The house of Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, the couple who run The Friday Times newsweekly out of Lahore, was invaded on 8 May by men claiming to be from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), even though many of them were in Punjab Police uniform. They beat up the private security guards, locked jugnu Mohsin in the bathroom and took away Najam Sethi without indicating charges.
The next day, Asma Jehangir, the well-known human rights lawyer, approached the Lahore High Court on behalf of Jugnu Mohsin and was reported to have called the event a kidnapping by the state. The Lahore High Court directed the government to explain itself (but did not order it to produce the detainee). The advocate general of Punjab pleaded ignorance of the whereabouts of Sethi. Meanwhile, the federal government in Islamabad stated that the arrest had been made “in connection” with the report the Pakistani high commissioner to India had given on Sethi’s speech in Delhi (see following pages). Subsequently, an interior ministry spokesman admitted that Sethi was in the custody of the ISI, whereupon it argued that since the ISI is a military agency, Sethi cannot be produced before a civilian court in a habeas corpus petition.
Such explanations apart, it is clear that what Najam Sethi said in Delhi before an India International Centre (IIC) crowd had very little to do with his being picked up. His address described Pakistan’s ideological, economic, legal crises no better or worse than the daily debates in Pakistan’s English-language editorial pages, and much of what he had said had already come out in his editorials, and in particular, at an address before the National Defence College earlier in the year.
The real reason can be traced tothe fact that The Friday Times has been stubbornly focusing on the financial shenanigans of the ruling Sharifs clan of Prime Minister Nawaz and his brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab —unrepaid loans being the principal embarrassment. Najam Sethi had also given an interview to the BBC team preparing a documentary on the Sharifs. (Two other journalists who have spoken to the BBC have also been harassed: Imtiaz Alam of The News daily had his car set on fire, and Hussain Haqqani, also of The Friday Times, has been arrested. The magistrate’s report said that Haqqani bore the marks of a beating.)
Lahore is one of the most insular cities of the Subcontinent, which is perhaps why Sethi’s arrest and the invasion of his home and privacy, do not seem to have struck a chord. Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin live in the upper-class enclave of Gulberg, which may be why the average Lahori found it easier to show unconcern.
Whatever the cause, few Lahoris seemed impressed with the argument that Najam Sethi’s speech at Delhi’s IIC was a double-edged rebuke. It actually chided the Indian establishment for its less-than-great-power habit of picking fights with Pakistan, its Kashmiri repression and for its insane initiatives in the arms race, one that will create an economically unstable Pakistan, which is bound to evolve as a terrible threat to its neighbour. Sethi had made threadbare the hypocrisy of the Indian offer for a no-first-strike nuclear weapons agreement and the rejection of the no-war-pact offer of Pakistan. Nor was anyone impressed, including the prime minister it seems, with the compliments Najam paid to Nawaz Sharif for his peace initiatives with India.
The sentiment a lot of people did express was that it is fine for Najam Sethi to speak his mind in Lahore, but not in Delhi. This may have to do with the perception that Sethi is politically active (he was a minister in the last caretaker government in 1996) and not a dissident above the political fray. It also has to do with the peculiar notion of territorialism that persists even in this digital age in a South Asia which is moving back to the feudal.
Nawaz sharif and his men are turning out to be South Asia’s Great Scissorhands. Having had some prominent members of the domestic press pulled up for showing them and the nation in what they perceive to be an unsavoury light, their wrath turned international with the seizure of the widely read and respected The Economist (of 22-28 May), for carrying a cover-story titled “The rot in Pakistan”.
The Economist story, with a fierce-looking Sharif peering out of the cover against a Gothic-green background, detailed the chaos that is Pakistan today, and even went on to tell donors like the IMF, which by end-May wassupposed to loan USD 1.6 billion, not to release funds. “Pakistan under Mr Sharif is moving in the wrong direction. It seems perverse to give it more cash to speed it on its way,” wrote the weekly.
The result: about 4000 copies of the magazine seized at Karachi airport.