepting the Pakistani offer as responding otherwise could have infuriated its 22 million-strong Sikh minority. Though the Modi government hesitatingly expressed its consent for the construction of the corridor, it didn’t respond positively to the successive dialogue offers made by PM Khan.

To add to the complexity was the hyper-nationalistic and anti-Pakistan narrative adopted by PM Modi during his recent election campaign after he had fallen short of delivering on his previous election promises as regards transforming the Indian economy and improving people’s lives. As if Pakistan bashing was not enough to garner votes, Modi went as far as to push the two countries almost to the brink of a nuclear exchange in February 2019 when in response to an attack– purported to be a false-flag – at Indian security forces in restive Kashmir, he ordered Indian Air Force (IAF) to bomb targets inside mainland Pakistan, provoking a daring response from Pakistan Air Force (PAF) the next day resulting in the downing of an IAF jet and arrest of an Indian pilot by Pakistani forces, who was returned few days later.

Nevertheless, the perilous brinkmanship worked spectacularly for Modi and his right-wing BJP secured an overwhelming majority in the lower house of parliament, full credit to the shrewd manipulation of mainstream and social media– which abetted the regime’s efforts to cunningly overshadow the embarrassment of aircraft downing and capture of pilot with the celebrations of “punishing Pakistan”.

After winning elections, Modi further upped the ante in the disputed J&K and after imposing an all-out communication clampdown and enacting a security blanket over the valley of Kashmir – the state’s only Muslim majority region – unilaterally repealed the region’s decades-old semi-autonomous status.

Predictably, it evoked a strong response from Pakistan which downgraded diplomatic ties with India, cut-off trade and expelled the Indian High Commissioner while refusing to send his own to New Delhi. Then followed a long diplomatic scrimmage between the two countries with Pakistan trying to rally the support of international community against the tyrannical Indian moves in the occupied valley and India responding with counter moves aimed at hurting Pakistan diplomatically and economically, besides propagating the deceitful mantra of “all is well” for Kashmir.

Notwithstanding the reignited tensions, when Pakistan decided to move ahead with the opening of the corridor as per schedule, it was regarded as a bold diplomatic move. Though it would have earn the country appreciation abroad, a severe backlash from the opposition at home was very much on the cards and at a time when leader of a right-wing political party Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman was holding a sit-in in Islamabad with his thousands of zealot supporters demanding Khan’s resignation, the risk of domestic backlash had increased manifold.

Nevertheless, Khan’s government with the undisguised support of country’s powerful military moved ahead with the decision despite criticism from opposition politicians like Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – whose left-wing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) frequently champions religious freedom and interfaith harmony but didn’t miss the opportune moment to ensure the “obligatory” political point-scoring.

Although, Pakistan has made a landmark move despite soaring regional tensions and domestic pressure and opening of the border corridor can be rightfully considered as the first drop of rain after decades of desiccation, the chances that a rainstorm may follow which can convert the roads into the river, remain ever more slim and the major impediment is the simmering volcano; the dispute of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) – a sticking point mentioned by Khan in his speech on the day of the inauguration of corridor.  

For more than seven decades the outstanding issue of J&K has been instigating hostilities between the two now nuclear-armed neighbors and recent unilateral actions by India – which violate numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions and various bilateral accords with Pakistan – have just added to the fire and fury. Essentially, Modi’s regime’s recent actions in J&K has taken the matters to a point of no-return and the chances of Pakistan making any further peace overtures towards India or responding to any – though highly unlikely – Indian peace initiative, are slightest.

The pessimism around talks has already been echoed by Khan when he made it abundantly clear that until Indian government ends its oppressive clampdown in the valley of Kashmir and restores pre-August 5th, 2019 status of disputed J&K – an even distant possibility – negotiations remains out of question.

Even though, there is a remote possibility that Khan’s government – which has almost lost its initially built momentum against India over Kashmir and seems to be more concerned with other domestic and regional issues – will even subtly try to normalize the relationship with India, yet a slight nuance of any such move is likely to evoke strong backlash from country’s religious right as well as the political opposition. And given the virtual reality that supporting Kashmir cause is regarded as a symbol of nationalism in Pakistan, and country’s powerful military establishment and Khan are already facing accusations of striking a deal on Kashmir, it is even unlikely that Pakistan will venture on taking any further risk of making up with India, only to spark a general enragement.

India under Modi is undergoing a massive transformation and into the 6th consecutive year of BJP’s rule, the country’s fundamental secular outlook is under threat. In 1947, while Pakistan was being founded as a country for Muslims, India’s founding fathers envisioned a secular outlook for the culturally, religiously and ethnically diverse country. Seven decades below the line, Modi regime – despite publically pledging to safeguard India’s secular constitution – has embraced a fundamentally opposite course.

Rise of far-right may be a global phenomenon but India presents the most extreme and violent version of this imminent menace – a reality axiomatic by the rising religious intolerance, especially against Muslims; increased and generally overlooked incidents of mob-violence against minorities; cow vigilantes– which represent a militant brand of Hindu nationalism – patrolling the streets of India to impose their own version of “law” under state’s patronage; a sudden rise in the incidents of hate speech by the leaders of ruling party without facing any admonishment; the taming of Indian media to ally with government’s jingoistic policies and religiously incendiary rhetoric; various democratic and constitutional institutions conceding to the majoritarian impulse rather than adhering to constitution; ever reducing political space for dissent and opposition parties; and the recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Bill, which exclusively discriminates against Muslims.

These alarming trends clearly point out that Modi regime – in pursuance of Hindu supremacist Hindutva ideology – is steadfastly navigating the world’s largest democracy into the abyss of Fascism. Arguably, given the emerging trends in Indian society, Khan’s analogy between Modi and Hitler was not that erroneous and many Indian politicians and commentators have also expressed concerns that the early signs of Fascism are already obvious in Indian society.

Narendra Modi – who came to power with an alluring economic reform and development agenda – is now totally reliant on anti-Muslim divisive politics and to a tragic consorting, the democratic and constitutional institutions of the country – which were to place a hindrance in the way of this majoritarian brand of politics – seem to be accomplices. With no institutional and social hindrance to the Hindutva –a brand of politics kept at bay for many decades – this divisive menace is now finally engulfing India’s political and social landscape and ultimately threatens the internal cohesion of diverse Indian society.

Given the ideological and historical context, Kashmir presented a test-case for the protagonists of Hindutva. The state of J&K – a Muslim majority region that acceded to Hindu majority India –was cherished as asymbol of India’s secular identity. However, Modi’s government’s revocation of region’s special status – which is fundamentally aimed at paving the way for introducing massive demographic changes in the region converting Muslims into a minority, essentially following the Israeli model in the West Bank –will not only help the regime in crushing the self-determination sentiments in the valley but will also be a major milestone achievement en route to transforming India into a Hindu state.

Ironically, Muslims living in India are not the only prey of rising Hindu Fascism and expansionist Hindutva have regional and global implications. Being a homeland to the successors of those “outsiders” who ruled the Hindu majority India for more than 850 years, Pakistan becomes the major nuisance for the Hindu supremacists currently in-charge in India. February 2019 nuclear brinkmanship by Modi regime; uninterruptedPakistan bashing by Indian media; adaptation of a well-choreographed anti-Pakistan narrative during elections campaigns by Indian politicians; vigorous Indian attempts to get Pakistan blacklisted by FATF; and continuous fomentation of subversive activities by Indian intelligence inside Pakistan point out that Pakistan’s long-held apprehensions about India plotting to weaken the country’s federation to ultimately subsume its tumbling parts, were not misplaced.

In fact, weakening Pakistan internally, disintegrating it and ultimately subsume its parts will be a step forward in the way of realization of the “Greater India” dream of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),the organization regarded as the ideological patron of ruling BJP and the major proponent of Hindu supremacist, majoritarian and expansionist Hindutva ideology with current Indian PM and most of the leaders of BJP as its life-long members.

To put the things in a nutshell, the opening of the Kartarpur corridor may be a sanguine gesture by Pakistan but India doesn’t seem to be even interested in some reciprocity. The issue of J&K – which has become further complicated due to India’s overassertive and intransigent attitude – presents an immediate stumbling block in the way of this “first drop of rain” being followed by a “downpour”– which can turn the dry and desiccated road into a river.

In the long-run, as the Modi government pursues the Hindutva policies and continues on a path to hurt Pakistan internally, economically and globally, chances of any further optimistic gesture from either side become even remote. And given the aforementioned immediate and long-term hurdles and the virtual reality that relations between the two countries have gone such desiccated that only continuous down pouring turning the roads into the rivers can provide the required panacea, Kartarpur corridor is likely to be proved as yet another noteworthy but futile confidence-building measure (CBM), without any significant headway towards long-lasting peace in the region. 

Hamdan Khan is an alumnus of National Defense University Islamabad. He has previously worked for Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) & is currently associated with Pakistan Council on China (PCC). His major areas of interest include Geo-politics, Great Power Competition, Nuclear Affairs and Revolution in Military Affairs.

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South Asia

The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and Taliban’s obsession with women’s rights

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A mother and her child in the Haji camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

The Taliban’s latest move to restrict the rights of women points to an obsession with women’s rights. This is in stark contrast to the neglect the regime is showing in addressing an ever worsening economic and humanitarian crisis. With Afghan’s facing poverty and starvation, the Taliban needs to focus on rebuilding the country, and this can only be achieved by respecting the rights of women.

This comes after the Taliban ordered all women to cover their faces in public, making it the latest restriction on the rights of women by the oppressive regime. The Taliban has previously forbidden women from travelling long distances unsupervised or working outside of the healthcare sector. The Taliban also faced international outcry earlier this year when they backflipped on a decision to allow women and girls to attend secondary school and university, making it impossible for women to receive an education.

The Taliban’s treatment of women is not a new development. During the regimes previous reign, between 1996 and 2001, it was described as the least feminist movement in the world. The Taliban forbade education, employment and access to healthcare delivered by men, while also making the veil mandatory and forbidding women to leave the home unless accompanied by a male family member. This was seen as the strictest interpretation of Sharia Law.

Contrary to claims made by the Taliban, the latest iteration of the movement is now attempting to do the same by systematically removing women from public life.

The difference this time is that, since the US withdrawal, the country has experienced an economic and humanitarian crisis. This is largely due to poor governance, the freezing of central bank assets by the US and the withdrawal of foreign aid in response to the Taliban takeover.

The situation is dire. Half the population, approximately 20 million people, are facing acute food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Healthcare is notoriously difficult to access, and poverty is widespread, with women, persecuted minority groups and former government employees refused work and unable to provide for their families. The crisis is so critical that families are resorting to selling their children to delay starvation.

This raises the question of why the Taliban is so obsessed with restricting the rights of women when Afghanistan is falling apart around them. Strict adherence to Sharia Law aside, this attack of women’s rights is clearly to the Taliban’s detriment and the detriment of the people of Afghanistan. This position must change for the country to rebuild.

First and foremost, the actions of the Taliban and the humanitarian crisis is making the situation of women much worse, as women are one of Afghanistan’s the most vulnerable groups. The restriction of their rights has resulted in a lack of income and education, making women reliant on their families for food, water and sanitation products. This is meant that women are not only facing poverty and starvation, but they are also increasingly at risk of exploitation by family members and their communities.

Second, the removal of women from the workplace also affects Afghanistan as a whole. While the Taliban has allowed women to work in the health sector, many have not returned to work, dramatically reducing the number of doctors and nurses able to treat other women, particularly in rural areas. On top of this, women that have returned have not been paid, and are reliant on aid agencies to feed their families.

Outside of healthcare, women have been completely removed from the workplace, including in government, the judicial system, charities and aid agencies. Under the Karzai and Ghani governments the wages of women played an important role in providing for families through their increased workplace representation. With their right to employment suddenly removed, this has played a fundamental role in the causing poverty levels to rise throughout the country.

Third, the Taliban is desperate for international recognition, and that recognition and the aid that comes with it is tied to respecting human rights. The Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women means that the frozen assets held by the US, and aid from the international community, will continue to be out of arms reach. This will leave the country short of much needed funds to avert the current crisis, leaving those most vulnerable, particularly women, at risk of starvation.

While the international community shares some blame for the humanitarian crisis by withholding assets and restricting the flow of aid, it is also the Taliban’s responsibility, under international law, to treat its citizens as per their human rights.

For this reason, if the Taliban is interested in allowing Afghanistan to rebuild, then it must realise that economic relief is directly tied to the human rights of women.

Allowing women to participate in society, through attending school and participating in the workforce, will have a net benefit for Afghan society by increasing education levels, workforce participation and, in the short term, reduce poverty levels.

Respecting the rights of women will also allow aid to flow into the country, helping alleviate the worst effects of the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country and will allow aid agencies to monitor human rights throughout Afghanistan.

This creates an opportunity for the international community to pressure the regime into respecting the rights of women. This will help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and will go a long way to improving the lives of women and girls by giving them an opportunity to get an education, enter the workforce and participate in society.

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