Monday, December 29, 2008

Reporting Biases

News in Dawn, the New York Times and the Guardian on the latest chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really shows how subjective and partisan reporting can be.

All three papers give the number of Palestinian casualties in the first paragraph, putting it around 350, but the New York Times, in the very same breath clarifies that according to the UN only some 60 of those Palestinians were civilians. The Guardian mentions that in the third para while Dawn much later both emphasizing that these numbers are thought to be very conservative.

All three list the places Israelis attacked (the Islamic University, the Interior Ministry and the presidential guesthouse). The NYTimes is quick to explain that Israel considers these places Hamas' civic institutions. A strange assertion. I would say that the Interior Ministry in Gaza is Gazan's civi institution not just the Hamas'. The Guardian calls the Islamic University "the territory's main university and one with links to Hamas". It also lists the damage to laboratories in the university. Dawn just notes that the university is a "significant cultural symbol in Gaza".

Then NYTimes spends over a 100 words describing the Hamas rocketfire and each of the four killed Israelis. It also paints a vivid picture of "thousands of Israelis huddled in shelters". Dawn spends 25 words to say that two Israelis have been killed by rocketfire since Israeli attacks starts. It mentions that "Israel has said" that it has launched its attack because of intensifying rocketfiring but undercuts that assertion with a note in the same sentence about Israeli national elections approaching.

After describing the Israeli's plight, the NYTimes spends around 40 words describing the Palestinian's situation, but in that same paragraph, in the very next line starts to talk about how Hamas has been shooting Palestinians too on the charge that they were collaborators. It then spends a huge chunk of the article describing these executions by Hamas and only then describes civilian casualties of Israeli bombings. Dawn and the Guardian do not report any such killings by Hamas.

The NYTimes does not note Ban Ki-Moon's opposition to the Israeli attack at all while the Guardian quotes him extensively, including his condemnation of Israel's "excessive use of force".

There are  at least a dozen more smaller differences between the three articles but these in themselves make the NYTimes' pro-Israeli and Dawn and the Guardian's pro-Palestinian biases clear. I am sure there has been no falsification of information but the choices of inclusion, omission and organization make all the difference in giving these reports their slants.

Sitting in Karachi, I cannot really determine where the reality of things lies — between the poles of these three news reports or beyond them. And without wanting to spark off an epistemological controversy, I wonder whether the reality is entirely knowable at all. Perhaps, all that is needed of us news readers is the awareness that news outlets report not the reality of things but their version of reality, seen consciously or subconsciously, through the filter of their biases.

Palestine and Israel

Once again, Israel and Palestine's uneasy truce has fallen apart and innocent civilians on both sides are paying with their lives. Four Israelis, 3 of whom were civilians, and 365 Palestinians, 60 of whom were civilians, lost their lives in the violence. It is a gruesome reminder that one of the gravest conflicts of our times is still very much alive and destroying the lives of many, many innocent people on both sides.

Both the Jewish and Islamic traditions subscribe to an eye for an eye justice. But Israeli response to Hamas rocket-firing has been disproportionate. 365 lives for 4. According to their own traditions, that leaves them with a debit of 361.

But violence cannot be stopped by more violence. It is the hard truth that people and governments of our times are yet to learn. But even in today's extremely grim situation, I find myself sincerely hoping – against all hope – for a swift resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for lasting peace in the Middle East.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan says it is not against girls' education – Dawn

I guess they just burn down girls schools for sport then...

All of a sudden, TTP has discovered that girls education is not against their religion. All they really want is that girls at school be forced into wearing the burqa, irrespective of the girls' individual opinions on the matter. Is that really too much to ask?

This seems to me to be part of TTP's effort to become more mainstream. They seem to have realized that education is something people want and burning schools is not really winning them any hearts or minds. So they maneuver and back-peddle on their 'unshakeable' beliefs and values. They are acting more and more like a political rather than a militant entity.

Consider another piece of news in today's Dawn: "Talking on phone from an unspecified place Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for TTP, said: “It is our (Taliban’s) responsibility to protect the country’s western border and we will stop infiltrations into Afghanistan.”"

The irony of this statement is mind-boggling. The bandits are promising to police the town when the sheriff leaves. What kind of approach is this? On any other day, we would love to blow you freedom-loving Islam-hating Pakistanis to smithereens but hey today we are ready to pitch in in your fight against India...?

This is politicking in the extreme. And the ease with which they have switched from government-toppling terror-spreading rebels to qaumi janda-waving tarana-singing patriots is evidence of such hypocrisy that would cause even our most adroitly two-faced lota politicians to gape.

I really hope no one is buying this bag of bull that the TTP is feeding.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Everyone understands that the security barriers that people install on their streets are because they feel the police cannot protect them. Since all this fuss has been made by the government about how the barriers impede movement of fire engines, ambulances and police vehicles, it is also clear to everyone that they prevent these emergency workers from doing their jobs.

So since everyone knows why the barriers are up and why they are a problem, then the government should just go ahead and solve the problem if they want the barriers to come down. To force people to take the barriers down without taking concrete steps to better protect them is unreasonable. We all know how miserably useless and entirely self-serving our police force is. If they can revamp their image from corrupt, high-handed and brutal to efficient, respectful and dedicated, Karachiites will be more than happy to take the barriers down. We will be on Cloud 9, in fact.

But the government has no intentions of sincerely addressing the systemic problems that plague our law-enforcement personnel (poor payment, understaffing, poor training, lack of equipment, lack of gender sensitization, politicization of the police force, unmerited appointments and the list goes on and on). It is happy just kicking up a big fuss over this one issue and making headlines in the city pages for a week. Then it's all back to business as usual.

In the aftermath

Despite caution from a lot of Indian intellectuals, India has been drifting down the same dark path that America did after 9/11. All the bloodthirsty commentating, the growing xenophobia, the draconian security laws under consideration, the obsession with what happened to the glitterati at the Oberoi and the Taj as opposed to the victims at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: it all leaves me with a queasy feeling of things going in the wrong direction.

Latest in the series of missteps is the Oberoi Trident saying that it will not entertain Pakistani nationals at its hotel. The move is distasteful, misguided, vindictive and short-sighted. It does not entirely surprise me, but it certainly does sadden. The India-Pakistan-bhai-bhai enthusiasm of the past five years has shown itself to have been both superficial and hollow. Within days of the Mumbai attack, all that goodwill evaporated and the Pakistani and Indian media were at each other's throats; sports tournaments were cancelled; the peace process put on hold and the deep mistrust and antipathy that lay dormant for the past few years resurfaced with renewed vigour.

It is a shame. What happened in Mumbai was in no uncertain terms a tragedy. And of all the people who could empathize, Pakistanis were on top of the list for having been battered on a weekly basis by terrorist attacks for the past five years. But instead of sharing each other's sorrow and using our new cordial relationship to go after those responsible for the attacks together, leaders and citizens on both side ran to take cover behind their old jingoism and bellicose rhetoric. A dozen hate-filled twenty-somethings have managed to alter the open nature of a country of over a billion people and derail the growing friendship between millions of citizens of the estranged nations. It's a shame. A real shame.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hey, lazybones!

"If you have trouble getting started and have a tendency to sit down and look at a blank sheet of paper and an hour later you’re still sitting and it’s still blank, you need us.

"When the deadline is near at hand and you feel neither motivated nor inspired and then you have procrastinated until you have reached the point where you absolutely have to write and are developing feelings of anxiety that make it harder to start the next time, don't you feel that it's the time to call us!

"We will take the pressure off meeting the deadlines for grades. We have created a whole file of ideas and can handle your essays. You can place your confidence in our ability to write your assignments.

"Our writing has a defined purpose and our writing is much more than just correct writing we make a clear point and support it with information. The information is clearly connected, the words are appropriate. You can rely on a professional expert to do the job for you. We also write with taste and good judgment."

This is the proud declaration on a website offering to write essays in English for students in Pakistan for high school, undergraduate, graduate and PhD programs. A high school student can get a paper written in 24 hours for as much as 400 rupees per page. A PhD candidate can get a paper in 24 hours for 900 rupees per page.

The website further says, rather sleazily, "We are aware of the fact that some academicians denounce their students for taking resort to writing services. Although we believe that it hardly creates a difference to a student’s progression if he takes support from a justifiable and specialized writing service, in today’s highly competitive environment. We protect your information, never disclosing any of your information under any circumstance. 100% confidentiality is our guarantee."

I don't know what to be more dismayed at: the fact that there is a website offering such ethically and morally bankrupt services, the fact that if enough people get wind of this website it could well be a roaring success in our ethically and morally bankrupt country or just the horrendously poor English on display on this website. Please note the convoluted run-on sentences, the redundancy and the inept usage of idioms. "A professional expert"? "The deadline is near at hand..." Elsewhere on the website, they have spelt rupee as "ruppee".

I wouldn't trust these nincompoops to write even a text message for me. I hope others will have the integrity and, failing that, the commonsense to refrain from using this website too.

Note to Karachi Drivers

When you hear an ambulance wailing somewhere behind you, please, please don't just continue to sit at the red light. When a man is having a heart attack or a woman a stroke in the ambulance behind you, the traffic laws are temporarily held in abeyance for that person's life. So people when you hear an ambulance, make way for it, break lights to clear the path for it or stop even if your light is green so that the ambulance on the other road can go past.

In case you were not aware of this before, please know that not only is it okay to disobey traffic laws to let an ambulance pass, it is in fact required, ethically and (hopefully) legally too.

Just now, I had to wait for two painful minutes at the Teen Talwar signal with an ambulance behind me desperate to drive through. But there were dozens of cars ahead of us that just would not break the light. All of a sudden, the usually cavalier drivers of Karachi turned into stubborn traffic light observers. They sat there oblivious to the ambulance siren and the honks of several conscientious drivers and moved only when the light turned green. Of course, the ever present traffic police did nothing either. They were busy fleecing some poor motorcyclist in a corner.

As the ambulance whizzed past, I saw the face of an extremely worried young boy inside and I could only hope that his relative lying there next to him would make it to the hospital in time. If that person does survive, it certainly won't be thanks to any of us at the Teen Talwar signal, but if that person doesn't make it, their death will certainly be on all our hands.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Consult a dictionary first, buddy

The esteemed Council of Islamic Ideology has declared the term "gender equality" vague and un-Islamic in its review of the National Commission for Status of Women Ordinance 2000. My first reaction to this news article in yesterday's Dawn was, "Lol!"

Is the term un-Islamic because it is vague? If the CII was unsure about what gender equality meant it should have asked for some clarification from the government, or better yet, from anyone with a dictionary. Instead, after deeming the term ambiguous, it goes on to find it un-Islamic on the grounds that men and women are anatomically, physically and mentally different.

Now I guess I should follow my own advice and put forward some points for clarification from the CII (just in case it frequents this blog). 

1. What does the non-indentical biology of men and women have to do with ensuring that the government and the law's treatment of men and women and their access to opportunities is identical?

2. Going by your reasoning, will you also be recommending dissimilar treatment by the state and the law for people who are physically or mentally dissimilar, for people with more or less limbs and higher or lower IQs for example?

3. And if you do intend to discriminate against people with low IQs, will you be recommending to the government that it kick idiots like yourselves off advisory bodies which get so much media attention? That sure would be nice!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

"In whose hands shall the administration and the empire of India rest? Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations – the Mohammedans and the Hindus – could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. At the same time you must remember that although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a higher English education, yet they must not be considered insignificant or weak. Probably they would by themselves be enough to maintain their own position. But suppose they were not. Then our Musalman brothers, the Pathans, would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood flow from their frontier on the north to the extreme end of Bengal. This thing – who after the departure of the English would be conquerors would rest on God's will. But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land." – Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (Meerut, 16 March 1888)

This speech by Sir Syed was made three years after the Indian National Congress was founded. If you remember your Pak Studies, then you must know that Sir Syed was extremely opposed to the INC, believing, somewhat irrationally, that it was a conduit for Hindu supremacy.

What really surprised me about this speech was not how easily and firmly Sir Syed dismissed the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity over fifty years before the Pakistan Resolution, but how extremely aggressive he was. This talk about making blood flow and about making the other nation obedient makes him sound less like a progressive intellectual and more like a firebrand. It doesn't quite jibe with his image as a reformer that we Pakistanis have, but makes him sound queasily close to the religious fanatics of today.

The Lucky Irani Circus

It has been in town for the past two months, in the field outside Aladdin Park. It is now up in the Clifton Beach Park for the next week. If you have an hour to kill over this week, I strongly recommend that you check it out. They have everything from contortionists to trapeze artists to clowns and midgets. One of the performances involved a young girl climbing a twenty feet ladder that was balanced on a man's forehead. She climbed to the top, took a bow and climbed down, while the man balanced the ladder without his hands. Scariest thing ever!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It's Eid again...

I don't know why Muslim holidays can't be spread out more evenly. Didn't we just celebrate Eid ul Fitr? It seems like only yesterday when the entire country was starving itself and now it is slaughtering cows, goats and camels by the hundreds of thousands for a big feast.

I just saw a white Corolla leading a camel down 26th Street. The camel was tied to its rear bumper and the Corolla was moving at snail's pace (or should I say camel's pace) in front of it. Only in Pakistan, I say, only in Pakistan.

A bearded man with glasses and a skull cap was sitting in the open trunk along with two young boys, whose excited eyes were glued to the languidly moving camel. I have to admit the animal was very cute. Unfortunately, by now it is probably flailing around in a pool of its own blood, dying of a slit throat, and serving as the centerpiece of some upper middle class family's unnecessarily barbaric ritual of obeisance to its "Most Merciful and Most Kind" god.

I really don't like this holiday.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I really mean by education

Remember those hypotheticals that your seventh grade school teacher asked you when she didn't have a teaching plan: "If there was one thing you could change about Pakistan, what would it be?" The twelve-year-old me's answer was invariably education: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be educated." Today, I would answer more specifically: "I'd want all 170 million people of our country to be able to read, write and think for themselves."

The Garage School (TGS) is an NGO that is working to make the twelve-year-old me's wish come true. TGS runs two primary schools in DHA, Karachi – one literally out of a garage – and provides free education to young boys and girls from the low-income Neelum and Shah Rasool Colonies. Excellent, excellent work, the twelve-year-old me would say, but after visiting TGS the 22-year-old me was only dismayed at the kind of education TGS is imparting to its students.

The emphasis of the school is entirely on discipline and rote learning. To impress me, a teacher asked the brightest student in her class to tell us what he knew about Pakistan. What followed was a verbatim recital of a passage from some textbook on Pakistan. In a breathless monologue, the boy quoted, "As a Pakistani, it is our duty to worship God, respect our parents and love our countrymen. Pakistan is a great nation that was formed in 1947. It has four provinces. The first province is Punjab. Its capital is Lahore..." So on and so forth. Later, the entire class parroted, with some assistance from the science teacher, slogans against smoking cigarettes and chewing paan. The children were basically being mass-programmed to follow the values that the school thought appropriate.

I know, this happens here at the best private schools too. Schools like to produce obedient and disciplined students, who have just enough brainpower to regurgitate all the axioms they want to feed them but not enough to think independently or question anything, least of all the schools and their axioms.

But that isn't the kind of students that schools should be producing. It won't give us a population that can innovate and revolutionize or engage in rational debate, tolerate a diversity of opinions and adapt quickly to change. It will simply produce people who can read and write and at most hold a low level white collar job. Students deserve more than that; and we as a country need more than that. Much, much more.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Well isn't this a big relief!

According to The News, "The Sindh coalition government has decided to revoke the Police Order-2002, and expressed a unanimous view that no political party was behind the recent ethnic violence in Karachi, and only those elements who did not want political reconciliation in the province were behind the mayhem."

Well, isn't that just dandy. How nice to know that after the riots in which 50 Karachiites were murdered, the government has vindicated every political party of all blame. What a relief that our irreproachable political parties were not responsible. And how very shocking it is to learn that those who were responsible – these unnamed spectral elements, who will surely be caught and tried in public very very soon – were actually out to sabotage our poor helpless political parties' big group hug moment.

Shucks! Lead me to a polling booth so I can vote this unfairly victimized government right back into power.

Monday, December 1, 2008


The rumor is that Karachi is up in flames because of some MQM-Pathan tussle over land around some new expressway.

The rumor is that the police, which has received shoot to kill orders from Sindh's Interior Minister Zulfiqar Mirza, is standing by as activists of political parties shoot people down in front of them.

The rumor is that this was all planned well ahead of time, with months of hysterical talk about Talibanization of Karachi, which sought to blur the distinction between Pathans and the Taliban.

The rumor is that Pathan students from some college in Karachi were asked to leave. When they didn't people put Elfi super glue in their eyes, ears and noses.

The rumor is that there are people out for blood slicing ears off people of other ethnicities for no reason other than, well, their ethnicity.

The rumor is that some men broke into an Urdu-speaking colony – Raees Amrohvi Colony in Orangi – entered a house and shot everyone inside.

These are all rumors, unverified stories that are spreading like wildfire across the terrorized city while our glorious media is busily giving us a minute by minute run through of what happened in Mumbai five days back. The best that the media can give us about what is happening in our own backyard is the following:

"Members of two ethnic communities [notice how the ethnic communities are not even named] went on a rampage and attacked each other." Dawn (01/12/2008)

The Daily Times talks repeatedly and vaguely about "miscreants" wreaking havoc in the city in yesterday's paper regurgitating the rumors that are circulating in the city.

From all this it would seem that, much like in some B-grade horror flick, an entire city has suddenly lost its mind and is going around mindlessly killing each other. Any kind of insight into why the riots started, who is behind it and why the law-enforcement agencies are unable to stop it is apparently too much to expect from both the government and the media.

Meanwhile, there are more rumors about why mum is currently the word. The rumor is that the media is terrified of the MQM. That after the MQM censored Geo twice over the past month or so, it has decided to not stick its neck out.

The rumor is that since most of the big media outlets' head offices are in Karachi, they prefer not to piss the MQM off.

The rumor is that the MQM made certain that another episode of May 12-like heroic reporting would not occur and that the ransacking of Aaj's office is still too fresh in the media heads' minds to offer more incisive reporting.

The rumor is that the troubles are in such out of the way areas of Karachi – Orangi, Sohrab Goth, Banaras etc – that for cameramen to go out there would be like going into Fata. Therefore, the TV coverage of the riots is also minimal.

In the meantime, the death toll climbs up each day, as violence collects more half-lived lives.

In the meantime, as rumors and bloodthirsty rioters overrun the streets of Karachi, we, the ever-stoic and ever-ignored people of Karachi, stay quietly in our homes hoping for yet another crisis to quickly loosen its grip on our beloved yet battered city so that we may pick up our lives again and guiltily thank our stars that it wasn't our turn this time around.