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Dawn Editorial 12 February 2020

A black law

SEDITION seems to be the ‘crime’ of the times — even as the demand for the state to respect fundamental rights is growing increasingly louder.
During the last few months alone, charges of sedition have been filed against a number of rights activists in the country, including student leaders, academics, etc.
Last month, 23 people were booked for the offence after being rounded up at a peaceful protest calling for the release from custody of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, who had himself been arrested for sedition among other charges.
Civil society, however, is pushing back.
On Monday, student rights activist Ammar Ali Jan filed a petition in the Lahore High Court asking it to declare the section of the Pakistan Penal Code dealing with the offence as being contrary to constitutional rights. Meanwhile, the Islamabad High Court has demanded an explanation from relevant quarters as to why “peaceful protesters” had been booked on sedition charges.
The PPC defines sedition as an act that “brings or attempts to [cause] hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” towards the government, a crime for which the accused can be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The statute is a holdover from the British Raj, when ‘natives’ had to be kept ‘under control’ lest they incited rebellion against their colonial masters.
To understand the impetus behind the law, one need only glance at the names of some of the historical figures who were charged with sedition or put on trial for the offence. Among these were Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali — indeed, Gandhi himself — individuals who called for the liberty of an oppressed people and, along with others, led the freedom struggle that ultimately gave birth to this country.
And yet, that arcane law which long ago served a brutal occupying power so well is being employed with increasing regularity for the same purpose: to crush political dissent and intimidate the citizens into unquestioning obedience.
The overly broad language of the statute lends itself to capricious and selective application against human rights defenders of all stripes; even members of the journalist community have been targeted for upholding the freedom of expression.
However, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is no longer one of master and subject; those in power disregard the fact that this nation’s collective consciousness has been shaped by resistance to tyranny.
‘Affection’ for the government cannot be coerced or regulated. It arises as a natural consequence of the state’s respect for individual freedoms and its capacity for governance.
The PTI government should heed the words of Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari who recently criticised the sedition law as “an anachronism in an independent, democratic state”.
Indeed, it is a black law, based in a sordid past — and it should be done away with, lest it blight this country’s future.


A patched-up job

THE ruling PTI has averted one crisis for now. Facing the cameras in Lahore, members of the government and PML-Q teams said they had been successful in resolving their differences and all was well. This meant that the alliance would hold for the moment and the danger of the PTI losing crucial numbers in parliament had receded. If the ruling party members heave a sigh of relief — which they most probably will — they would be missing a crucial point: political agreements come at a price; renegotiated political agreements come at a renegotiated price. The PTI may be relieved it has saved the coalition, but within the coalition it has weakened its own position. This point will reveal itself once the details of the renegotiated settlement come to light. The PML-Q will most likely get most of its demands including greater political and administrative powers in districts where it wields influence, possibly in addition to some cabinet positions. While these concessions might have their own political repercussions, especially in PML-Q-dominated districts in Punjab, they have also exposed the PTI’s own political vulnerability and the party’s dependence on its coalition partners. As long as the fissures were obscured from public view, the PTI could flaunt its electoral mandate, but now its swagger shall surely be replaced with a certain level of nervousness which would hint at creeping weaknesses.
The tension with its coalition partners is indicative of the larger set of troubles that is plaguing the PTI government. Political firefighting may enable the government to paper over the cracks but each blow saps the political strength of the ruling party. The pressure of rising inflation coupled with the government’s inability to come up with any concrete solution to combat it is bleeding the party’s political capital faster than it would like to acknowledge. This is generating a perception that the government is on the ropes and unable to defend itself from these rapid-fire blows that are coming its way. The prime minister will need to provide firm and decisive leadership at this point to halt the slide. He would do well to be seen on top of things and in step with the sentiments of the electorate. He cannot afford to be seen as an aloof figure in these trying times. This means he will need to enhance his public engagement activities instead of being pictured sitting in his swivel chair in the plush prime ministerial office.


Education concerns

EDUCATION may be the constitutional right of every individual between the ages of five and 16, but actually getting children to school has proven to be a consistent challenge for the state. Millions of children never see the inside of a classroom or are forced to drop out early for a host of reasons. These include: the sheer scarcity of public schools in the country, particularly secondary and tertiary-level institutions; having to travel long distances to reach their destination; inadequate infrastructure within the schools such as bathrooms and running water; the lingering problem of ‘ghost teachers’ who do not show up to perform their duties but still collect their salaries; corporal punishment, bullying and the abuse of power that those in authority abet or turn a blind eye to; and an array of added expenses ranging from uniforms to stationery and transport which can prove to be a burden for many parents, especially those with several children. Given all these issues, a less frequently asked question is, once at school, what are the children learning?
In the Annual Status of Education Report, researchers found that 41pc of the fifth-grade schoolchildren they surveyed in the rural districts could not read a second-grade-level story in Urdu, while 45pc were unable to read English sentences. The perceived poor quality of education in government schools is also one of the major reasons parents across the country dream of sending their children to private schools, which have popped up across the country on a significant scale to facilitate the demand for quality education that the state is not providing. And yet, despite this desire for private school education, many parents cannot afford the tuition fees of such institutions, let alone all the other expenses that add up. It is imperative then that the government not abdicate its responsibility of providing free, quality education to the children of this country. The effects of doing so are already very visible and will be severely compounded in the years to come.


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