In the wee hours of the morning, I got word that Pakistani politician Sherry Rehman was circulating an op-ed statement against the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and wealthiest province. Think of it as the Midwest (farms, mills, and traditional values) meets New England (history and culture and more tradition). It’s where the army recruits from, where the most federal funds go, and where the tourists want to visit. In other words, it’s the establishment.
It’s not the first time Rehman has taken a controversial stance. In 2008, civilian leaders overthrew military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, by promising to roll back his crackdown on civil society.
But just months into the new administration, as Minister of Information, Rehman was asked to carry out a government censorship program. She balked, and in March 2009, quit her post in protest. In a parliamentary system, where politicians are elected to office on the basis of their party’s fortunes rather than their own positions, this was a dangerous move. Since then, Rehman has been building an independent constituency by speaking out publicly on issues the government won’t touch.
The JuD grant is one of them. Not because there are those in the administration with active links to these groups, but because the liberal People’s Party currently in office (Rehman’s party) does not have current control of the provincial government in Punjab, where the decision was made. Moreover, the party that does–the center-right PML-N–is in a strong position to push for midterm elections that could bring the PPP down. Allowing the PML-N free rein in Punjab–including grants like this to appease PML-N’s hard-right base–is a political calculation designed to help the PPP survive until regular national polls are called again in 2013.
It’s not a justification Rehman buys. “The [PML-N] is trying to mainstream itself in a big way, so they need to be very clear about where they stand,” she says. At the same time, she recognizes the difficulty that the federal government faces. “The PML-N will just say ‘it’s federal money,’ so why blame us?'”
PML-N has another justification for its move: that the grant, given to a political charity, is designed to fund schools and hospitals, albeit facilities managed by those with an ideological agenda, but still services the state is ill-equipped to provide. To Rehman, this is a hollow argument, since it is precisely because the government refuses to build schools and hospitals that the ideologues have chosen such facilities as means to buy loyalty and attract recruits, creating a security havoc that eats up state funds and furthers the crisis.
“For God’s sake,” she complains, “even if it’s for clinics, they should be branded as state facilities. This is your entire problem. If you’re gonna let all the education and health funds go to these terrorist and militant organizations, what do you expect to get from that?”
But nothing upsets Rehman more than the silence around the issue. Not only from the government, but more alarmingly, from the press. Her attempt to place her complaint as an op-ed in the nation’s paper of record, Dawn, failed. I’m including the press release she sent around below, and hope you can pass it on:
“Voicing her objection to the Rs 82 million given to Jamaat ud Dawa after it was banned as part of a terrorist purge, former Information Minister and PPP MNA, Sherry Rehman asked why no one has questioned the grant made by the Punjab government when all the political forces of the country have committed themselves to reversing the tide of extremism and terrorism sweeping Pakistan.
Referring to a recent report in the media in which the Punjab Law minister, Rana Sanaullah, has actually confessed to making such a provision in the budget for its welfare activities, Sherry Rehman demanded that such grants to banned outfits be stopped forthwith, as welfare activities can be taken over by the Punjab government itself, or handed over to a number of non-extremist organizations who can supplement state capacity in this respect. “ Giving an outright grant to the JD, when it has been banned, tells us that some elements in the Punjab government are still not committed fully to the idea that jihadist outfits like the LeT, with known leadership and cadre links to the JD, must be rooted out and that their activities shut down, ” said Rehman.
“The country can no longer afford this mollycoddling of terrorists, and Punjab is fast becoming a victim of its own ambiguity. There can be no military operation against terrorists in Punjab, but there must and should be a police sweep, with enough evidence to obtain convictions through our courts. Instead of building police capacity to throw such a dragnet around terrorists, who openly hold rallies in the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, we see money being doled out of the tax-payers pockets through the annual budgetary exercise. If this is not pampering a banned outfit, what is?” asked Rehman.
“ We are told that the government appointed an administrator to run these schools and dispensaries two years ago, but by now this infrastructure should have been taken over by the state, instead of allowing a banned organisation to earn support on JD and LeT branding. And if its only an administrator that is using the funds, why has Rs 79 million of this grant gone directly to the Markaz-i- Tayyaba in Muridke which is the JD headquarters?”
Adding that the federal government should also take note of space being granted to banned outfits through such disbursements and rallies, Rehman said that if we continue on this path, the carnage we saw in various attacks on mosques, non-combatants and minorities in Lahore and other parts of Punjab will only gain strength. “I want to know if we have abandoned the plan to disable the power of the terrorists operating out the tribal agencies where the army is running a costly military operation, because by now all the militants have links with each other. Those who cannot escape across an open border with Afghanistan will come down to the Punjab and to Karachi. In fact, they already have. You cannot run a military operation in six tribal agencies and then have extremist ideologies run rampant in other areas.
The Punjab outfits may not have challenged the writ of the state as yet, but in reality they have devolved down to many splinters, with ties to Al Qaeda, and they are gaining critical mass. Instead of reversing their momentum, a part of the government is patronising them. This is both short-sighted and dangerous, and can have serious consequences for both Pakistan,” argued Rehman. She advised the Punjab government to take back this grant and firm up its resolve to combat terrorism by reducing space for banned outfits, and by building governance capacity to administer its own social services or find non-violent partners who can deliver at the grassroots.”