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Dawn Editorial 7 March 2020

Whose culture
ON Dec 4, 2019, a federal minister sent a rather peculiar letter to the Sindh chief secretary, alerting him to a wave of “sub-nationalism” in universities, “glorifying sub race cultures and highlighting nationalist movements”.
He requested the provincial authorities to dissuade students from participating in “political/ethnic/sectarian activities” by making university administrations issue warnings to them.
In response, in a recent press release, PPP Senator Raza Rabbani denounced the letter, which he believed was “suppressing Pakistan’s nationalities, regional cultures and students” and was in violation of academic freedom, provincial autonomy and the Constitution.
He included a passing reference to the language riots in Bengal, and the dangers of erasing Pakistan’s diverse ethnic identities and languages in favour of “One Unit” type policies.
Senator Rabbani is correct.
Pakistan is special because of the diversity of its people, and any attempt to impose an artificial homogeneity is not only bound to fail but can prove to be dangerous, alienating smaller nationalities by adding to their grievances and sense of persecution.
Furthermore, to view students through the lens of suspicion — as if they are criminals in the making rather than the leaders of the future — exposes a deep-seated paranoia state authorities harbour towards their own people.
These are not signs of a healthy society, and what is perhaps most tragic is that nothing about this attitude is new, but a continuation of past lessons not learnt.
Earlier, Punjab University students affiliated with religious parties have ‘intervened’ in the cultural events of Baloch and Pakhtun students, including uprooting and setting their camps on fire.
Isn’t it sad that the days reserved for celebrating Pakistan’s vibrant cultures and languages can descend so quickly into violence — and that too at a university, which is supposed to be a hub of learning and exchange of ideas? Public universities, in particular, allow students from different parts of the country to interact with different cultures — often for the first time.
In the absence of such activities, we are simply promoting a political culture of intolerance and blind submission.
 
 
Saving the deal
OVER the past week or so, events in Afghanistan have appeared quite surreal. Last Saturday, the Americans and the Afghan Taliban signed what appeared to be a historic deal in Doha that was designed to bring to an end the nearly two-decade-long American presence in Afghanistan. There were smiles all around as the once bitter foes shook hands warmly, though naysayers were quick to point out that this was a doomed accord. Sure enough, soon after the signing of the deal, the Afghan government refused to release around 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Thereafter Donald Trump and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the Doha deal on the Taliban’s behalf, had an over half-hour telephone conversation, with the American president commenting that “the relationship is very good that I have with the mullah”. However, the relationship was tested as the US bombed Taliban targets soon after the call, apparently because the militants had attacked Afghan troops. And on Friday, violence revisited Kabul as gunmen attacked a condolence reference for a senior Afghan Hazara leader. Afghan politician Abdullah Abdullah was present at the ceremony but escaped unharmed. It is unclear if the Taliban are responsible, as the attack appears to have sectarian overtones.
While it has indeed been a tumultuous week, considering this is the Afghan theatre much worse could have occurred. Moreover, Afghanistan has been witnessing instability for the past four decades, so any peace deal must be incredibly flexible and accommodative, considering the spoilers that are at work, and the huge gulf of mistrust that marks relationships between all stakeholders, foreign and Afghan. Right now, the focus must be on de-escalation and the prevention of further violence. Once that is achieved the sooner the Afghan government and the Taliban meet, the better. As we have written in these columns previously, no foreign power can dictate peace in Afghanistan; that country’s own forces must forge a modus vivendi for peace to prevail.
However, it is true that the Americans can do more to make the peace deal work, and prevent it from falling apart completely. The US can certainly work on the Afghan government and convince it to be more flexible towards the Taliban. If the Afghan government refuses to budge, the Taliban are likely to return to the battlefield and the carnage that has characterised life in Afghanistan for the past several decades will only continue, much to the detriment of the people of this battered land. By all means the Taliban must stop carrying out acts of violence, especially those that target non-combatants. But true peace can only be achieved when the Afghans themselves desire it, and all political, tribal and ethnic interests in the country are willing to talk to each other and create a new way forward that shuns violence. All stakeholders — Afghan and foreign — need to put in extra effort to make the deal work.
 
Building collapse
A NUMBER of people lost their lives on Thursday when a five-storey residential building collapsed in Karachi, causing two other adjoining housing structures to cave in. The responsibility for the deaths of at least 17 men, women and children lies with those who undertook the illegal construction of a sixth storey on the small plot as well as the officials who turned a blind eye to the activity. Such incidents have, unfortunately, become far too frequent in the metropolis and other big cities of the country. Last year in December, a similar six-storey residential complex came crashing down in Karachi’s Ranchore Line area, though miraculously no loss of life was reported.
These all too frequent tragedies reflect poorly on the Sindh Building Control Authority and lay bare its contribution to the housing challenges in a city of 20m. What makes the situation even more alarming is that the apartment building that collapsed on Thursday was neither old, nor built on unregulated premises. The five-storeyed Fatima building was built around three years ago in the planned Rizvia Society. The illegal construction of an additional storey on top apparently led to the weakening of the entire structure. Had the building authorities been vigilant and stopped the construction, these deaths could have been avoided. Moreover, if the authorities allow such a careless approach to building in areas that are planned residential neighbourhoods, how would they prevent the construction of death traps in the city’s unregulated localities that house millions of people from the poorer segments of society? The mammoth problem of unregulated structures and the SBCA’s controversial role has not gone unnoticed. In fact, recently, the Supreme Court, too, commented on the issue during a hearing, and severely criticised the SBCA for allowing the construction of multistorey buildings on small plots. The court ordered the Sindh chief minister to overhaul the body and instructed that top SBCA officials including the director general be removed. Though the SBCA is largely to blame for this incident, a good part of the blame rests with successive governments that failed to come up with a comprehensive development plan for the largest city of the country. The Sindh government has taken the right step by registering a case on behalf of the hapless families who lost their loved ones, but now it must scale up its efforts for conducting a fair inquiry into the incident as well as identifying similarly dangerous buildings across the city.
 

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