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November 23, 1999


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Sharief, Benazir 'Raped' Democracy: Najam Sethi

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Najam Sethi, editor of the Lahore-based The Friday Timeswho was jailed for holding independent views that flew in the face of nationalism, finds the current situation in his native Pakistan highly ironic.

"While there was democracy in Pakistan, or so-called democracy, the press was progressively being chained, our voices were being silenced and some of us had to endure hardships to continue to speak up," he says.

"The irony is that in the current situation, when the generals are in-charge and the constitution of Pakistan has been temporarily suspended, the press is freer than under democracy."

Sethi said he was relieved to note that the present military regime of General Pervez Musharraf had not suspended fundamental rights and that the press was "alive and kicking".

Sethi made international news earlier this summer when he was dragged out of his house at midnight and detained for a month without charges, by agents of former prime minister Nawaz Sharief's government.

Sethi and his wife Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of The Friday Times, were in New York to receive the 1999 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, an US-based non-partisan group committed to promoting freedom of press around the world.

Speaking from CPJ's office in Manhattan, Sethi, who describes his paper as "an equal opportunity offender" said that democracy in Pakistan was discredited by the governments of Sharief and Benazir Bhutto -- "one a protégé of the military and the other a reaction to the military."

"In my opinion, the constitution and the democratic institutions in Pakistan had been raped by the previous prime ministers," he said, "who had distorted it beyond recognition and tethered it to suit their fascist desires and obsession with absolute power."

"People outside Pakistan find it difficult to understand what we have been through in the last 10 years," he said. "We have been through four government, each of which was worse than the other. At end of the end there was no democracy to speak of."

General Musharraf's regime, Sethi said derives its legitimacy on the ground that the people of the Pakistan were sick of the corruption, incompetence and the repressive tactics of the Sharief and Bhutto governments.

"So the people were really looking for some ray of hope," he said, adding "that they have placed it in the new regime. The people of Pakistan have actually welcomed army rule."

News reports indicate that several prominent Pakistanis, including retired diplomat Abdul Sattar, who twice served as ambassador to New Delhi, Shaukat Aziz, a vice-president at Citibank in New York, and other liberal democrats who were critical of military rule, are now serving in General Musharraf's council of ministers.

To Sethi all this is a sign of the desperation of the situation and the overall belief in Pakistan that any change will be better than Nawaz Sharief's despotic rule.

He referred to General Musharraf's goals of transforming Pakistan and "putting the country back on track" as "a first rate" and "a sincere agenda".

"At the end of the day we are going to judge the government on the proof of the pudding and the eating of it," he said. "Right now the government has our support. I cannot say much about its ability to deliver. But if it doesn't deliver its promises, then we will criticize it, like we have done in the past."

In an exclusive interview with, Sethi dwelt upon the history of India and Pakistan and the misfortunes of his country that had led to one military regime after another. Jawaharlal Nehru, he said, carried out land reforms in India ("however insignificant you might think them to be"), which ultimately reduced the influence of the landed feudal community. This resulted in the creation of a vibrant middle class in India, he said.

In Pakistan, no such reforms were introduced, Sethi said, adding that, in the past 50 years, the landed classes had blocked all attempts at democratic reforms. In addition, he said, India inherited the nationalist traditions of the Congress Party and, after Independence, the politicians took over power in that country.

On the other hand, the new state of Pakistan inherited a civil and military bureaucracy that was far more politically developed than the economic classes that could harbinger reforms.

"Since those (the civil and the military bureaucracy) were apparatus left over by the British, they knew what to do, they seized power and did not allow the development of a genuine democracy," he said.

On the question of the current situation in the subcontinent, Sethi said that the relationship between India and Pakistan will not be normalized unless a solution is found to the Kashmir situation.

"There has been great injustice (done to the people of Kashmir) and that injustice has to be righted," he said. He added that if the right of self-determination was not given to the people of Kashmir, then both India and Pakistan would suffer.

"Wars of national liberation are never completed in a short time," he said, referring to the two decades of American intervention in south-east Asia and attempts to suppress the North Vietnamese independence movement.

"States do not relinquish territories in a hurry."

However, he added that as long as the uprising in Kashmir continues, "it will be a pain on the side of the Indian government.

"At some stage or the other, time will win out and so will the resolute will of the people," he said.

"What we don't know is the form the solution will take. But both sides have to start talking and the Kashmiris have to be brought into the talks. Without this there can be no regional peace. And, in my view, the onus lies with the Indian government."

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