Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Dr. Johnson is the only one left smiling

Jaranwala tehsil is the largest of Punjab's tehsils (administrative divisions that are the rough equivalent of counties) in terms of the number of union councils and as such has a relatively typical law and order situation. I know this because Jaranwala was my stamping ground for several months in 2004 when I was part of a team of researchers seeking to measure the impact of Pakistan's latest experiment in devolution. The villagers and townsfolk were genial and accommodating and we only raised the hackles of the locals when a lazy afternoon of cards ended in a rout.

Yet, the federal government would have you believe that Jaranwala is a hotbed of human rights abuses. The Federal Human Rights Division, overseen by the Law Minister, Wasi Zafar, distributes a human rights fund amongst victims of rape, torture, extra-judicial killings, etc. and last year 305 of the 365 successful applicants nationwide were residents of Jaranwala tehsil.

That a staggering 85% of victims were from Jaranwala was evidence of serious foul play, though patently not of the human rights kind. The dubious distinction of Jaranwala being the country's human rights abuses capital is owed to the fact that it is also the constituency of the Law Minister who has been using the human rights fund to dole out patronage amongst his supporters.

This year Wasi Zafar was caught red handed with his hand in the cookie jar when a senior bureaucrat, Saira Karim, refused to release funds to a further 560 of Mr. Zafar's Jaranwala supporters. The story hit the national press when Mr. Zafar tried to intimidate Ms. Karim and punish her for the perceived insubordination.

The government, however, is sensitive of its image and in late June an investigation into the corruption was launched by the ISI apparently on orders from the very 'top' i.e. Musharraf or Shaukat Aziz. Political expediency has seen many a ministerial scandal hushed up in the past, but it was hoped that the investigation indicated a new willingness to back up the rhetoric of good governance and accountability.

That hope was dashed yesterday when Ms. Karim was transferred to another division, signalling the end of the issue as far as the government is concerned. According to The News,Musharraf and Aziz were unhappy that the issue had been picked up the international news media and felt it was damaging the country's reputation abroad. This was the same rationale for banning the heroic gang rape victim, Mukhtaran Mai, from travelling to the US at the invitation of a human rights organisation. It seems that the President and the Prime Minister have not learned a lesson from that debacle. To recapitulate: a country's international reputation is enhanced when it takes positive steps to address wrongdoing and harmed when the country is seen bundling its problems out of the public eye. And 231 years after Samuel Johnson first pronounced it, patriotism is still the last refuge of a scoundrel.

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