Time for a peace initiative

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WILL President Pervez Musharraf’s pacification mission to Karachi last week bear fruit? From the accounts given by some of the “elites” and “notables” who attended his briefing, no healing of wounds can be expected. One of them disclosed that they had been advised not to be negative in their approach.

The president acknowledged that a few “after shocks” are still being felt but he believes that if we “suppress” them they will die out. Surrounded by self-serving advisers, the president failed to sense the undercurrent of tension in the city.

He commended the political parties for their positive role in trying to bring harmony and peace to the city. But he seems to have spoken prematurely. Soon thereafter, a war of words erupted between the MQM and the Tehrik-i-Insaf which degenerated into personalised attacks against each other’s leaders.

It is not clear why the Muttahida has been so upset by the verbal attack on Mr Altaf Hussain’s style of politics. With Karachi still in a state of shock that it slipped into in the aftermath of the tragedy of May 12, this is no time for such display of strength. After all, section 144 is in force. Does it behove the ruling party to send out its women on the streets to hurl insults at another leader in violation of the law? Where is the restraint President Musharraf spoke about four days ago?

The issues being raised by the MQM demonstrators are peripheral when the need is to pre-empt the resurgence of the politics of vindictiveness. The president’s visit was supposed to bridge the gap between the estranged parties but all it did was to widen it because his approach is more of a military man’s than a politician’s.

Considering the fact that the MQM (seen as the president’s constituency) is generally being held responsible for the killings on the day the Chief Justice was to arrive in the city, it is important for the president to distance himself from this ruling coalition partner in Sindh. He was judicious in holding his meeting with a cross section of the people of Karachi, including Pashtun representatives, in the chief minister’s house. Inviting people to the Governor House would have been disastrous considering that Governor Ishratul Ibad stands too closely identified with ‘Nine Zero’ for anyone’s comfort.

It speaks of the sad state of our politics that the president was not willing to go any further. He has rejected categorically the demand for a judicial enquiry into the sad events of May 12, saying, “Forget the enquiry and focus on peace and harmony in the province.” Chief Minister Arbab Rahim also confirmed this approach when he said enquiries would only compound the situation. Obviously, the MQM’s supporters fear that a probe into what happened on that fateful day would open a Pandora’s box which the rulers may not be able to handle.

But can the healing of wounds inflicted so brutally on May 12 take place without an impartial enquiry? Besides, the deweaponisation of society that the president has stressed — though not ordered — as being the need of the hour may not be possible without a degree of confidence building between the affected parties. Small wonder Dr Arbab Rahim has termed it an uphill task.

The families of the victims killed on that black Saturday are not just grief stricken. They are also bitter. Independent bodies and NGOs have been attempting to probe into the happenings of that day. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has set up a body to do some fact finding on its own but that is no substitute for an independent enquiry conducted by a judge or retired judge which would carry the weight of authority.

That is one aspect of the matter. The other is to create a momentum for peace if Karachi is not to slide back into the violence of earlier years. Regaining the trust and confidence of the affected people should be a vital element of the peace initiative. People need to be assured that such a carnage will not happen again and their anger has to be calmed.

The Women’s Action Forum has been attempting to do that. Teams of WAF members have been visiting the bereaved families. It is an exercise in helping them cope with their grief — a process that is very natural after bereavement and is more acute when death is sudden and violent.

WAF is maintaining records of these visits. Its observations are instructive. The affected families are going through natural emotions of grief, anger, humiliation and shock which could lead to problems later if not handled sympathetically at this stage. Many of those killed were young Pashtuns in their twenties who were earning members of their family.

The bereaved were more or less unanimous in holding the MQM responsible for the killings since the victims were going to join the rally and were unarmed as they had been instructed not to carry weapons. The positive aspect of the situation is that in the immediate aftermath of the killings the feeling of vengeance has been held at bay. In fact, many families strongly demanded peace and harmony. In this context, the MQM’s rallies will not really help.

Now is the time for a peace initiative which will assuage the people’s grief and allow them to share their sorrow with those who understand. This will help dissipate anger. On Saturday WAF will hold an open forum for peace called `Women Speak Out’. It hopes to announce the establishment of a citizen’s peace commission comprising representatives of political parties, respected citizens of Karachi and representatives of bereaved families.

The idea is to channelise the people’s emotions into a constructive initiative for peace and harmony in Karachi. Since the whole country is affected by and concerned at what happens in Karachi, women from other parts of Pakistan will be joining hands in this peace initiative. All peace loving men and women should support this move.