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Dawn Editorial 29 July 2020

A controversial law

THE Punjab Assembly has upped the ante on stifling intellectual freedom in an environment where the cultural and political space is becoming increasingly securitised. Last Wednesday, on the pretext of protecting religion — an ever-convenient ruse to ensure maximum participation and minimal resistance — the provincial legislators passed the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020. The law makes the publication of objectionable material punishable by five years maximum in prison and up to Rs500,000 fine. Several stipulations within it, such as those pertaining to derogatory remarks against holy personages and hate speech, are already covered by existing legislation. For instance, Section 298-A of the PPC pertains to “derogatory remarks against holy personages … either spoken or written”, including Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his family or his companions. Similarly, Section 8 of the Anti-Terrorism Act prohibits acts intended or likely to stir up sectarian hatred through “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” including publication and distribution of such material. Some aspects of the new law are clearly aimed at pandering to the ultra-right lobby; others underscore the ‘otherisation’ of certain persecuted religious minorities — and thereby further fuel hatred against them.
The new law can justifiably be criticised for being superfluous and capable of stoking more religious intolerance, which this country can well do without. That said, the most alarming aspect of it is the manner in which it is to be implemented. The law provides for a director general of public relations of the Punjab government to function as a one-stop shop through which all books printed, reprinted and reproduced in the province will be vetted — a censorship central as it were. All publishers are bound to submit to the DGPR four copies of every edition of each title they print. And the DGPR has been empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores and publishing houses; he can confiscate books before or after they are printed if they, in his assessment, contain ‘objectionable’ content. Such sweeping powers conjure up images of the most repressive eras in history when knowledge was treated as inherently subversive and the right to freedom of expression had yet to find universal acceptance.
It was at such a time in 1644 that the celebrated poet John Milton in protest against censorship in England had written in the Areopagitica: “And what do they tell us vainly of new opinions, when this very opinion of theirs, that none must be heard but whom they like, is the worst and newest opinion of all others, and is the chief cause why sects and schisms do so much abound….” There has been an outcry from civil society, and even from within the PTI government, against the passage of the law. One hopes better sense will prevail, for there lie within this piece of legislation the seeds of grievous, long-term harm to society.


Monsoon challenge

OVER a two-day period, on Sunday and Monday, the people of Karachi went through another hellish rain-related experience. Again, a few millimetres of precipitation were enough to bring the metropolis of millions to a grinding halt. There were electrocution-related deaths, roads were submerged and therefore impassable, while there was no electricity for hours in many city areas.
Perhaps in some other country there would be outrage over such a sad state of affairs in a nation’s commercial capital. But in Karachi, it’s business as usual. As expected, the city’s political players were busy slinging mud at each other, rather than coming up with solid ways to end this torturous yearly punishment meted out to Karachi’s citizens.
Flooded roads, power outages and traffic jams: Heavy rain wreaks havoc in Karachi
However, the Sindh government’s response was particularly insensitive, considering that the PPP-led provincial administration has been micromanaging Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh by taking over nearly all municipal functions.
Local Government Minister Nasir Shah first tried to attribute the chaos to a “natural calamity”, while adding that things “could have been worse”. Moreover, the minister had the gall to say opponents of the PPP were uploading “old” pictures and videos to malign all the wonderful work the government had done. Surely, Mr Shah must be talking about a different city, for Karachi over the last few days has resembled a settlement caught in the gushing waters of a biblical flood, with no government response worth the name.
While it is true that the PPP has chipped away at all local government powers thanks to its numbers in the Sindh Assembly, it alone is not the only party to blame. The MQM, which ruled Karachi with an iron fist for decades, also did little other than make superficial moves towards giving this city a modern infrastructure, including a working drainage system.
Ironically, save for the Musharraf-era local government system, Karachi has been neglected by the PPP, which doesn’t have a major vote bank here, as well as the MQM, which has made loud noises about the rights of Karachi, but has done little to translate rhetoric into deliverable policy. Even the PTI, which won the majority of the city’s National Assembly seats, has done nothing for the metropolis.
What Karachi needs is an overhaul of its decaying infrastructure and effective local government that helps protect it from disaster. Will any of the political players that milk this city step forward and do what is needed?


A good step

THE Punjab government’s nine-day Eidul Azha lockdown is a very sensible step. Whereas the number of Covid-19 cases has been falling, it would be dangerous to believe that the threat has disappeared. The virus is still lurking, ready to strike if we let down our guard. The closure of shopping plazas and other public areas, which restricts large gatherings, is a good idea not least because it suggests that the officials in charge are willing to take note of what they had earlier missed. The ill-founded generosity of the government on the occasion of Eidul Fitr had sent virus cases soaring. But for the liberties everyone took during the relaxed holiday mood that enjoyed full official approval, a few precious lives could have been saved and many more people could have avoided getting infected. With greater emphasis on isolation and social distancing at that critical time, we might have done even better than we claim we did.
Let us hope that the limitations on markets and other designated areas covered by the nine-day ban will help root out the virus soon and allow life to return to normal. Already, a huge price has been paid for the unavoidable circumstances brought about by the pandemic. Traders dependent on daily earnings for sustenance have, in particular, been severely hit. Many have packed up and numerous others are on the brink of bankruptcy, despite the government’s boast that it had handled all this smartly. It would be impossible for anyone to object to this latest lockdown, but it could have nonetheless been managed much more efficiently and without causing panic. The government waited till the eleventh hour, instead of announcing the closure a few weeks in advance to make it easier for both sellers and buyers, who were shocked at the sudden announcement. Apart from its abruptness, given that it covered the entire province as opposed to the earlier localised lockdowns, it may make more sense to call it an ‘essential’ rather than ‘smart’ lockdown.


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