State vs clerics
The religious right in the country is once again in a state of fervent agitation. Ostensibly, this is because the Punjab Assembly recently passed a historic women’s rights law.
Yet, other provinces have passed similar, arguably more robust, laws in recent times and there has been little outcry. The difference this time may be the straits the religious right has found itself in and its urgent need to put pressure on the federal government — the PML-N — to reverse policies that have caused it to lose ground in the public arena.
Read: Religious parties denounce law protecting women from abuse as ‘un-Islamic’
The signs are several. The conference convened by the Jamaat-i-Islami in Mansoora on Tuesday saw many speakers veer away from the Punjab law and condemn the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri and the clampdown on the activities of the Tableeghi Jamaat.
More remarkably, in attendance were avowed anti-democrats like Hafiz Saeed, whose interest in parliamentary democracy is nil. The constellation of ignominy that gathered in Mansoora clearly has wider goals than simply nullification of a pro-women law.
The recent fulminations of Fazlur Rehman, the JUI-F chief, give an indication of what those wider goals may be.
In evoking the spectre of a PNA-style opposition alliance, the maulana appears to be seeking unity of the religious right so as to put concerted pressure on the centre, with the intention of either bringing down the federal government or aggressively increasing the public space for the religious right and its extremist partners.
Behind those grand schemes lies a harsh reality: the JUI-F and its political and extremist cohorts face an existential crisis.
The National Action Plan made explicit for the first time the need to combat religiously motivated militancy and also called for the regulation of the sprawling network of madressahs across the country.
In truth, however, the slow collision between the state and religious right had already begun. The infamous outburst of Munawar Hassan in November 2013, in which the former JI chief condemned Pakistani soldiers drawing a sharp response from the military, may have set the parameters of conflict and dissent.
See: Cleric comes out in support of women’s protection bill
What remains to be seen is how firm the PML-N will stand in this ideological conflict between the forces of regression and those on the right side of history.
Pakistan must return to the vision of its founding father and become the progressive, modern and thoroughly democratic country that the Quaid wanted it to be.
Thus far, the PML-N has surprised with its willingness to dabble in more progressive and forward-thinking politics.
Yet, its mettle has not truly been tested. The Punjab Assembly is little more than a rubber stamp for the Sharif family’s pet projects. The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri was cleared by the courts.
Now comes the real baptism of fire — stand firm and stand tall against the religious right and the PML-N will earn itself a place in history. Crumble now and history will be less forgiving.
Peshawar bus bombing
SOON after the military high command announced on Monday that Operation Zarb-i-Azb was being wound down in Fata, terrorists struck Peshawar as a timed device exploded in a bus carrying government employees.
As per reports, the banned Lashkar-i-Islam’s supremo Mangal Bagh claimed responsibility for yesterday’s atrocity; the militant leader ‘justified’ the bombing because of the recent ratification of death sentences by the army chief of convicts linked to the proscribed TTP, as well as the armed forces’ overall efforts against militancy.
So while the army leadership is talking of wrapping up combat operations in the tribal belt, there is no reason to assume that the challenge of fighting terrorism in the rest of the country is over.
After all, while LI claimed Wednesday’s attack (this is the first act of militant violence claimed by the group after a lengthy period), the TTP’s Jamaatul Ahrar was responsible for the bombing which targeted courts in Charsadda last week. This shows that though the militants might be scattered or on the run, they have not lost their ability to wreak havoc on society.
Those familiar with the area say there is no proper clearance of who is boarding buses meant for government employees headed to Peshawar from the districts.
This situation needs to be addressed so that vehicles carrying state employees are properly checked for explosives and no unconcerned person is able to board them.
Coming to the larger problem of militancy, the military announced after the corps commanders’ conference that intelligence-based operations would be intensified countrywide.
After destroying the militants’ infrastructure and bases, this is among the best ways to proceed in order to root out extremist fighters and their sympathisers across Pakistan and prevent further acts of terrorism.
For this, the military must work in tandem with the civilian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, as they have an ear to the ground in the cities and towns. We must not delude ourselves by assuming that victory against militancy is near; by all indications, this will be a long war.
For decades, we let the monster of religious militancy grow. Neutralising it will not be a short-term exercise.
Gains have indeed been made in the counterterrorism effort, with the soldiers, and ordinary men, women and children of the country paying a price in blood. But the goal of a terrorism-free country will only be realised if the state continues to counter militancy and extremism with commitment.
Tax amnesty fails
AFTER two extensions and almost eight months of negotiations, the time has come for the government to act on the ‘dead’ in ‘deadline’ for its tax amnesty scheme, which it would prefer to call a ‘Voluntary Tax Compliance Scheme’.
The finance minister had optimistically harboured the hope of netting almost one million new taxpayers as a result of this scheme, coupled with a tax on bank transactions of non-filers.
Yet today, as the second deadline expires, the total number of traders who have availed of its provisions is only slightly above 5,000.
A more dismal showing would be difficult to find. Leaders of the trader community argue that netting one million traders can take many months and the scheme should be extended till June 30, the end of the fiscal year. But leaving such a long and indeterminate timeline open for so long will not help.
It is apparent that the traders are treating the extensions as a permanent state of affairs, and their strategy is to indefinitely demand extensions until the government tires of the exercise. It is time to send a tough signal that this will not happen.
The continuous extensions have sent a distorted signal to the traders. They have increasingly resorted to using cash and other innovative forms of promissory notes as a means to settle their transactions, in the hopes that the government will eventually yield in its determination to clamp down on them.
This resort to cash can only last so long as the expectation persists that the government will soon tire of its resolve and repeal the withholding tax altogether.
In reality though, the trader community cannot persist for very long outside the formal payments system and once they understand that the withholding tax is here to stay, and is only going to get steeper in days to come, their behaviour will change.
The nature and volume of the transactions that take place in the trading economy cannot last for very long outside the banking system. It is time to signal the necessary resolve to this famously recalcitrant community that the good old days of accumulating wealth outside the tax net are over.
The government should restore the withholding tax to 0.6pc of daily turnover above Rs50,000 on all bank transactions of non-filers once the new deadline expires, with a signal that the amount could rise to 1pc in the next budget.