DAWN Opinions | July 5, 2020

Right to be forgotten

By Shahzad Sharjeel

ASKED how he would like to be remembered, Lee Kuan Yew, that legendary leader of Singapore, is supposed to have said that he would like to be forgotten.

While many amongst us strive to be remembered for our achievements, real or imagined, there are countless others who want to be and in most cases should be, if they so desire, forgotten. An oft-repeated dialogue of the Urdu cinema of the olden days went something like ‘samaaj bhoolnay nahin deta’ (‘society does not allow memory lapses’). The arrival of the World Wide Web added another source of anxiety for those who want to be forgotten as ‘the internet never forgets’.

Wanton misdeeds and crimes against humanity that rightly ensure a permanent place in the annals of history — nay infamy — apart, the European Union now endorses one’s right to be forgotten, at least on the internet.

It all started in 2010 when a Spanish citizen went to his country’s regulator asking that information regarding the auction of his property be removed from the internet. The matter was referred to the European Union Court of Justice. The court, in its landmark judgement in 2014, ordered that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant data from its results when a member of the public requests it”. Google went into appeal and, in September 2019, the court ruled that, in order to balance an individual’s right to privacy and to be forgotten with the broader right to information, Google need not implement the court’s earlier order beyond EU borders. The order was further explained in the context of concerns by human rights bodies that universal enforcement of the ruling would impinge on the rights of citizens of other regions and despotic governments may use it to force search engines to block information.

The internet is another source of anxiety for those who want to be forgotten.

Between 2014 and 2019, Google reportedly received 845,501 right-to-be-forgotten requests that resulted in the removal of 45 per cent of the more than three million links requested to be removed. The content itself remains online; however, it cannot be found through online searches of the individual’s name.

In the subcontinent’s context, take for example those born or thrust into the life of a courtesan or ganey wali as she later came to be identified. No matter the excellence they have achieved in the classical arts of music and dance, and regardless of their fame and success, their antecedents of the bazaar are always mentioned amidst snickering and knowing winks. It also does not matter if they completely gave up the very art they spent their lifetime mastering so that society lets them be. Events and circumstances beyond their control, especially accidents of birth, are constantly dug up to ridicule people.

Some individuals derive sadistic pleasure in unnecessarily bringing up others’ past. For instance, which female singer of yesteryear, married to which wadera orindustrialist, used to perform the mujra. Such people need to be reminded that these extremely gutsy individuals overcame the hardships fate flung at them with grit and talent, and they should be allowed to move on in life with society celebrating what they made of it, instead of constantly reminding them where they started.

Yet another aspect of one’s right to be forgotten pertains to how regimes all over the world are employing technology to pry into citizens’ lives. Even before the advent of Covid-19, the fast development of surveillance technology was causing concerns. In an atmosphere bordering on paranoia, it would be unimaginable anywhere in the world for a government to employ a tracking system explicitly designed to trace and destroy terrorist cells for locating the victims of a pandemic.

In Pakistan, however, the prime minister does not tire of announcing that his government has employed a software designed by an intelligence agency in the country’s war against terrorism for tracing and isolating Covid-19 carriers. Neither he nor any of his lieutenants has ever tried to put public concerns to rest by describing how the spyware will be customised for civilian use and what filters will be deployed to ensure that fundamental civil rights are not breached.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog respected globally for its work, has also voiced its concern regarding the possible misuse of the pandemic for perpetually prying into citizens’ lives by the government. There already are enough conspiracy theories swirling about and stigma attached to the pandemic that we can certainly do without adding another controversial aspect to it.

How surreal is it that the internet search for this piece did not confirm the quote attributed to Mr Yew? Maybe he said it differently, or is the internet partly honouring his wish? One quote that surely pops up is from Hollywood icon Isabella Rossellini: “I would like to be forgotten. What’s so good about being remembered?”

 

Performance debate

By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

SUDDENLY, the debate on government performance seems to be all over the place. On second thoughts, it may not be so sudden. The incumbent government is about to complete its two years and that is usually the time when people stop giving any allowance for the newness of the government and expect solid delivery on the promises made by the ruling party.

Performance has been the cornerstone of Imran Khan’s campaign for prime ministership. He gave special attention to the preparation of his party’s election manifesto and explained in detail its various aspects at a well-attended seminar in Islamabad at the start of the election campaign. He then came up with another instrument, not used by any other political party of Pakistan earlier, of capsuling the initial party plans in ‘Imran Khan’s first 100 Days Agenda’ and launched it with a lot of fanfare.

Once in power, a special cell in the Prime Minister’s Office was created to monitor the progress on the implementation of the 100 Days Agenda and to periodically place the findings online for all to see. A party enthusiast even established a ‘Khan Meter’ to independently monitor the progress on social media. A debate on the PTI government’s performance in the first 100 days was promoted by the party itself by presenting a report at a media event despite the fact that the government did not have any landmark achievement to show except for the formation of over 50 task forces and committees to do preparatory work on its programme.

Sadly, the PTI and the government it heads have gradually moved away from publicly reporting their performance. Occasional media reports indicate that Prime Minister Imran Khan seeks periodic performance reports from his ministers, but there is hardly any public evidence that such reports are presented or discussed. The government has shared no such report or even its sanitised version with the people.

The PTI and the government it heads have gradually moved away from publicly reporting their performance.

The most recent performance debate about the PTI government was triggered by none other than a vocal member of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet, Fawad Chaudhry, who until about a year ago was the official spokesperson for the government of Pakistan and now holds the portfolio of science and technology in the federal cabinet. In an interview with senior journalist Sohail Warraich on VOA Urdu, Fawad Chaudhry made a number of interesting and candid points about the working, weaknesses, setbacks and failures of his party’s government over the past two years.

Unlike many other politicians disgruntled with their respective parties, Fawad Chaudhry’s talk was not the outburst of a desperate person. Instead, it was more of a sober introspection and dispassionate analysis, which makes his messages even more valuable and worthy of serious attention both within the party and outside. In a political culture where the top leader of the party is sacrosanct, Chaudhry’s open criticism of Imran Khan’s selection of unelected cabinet-level team members and style of governance was remarkable. Equally remarkable was the fact that although the prime minister reportedly conveyed his displeasure, Chaudhry continues to hold his cabinet position. The contents of the interview reportedly also became the subject of a passionate discussion at a cabinet meeting where opinions were fairly divided. This perceived tolerance and willingness to accept dissent may be taken as a welcome sign of budding internal democracy within political parties although parties need to go a long way to become truly democratic institutions from within.

Chaudhry wholeheartedly acknowledged that the PTI government had not been able to meet the lofty expectations of the people who had voted for the party to overhaul the entire system and not to run a ‘routine’ government. He attributed this lack of performance to infighting among senior party leaders but, even more importantly, blamed this on the weak team picked by the prime minister. He did not mince his words when he said that the implementation of the party programme depended on the quality of human resource deployed for this purpose and the leadership chose weak people for key positions.

It was a shocking observation, but he was probably spot on when he blamed Imran Khan for appointing pliant people in the provinces in the hope that they would willingly take dictation from him. The domination of unelected advisers and special assistants over elected ministers in the cabinet also drew his criticism; he felt that giving a decision-making role to unelected persons was a negation of the parliamentary system. He seemed to agree with the interviewer that the PTI had also failed to strengthen party structures and nurture a second-tier leadership.

Interestingly, he said that the prime minister too was concerned about the government’s performance and he had given five and a half months to the ministers to improve their performance, otherwise the government would lose the initiative for the change promised by Imran Khan.

Chaudhry’s candid interview raised a storm of controversies both within the ruling party and among the general public. One can disagree with some aspects of his analysis but it has made a significant contribution towards promoting the culture of assessing and debating the performance of the ruling party and the provincial and federal governments.

Political parties almost cease to exist as an effective separate entity after winning elections and forming a government; instead, parties generally become a secondary appendix to governments. The PTI, PPP and BAP, the political parties which are leading the federal and provincial governments in Pakistan at present, should develop and make use of party structures to freely debate and discuss the government performance periodically. Election manifestos, which generally gather dust after parties come to power, should be critically reviewed every year, if not more frequently, to gauge progress on implementation. If political parties adopt a culture of structured self-appraisal, it will spare them the embarrassment of unplanned public disclosures and prepare them better to face the electorate.

 

Party far from over?

By Abbas Nasir

THE rot runs deep in the republic and insiders are crawling out of the woodwork to cause embarrassment to the current dispensation and its backers, but, contrary to the belief of many analysts, this does not necessary mean a ‘change’ is round the corner.

Sohail Warraich is one of the most well-known political reporters, interviewers who, having spent a lifetime in print, took to television like a duck to water. For any political writer venturing into the murky world of Punjab politics, Mr Warraich used to be the first point of contact for his insights.

His knowledge of Punjab’s political families, clans (biradaris) and their common denominators was simply encyclopaedic. Outside of another veteran journalist, Nusrat Javed, perhaps, for years, nobody else knew the ins and outs of the intricate web of Punjab politics as did Sohail Warraich.

Then a few years ago, in a Jang column titled ‘The party’s over’, Sohail Warraich wrote that powerful quarters had decided to bring to an end the Nawaz Sharif era. When this column appeared in print, Prime Minister Sharif may have seemed vulnerable but didn’t appear close to being dethroned.

It is to the credit of Sohail Warraich’s journalistic skills that he has extracted interesting revelations.

The events that followed reinforced what the columnist had predicted and it dawned on his readers such as me that in addition to his encyclopaedic knowledge of Punjab politics, he had solid sources at the heart of the country’s all-powerful military establishment.

Also that his sense of timing is so impeccable that he is the envy of so many of us. It was against this backdrop that I watched his interview with Minister for Science & Technology Fawad Chaudhry last month in which the latter was open about the PTI’s failures since it assumed power.

Mr Chaudhry attributed these failures to the friction upon coming to power among three top leaders of the party – Jahangir Khan Tareen, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Asad Umar – and said this infighting had edged out the political class from decision-making and facilitated the entry of technocrats bereft of political vision.

“The public had not elected us or the prime minister to fix nuts and bolts but to reform the system,” the minister lamented, even as he paid glowing tributes to Imran Khan and claimed there was no leader such as the latter in the Muslim world.

As one would have expected, this interview generated shockwaves with news of a cabinet row between those who he blamed for infighting and the PTI loose cannon Faisal Vawda on the one side, and on the other the minister stoutly defending his VoA interview.

Mr Chaudhry’s views again forced one to cast an eye on his incredible political journey over the past decade and a half that has taken him from being a close aide to Gen Musharraf to being an adviser to the PPP’s prime minister to his current avatar as a PTI minister.

The only constant in his views has been his admiration for the military, which he believes has held the country together through so many crises. And, I suspect, if his affection for the institution has blindsided him towards many of its failings, he does not appear to care.

Barely a week later, Sohail Warraich had again set the cat among the pigeons when he interviewed retired Supreme Court Justice Ijaz Chaudhry who described the Supreme Court Panama Papers verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif as controversial.

He said when earlier Javed Hashmi claimed at a meeting in Islamabad that Nawaz Sharif would be removed via the Supreme Court, he could not understand what he meant. But it all became clear when the apex court verdict was announced against Mr Sharif as it ranked alongside the one against Z.A. Bhutto that “people question to this day”.

But this was not all. The retired justice dropped another bombshell. He said when, as chief justice of the Lahore High Court, he was filling vacant positions of LHC judges, he received a phone call from an “ISI general asking for a particular person to be appointed as judge”.

He said he asked the officer if his institution would appoint someone as lieutenant-general at the former’s request. The officer said that was not possible. So, he said: “To kiya hum yahan rewarriyan bech rahey hein?”, basically telling the officer his request could not be accommodated.

These were tough words coming from someone who started as a special prosecutor (from 1977 to 1979) during the military rule of Gen Ziaul Haq and remained additional advocate general, Punjab, from 1999 to 2001 before his elevation as a high court judge during military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf’s initial years in office in 2001.

Justice Chaudhry has not been an icon of liberal values either, as his LHC judgements in the appeal of those convicted in Mukhtaran Mai’s case, in a blasphemy prosecution, and finally in banning Facebook in Pakistan (2010) because of content deemed blasphemous, show.

In the interview, the judge was open about his right-wing leanings as he recalled that he and Javed Hashmi were together in the ‘Bangladesh na-manzoor’ movement against Pakistan’s recognition of its erstwhile eastern wing after the 1971 debacle.

But Justice Chaudhry was on the right side of history as he refused to take oath under Gen Musharraf’s PCO and took part in the lawyers’ movement.

It is to the credit of Sohail Warraich’s journalistic skills and nous that he has prised these interesting revelations from personalities who are or were close to the power centres and brought them out in the public domain with impeccable timing.

You can make what you wish of the timing. I would not say it suggests change is imminent. What is clear to me is that there is some disagreement on the way forward among powerful decision-makers. But I’d still shy away from reading much more into it than that.

 

Tear them down

By Asad Rahim Khan

IT was a hot day in June when Edward Colston took a bath in the Bristol Harbour. The rest of the world soon learned why Mr Colston, or at least his bronze likeness, went for a swan dive: the man was the shining star of the Royal African Company, slave-trading brutes that branded their initials into the chests of human beings.

And yet today, the name ‘Colston’ adorns street signs, high-rises and concert halls, when it only ever deserved to be etched into a prison wall from the inside. As to his philanthropy in later life, one observer compared it to mugging a grandmother, and then giving half the money to charity.

But even as Mr Colston is fished out of Bristol’s holy waters, the debate continues. As statues of Lee, Leopold and, heaven forbid, Winnie Churchill, look on in fear at what the kids might do next, an older generation cries halt.

The pearl-clutching comes in various shades: first, this is history and, like it or not, we can’t change it. Second, attempts to change it are a disservice to the past. Third, where will all this end?

We raise statues not to remind us of who we are, but what we could be.

To each we turn.

To start with, so much of this isn’t history. The Confederacy, that famous last hurrah for feral white slave-owners, lasted barely five years — not even the blink of an eye in the grand sweep of things. Statues of grim-looking generals went up decades after their defeat, as much to rewrite their shame as to spite civil rights. Today’s racists fighting to preserve some bust of Gen Lee should remember that Lee himself refused to endorse such memorials: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote in 1869. Black Lives Matter would agree in 2020.

To argue that tearing down such statutes would diminish history is to forget that putting them up was always meant to demean it in the first place, and terrorise the already terrorised.

Second, the purpose of the monument in the town square has never been historical record. It is, was, and always has been veneration. We raise statues not to remind us of who we are, but what we could be. And each time, we find ourselves face to face with a political statement.

One obvious example is Cecil Rhodes — diamond-guzzler, warmonger, imperial horseman of the Union Jack — better known today as a beloved old uncle that graces Oxford’s statues and scholarships. His stone perch atop Oriel College has somehow outlasted his victims, the angry heirs of Rhodesia, and continues to gleam in the sun.

As Oxford dons hem and haw over the latest spike in student rage, Olde England is having none of it. “Rhodes’s generosity allowed thousands of young people to enjoy an education they could not otherwise have had,” says Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (the same prince that called Corbyn’s suggestion to return the stolen Elgin Marbles to Athens “national masochism”).

He has a point: Rhodes was generous enough to write that South Africa was “just emerging from barbarism”, led an orgy of plunder, and then pressed his evil operation into the service of Commonwealth students his cause had helped impoverish. As late as 2016, Oriel College gave his statue a pass, calling it “an important reminder of the complexity of history”.

And yet there’s so little that’s complex about the mud and blood of the De Beers diamond empire. It is, nonetheless, a statement: Cecil’s statue will remain for as long as the sheer scale of their criminal past continues to thrill British nostalgics.

Third, voices closer to home warn of enabling extremists, like the RSS demo­lishing Babri Mas­jid. This comparison is all wrong. The RSS tore down a mosque for the same reason the United Daughters of the Confederacy built pillars to the sky: to enshrine terror and persecute a minority. As made painfully evident by archaeologists, no temple ever existed under Babri, to say nothing of the fact that Babar spent his whole life fighting Muslim kings anyway. It had nothing to do with history, and everything to do with the sectarian fever dreams of L.K. Advani, and the ghouls he led. There’s no cure for such poison, except punishment.

In sum, this slippery slope isn’t slippery. To the question of where all of this will end, author Eugene Robinson answered, “This is not a hard problem to solve: it ends where we, as a nation, decide to draw the line between those historical figures who deserve to be so honoured and those who do not.”

It’s not rocket science; all that’s needed is clarity. When this writer asked a Princeton alumnus what he made of the decision to remove the name of racist, segregationist Woodrow Wilson from its policy school, immediately came the reply, “Wilson was a pig”.

And all at once, the clouds parted.


Published in The DAWN, July 5, 2020

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