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‘To Hell Where They Belong’

by Shehrbano Taseer
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Outside the National Assembly, March 28, 2009. Farooq Naeem—AFP

Outside the National Assembly, March 28, 2009. Farooq Naeem—AFP

In conversation with Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Punjab.

Will U.S. President Obama’s visit to India bring us any closer to a resolution on Kashmir?

President Obama is not going to raise the Kashmir issue because it does not suit American interests at the moment to do so. This visit is too high profile‚ and is more about selling $12 billion of defense equipment to India. For the first time‚ nobody can accuse Pakistan of having anything to do with the Kashmir intifada‚ unless they say the stones [protesters are pelting Indian soldiers with] have come from Pakistan. All their lives‚ these protesters have only known Indian occupation—and it’s a brutal‚ highly radicalizing occupation: 500‚000 soldiers deployed for a population of 8 million‚ thousands of rapes‚ missing persons‚ illegal detentions. But because India is a large country with economic power, people accuse us of radicalizing Kashmiri Muslims whereas in fact the occupation of Kashmir by Indian troops is what is radicalizing them.

We have to bring down tensions with India and build trust. And for the first time, we have a completely democratic government in Pakistan. India should see this; it should not adopt the hard line they adopted after the Mumbai attacks. The government of Pakistan had nothing to do with those attacks, nonstate actors did. Accusations to the contrary weaken Pakistani democracy. President Asif Ali Zardari extended a hand of friendship to India, offered that there would be no first use of a nuclear weapon. He did everything possible, unilaterally, to show that he wanted friendship. The Pakistan Peoples Party wants economic progress and peace in the area. But if you militarize [Kashmir] and create security concerns‚ then it’s very difficult for any democratic government in Pakistan to survive.

The Western press is unanimous in their opinion that the Kashmiri intifada this summer in India-administered Kashmir is entirely indigenous. Does this validate Pakistan’s longstanding position on the disputed territory?

Kashmiris in Pakistan are not only in Azad Kashmir, they are spread all over. I am a Kashmiri. There are thousands and thousands of Kashmiris in Gujranwala, Sialkot, Lahore, and there’s huge amounts of sympathy for the Kashmiri cause across Pakistan. The Indian situation is totally different. There are no demonstrations against Pakistan in Azad Kashmir, no occupation, imprisonment or rape. The feeling in Azad Kashmir [toward Pakistan] is completely different from how Kashmiris living under Indian occupation view India. Kashmiris have emotional and historical linkages to Pakistan that remain very strong. The young boys demonstrating in Srinagar [recently] were carrying Pakistani flags.

The World Food Programme only has a month’s worth of rations for some 6 million Pakistanis still displaced by the floods. Are you satisfied with the response to the crisis?

Whenever Pakistan faces a crisis‚ it brings us all together. There are many unsung heroes in all of this whom people don’t even know about. The local response has been huge, from Gwadar to Gilgit-Baltistan. In the Punjab‚ 90 percent of the displaced have gone back and there are very few camps left. The response by the Pakistan government has been amazing‚ and I’m talking only of the Punjab. There is no hunger in the Punjab; no starvation. Yes‚ because the press has a short attention span‚ this is not a story anymore. We’re in the middle of rehabilitation work which is challenging and will take a long time. We’re helping people rebuild houses quickly and with as much government support as possible before winter sets in.

Pakistan has had four finance ministers in the last two years. As a businessman‚ does this trouble you‚ and is this “good governance”?

The problem with constituency politics is that often people who are elected are not qualified to take on these sophisticated assignments. In our country‚ the people who are elected are mostly from rural areas and are not qualified to be finance ministers. We have to select technical people‚ but then‚ because it’s a political assignment also‚ it turns out some of them are not political enough. So it’s a combination of both politics and expertise. Someone like Manmohan Singh is not electable, but he was finance minister and is now prime minister of India. When it comes to finance, you can’t have anyone else but an expert in the job. So it’s a tough call, and of course [the turnover of finance ministers] concerns us and concerns everybody in the business world.

We want a clear‚ strong‚ definite finance policy that is business-friendly. Yet we’re in a country with so many poor people that you can’t always do trickle-down economics here. So we’ve got the Benazir Income Support Program‚ which has been hailed by the World Bank; we’ve raised salaries of government employees; given workers shares in state-owned companies; reinstated thousands of people who had been fired on political grounds. These are the sort of compassionate‚ people-friendly policies which democratically-elected governments have to pursue. Unlike the Sasti Roti misadventure by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) where so much money was wasted because there was no governance or documentation, our schemes have been well received. With the BISP, and the Watan Cards for the internally-displaced, we’ve shown good governance, good logistics, and good organization for pro-people schemes. You can’t tell people‚ ‘Sorry‚ we can’t give you money‚ but wait four years until we set up industries and start seeing dividends.’ All that may be good on paper, but when someone hasn’t got a meal the next day, it’s not quite the same thing. So we have to have compassionate policies in Pakistan also.

Now‚ when it comes to the question of running the government‚ we have to accommodate our coalition partners. Good governance is about federation-building measures like the 18th Amendment‚ elections in Gilgit-Baltistan‚ the renaming of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa—you may say this does not add to Pakistan’s GNP but everyone does not live by money alone, this was a source of pride for Pakhtuns—the National Finance Commission Award. All these things have huge social value. I consider these to be good governance.

You keep hearing about corruption‚ yes‚ but I have strong reservations about organizations like Transparency International-Pakistan. Its chairman‚ Adil Gilani‚ was himself thrown out of Karachi Port Trust for alleged corruption. They have nobody on the ground, no methods of evaluating anything, and they are going by ‘perception.’ Whose perception? What is their Perception Index based on? The moods of five columnists who level unsubstantiated accusations against everything the government does and that becomes ‘perception’? That ‘perception’ is translated by Gilani into a hit parade of who is No. 1 and who’s No. 2 in corruption. These things are damaging to the country. I don’t know who [Transparency International-Pakistan is] serving. We’ve made the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly head of the Public Accounts Committee. He’s the head bookkeeper of the country and can open any account he likes. We’ve given the opposition respect and the same rights as our members. Good governance is not just a profit-and-loss account; it’s also a political and social profit-and-loss account. On that score‚ the PPP has done a fantastic job.

You’re a very vocal critic of the Sharifs. Do you not think that a more reconciliatory approach would work better?

Look, we are political opponents. But we are working together to, hopefully, keep the democratic process going, have elections in 2013, and handover to another political government. On this agenda, we are on the same page. Politically, of course there are differences. I am a PPP governor and the province has got a PMLN government. They didn’t have a majority but we gave them the government, and now they’ve adopted a hostile approach. They’ve formed forward blocs, which is not in accordance with the Charter of Democracy. They’ve tried to run a roller across the Punjab, and that is something we are not going to allow. But we also had an all-parties conference on the war on terror, and we have shown, repeatedly, that wherever the interests of the country are concerned, including the 18th Amendment, we are together. We are a political party and big stakeholders. But as far as political differences go, we don’t want to be that reconciliatory because then we should be the same party.

How do you view the infighting within the PPP?

The PPP is a federal party, it’s the largest party in Pakistan, and it’s in government in all the provinces. We have people with different points of view. I don’t consider that infighting. The PPP’s has been an exemplary political, democratic government. There are no political prisoners in Pakistan today; the prime minister, chairman of the Senate, speaker of the National Assembly were all elected consensually; the president was elected with a two thirds majority; Senate seats were taken consensually; so we’ve had a remarkable democratic experience in Pakistan.

How do view rumors and reports about the government’s imminent demise?

The federal government has supposedly been going for the last two and a half years. For the first year and a half [after I assumed charge], the governor was also supposedly going. So don’t worry about that too much. I don’t think anybody is going anywhere.

So the federal government is in no danger of being ousted?

When [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was here‚ she told me there are many lobbies—Indian‚ Israeli—who oppose Pakistan‚ and that the U.S.’s selling point has been the fact that there’s a democratic government in place in Pakistan. Before this, people had the idea that Muslim countries are either only monarchies or dictatorships‚ but Pakistan has moved from a quasi-military government to democracy. In the process‚ [former president] Pervez Musharraf was not hounded out of office or physically eliminated; he was politically pressured into resigning. And the PPP has got its coalition partners onto one platform. At a time when we are fighting terror‚ to get everyone together—even those who are not willing to talk to each other—is commendable.

When you talk of this government going‚ what’s going to replace it? Anarchy? Chaos? That’s all you’ll get. We want the whole five-year process to continue and then hand over to another democratically-elected government. This way the political process is strengthened‚ and it is understood that the only way of changing a government is through elections‚ not through journalistic and judicial coup d’états or by TV anchors predicting the end. Hamid Mir and Shahid Masood should hang their heads in shame. The sorts of things they say on TV and the anti-democracy pronouncements they’ve been making, it’s a disgrace to journalism. It is agenda-based journalism. It’s great that we are tolerating these kinds of people and allowing the process to continue. The public will realize there is nothing democratic about what these people are doing. Already people have turned their face away from this kind of journalism. It’s not serving democracy any good. We’ve come a long way and have a long way to go.

What is your take on the election of rights activist Asma Jahangir as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan?

Well, the last president, Qazi Anwar, was a disgrace to his profession. He was totally against the government, was prepared to do anything to destabilize the government, and, frankly, he was a crackpot. His being replaced by somebody with a clear, liberal, human rights record is a very, very good thing for Pakistan. I am very happy. Asma Jahangir has opposed the PPP on many occasions, but it is part of the PPP’s democratic, liberal traditions that they were very happy to see her as president of the SCBAP. We don’t doubt her intentions or her commitment. We may disagree with her and she may disagree with the PPP, but we are happier to have her there rather than an agenda-based crackpot like Qazi Anwar.

How do you feel about the proposed merger of various Muslim League factions?

Zero plus zero equals zero. This is all finished, all these Muslim Leagues. When I saw a picture of the has-beens and the never-weres sitting in Kingri House… I mean, forget it. What is a Muslim League, can someone tell me? What jalebi is this Muslim League? There are about 10 of them. Every letter of the alphabet has got a Muslim League attached to the front of it. Are you telling me people who’ve been literally breaking the back of democracy and supporting military coup d’états and terrorists, they are also in the spirit of Jinnah? I think people are too smart for all of this. Jinnah would turn in his grave if he saw these kinds of Muslim Leagues. If you ask me who the real legatees of the Muslim League of Jinnah are, I would say it’s the PPP.

As a governor and simultaneously a media owner, how do you address conflict-of-interest concerns?

There’s no conflict of any interest. Firstly, nothing in the Constitution says the governor cannot have political affiliations. The governor of Sindh is from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, I am from the PPP. Zulfiqar Khosa and Mian Azhar were PMLN governors, so what is the big deal? I have not done anything against any party. My house is open, I have relationships with everyone—except for PMLN but that is their choice, not mine. They are welcome to come here anytime they like. Otherwise, I have perfectly good relations with everyone from MQM to Jamaat-e-Islami to the Pakistan Muslim League. As far as being a media owner goes, I have never interfered in the editorial process. I only made clear at the very beginning that Daily Times will be a liberal, pro-democracy, anti-extremist, anti-mullah publication. That’s our philosophy. Within that, they can be anti-this and pro-that, I don’t interfere. In fact, there have been op-eds critical of me in Daily Times!

What is your biggest concern?

I worry about terrorism. The PMLN‚ which is in government in the Punjab‚ has old linkages with and a natural affinity for extremist organizations like Sipah-e-Sahaba‚ Lashkar-e-Jhangvi‚ Khatm-e-Nabuwwat‚ and so many others. Let’s face it: terrorists need logistical support from within—somebody funds them‚ somebody guides them‚ and somebody looks after them—and that support is coming from the Punjab. Some 48 terrorists have been released by an antiterrorism court recently because they could not be prosecuted‚ or rather there was a failure to prosecute them. This is disgraceful. If the Punjab government was solidly against the militants‚ this would not have happened. You can’t have your law minister [Rana Sanaullah] going around in police jeeps with [outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba’s] Ahmed Ludhianvi‚ whose agenda is to declare the Shia infidels and close down their places of worship‚ and then say you want “harmony” in this province. You can’t have the chief minister‚ who is also the home minister‚ standing at Jamia Naeemia pleading with the Taliban to please not launch attacks in the Punjab because he shares the same thinking against the U.S. as they do. What message does this send out to the local magistrate and police officer? There has to be zero tolerance toward militants‚ and the only way you can have this is if the government is totally committed.

Do you think the PMLN government is going to take them on?

No. Dealing with the militants has to be no holds barred. Their lives should be made hell; they should be prosecuted‚ and sent to hell where they belong. You saw what happened with the government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [a coalition of religious parties] in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa during the Musharraf years. They turned a blind eye‚ and in five years the terrorists had established a whole network of safe havens and training camps to launch their campaign of terror. The MMA government never claimed to be with them‚ but never took them on. If you take the same approach in the Punjab‚ you’ll get the same results.

How widespread is the terrorist problem in the Punjab?

There are no training camps in the Punjab‚ but you can’t allow Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to run riot; to go around unimpeded recruiting men to their cause. We had never heard of the Punjabi Taliban before‚ but now we hear it so often. We need to prosecute these people through the special courts that are working directly under the chief minister and law minister of the province. Here’s the strange thing: the five Americans who were caught in Sargodha‚ they were prosecuted and sentenced for intent to kill. Why were these men prosecuted successfully? It was because they had no links here. This case shows that when the government really wants to prosecute someone‚ they can. Yet the people suspected of involvement in the murder of the Army’s surgeon-general‚ the attempts on Musharraf‚ the attack on [Army headquarters] GHQ‚ and the attack on the Danish embassy have all been released. They even released Baitullah Mehsud’s brother because they could apparently present no evidence against him.

With Fasih Ahmed. From our Nov. 15‚ 2010‚ issue.

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