TWENTY-ONE years have passed since Capt Karnal Sher Khan laid down his life in the service of his country. On July 7, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa paid tribute to Capt Karnal and another martyr of the Kargil conflict, Havaldar Lalak Jan, saying in a message that the “nation is proud of its gallant sons for valour and unwavering allegiance to defend the country, regardless of the cost”. Indeed, there can be no greater sacrifice, and there are hundreds of such soldiers, mainly from the Northern Light Infantry, who embraced martyrdom on those icy, inhospitable peaks in India-held Kashmir.
And yet, there is still much we do not know about the individual stories of courage, the desperate fight to the death in the face of dwindling supplies of food and ammunition, with artillery fire from the other side raining down on them. The government and the army have remained tight-lipped about the conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours that set the world on edge, and precipitated the downfall of Pakistan’s civilian government a few months later, and yet another military takeover. Most of what we now know about that seminal event is courtesy journalist Nasim Zehra’s magnum opus From Kargil to Coup. The bare facts are thus: a coterie of four top generals, including then army chief Pervez Musharraf, orchestrated a secret operation that would, they believed, bring India to its knees and compel it to negotiate on the Kashmir issue. It was later criticised as non-inclusive strategising, for it not only bypassed the rest of the military leadership, but reportedly also the civilian government — which would have to bear the brunt of the ensuing censure on the world stage — until the operation was well underway. Moreover, the security establishment maintained all the while it was Kashmiri mujahideen that had occupied the peaks. Only later, when the bodies of the NLI soldiers started arriving home, did the public — and most tragically, the soldiers’ own families — realise the involvement of army regulars.
To worsen matters, the ill-judged operation — which went awry because of the unplanned expansion of the theatre of conflict — dealt a huge blow to the Kashmir cause as it lost Pakistan the support of the international community on the issue. With the intervention of the US president, the country was forced into withdrawing its forces unconditionally. Despite this climbdown, there has been no official word about the misadventure and how it was executed, let alone any accountability for its architects. One wonders if the reticence continues within the National Defence University, where all wars are otherwise dissected as part of the strategic and tactical action course. Surely it is time to air this unfortunate chapter in our history, and learn about the final moments of those who paid the ultimate price for the folly of a few.
The second wave
EIGHT months after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in China, the fast-spreading, potentially fatal coronavirus is still on the rampage. Many countries, including the UK, Spain, France and China have started to reopen as infection rates and the number of deaths drop in the aftermath of strict lockdowns. But as some countries celebrate their success in curtailing transmission, fears of a ‘second wave’ of infection are very real. This term applies to countries that went through a ‘peak phase’ during which Covid-19 cases soared, managed to lower the curve and then experienced a second peak. In the UK, which is among the worst-hit countries, the peak phase saw up to 1,000 deaths and 8,000 new cases in a single day. In the absence of a scientific definition of the ‘second wave’, it can be described as the period when the number of infections goes back up and marks a sustained increase — a scenario which is to be expected in countries that have lifted lockdown restrictions. In the absence of a vaccine, it is inevitable that Covid-19 will spread as restrictions end and people leave their homes. Early indications of a second wave are coming from Spain, France and even Australia which had celebrated taming the virus and reducing daily infections. In the UK, the possibility of a second wave is not being ruled out. The situation has compelled many to draw a comparison with the second wave of the Spanish flu, which reportedly killed more people than the first wave.
The likelihood of any country being coronavirus-free without strict restrictions in place or an effective vaccine, is non-existent. Infection, hospitalisation and death rates can only be minimised if SOPs are followed. As countries prepare to tackle the next round of peak infections, their success will be linked to public policy measures. Several countries have decided against mass lockdowns due to the economic and psychological effects of one-size-fits-all restrictions. Hence, many leaders prefer targeted lockdowns — as seen in Pakistan — where hotspots with high infection rates will be locked down. The key to these policies lies in mass testing. Without a high number of daily tests, it will be impossible to assess how quickly cases are rising and what level of risk Covid-19 carriers pose to members of the public. Mass testing, systematic data gathering, the enforcement of SOPs and improved hospital support appear to be the only way to protect citizens.
Infringement of privacy
EARLIER this month, the PTA issued a notice extending the June 30 deadline by another month for businesses and individuals to register virtual private networks. VPNs allow internet users to navigate the web securely and privately, and also access blocked content. They are also used by many businesses as an additional layer of encryption to protect sensitive data. VPN traffic falls under the PTA’s definition of ‘grey traffic’; thus, citing the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations, 2010, it is now seeking to control its usage with the express purpose of stopping “losses to the national exchequer”.
However, digital rights experts argue that, viewed in tandem with other recent moves — such as the revelation in 2019 that Pakistan had acquired a web monitoring system from a controversial tech firm, or the attempt to introduce draconian social media rules earlier this year — the practice of registering VPNs will not only strip them of their purpose but also lead to tighter control and surveillance over Pakistani internet users. The fact that these actions are being undertaken with little transparency and oversight, as well as the broad powers conferred on the regulatory authority under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, means that the likely outcome of such measures will only undermine civil liberties in this country further. The Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to privacy as ‘inviolable’, yet Pakistan’s current internet governance framework is skewed towards sweeping, unconstrained cyber surveillance of any and all citizens. The push for users to declare VPNs forces them into the Catch-22 situation of having to opt in to exercise their right to privacy by first opting out of it by registering their intent to do so. In reality, the need of the hour is a complete reappraisal of Pakistan’s internet governance laws to ensure their compliance with basic human rights. Far from ensuring greater security, surveillance without checks and balances puts everyone in this country, from the powerless to the powerful, at greater risk.
Published in DAWN, July 10, 2020