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Express Tribune Editorials – 14th March 2016

Anti-Muslim rhetoric in Assam

Still smarting from the electoral drubbing in Bihar, the Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi now seems busy sharpening its tools to confront its challengers in Assam where elections are due in April. After it received a major blow to its electoral fortunes in Bihar, where Mr Modi conducted a no-holds-barred campaign addressing 30 rallies and promising voters billions in development funds and yet had to taste a bitter defeat, the BJP appears in no mood to let Assam shatter the myth of its nationwide popularity, and is getting ever more confrontational in its tone and tenor. One such display of rancour is the party’s resolve to disenfranchise millions of Muslim immigrants in Assam, in a bid to form its first government there. Its local leaders have also vowed to identify and deport younger “illegal migrants” in a bid to mollify and win over the Hindu majority.

As the state goes to the polls, a close to 10 per cent of its 20 million voters will be Muslims who have migrated since the 1950s from the former East Pakistan, and gained Indian citizenship. The BJP is at the forefront to exploit the discontent the majority feels towards those who have crossed over into the state over the years, most of whom are Muslims. The party’s campaign manager in the state minces no words in saying that if the party is elected, it will try to bar Muslims of Bangladeshi origin who entered India between its first census in 1951 and 1971, when Bangladesh became independent, from voting. They can stay but would have to re-apply for citizenship, he said. Ironically, the BJP’s campaign does not target millions of Hindus who have also left Bangladesh for Assam. Be that as it may, the rising intolerance in India generally and the BJP government’s tendency to tolerate the kind of extremism its allies and its own party members have been displaying in the recent past is quite disturbing. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Assam state elections is a continuation of this trend and does not augur well for India’s traditional pluralist ethos.

Defining poverty

Poverty, as in exactly how many of the almost 200 million people in Pakistan qualify as definitively living at or below an agreed definition of poverty, is a political hot potato. It has never been suggested that Pakistan has anything other than a considerable reservoir of ‘poor’ — but the actual number has fluctuated. It is currently — and ludicrously — set at eight per cent, which among other things leads donor nations to conclude that perhaps we do not need quite so much of their largesse after all. Now the government seems prepared to grasp the poverty nettle; and change the methodologies of measurement (again), which may lead to a figure close to 30 per cent of the population defined as living in poverty.

The difference this time around is the inclusion of non-food items in the poverty calculus. Thus a lack of, or limited access to, health and education may be factored in, giving a more holistic picture. The Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission are going to work together — itself a welcome development — and using a revised formula it is hoped that a new figure will be announced by mid-April. There have been changes in the poverty profile in the last decade, in part a direct result of interventions such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) as well as changes in patterns of employment. The latter has produced cyclic poverty, where families and individuals dip in and out of poverty dependent on their employment status, and the level of income relative to basic family needs.

In terms of objective measurement, poverty has become something of a moving target — which is no excuse for not tracking it more effectively than it has been historically. Getting a better measurement of poverty is going to enable a more effective framing of the redistributive responses to the Sustainable Development Goals, which are the successors of the widely missed — in terms of hitting the target — Millennium Development Goals. Slaying the poverty monster is incremental, there is no single solution and is a generational struggle spanning many electoral cycles. Getting the numbers right is as good a place as any to start the battle.

Seeking CII approval

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government’s insistence on referring the draft of the provincial domestic violence bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is a disturbing move. The bill has reportedly been pending with the CII for nearly two months now and in an event on International Women’s Day, Imran Khan reiterated that the bill will be presented in the K-P Assembly only after the CII takes a decision on its appropriateness. The CII’s legal and constitutional status has come under increasing criticism in recent times, including by legislators in the Senate, and it is accused of being a body that appears to be only focused on curtailing women’s rights. The CII’s role in supporting underage marriage as well as the recent opposition to the Domestic Violence Bill passed in the Punjab Assembly, among various other such examples, is a testament to this. Chairperson Maulana Muhammad Sherani recently went as far as suggesting that the Punjab Assembly should be charged under Article 6 for failing to seek the CII’s consent on the bill.

Given this, it is both ironic and unfortunate that the PTI government in K-P has not gone ahead with tabling the bill in the provincial assembly. Keeping in mind Imran Khan’s comments on the matter, it is also a matter of concern that the chairman of a major political party appears to have greater trust in the opinion of the CII rather than in the views of public representatives of the province his party rules. The domestic violence bill, of course, like any such legislation, will have various obstacles in the way of its implementation, but its passing is absolutely necessary and of utmost importance. This is a bill that should have been passed a long time ago, yet K-P is stalling the process further. It appears that waiting for the CII’s approval is merely a politically-motivated act to avoid any backlash on the bill from conservative elements. It is very unfortunate that once again women’s lives and rights have been put on the line to appease the right wing. Surely, the PTI can display the courage to take a stand against the violence that countless women are subjected to.

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