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DAWN Editorials – 15th March 2016

Ankara targeted again

IF it were in their power, militants would turn Turkey into another Iraq or Syria. On Sunday, Ankara was targeted for the third time in five months when an area close to the diplomatic enclave was bombed, leaving at least 34 dead, though there was no official word yet about who could be behind the atrocity.

This year there have been six blasts, including one in the capital city a month ago when the car bombing of a military convoy killed 28 people.

The crime was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a breakaway group of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, there is little doubt which militant group was behind the January carnage in Istanbul when a suicide bomber exploded himself in Sultanahmet, killing 10 people, eight of them foreign tourists, prompting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to pledge Turkey would not “backtrack in its struggle against” the militant Islamic State group.

There is no doubt Ankara is facing one of the worst crises in decades because there are no signs yet of all parties to the Syrian conflict agreeing on a common peace formula. Most unfortunately, the ceasefire with the PKK stands shattered.

On top of all this is the flood of Syria refugees, 2.5 million of whom Turkey has accommodated. Ankara now has to listen to European grievances and halt the refuges’ exodus to Europe — a tough and highly unpleasant task in the midst of the grave humanitarian crisis in Turkey’s underbelly.

There is no quick-fix solution. Turkey has to renew efforts to seek a ceasefire with the PKK and mobilise all its resources to strengthen Mr Davutoglu’s resolve to crush IS terrorism.

Focusing on the Kurds is taking the attention away from the threat that is the IS. Above all, the AKP-led government must try to be more tolerant of criticism and soften the authoritarian tendencies often seen in its policies.

Without a national consensus and a placid domestic scene a determined fight against terrorism is inconceivable.

Miners’ deaths

MONTH after month, a series of grisly headlines work their way across our news pages and disappear into that pit of indifference where many tragic tales lie buried in anonymous graves.

The headlines announce the death of a certain number of miners in a coal mine following an accident. Those who have seen the inside of a mine know that this is among the worst ways for a human being to die.

The lucky ones are those who are killed instantly or who manage to make their way out. For those left inside, death comes either through slow asphyxiation in a darkness we cannot even imagine, or worse still, being buried alive in a grave hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of feet below the surface, a situation where chances of a rescue are remote.

The latest such deaths occurred in a mine in Orakzai on Saturday, when an explosion down below caused a landslide that killed at least eight people and left many others among the 27 who were pulled out alive, injured. There is no mystery behind why mining accidents occur so often in Pakistan.

The industry is run by informal contractors who cut costs to the point of sending their workers down into mineshafts that are highly insecure. Here the miners are made to work with their shovels and pickaxes, and use lanterns to light up their surroundings.

If the pickaxe hits a methane bubble inside the coal seam, an explosion results causing the shaft to cave in, all too often resulting in tragedy.

At a time when the government is making big plans to increase its reliance on coal for power generation, and is talking about the volume of investments it has mobilised in the coal sector, it is imperative that more be done to ensure that the coal miners are given better working conditions, with a special focus on the enforcement of safety regulations.

Coal is dirty business, and given the conditions under which it is mined in Pakistan, it has also proved itself to be a deadly business on several occasions; in fact, it is among the deadliest occupations anywhere.

The government should ensure that its bragging rights on coal are not measured in megawatts alone, but also in terms of bringing down the numbers of lives lost in the process of mining this fuel. This can only be done if safety is given precedence.

Extremism on campuses

SOMETHING is rotten in the state of higher education in the country. A familiar set of circumstances — students belonging to different unions attacking each other, triggering disciplinary action by university authorities — has yielded an extraordinary confession.

A student of Punjab University allegedly not only told university authorities at a disciplinary hearing that he considers slain Taliban chieftains Nek Muhammad and Baitullah Mehsud to be his leaders, but that he intends to avenge their deaths in drone strikes.

Revealingly, Attique Afridi, the student now in custody of the intelligence apparatus, is believed to be associated with the Pakhtun Educational Development Movement — a PU student association, alongside a Baloch group, that clashed with the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba, the student union more commonly associated with religious extremism on public campuses.

The roots of extremist links in universities, both public and private, appear to have spread far and wide.

Long rumoured, but mostly ignored, the problem of militancy and extremism among university students may be coming to the fore for a complex set of reasons.

The relentless pressure on the banned TTP and other anti-state militant outfits has likely created a vacuum that new breeds of militancy will try and fill.

In addition, the turmoil in the Middle East, the rise of the militant Islamic State group and a growing online culture where hate material and militant propaganda have vastly proliferated, have probably worked to attract a growing number of university students to extremist fare and militancy.

Certainly, the problem is not new — Omar Sheikh remains one of the most notorious private-school educated militants in the country’s history — and is not confined to public campuses. Indeed, private universities may be more vulnerable to creeping extremism and militancy on campus because most have no experience of monitoring or handling extremist organisations on campus, among teachers or students.

Combating extremism and militancy on campuses will prove a formidable challenge. For one, the state itself appears to have underestimated the problem.

The National Action Plan drawn up in December 2014 rightly identified the need to reform and modernise madressahs, but there was no mention of universities in the mainstream.

In addition, the higher-education landscape is heavily fractured, with the provinces trying to assert their rights under the 18th Amendment, the centre failing to embrace a new role as coordinator among the federating units, and private universities having mushroomed in recent years with no adequate regulatory structure.

But those challenges only underscore the need for urgency. Recent history has demonstrated how militancy and extremism can metastasise quickly, so while the problems on campuses today are real, they still appear to be confined to relatively small sections of the student population.

Action taken now — concerted, meaningful action across the provinces that balances the concerns of security with the rights of students — could help avoid a terrible societal unravelling. Extremism on campuses is an addressable problem.

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