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Conflict yields dividends only for vested interests: Asma Jehangir

By Kalpana Sharma

MUMBAI Nov. 17. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Killings is one of the many hats the fiery and determined human rights activist from Pakistan, Asma Jehangir, wears. In Mumbai to attend a closed-door meeting of jurists from South Asia, Ms. Jehangir, who has taken on the military establishment and the religious fundamentalists in Pakistan, was at her outspoken best at a meeting with a small group of journalists.

Asked what she thought about the latest peace moves between India and Pakistan, she said that in Pakistan there were different views. "Just as there are some people in India who don't want anything to do with Pakistan but to conquer it, there are people in Pakistan who would like to see our flag on the Red Fort," she said. "But this is vicious thinking. A large number of Pakistanis want peace. Families are separated. People on both sides have suffered. Peace has its own dividends for ordinary people. Conflict yields dividends only for vested interests."

She said people on both sides had a great deal to gain from peace economically and culturally. "Our cinema houses are on the verge of closure because they cannot show Indian films. Why don't you ask Lata Mangeshkar to apply for a Pakistani visa? If our government denies it, there will be protests and riots in Pakistan."

As one of the founder-members of the South Asians for Human Rights, Ms. Jehangir said they welcomed India's peace initiative. "First, India and Pakistan must have a reasonable relationship where there can be proper dialogue." Eventually, the Kashmir issue would have to be tackled. "Kashmir is not about territorial gain at the cost of people's lives. It is far more important to have a process that leads to dialogue. Kashmiris need the space to say what they feel and by this I include people in `Azad Kashmir'. Have we heard them? Have you heard them? Just because `Azad Kashmir' is better off than the Indian part doesn't mean we can violate their rights."

The Indian Government, Ms Jehangir suggested, had to "make its own amends to the Kashmiris living in India. It's time Indians recognised that there have been excesses. Once you recognise and say this has happened there, you will create a situation for Kashmiris to come back into the fold."

On the shape of politics in the future in Pakistan, Ms. Jehangir, who set up the Pakistan Human Rights Commission in 1989, said she was confident that if Pakistan had "fair and free" elections, religious and fundamentalist parties and alliances like the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) would never be elected. "The fact is that the last election was rigged. The main political parties had been badly eroded by the establishment."

In the absence of other players, she said, a coalition of religious parties like the MMA did well.

Ms. Jehangir also questioned the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf's constant assurances to the rest of the world that the country was moving towards democracy. "If this was the case, the first step he should have taken was to set up an independent election commission as you have here."

Instead, she said, the same man who had been around for the referendum that confirmed General Musharraf's hold on power continued to function as the sole election commissioner.

The Pakistan human rights lawyer also spoke out against the United States' policies in the region. "They speak of `moderate' Islam, `moderate' Taliban. What does Bush mean by that?" she asked. "We don't know how they define moderation. Is the `moderate' democracy that Bush wants in Afghanistan like what we have in Pakistan?" she wondered.

Ms. Jehangir said that instability in Afghanistan would have its impact on Pakistan. "My grouse against the U.S. is that it has no post-Cold War policy. How will it pick up the pieces it has left behind in places like Afghanistan?" The rest of the world, she pointed out, could not be expected to clear up the mess left behind by it.

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