Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on the NFC

This whole debate on criteria for distribution of revenue between provinces is completely superfluous. We are a federation – at least in name. And the current government seems to want to make that a reality. It then follows that the NFC award should be abolished entirely and the system reversed. Provincial governments should get control of their own revenue and give only a fixed percentage to the center. No interprovincial redistribution is required. If the federal government wants to fund a specific project in a poorer province or supplement a cash-strapped or overpopulated province's budget, it can do so out of its own share.

I fail to understand the logic of wholesale transfer of taxes paid by residents of one province to another simply because the other province has more people. This just does not hold in a federation.

The fact that Sindh, which contributes 60% of Pakistan's revenue, gets to keep only 20% (25% of the divisible pool) for itself seems like an utter travesty. There is no incentive for people of Sindh to pay taxes because anything they contribute beyond a certain amount will not be spent on them at all. People living in other provinces, on the other hand, not only have their own taxes spent on them (excluding what goes to the federal government) but also get money from the people of Sindh.

I'm not saying that provinces should not help each other out or support development in other places. Once each province gets control of their own revenues then provincial governments can certainly lend and borrow from each other or even give aid. But taxes of a particular province should be spent in accordance with the wishes of its people and its elected government.

One could counter that the people of Sindh also have a voice in the federal government, which makes it equally qualified to spend Sindh's money. First, that is contrary to the concept of a federation. Second, because Sindh gets representation in the center according to its population, which is small, its voice cannot be heard as loudly. Historically, it has been very easy for Punjab to ride roughshod over the wishes of other provinces because it has the majority in the center. Just two days ago when IRSA stopped water supply to Punjab because it had drawn more than its share from the Indus, Punjab went to the center and forced it to release more water in contravention of the interprovincial watersharing agreement. Farmers in Sindh are going to get less than their share of water this season because of Punjab's arm-twisting. Lesson: justice for smaller provinces is hard to get at the center.

From where I stand, the NFC award is entirely suspect. Punjab asserting its right to the lions share of the revenue, most of which it did not generate itself, is laughable. If I'm paying oodles of money in taxes every month, I'd like to see them spent here, where I live, first.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Media Code of Conduct

The code of conduct that eight television channels agreed to on November 6 has received deafening applause. Given that the plaudits are coming from the mainstream media itself, I'm not particularly inclined to take them very seriously. The code was a long time coming and while The News today patted itself on the back for its "emerging maturity" it failed to mention that the code saw the light of day only because of the threat of government interference.

Don't get me wrong. I do not agree with the amendments the assembly was going to make in the PEMRA Act. The clauses forbidding any talk prejudicial to the ideology and sovereignty of Pakistan (whatever that means) and anything that ridicules the head of state, armed forces, bureaucracy or judiciary were blatant attempts at censorship. But the media has not been very responsible in exercising its newfound freedom.

The code addresses some of the media's shortcomings. Violent images will not be broadcast and more care will be taken in verifying facts and reporting hostage situations live. But it remains unclear how binding this code really is. Reading the Dawn report one gets the impression that it is not. It repeats ad nauseam that the the code is just a voluntary guideline. In fact, the words "voluntary" and "voluntarily" appear eight times! Does that mean that these channels can disregard the code whenever the please? Will there be no comprehensive system of regulation, no penalties for infractions? Apparently not.

This supposed sign of maturity seems more like a puerile publicity stunt. A ploy to get the government and the public off the media's back. And even then the media failed to mention in its "voluntary guidelines" any resolve against advocating violence. The pogrom against Ahmadis that Aamir Liaquat Hussain's show of 7 September 2008 sparked does not seem to sit very heavy on the media's conscience. Freedom of speech has its limits and preaching violence against human beings is beyond the pale. Preaching the murder of Pakistani citizens on national television is nothing short of abominable. But the media has not even paid lip service to preventing such deplorable incidents.

I don't think this code of conduct is good for much. Ideally, the government, media and civil society should sit down and come to an agreement on a code of ethics, which should be made into law and enforced by a regulatory body through fines and penalties. The code should be precise in wording (like the media's code of conduct not the assembly's proposed amendments) but it should also be binding. If the media is serious about its role as the fourth pillar of democracy it has to step up and accept the responsibilities that come with the job.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thrown to the wolves

Charming, open and conciliatory, Hillary Clinton did very well by my estimation in her conversation with the Pakistani press tonight. Meeting with so many fiercely anti-American journalists at once might have seemed suicidal but she pulled it off. Clinton admitted to America's past mistakes, to Bush's blunders, to America's part in creating the Taliban and expressed the Obama administration's desire to "turn a new page" on Pak-US relations repeatedly.

She addressed the Kerry-Lugar Bill fiasco reasonably well, too. First, she admitted that America should have been more sensitive to Pakistan's reaction and then pointed out that (a) the conditions attached were normal consistent with aid bills to countries like Israel and Egypt; (b) they were also binding only on the US government and not Pakistan; (c) American legislators had to explain the massive $7.5 billion aid to their constituents, who in such hard times would want the money to be spent at home, making these kinds of checks necessary.

The journos – one from each major news channel – all seemed fixated on Kerry-Lugar and one after another repeated the same worn out question about the gap between her friendly words and the imperial designs of KLB. When asked this the umpteenth time she lost her cool, declaring very emphatically that Pakistan is free to refuse US aid if it so pleases, that America was not forcing Pakistan to accept it. The exasperation behind the comment was counterproductive but otherwise Clinton kept her own.

All those bloodthirsty town halls she put herself through on the election trail last year really paid off. The six journalists tonight turned out to be no challenge for her at all. Her Pakistan green blouse was perhaps a bit much but at least she managed to placate the anti-America camp in my family. Am curious to see what the rest of Pakistan thought...

The People of Waziristan

Who are the people of Waziristan? I've been reading news reports in foreign and Pakistani papers and my sense is that nobody is sure who the average resident of Waziristan is; what his or her beliefs, opinions and aspirations are. But four molds have emerged in which they are most likely to be cast:

1. Ferocious tribesman: When invoking this image, the independent spirit and rugged fierceness of the people are invariably expounded. British colonial experience is often cited too. At best, it is used to predict the outcome of the current war as if Waziristan has remained completely unchanged for the interim half century. At worst, analysts and journalists quote Orientalist balderdash that often talks about the people of Waziristan as animals. Prime examples of the former are Roedad Khan and Shafqat Mehmood's opinion pieces in The News and Nicholas Schmidle's reference to Lord Curzon in Dawn. The most flagrant offender in the latter category has been the New York Times. Jane Perlez's story from a few days back quoted Sir Olaf Caroe comparing Mehsuds to a pack of wolves and Wazirs to lonely panthers. There's also Salman Masood talking about "taming the tribes" in The National.

2. Diehard terrorist: This model holds that all the residents of Waziristan are Taliban or Taliban sympathizers at the very least. This doesn't come up in news reports as much as it does in conversation with journalists. More often than not, journalists reporting from Waziristan will tell you that there is little to no difference between tribesmen and the Taliban. This view is linked to the ferocious tribesman mold in describing the brutality of the people of Waziristan. But in explaining their motives it uses Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to thirst for independence.

3. Helpless refugee: This view has become more prominent since Rah-e-Nijat started. It presents Waziristanis as victims of war, disillusioned with the Taliban and the army, just waiting to return to the lives they were uprooted from. Articles that talk in this vein paint people from Waziristan as extremely backward, barely on the fringes of civilization. Dawn published one such article a few days ago but the best example of this has to be yesterday's editorial in The News. The editorial talks at great length about the immense hardship IDPs from Waziristan are facing and the deplorable conditions of life in Waziristan. It is quite transparent in its attempt to stir liberal guilt and is more than a little condescending towards people from Waziristan. At one point the editorial mentions that the refugees are tremendously grateful for the blankets, food and medicine they have received.

4. Pakistanis like us: This mold is invoked only when condemning drone attacks. When a drone kills 20 or so people in FATA, the people stop existing as ferocious tribesmen or crazed terrorists or deprived underdogs and take on the role of green and white Pakistanis, whose death you and I, all of Pakistan, must mourn as its own.

None of these descriptions are convincing, especially since the motives behind the molds are so transparent. The first two are used to form an opinion for or against Rah-e-Nijat. The third to blame militancy on underdevelopment and the fourth to stoke anti-American ire. All fail to give any real insight into the people of Waziristan. More damagingly, they tend towards dehumanizing them.

I don't know who the real Waziristani is. I'm pretty certain that he or she is not entirely explained by the above four models. I'm also sure that it is very crucial for the rest of Pakistan to understand Waziristanis, the people who have lived with, and perhaps even supported, the Taliban for so long. That we have failed to do so is a grave failing on the part of our media and ourselves.

Miserable Timing

Manmohan Singh calls on Pakistan to destroy terrorists during a visit to Indian-administered Kashmir. The timing cannot be worse.

Earlier today a car bomb ripped through Peshawar's biggest and most crowded market, Meena Bazaar. The death toll has been rising since the morning and now stands at 95 people. A building has collapsed with people reportedly trapped inside. Others have been burnt to death. Hospitals have run out of blood as they struggle to treat more than 200 injured.

I've been to Meena Bazaar several years ago. I remember it as a place with narrow streets, shops spilling over each other, people thronging the lanes browsing shop after shop full of bright fabrics. A bomb there must have wreaked havoc. The pictures are nightmarish.

Even as this tragedy unfolds, Mr. Singh has decided to lecture Pakistan. If at this time, the Indian government could not find it in itself to condole Pakistan then perhaps it would have been best for it to have stayed silent.

With Pakistanis dying horrific deaths almost daily, we are well aware of the need to destroy the terrorists. Thank you very much.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mother of all battles?

Correction: This post was written on the false premise that Wana is the hub of TTP. In fact, as Rabia has kindly pointed out, Wana is controlled by groups that have promised to stay neutral to the fight. One of the three prongs of the army offensive has taken off from Wana (the other two originating from Razmak and Tank). The post also erroneously identifies Ladha as the focus of the operation instead of Makeen. I make the point that so far the operation has been a cat and mouse game with the Taliban never sticking around to put up a serious fight, which means that the real fight will begin once the army settles in and the Taliban can go on the offensive with its blitz attacks. That assessment I would stick to despite the factual errors in this post.

This "mother of all battles" looks to me like little more than a cop out. The army's three-pronged strategy is set to converge not on Wana, which is the centre of South Waziristan, but on Ladha, which is on the border with army-controlled North Waziristan. They are going west/north-west from Tank and south from North Waziristan. Maybe after capturing Ladha, they'll head down towards Wana but for now there is no mention of any such plan or of Wana at all in news reports.

After a week of steady "we killed ten, they killed three" press releases, the army trumpeted its capture of Kotkai. Everyone got very excited because its Hakimullah's birthplace but really Kotkai is little more than a hamlet on the way to Ladha. Somewhere between Jandola and Ladha, Kotkai was not the theater of the great showdown either. From the body count the army gave, it seems like most of the militants fled the area. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say they went for Wana seeing as fleeing to Ladha would have them cornered.

Now it seems like the army has its eyes set on Sararogha, another pit stop on the way to Ladha. But time is running out rapidly. If you can tell that winter is coming in Karachi, then it most certainly has to be freezing in the mountains of Waziristan. At the rate that the army is going, I have a feeling that they'll capture Ladha in several weeks by which time winter will make further advance impossible. There will be no major battle in Ladha either as the 10,000 militants of South Waziristan will all have packed their bags and moved to Wana. The army will declare victory and settle in for the winter, leaving most of South Waziristan in TTP's hands.

And of course only once the army roosts will the battle really begin. Attrition is the Taliban's tactic of choice and they're damn good at it too. Their part of South Waziristan would be a perfect base to launch suicide and fidayeen attacks on the army for the rest of winter. All we'll be able to do is sit there and take it or retreat.

(Map taken from BBC.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How will it all end?

After decades of careful effort by the military, we have thoroughly institutionalized violence in our country. Pakistani terrorists have turned their violence on our own people and on three of our four neighbours. We now have a most bewildering patchwork of militant groups, each out to kill someone or the other in the name of Islam, bankrolled at some point or the other by the army and its supporters. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jundollah, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Tehrik-e-Taliban (itself a coalition of dozens of militant factions), it seems like we have more militant organizations than NGOs.

We carry out an operation against Swat Taliban and there are reports of Jaish-e-Muhammad expanding its hold in southern Punjab. We start an operation in South Waziristan and there are reports of Taliban and al-Qaeda entrenched in Quetta. It seems like every time we muster up the resolve to deal with one faction another springs to prominence. How we will stamp out all these groups, I have no idea. Does the army even want to dismantle all the militant organizations? How does it end?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Kerry Lugar Crazies Pt 2

The unabated storm over the Kerry Lugar Bill confirms two trends that do not augur well for our democratic experiment. First, that the military establishment, despite its apparent complaisance, is actually loathe to relinquish power. That the army has expressed its disapproval so strongly, directly and indirectly (for let's face it, at least some of the shrieking in the media is at the army's behest), bodes ill for the future of democracy. Then again, I am not entirely closed to the possibility that the army just feels backed into a corner, dealing with a formidable insurgency, India and a hostile public and then suddenly finding its stream of cash dammed. Perhaps, its a case of asking too much too soon. But its much more likely that the army doesn't want to hand over real control to the civilian administration at all.

The second issue that Kerry Lugar has brought to the fore is the complete immaturity of the media and politicians. In 2008, it seemed like the media would be the strongest pillar of democracy but channels like Geo have sacrificed the country's interests for sensationalism. It is after all so much easier and more profitable to sell shrill anti-Americanism than responsible tempered reportage.

The opposition too has decided to cash in on the anti-American current in Pakistani opinion at a very real risk of destabilizing the current government and forsaking the very real benefits to our economy and to the lives of Pakistanis. It was a truly cringeworthy moment when a series of MNAs were interviewed on Geo, all of them admitting to having opposed Kerry Lugar in the assembly without actually having read the bill. I had thought that the opposition, especially PMLN, had been aware that if they rocked the boat too much they would all end up overboard, but that willingness to preserve the democratic order over party interests seems to have disappeared.

The government's weaknesses have been exposed in this furor too. They have been unable to effectively project their point of view in the media. The best of them have come off sounding like sheepish apologists for nefarious American interests. They should have cast themselves as defenders of democracy and the average Pakistani.

Bringing the fight to the GHQ

The Taliban have thrown down the gauntlet. The final showdown in South Waziristan can't be too far. What is unclear is whether or not the months-long blockade and the hesitant skirmishes were a strategic blunder on the army's part. But whether it gave the Talib a breather or a blow, they seem ready for the impending fight. Now that the GHQ has been attacked, the army will be galvanized into action too.

The road ahead is tough. The casualties many. But its time that we steel ourselves and clean up our mess.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Kerry-Lugar Crazies

Given the tenor of anti-Americanism of late, the fuss over the Kerry-Lugar Bill is far from surprising. But the utter lack of depth and intelligence in the frenzied discussions on TV and in the National Assembly is deeply disappointing. We just secured 7.5 billion dollars worth of non-military aid. That is a huge sum of money. At 1.5 billion dollars a year (120 billion rupees) it equals to over 10% of our annual tax revenue (revenue for 2008-09 stands at 1150 billion rupees). In other words, the bill makes our government 10% richer!

To be sure, Kerry-Lugar comes with strings attached. But the bill that passed in the US Congress is nowhere as stringent as the original draft, which thanks to the lobbying of our government was watered down substantially. And given Pakistan’s circumstances, some of the strings that come with the money are in fact pretty good for the people.

The most important and least talked of condition is that none of the aid be spent on the military. The money will instead fund programs in basic education, agriculture, maternal and child health, higher education, family planning, microenterprise, disease eradication and so on. In my opinion that is fantastic news. The US has been giving huge dollops of aid to the Pak army since the war on terror began and the people of Pakistan had been largely ignored.

The fact that America isn’t simply cutting the government a check is also a plus. It means that the fat cats in the government and bureaucracy won’t be able to get their grubby paws on the wads of green. After the massive misuse of international aid meant for the earthquake victims, America has become much more wary of our venal ruling elite.

So far so good. Now for the controversial stuff. A clause, which Kamran Khan has termed “the most provocative clause”, goes as follows: “An assessment of the extent to which the government of Pakistan exercises effective civilian control of the military, including a description of the extent to which civilian executive leaders and parliament exercise oversight and approval of military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration.” Khan finds this clause immensely objectionable and has declared it a conspiracy to drive a wedge between the government and the military. So basically, the politicians, journos and pundits are pissed because America wants to make sure it gives aid to a civilian government rather than a military one? Aren’t these guys supposed to be anti-establishment? Weren’t they on a crusade against America because it had been supporting Musharraf and the establishment? Now they don’t want the world’s superpower to keep our military in check?

Next issue. Every year before aid can be released, the US State Department will need to assure the Congress that the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies are not supporting terrorist groups and are still keen on pursuing terrorists. This according to Kamran Khan is a “damning declaration” that paints our venerable forces as terrorist sympathizers. Ummm… Wasn’t it the Pakistani media that has been harping on the terrorist-military connection for this past decade? Weren’t we all sick and tired of the intelligence agencies supporting groups that bomb Pakistanis, capture our territory and fuel sectarian conflict? The fact that there are Taliban sympathizers in the military is not news to anyone. That the US wants to keep the military honest on this count too can only be a good thing.

As far as I can see, the strings that supposedly rob us of our sovereignty are just the kind of leverage the civilian government needs to keep the army at bay. The only loser in this scenario is the army, which not only gets zero money under the bill but is also put on probation. So shouldn’t the politicians and the media be applauding rather than jeering Kerry-Lugar? Shouldn’t the public get over its knee-jerk anti-Americanism and see the bill for the good thing that it is?

The only condition that I can fathom the Pakistani public objecting to is that the US wants Pakistan to dismantle its nuclear weapons proliferation network. This is a sensitive subject for Pakistanis. Most of us love our nuclear bomb and are keen to retain our right to sell it to whomever we want. And if most really feel that passionately about our right to proliferate nuclear weapons then sure go ahead and turn down the 7.5 billion dollars. The army will certainly be delighted. And while our schools and hospitals won’t see any of that cherished green, at least military aid will continue unabated. A win-win for the army. And the public can sleep soundly at night believing that with the Americans out of the way we will have secured a sovereign democratic federation for ourselves.

Correction: The Kerry-Lugar Bill is even better than I had thought. All these military-related strings are applicable to aid attached to the Pak army not the development aid, which means that the bill should be a dream come true for anyone who supports democracy in this country. Clearly, the media and the opposition are not in that camp.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Competition Commission forced by the SC to discourage competition

Has anyone noticed the Supreme Court's recent instructions that the Competition Commission Pakistan fix the price of sugar? I'm assuming that it is not entirely awake to the irony of a competition watchdog fixing prices. Its Econ 101 Mr. Chief Justice. The way to ensure that sugar finds its optimal price is to strictly impose anti-cartel laws. If each sugar mill is setting its price independently, the retail cost will come down automatically: without an agreement between mills, it is in the interest of every mill to keep its prices as low as possible to get an edge over the competition.

Fixing prices may seem like a more surefire way of doing things but it has proven to be impossible to implement so far. Plus, its notoriously difficult to determine the optimal price. But suppose the government does manage to enforce an ideal fixed price, if and when the production costs of sugar increase, the fixed price will drive mills to bankruptcy, creating a genuine supply crisis. And if the government then decides to raise the price for legitimate reasons it will have a political disaster on its hands. Better to let the market take care of all that and let the CCP do its real job.

Monkey's short escape from cage: CM forms body to look into zoo affairs

LAHORE, Oct 5: A monkey escaped from its cage and kept the Lahore zoo staff running after it for several hours on Monday.

It was caught by the zoo staff with the help of Rescue-1122 after a hectic struggle.

Zoo staff said the colobus monkey escaped when a keeper went into the cage for cleaning it but left the door open. The monkey disappeared into trees and was finally spotted on the trees near the road facing Alhamra Art Centre. As the rescue team and zoo staff climbed up the trees, the monkey came down and hid in nearby bushes. Zoo staff surrounded the area and finally took the monkey back to the cage.

Punjab Wildlife Department Director-General Jahangir Ghauri said the matter was being investigated and staff responsible for this incident would be taken to task.

Zoo director Zafar Shah, however, termed monkey’s escape a conspiracy against the present zoo administration. He said some elements who did not want to see him as director were behind such moves.

However, he did not mention the names of those elements.
This article in Dawn caught my attention. Maila Times couldn't have come up with a better spoof. Goes to show how absurd life can really get in Pakistan.

Sadly, the rest of the article isn't really very chuckle-worthy. It lists a whole Noah's ark full of animals that have died under the Lahore Zoo's watch. A lioness died of renal failure after she was given too much antibiotic. Five urials (wild sheep according to Google) died of poisoning when the zoo decided to spray the grass with insecticide. Three cubs also died recently. And a macaw worth 300,000 rupees mysteriously disappeared from its cage.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Think Before You Speak

People have been saying some really appalling things on national television these days. The inimitable PPP MNA Firdous Ashiq Awan called Kashmala Tariq a pro on Express News. On Geo, Junaid Jamshed told the poor something to the effect that if they stayed hungry for three days the heavens would guarantee them a year's supply of food and if they protested they'd meet death ala Khouri Garden stampede. The most recent addition to the crazy circus is our Minister for Railways, ANP MNA Ghulam Ahmad Bilour who informed the nation this weekend that those fasting on Sunday (basically all Muslims not living in NWFP) were Qadianis...

Has everyone forgotten the adage "think before you speak"? Is it really too much to ask public figures in our country to pay heed to said proverb? It's like the moment they are put in front of a camera, common sense goes right out the window. Then again perhaps common sense jumped ship a long long time ago. Either ways, this is a pathetically low level on which to hold political discourse.* If our national leaders must hold such obnoxious views, the least they can do is refrain from airing them on national television. Then at least we can sustain our precious illusion of being governed by people with some modicum of intelligence and sanity.

*Note: I am no longer talking about JJ. A man who thinks that we can do nothing about inflation since angels descend from heaven every morning to fix the prices of basic commodities is a total lost cause.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Dawn reports:
MIANWALI, Sept 16: A deputy district officer (revenue) made about two dozen people parade semi-naked in a busy bazaar before getting them booked for ‘violating sanctity of Ramazan’ as they were allegedly caught taking tea during fast timings.

Reports said those subjected to public humiliation were nabbed by a team led by Piplan DDOR Khadim Husain Jilani, who along with the police raided several small eateries at the railway station and at the bus-van stand.

The raid was conducted after the administration was informed that many restaurants were serving eatables during fast timings without seeking official permission.

The administration grants special permission to some eateries to serve food and tea to patients, travellers etc during fast.

According to eyewitnesses, after the violators were nabbed, they were ordered by the DDOR to remove their shirts. Then their hands were tied with their shirts and to each other and were made to parade semi-naked through busy bazaars before being taken to the police station where they were booked under the law.
I get it. Somewhere along the line some autocrat or the other passed a law banning public eating during Ramzan to appease the mullahs. But is this really necessary? These chaps have gone way beyond the call of duty, law and religion.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Amending the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997

The Swat offensive has been going pretty well. Everyday there is news of more Taliban laying down their arms. Recently, the army has nabbed Muslim Khan, Sher Mohammed Qasab and Mahmood Khan, three of Fazlullah's top commanders. All in all, it is reported that we have 600 captured militants awaiting trial.

The government is understandably nervous. It has an extremely shoddy record when it comes to prosecuting terrorists. Investigation is often slipshod and government attorneys unconvincing. That probably explains the government and the agencies' proclivity for disappearing people instead of trying them in court. But now it seems that the government and the military understand that a public trial of militants is essential for success against the Taliban.

To bolster its ability to prosecute militants, the government has proposed amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. These amendments give investigators more time to build a case, increases the maximum remand period and decreases the time for appeals. So far so good. But the amendment also proposes to reverse the burden of proof, making it the defendant's responsibility to prove his innocence rather than the prosecution's job to establish guilt. Other changes include making witness testimony to police or military officials admissible evidence. Witnesses will not have to be produced in court, depriving the defense of a chance at cross examination and giving officials plenty of leeway to coerce witnesses and even fabricate testimony. If the amendment passes, officials will also be able to conduct searches without the supervision of respectable members of the community making it easier for them to plant evidence.

All of this is tantamount to depriving the defendant of his right to a fair trial. The government can surely tighten the law but it cannot stack the deck in its favor. Not only will such an attempt sully the trials but it will give the state free license to ride roughshod over citizens' rights in the future too. We all want to see the Taliban get their just desserts but it has to be done the right way. Plus, with so many militants in custody, it shouldn't be too hard for the state to cut deals with some underlings to strengthen their cases against the bigwigs. So get to work, government, and don't subvert our rights in the process.

Our Intransigent President

Obama's approval rating has dropped in recent days from a glowing 70 percent to a disquieting 50. The US economy is still flailing and the Democrat's health care plan is not going very well either. Troubled times.

Our president's popularity has flagged too in recent days, plummeting from 64 percent when he came into office a year ago to a dismal 32. Zardari's constant waffling on the judges’ issue and the seventeenth amendment has cost him the support of the Pakistani public. The government's deplorable mishandling of the sugar crisis this month will probably hurt him further.

But where Obama is facing the challenge head on, reaching out to ordinary Americans through town halls, appearances on talk shows, a Congress address and so on, Zardari has either absconded on pricey foreign tours or remained locked up in the presidential palace. Obama it seems is back on the campaign trail just a few months after assuming office, doing his best to reassure Americans and rally them to his cause. He is taking serious flak from detractors: some 2000 protesters besieged him in Portsmouth, N.H., where he addressed a town hall meeting in August, some chanting "Euthanize Obama!" But Obama remains undeterred. Conversely, Zardari’s approach has been to whine endlessly about some uncertain minus one conspiracy against him. He has decided to deal with the barrage of criticism by petulantly threatening to arrest Pakistanis who make fun of him in personal emails and text messages.

The vast difference in the maturity of these two leaders should be quite obvious. Zardari has so far made no concerted effort to reach out to the public. Hell, he hasn’t even bothered to visit Swat since Operation Rah-i-Rast was launched in April. It is extremely ironic that a democratic leader should have such antipathy to the people he was elected to serve. One can only hope that on his latest two-week foreign tour, which will culminate in a visit to Washington, Zardari will use his time productively and learn a thing or two from Obama (instead of chatting up married women). Zardari has to realize that, short of abandoning Pakistan's latest foray into democracy, the only way to keep him and the PPP in power in the long run is to give the people what they want.

A month after Gojra: No end to the madness

On September 5, unknown persons set the Guru Granth Sahib and the Bhagavad Gita (the holy books of Sikhs and Hindus, respectively) on fire in a temple in Kandhkot, Sindh. Sikhs and Hindus of the area were extremely distressed but despite the desecration remained peaceful.

On September 10, Lawrence Jan, a sixty year old Christian man living in Orangi, Karachi, was accused of blasphemy by his neighbor. The story goes that Jan urinated off his roof onto his neighbor's where some religious material had been left. When the accusations were made, 250-300 people attacked Jan's house. For good measure, the mob attacked another uninvolved Christian's home too.

The police then proceeded to arrest Jan's brother and nephew (Jan himself could not be found) and beat them up for two days without registering an FIR against them. It now seems that there is no eyewitness to confirm the accusation against Jan. Nonetheless, he has decided to pay compensation to put the incident behind him. Local mosques are gleefully announcing this news.

On September 11, an angry mob of Muslims burnt down a church in Sialkot. They were incensed by (unverified) reports of a nineteen year old Christian boy, Robert Masih, having desecrated the Quran. The story goes that Robert snatched the Quran from a ten year old girl and "disrespected" it (whatever that means). The natural response it seems was to burn down a church. Terrorized Christians living in the area immediately began to flee.

Under pressure from the mob, the police arrested Robert, who, when presented before a judge, was not granted bail but sent to judicial remand for fourteen days. In jail Robert was kept in solitary confinement and was found dead four days later on September 15. The police insist suicide. Others suspect death by torture. Furious members of the Christian community came out to protest, attacking thirteen shops.

Most people continue to believe that non-Muslim Pakistanis face no discrimination in this country.

Updates: It has been reported that townsfolk in collusion with the police have refused Robert burial in his hometown.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Industrialist Greed is a Good Thing a.k.a. Why You Should Vote for the PPP Again

You have to give Prime Minister Gilani credit for finding a silver lining where none seems possible. The sugar crisis is apparently a godsend for Pakistanis. You see we consume way too much sugar. At 25 kilos of sugar per person per annum, we beat sugar consumption of Indians (14 kilos), Bangladeshis (11 kilos) and the Chinese (10 kilos) by a mile. And you know nothing good comes from having sugar. Just cavities, diabetes and obesity. If the News is to be believed, Mr. Gilani is very alarmed. He is worried sick about this nation’s health.

It can only be a good thing then that the government has failed to stop the price of sugar from skyrocketing to around Rs. 50 from Rs. 25 earlier this year. Right? Lets make the people pay through their nose for their gulab jaman and jalebi addictions. They’ll only thank the PPP later when they are saved those costly trips to the dentist. Come to think of it, maybe this should be the centerpiece of the government’s health policy. And its education policy. Kerching!

And just to show us how serious Mr. Gilani is, he has told his cook to cease and desist: no more sweet dishes on the Prime Minister’s table till further notice. In one fell stroke, Mr. Gilani has rid himself of inflated sugar bills and cavities. Genius!

But wait! There’s more. If we all follow Mr. Gilani’s shining example, sugar consumption will plummet and the greedy industrialists will have to bring their prices down. See? The Pakistani people will get something even sweeter than ras gullahs. Revenge!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Baloch Hatred

Teeth Maestro posted a link to a BBC Urdu interview of a 25-year-old girl from Quetta. She speaks for ten minutes with quiet passion about Baloch independence and with vast hatred about Pakistan. We read on and off about Baloch terrorism and about the agencies kidnapping Baloch nationalists but it is hard to comprehend the intensity of Baloch sentiment. That is until one hears this girl speak. In one of the most powerful moments of the interview she says, "We hate Pakistan so much, so much that all we pray for is that our hatred becomes so intense, so intense that we forget Pakistan's name, forget its existence. Just like it is kufr to say Satan's name. We want our hatred to be that intense."

In ten minutes this girl explodes the myth of common Islamic brotherhood that this country was supposedly founded on. This girl wants nothing to do with Pakistan. All she wants is independence.

Teeth Maestro in the same entry mentions that the speech reminds him of "the animosity between Hindus and Muslims" in 1947. This girl certainly reminds me of the colonial era but I think a more appropriate analogy would be the anti-colonial struggle of the early twentieth century. Every year we commemorate our nationalist heroes who fought for freedom from the British but I can't remember when I heard someone speak with so much passion about freedom in my lifetime.

This girl finds herself in a position similar to the one Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi found themselves nearly a hundred years ago. She too finds her people oppressed and their rights denied by a power far superior economically and militarily and setting her aspirations of becoming a doctor aside, she has joined the Baloch Students Organization to fight for independence. But unlike the nemesis of the leaders of the past, her nemesis knows no rules of fair play. The agencies have killed her father and kidnapped both her brother and her cousin. Justifying her belief in violence, she says, "If we were fighting a noble enemy then we would have been fortunate enough to learn from our enmity. But we are fighting a despicable enemy and this despicable enemy only understands the language of armed resistance."

I don't want to glorify Baloch nationalists. I care deeply about Pakistan. But justice and fairness are more important and Pakistan does not hold the moral high ground here. Most Pakistanis acknowledge the injustices meted out to the Baloch but I am not sure that we realize that the damage done is very likely irreversible. We may be able to stop Balochistan from seceding but we can only watch powerless as millions of Baloch hearts secede from this country.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Darned Blasphemy Law Again

It seems the notorious Blasphemy Law has been invoked yet again. This time the victims are Abdullah and Shazia, a couple from Kasur who believe that their ten-month old son is Imam Mehdi. On September 4, an incensed group of around five hundred protesters compelled the police to arrest them in what can only be seen as a violation of the couple's freedom of religion.

Sure Abdullah and Shazia's beliefs are a bit preposterous but hey when were religious beliefs ever supposed to be logical? We don't want to hang this duo simply because their beliefs offend the majority. Now that would be really preposterous. I mean the worst of the worst that Abdullah and Shazia can be charged with is being overambitious parents. But then again who among us isn't guilty of that.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Ethics of Fine Dining

I had iftar at Pearl Continental today. My first and hopefully last iftar of the year. It was as bad as I had expected. Instead of being seated in some tastefully decorated room or hall we were led to a massive air-conditioned tent draped with fairy lights and crammed full of those awful caterers chairs and tables. The usefulness of this arrangement by my estimation was that we get to enjoy an Arabian Nights meets tacky shaadi experience (complete with a man strumming a sitar in the corner) and Pearl Continental manages to squeeze in five hundred people instead of a mere fifty or hundred every evening. At Rs. 950 per head (without tax) one can just hear the money cascading into the hotel’s back accounts.

The food, it goes without saying, was insipid. What’s more is that we were evicted within two hours. People broke their fasts around eight and by a quarter to ten Pearl Continental decided that we had had enough and merrily proceeded to switch off the lights and fold the tables around us.

But hey a mediocre evening at nosebleed prices? Well that’s just Karachi.

What really incensed me was that while I was paying five-star prices for a middling experience, Pearl Continental was making even more money by shamelessly advertising to its guests. The tent walls, apart from adorning large Quranic ayats had larger and certainly more numerous banners for a whole host of products. There were, among others, banners for Dalda, ARY, SriLankan Airline, Olpers, PTCL, Turkish Airlines, Coca Cola, FM 107, Jam-e-shireen and some diabetes gizmo. Plus, all the tables had little brochures marketing Sucral. In essence, I paid over a grand so that companies could market their hearts out to me for two hours.

These days we are used to being bombarded by advertisements 24/7 but at least in most instances ads are justifiable. We usually get a free or subsidized service in exchange for being exposed to ads. Think about television channels, newspapers, websites like Google, YouTube and Facebook, even plays these days have corporate sponsors to recoup their costs. But Pearl Continental had no need for advertisement. Its motive was pure and simple greed. Yes we are increasingly becoming a consumer society but must we really put up with this kind of unbridled corporate avarice?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Kingmaker

The tribesmen of FATA are not the only ones who are fiercely independent in this country. Pakistanis at large do not like their country's sovereignty violated either. Thus the outrage over the US drone attacks and the disdain for our politicians and men in uniform who trot on over to Washington every so often. It is entirely understandable given our struggle against colonialism and our more recent exploitation by the US to fight a proxy war against the Soviets. But the truth is that while we may be known for our stridently expressed sentiments on our sovereignty, we are, for very good reasons, not at all known for our consistency.

We are ready to burn an extravagant number of effigies of US presidents at the slightest hint of American interference in our national affairs, but we as a nation had no qualms about turning Afghanistan into a satellite state in the 90s. But never mind. Perhaps it's difficult to apply the same standards to oneself and others.

What I find very difficult to reconcile with our fiercely independent natures is how unaffected we are by Saudi Arabia's most blatant interference in our affairs. Since perhaps Zulfi Bhutto's time politicians and armymen have made way more pilgrimages to Riyadh than Mecca or Medina. In recent years, the Saudis played a very prominent role in brokering an arrangement between Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf after the coup, then again when the Sharifs returned to Pakistan and yet again when Musharraf was floundering in his own emergency-induced mess and yet again when the PPP wanted to enter some sort of arrangement with Musharraf and now once more they have stepped in to tell our government and our opposition to back off of Musharraf. Can anyone imagine the extent of our fury if Washington had peremptorily summoned Rehman Malik, flown in Musharraf on a private jet and instructed the government to play nice? TV talk show hosts would have gone apoplectic. Zaid Hamid would most definitely have spontaneously combusted. But not a squawk when Riyadh is the one tugging at our politicians' leashes.

Well, Riyadh is part of the family, an uncle of sorts. But if uncle it is, it certainly is not a benevolent one. Ask any one of the thousands of Pakistanis working there. Our citizens are treated less like part of the Muslim fraternity and more like a necessary evil that needs to be assiduously contained, belittled and ignored. We have way more of a chance integrating into American society than Saudi's.

But let that be. Put aside Saudi Arabia's current defense of an immensely unpopular ex-dictator too and its lacklustre response to our cry for help when the economy was circling the drain last year. Saudi Arabia's most egregious sin toward Pakistan was committed, much like America's, in the 80s. It was after Iran went rogue in 1979 that Riyadh really noticed us. Suddenly we were inundated with oil money and cast as the bulwark of Sunni Islam. It wasn't the US-Zia nexus of the 80s that turned Pakistan into the mess that it is today, it was the US-Saudi-Zia nexus. The US may have given us the Kalashnikov culture but Saudi Arabia gave us extremist madressahs and a generation of hate-filled fanatics. Instead of directing its largesse towards our dismal formal education sector, Riyadh built an extensive network of hardline madressahs where the Taliban of today received instruction.

Now more recently, Riyadh is in the news for reported talks with the government to lease 500,000 acres of farm land, twice the size of Hong Kong, according to Dawn reports. This farm land will be used to promote food security. Not ours, theirs. Our sparse land and water resources will be used to keep the Middle East well-fed instead of meeting the needs of our own ever-expanding and ever under-fed population. Naturally, our government is falling over itself to guarantee Riyadh special security for the huge chunk of Pakistan it is about to purchase. Who wouldn't want to fly in Riyadh's private jets in perpetuity. And here we are having an aneurysm over America's 30 acre Islamabad embassy.

The real kingmaker in Pakistan is Saudi Arabia. It has been for sometime. America can never succeed in holding too much influence because of the Pakistani public's deep deep hatred of the country. Saudi Arabia has been so successful in turning us into a client state not because it has been especially covert. In fact it's meddling has been quite naked. Its reason for success is that we have refused to analyze let alone protest its role in our national affairs. What can be a better sign of its successful imperial policy than that when in 1977 Lyallpur (Pakistan's third largest city) was renamed Faisalabad (Long Live Faisal, in English), after Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, Pakistanis actually celebrated, totally oblivious that they were trading in one imperial symbol for another.

Teenage Dirtbags

And the juvenile saga of Pakistani politics continues. Of late it would seem that the PMLN, our playground bully, has received a solid kick in the shin. Judging from its shrill 48 hour ultimatum, the bully has lost his bravado and is on the verge of tears. This Jinnahpur controversy and the bribery scandal that have been dug out of its closet are making it quite red in the face.

On Monday, with barely-concealed glee, Zardari's camp called PMLN on its bluff with a sassy bring it on that would do pompom wielding Kirsten Dunst proud. Responding to PMLN spokesperson Ahsan Iqbal's huffing and puffing, Farahnaz Ispahani, spokesperson for the Zardari camp said, "As for his claim that he and his party have been holding back and have hundreds of stories to tell, we urge him and his party to bravely step forward and expose with evidence any instances of wrongdoing and corruption."


But if we are to continue with the high school metaphor and PMLN is to be the bully, then it would be more appropriate for the PPP to be class president than cheerleader. The army then would be the dope-dealing PE instructor who moonlights as the headmaster. I think that sufficiently captures the fucked up nature of things here.

But the rich irony of PMLN's current situation needs no metaphor at all. It isn't enjoying the truthtelling exercise that it started now that the spotlight is turned back on it. It wasn't letting the PPP live down its recent flirtations with the army while conveniently overlooking the fact that the PMLN itself had been sired by the army in the 80s. Suddenly, the party that had smugly been deriding the NRO and digging up Zardari's past is desperate to shove its skeletons back in the closet. All the wild blather of PMLN stalwarts about nefarious conspiracies is making it sound like the Zardari camp with its tiresome bleating about the minus-one conspiracy. Reinventing oneself isn't all that easy after all.

But so far it isn't clear whether the person with the spade is Zardari, the army or whether it's a collaborative effort. The PMLN's pushy attitude on the seventeenth amendment and Musharraf's trial has surely aggravated them both. Whoever may bear the responsibility for the recent revelations, what is completely clear is that they were intended to distract the public from PMLN's talking points. Sneaky? Yes. Unethical or undemocratic? Not really. Not aside from the questionable timing anyways. Accountability is unfortunately a double-edged sword and PMLN shouldn't expect to be let off the hook just because its offenses are a bit old. Scrappy as the Sharifs have proven to be, they may have bitten off more than they can chew this time.

Amusing and enlightening as this recent brawl is, it does bring up worrying questions about the longer run. There was hope for democracy when the PPP and PMLN seemed to realize that keeping the system afloat is more important than scoring points off each other. But if the mudslinging devolves into an all-out war it won't bode well for our latest democratic foray. In principle I'm all for exposing corruption but I don't think our politicians are mature enough to handle it nor is there anyone with hands clean enough to survive a tell-all. And if our leaders lose the people's support in their Cain and Abel squabbles there will be no one around to defend them if the army comes a'knocking.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Those Ten Thousand Promises

It seems that the sweet nothings that Manmohan Singh whispered into Yousaf Raza Gilani's ear at the romantic Egyptian resort have in fact come to nothing. Dialogue between India and Pakistan is once again predicated on action against terrorists. This time it is India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna who poured cold water over the feverish promises of that brief but torrid Sharm el-Sheikh honeymoon.

Perhaps he felt obliged to play the censorious father to the blossoming Veer-Zaara love story. Or perhaps he felt duty bound to rescue our gallant Veer from disgrace. It has been clear for a while that Singh’s ardor was nowhere as openheartedly embraced in India as Veer’s was. The right has been busy castigating him for his unseemly display. But then again, from the crusaders against Valentines Day, this reaction can hardly come as a surprise.

On the other hand, Zaara it seems has been ready to take the plunge for nearly a decade. She has been strutting her markets quite seductively before Veer despite alarmed Pakistani industrialists’ best attempts to cover her up. Now if only Veer would grow a pair, make up his damned mind, Zaara’s rabid ex-fiance be put down and their families resolve their property dispute…

This saga really has dragged on for an inordinate amount of time, even by Bollywood’s extravagant standards. And the heaps of unnecessary plot twists are making this story more tiresome than Star Plus soaps. Even Yash Chopra couldn’t have come up with a more convoluted storyline.

I just want to fast-forward to the end of this god awful film, catch a weekend plane to Bombay without having to deal with the cumbersome visa and registration process and knock back a couple of mojitos with my friends there. Is that really too much to ask? Is it?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fallacy of the Authentic Other

Last week I had written a post about making our national identity more inclusive. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how rich English-speaking Pakistanis are excluded from the national identity by the discourse of authenticity. This discourse is most obvious in the Urdu media where columnists and talk show hosts enthusiastically denounce English-speaking Pakistanis as traitors and dupes of the West. But what is a bit more surprising is that this discourse is equally prevalent in the English media and among English-speaking Pakistanis, who also tend to see themselves as less-than-authentic Pakistanis.

This past Tuesday Koel Gallery put up a photography and video show by Maazin Kamal and Ahmed Omar titled “Bereft in the Fatherland”. It was as apt an example of this discourse in English speakers as I could imagine. The photos were high contrast black and white portraits of orphan children from Machar Colony, the largest slum in Karachi. In each photograph an orphan stared out with large doleful eyes, the image framed so tightly around the child that the background was invisible. Under each of the dozen or so photographs were Urdu couplets that read like plaintive pleas from the children. The one on the brochure, which if memory serves is quite typical of the rest, reads:

میری حساس امیدوں سے لرزتا ہے زماں
پر میرے دیس کی مٹی پہ میرا نام نہیں

At the opening, people, including myself, were hunched over the couplets struggling to decipher them. Later, over doodh pati and dhoklas, people clucked about these unfortunate souls captured so poignantly by the intrepid photographer. The whole show, consciously or subconsciously, was aimed to remind the viewer of the ‘real Pakistan’ outside the air-conditioned art galleries and cafes. The insistence on using Urdu for the poetry when most of the people there were much more comfortable in English further emphasized those children’s authentic pakistaniat.

Perhaps, someone will argue that the poetry was giving voice to the disenfranchised children and their voice of course cannot be in English. In that case it would have been more accurate for the poetry to be in Bengali, Sindhi and Pushto, the languages most heard in Machar Colony. But the fact is that those photographs had very little to do with reality. They were more interested in constructing the authentic other. The expressions were consciously selected by Maazin – it is hard to believe that these children, difficult as their lives are, never smile. The poetry was carefully crafted by Simi Kamal, Maazin’s mother and is tantamount to putting words in the children’s mouths. The decision to make the images black and white further aesthetizes them adding to their carefully calculated poignancy.

The photographs were the visual embodiment of ‘the masses’ whom the rich so airily talk about: the illiterate masses, the unfed masses, the helpless masses, the masses that need our sympathy and assistance. They put forward an utterly uncritical, patronizing and reductive view of the children of Machar Colony. The photographs reminded me of those NGO ads that pop up during Ramzan exhorting people to give zakat. They too use especially pitiful images of the ‘helpless masses’ to loosen people’s purse strings. But at the very least the money NGOs collect goes to people with similar needs to the ones who had excited the viewer’s sympathy. The money earned from the sale of these photographs goes straight to the photographer and the gallery, which strikes me as little more than exploitation.

But there is more to the story than Maazin and Mom’s dubious use of the orphans’ photographs. These images appeal to English-speaking Pakistanis. We like casting ourselves as saviors of these orphans. These images evoke noble (and thus pleasurable) sentiments in us. They simultaneously confirm our superiority over that other Pakistan. And equally crucially they stir in us a delectable guilt over our privilege and our inability to relate or even communicate with this other Pakistan. It becomes a delicious exercise of self-flagellation. Evoking the unfortunate but authentic other becomes a form of masturbation for English-speaking Pakistanis: a quick and easy way to revel in and relieve our feelings of guilt.

Tellingly, what is missing from rich English-speakers’ conception of the authentic other is the Pakistani middle class. The middle class is equally conspicuous in its absence from Pakistani art. But this is wholly understandable. The middle class is a bit too much like the rich and their antagonism is a bit too palpable. They wield economic and political power and frankly the rich don’t really know what to make of the middle class. This is not to imply that the two groups are hermetically sealed or entirely antagonistic. There are way more familial links connecting the upper and middle classes than between the upper and working classes. It is more that we (not just the rich but Pakistanis at large) haven’t quite made sense of who the middle class is as a social group and what its role, character and capabilities are. It is easier then to cast the authentic other as the helpless poor Pakistani and leave it at that.

Ahmed Omar’s video, on the other hand, was a refreshing contrast to the photographs. It was a long clip of children playing in a street in Machar Colony. The strength of the work lay in the freedom it gave to the subjects. The camera lay stationary, the shot was uninterrupted by cuts and the children played without interference or apparent direction. They bounced all about the street and every so often came up to the camera and boldly peered in. They asked for no sympathy and were in fact extremely relatable. Their exuberance and curiosity immediately reminded me of my own three-year-old sister. In Omar’s video, the aesthetized other of Maazin’s work recovered their humanity. The other it turns out is not so different after all.

Corrigendum: The post incorrectly notes that sales from the exhibition went to the artists. Profits, in fact, went to the Hisaar Foundation, an NGO that works in Pakistan's slums. Furthermore, while the post attributes authorship of the photographs to Maazin Kamal and of the video installation to Ahmed Omar, they were both collaborative efforts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Repealing the Blasphemy Law

In other news, Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti told Dawn that the government was working on a bill to reverse the discriminatory laws enacted by Zia. Can this tantalizingly vague remark be construed as a promise to repeal the blasphemy law? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's earlier but equally vague statement about reviewing laws "detrimental to religious harmony" seems to lend some credence to this conjecture. It would certainly be a very appropriate move after all the criticism the blasphemy law has attracted post-Gojra.

But already the right-wing spin doctors have declared Gojra to be a meticulously orchestrated conspiracy against the blasphemy law by unnamed sources who are set on undermining Islam. The rhetoric is appalling in its bald-facedness but is also quite familiar. The downer is that the Pakistani public too seems in synch with the right on this issue. A recent Pew Institute poll found that 78% Pakistanis support the death penalty for apostasy. While there were no questions on blasphemy, the apostasy question should serve as a gauge for Pakistani opinion on the issue. The survey was conducted before Gojra though and perhaps opinions have shifted thereafter.

Nonetheless, repealing the blasphemy law seems to be a politically tricky task. But a few years earlier, the Hudood Ordinance seemed just as much of a sacred cow. The right was certainly fulminating with more venom back then but the amendment still went through. Then again, the Hudood Ordinance was amended by a dictator who at that time at least was somewhat impervious to public opinion. The only hope that I see is in the Pakistan Peoples Party's commitment to human rights. It did put aside its differences with Musharraf to support the Hudood Ordinance amendment. It also recently passed a law against domestic violence. But it still hasn't followed through on its promise to abolish the death penalty. So overall, the PPP's record is a bit mixed. But maybe, just maybe, now too it will take a politically risky move and rid Pakistan of the blasphemy law. One can only wait and see, I suppose.

War of attrition?

Dawn just reported that the army will need several more months to launch a ground operation against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in South Waziristan. It cites Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmed who addressed the press after meeting with Richard Holbrooke, America's point person for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lt Gen Ahmed gives a whole bevy of reasons including shortage of equipment and the lack of availability of planes, which are currently in use in Swat, and so on.

But Lt Gen Ahmed also talks about creating the right conditions before a ground operation. His direct quote in Dawn is "Once you feel that the conditions are right and you have been able to substantially dent their infrastructure and their fighting capacity, then you go in for a ground offensive." To achieve these optimal conditions, the army seems to have laid siege to South Waziristan, blocking roads, bombing militant hideouts and such.

I sincerely hope that the army is keeping in mind the human consequence of this approach. A war of attrition will disproportionately affect civilians in South Waziristan. Adopting such an approach just days after the collective punishment clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation was substantially diluted is extremely unfortunate. With ominous reports emerging of extrajudicial killings by the army in its Rah-e-Rast Operation in Swat (see here and here), another ethical and human rights crisis is the last thing it should be courting.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

17 crore dillon ki shanaakht

Distinguished economist and historian Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence was a very timely book. Published in 2006, it came just a few years after George W. Bush fashioned himself as a trigger-happy Christian crusader and launched his War on Terror. The world in those days was seen mostly through Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization lens and the "Western civilization" and "Muslim civilization" were considered in a most fundamental way to be mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

Sen's point was simple. It is fallacious to categorize people solely by religious affiliation. To see the world only as a federation of religions is to overlook the individual's countless other identities. Sen enumerates some of his own as "an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights” (19) and so on. The insistence on the primacy of one identity, may it be racial or religious, is an old tactic of hate-mongers from Nazis to Hutu and Tutsi militants to Islamic fundamentalists. To ignore the plethora of other identities is to forego all the ways in which people can relate across the so-called civilizational divide. What Sen says is nothing new. In fact it is extremely obvious. But in all the acrimony that followed the 9/11 attacks, many had lost sight of this simple truth.

When I picked up Identity and Violence last week to reread it, it hit me how far the world has come since Bush's disastrous first term as president. The war on terror paradigm and Samuel Huntington are now in the junk pile of history. Obama, a man with astoundingly diverse identities (a biracial American with Kenyan and British heritage, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, a Christian, a man married to an African American woman, a lawyer, a technophile, a community organizer and so on) is now at the helm of the world. The talk of the day is not war but rapprochement and reconciliation with the Muslim world. It is now obvious to most that Muslims do not inevitably sympathize with terrorists. And with the recent national consensus behind the army operation in Swat, this has become obvious to Pakistanis about themselves too. But in a lot of ways, Sen's book is still extremely relevant today when our Pakistani identity remains narrowly defined as the negative of the West, India and other exogenous and endogenous perceived threats.

These past few weeks, in the wake of Gojra, Pakistanis have been immersed in serious debate about our identities. The problem is an old one and with our country's 62nd anniversary over yesterday, we are not much closer to effecting a solution. I say effecting because the solution has been apparent for a long time, even as early as 1947. It will not do to straitjacket 170 million individuals with an artificially fashioned national identity (male, Urdu-speaking, Muslim). Pakistani identity must be broadened to include the varied identities of its citizens. Pakistan should not seek to define its citizens but its citizens should define what it means to be Pakistani.

In this respect there has been a lot of criticism of the Blasphemy Law of late. Some commentators are calling not only for its repeal but also for a secular Pakistani state. Secular government gets a lot of flak in Pakistan as being anti-religion but in reality it only means that the state is religion-blind, treating citizens of all religious identities equally and protecting the religious freedom of everyone.

Many advocates of a secular state quote Quaid-e-Azam's inaugural speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. But the most impassioned and articulate defense of secular government in Pakistan remains Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s who was the opposition leader of our first Constituent Assembly. In his speech during the Objectives Resolution debate of March 1949 Chattopadhyaya said:

"Let us eliminate the complexes of majority and minority. Let us treat citizens of Pakistan members of one family and frame such a constitution as may not break this tie so that all communities may stand shoulder to shoulder on equal footing in time of need and danger. I do not consider myself as a member of the minority community. I consider myself as one of seven crores of Pakistanis. Let me have to retain that privilege.

In other words, Chattopadhyaya envisioned a state where Pakistani identity was not defined to exclude non-dominant religious groups.

But a secular state while going a long way in solving our identity crisis will probably not go far enough. What is really needed is a redefinition of pakistaniat not just in the constitution but also in the minds of the Pakistani people. Here once again the state has to take responsibility because its textbooks are the widest and most effective method of disseminating an understanding of the Pakistani identity.

Those marginalized by the narrow definition of pakistaniat (women and individuals belonging to non-dominant linguistic, ethnic and religious groups) must have their identities accommodated in the larger Pakistani identity. What our schools and textbooks should teach our children is that (A) citizens of our country have multifarious identities that must all be respected and celebrated and (B) that these identities are in total harmony with being Pakistani. A Hindu, a woman, an English speaker, an atheist, a Brahui speaker are all equally Pakistani.

The monolithic way in which history is taught must be changed. Pakistan’s history is not a straight line from Muhammad bin Qasim to the Mughals to the Muslim League and then Pakistan. The importance of non-Muslim rulers needs to be highlighted, as do the regional histories of the provinces and the contributions made to our history, thought and culture by dissidents and also intellectuals and politicians opposed to the League (like Nehru and Gandhi). A history that is more representative of the histories of our people and less ideologically oriented against India and the West and towards the idea of a Muslim nation will go a long way in freeing our national identity and bringing it into line with the identities of our people

A few months back, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan organized the Shanaakht festival to highlight Pakistan’s diversity. It was just the kind of inclusionary event that we need to see but the slogan, “17 crore dillon ki aik shanaakht”, was somewhat disappointing in its implication that we are all Pakistanis despite of our differences rather than because of them. A much more appropriate maxim in my opinion would be: “17 crore shanaakht; aik Pakistan.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Writings of Maududi

I've been reading the speeches of Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami and a vocal proponent of a theocratic state in the early decades of Pakistan. His Islam is all about politics. The arrival of Islam in the ethos of the state is more important for him than its arrival in the hearts and lives of Muslims. This is mostly because he believes that once the state is Islamic, it can compel Muslims to be righteous. In this attitude he sets aside the centuries-old tradition of patient and laborious preaching to convince Muslims to bring their lives into accordance with Islamic injunctions. Instead he chooses the easier alternative of harnessing the modern state with its wide reach to force morality on Muslims. In doing so he underestimates the value of free will and forgets that Muslims must be righteous to please God, not out of fear of the state.

Maududi also talks at great length about intermediaries usurping religious authority and inserting themselves between God and His subjects. Islam has no priesthood is his mantra. But he seems to have no problem in interpreting Islam for mass consumption and in expecting everyone to follow it, if not because of the substance of his thought than on penalty of the ire of his Islamic state.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Imran Khan vs Charles Darwin

by Irfan Hussain
(from his weekly column in Dawn)

THIS year will see a large number of celebrations at campuses and scientific institutions around the world to mark the 200th year of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th year of the publication of his seminal work.

Widely regarded as one of the three most influential thinkers of the 19th century, together with Freud and Marx, Darwin has had a stronger impact on our thinking than the other two giants of the era. Since its publication in 1859, his explanation of how life evolved on the planet has been subjected to rigorous criticism and analysis. Generations of scientists have tested it in the field and in the laboratory. And to date, it remains the only scientific explanation of how life on Earth has developed over the millennia.

Many religious people have viewed the Darwinian theory of evolution as an attack on their faith. Others have reconciled belief in a supernatural being controlling events in the universe with a scientific theory that pulls together a vast plethora of evidence. Whatever one’s position on the truth of Darwin’s revolutionary exposition, it would take a foolhardy person to dismiss it as a ‘half-baked theory’ as Imran Khan has done recently.

Titled Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion, the essay is dated Nov 8, 2008, and was sent to me via email by a reader. In this article, the politician and ex-cricketer describes his personal journey from the westernised, secular outlook of his youth to his present faith-based worldview.

In a sense, Imran Khan’s view of Darwin’s life work captures the essence of our backwardness. By rejecting a vast body of scientific research and analysis as ‘half-baked’, he exposes his own ignorance. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion on any subject under the sun. But as he is a role model for many young Pakistanis, he has a duty to choose his words with greater care. He may refuse to accept the consensus behind Darwinian theory in the international scientific community, but to dismiss it out of hand risks influencing impressionable young minds into following him.

As it is, there is not a single world-class university or research institute in the Muslim world. The reason for this is not hard to find. By refusing to accept and internalise the rational method of empirical research and analysis, we discourage and suppress scientific and objective scholarship.

In Imran Khan’s mind, as in many others, reason is a western monopoly. So anyone using rational analysis as a tool is dismissed as ‘western’, a pejorative term deployed to undermine any argument. Unfortunately, this widespread trend has had profound significance over the centuries. By ceding scientific research and progress to the West, Muslims find themselves in their current predicament. By contrast, countries like China, Japan and Korea have made tremendous progress by accepting reason as the basis of their education and public discourse. So when Imran Khan says ‘the East sticks to religion’ in the title of his essay, he is effectively ignoring well over half the East.

I have long admired Imran Khan for his cricketing prowess, as well as for the fine work he has done in creating Pakistan’s first cancer hospital. So as a fan, it has saddened me to see him in the constant company of right-wingers like ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami. On TV talk shows, where he is a frequent guest, he has been voicing the most extreme views. Let me hasten to say that I would defend his right to his opinions, but as a hero to millions of young Pakistanis, I would ask that these views be based on logic and facts.

Imran Khan has complained in his article that Pakistan’s secular elites do not study Islam, and hence they are seduced by ‘western’ thinking. I’m afraid this is based on the arrogant assumption that simply because people dress in a certain way, they are ignorant of their own culture, history and religion. According to him, Pakistan is polarised between this group who “react strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam on society”, and religious extremists. Personally speaking, I don’t want any belief or dogma imposed on society. As a secularist, I think everybody should be free to believe in any faith. And in the distinguished company of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, I feel that religion should have nothing to do with the business of the state.

So why is it that today, only Muslim nations seem to deny the validity of the scientific method? It is true that many evangelical Christians reject Darwinian theory as well, and push creationism as the explanation for the development of life on earth. Recently, this extreme position has been replaced by something called Intelligent Design. But among educated people, it would be difficult to find many who close their eyes to the insights contained in Darwin’s groundbreaking research, even though many of these ideas were developed by Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s.

In his important book Muslims and Science published nearly 20 years ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy made the point that the entire output of scientific papers written in the Muslim world every year did not equal those produced in Israel alone. This remains true two decades later. And the reason for this imbalance lies in the position reflected in Imran Khan’s views about Darwin.

If we do not encourage the young to think and reason for themselves, how can we expect them to discover anything new? The essence of scientific enquiry lies in curiosity about how the world works, how matter was formed, and how life came into being. Perhaps curiosity about the universe is what sets mankind apart from the animal kingdom.

But if, as Darwin was in the Galapagos Isles, we are struck with wonder when we see something for which we have no explanation, then we have taken a step towards discovering more about our universe, and ultimately, about ourselves.

Postscript: I don't usually copy paste other people's writings wholesale on my blog, but I read Hussain's column and found it so refreshingly intelligent, outspoken and relevant that I just had to put it up here. Last month, an article in LiveScience cited a 2007 survey by Riaz Hassan in which he found that only 14% Pakistanis agreed with the statement that Darwin's theory of evolution is probably or certainly true. In such a dire situation, our politicians should not be pandering to ignorance nor should they feed this virulent rejection of rationalism that has become Pakistanis' facile but self-destructive reaction to our beleaguered position in the world today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don't you just love this country...

It is half past twelve in the night and someone has been firing a machine gun on the street outside my house for the past twenty minutes. What the hell is wrong with people!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Multiculturalism and the Court of Zafar

Reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, I was struck by how much more complex the events of 1857 were than is taught in school. The common impression that it was a Mughal/Muslim rebellion against the aggressively expansionary British with little or no Hindu involvement is firmly routed by Dalrymple's more nuanced picture.

He describes 1857 as "a very odd sort of religious war, where a Muslim emperor [Zafar] was pushed into rebellion against his Christian oppressors [the British] by a mutinous army of overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, who came to him of their own free will (and initially against his) to ask for the barakat of a Muslim blessing and the leadership of the Mughal they regarded as their legitimate ruler."

The book highlights the disconnectedness of our modern, religiously and ideologically-monolithic reinterpretation of 1857. The fact that the army raised to suppress the uprising in Delhi, comprised mostly of Pathan and Punjabi Muslims further drives home how little the pan-Islamic creed, so popular today, applied to the subcontinent of 1857.

In fact, Zafar and his court were exemplars of tolerance and multiculturalism. He celebrated Holi, Dussera and Diwali along with the Muslim festivals. His court diaries mention how Zafar refused to see a Hindu who wanted to convert to Islam as he thought it improper. And when his physician, Dr Chaman Lal, converted to Christianity and the city's ulema clamored for Lal's dismissal from the Emperor's service, "Zafar had replied that the doctor's faith was his own private matter and 'there was no cause for shame in what he had done.'"

When on 19 May, eight days after the rebellion started in Delhi, Orthodox Delhi mullahs tried to turn the rebellion into an exclusively Muslim holy war by putting up a declaration of jihad on the Jama Masjid, "Zafar immediately ordered it to be taken down 'because such a  display of fanaticism would only tend to exasperate the Hindus.'"

It was the arrival of hardcore Wahabi jihadis from outside Delhi that threatened the communal harmony so crucial to Delhi and the rebellion itself. On Eidul Azha, the jihadis quite impertinently decided to sacrifice not sheep or goats but cows, to deliberately offend the Hindu population. They planned to do so in the open grounds in front of the Jama Masjid. The threat, however, of imminent civil war because of such an incendiary action was staved off by Zafar who immediately and decisively banned cow slaughter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rallies Cheering Osama bin Laden in Pakistan?

It boggles my mind that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict happening a thousand miles away from Pakistan has brought Pakistanis onto the street to cheer the very man who has inspired (if not directly orchestrated) around one hundred and fifty suicide attacks on Pakistanis in the past six years. That just doesn't make sense to me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

20 things I want of my government

It's easy to watch this government stumble through its first year in power and criticize everything it does. But the other day I wondered whether instead I could come up with a list of things I expect from the government, a sort of political agenda of my own. I don't expect that many things on this list will come about but that isn't really the point.

I have realized over time that Pakistanis expect vastly different things from their government. Some want the government to leave us entirely alone, others want it to impose their particular morality on everyone else and yet others want it to provide each and everything in life to them. In sharing my expectations of the government, I am hoping that others will share theirs too. I am extremely curious about what most Pakistanis would like to see from our government. And maybe, just perhaps, someone in the government might be curious too...?

Without much further ado, my list:
  1. Repeal of the Eighth Amendment
  2. Decentralization of power to the provincial and district levels, including the power to raise taxes, enact laws and manage subjects
  3. Depoliticization and modernization of the police force, including better training in crime investigation, public relations and gender sensitization
  4. An end to capital punishment
  5. An end to torture
  6. A comprehensive disaster management plan for all the cities of Pakistan
  7. Making only one law-enforcement agency responsible for protecting Pakistanis agaisnt terrorism
  8. A decisive victory in FATA, Swat, Buner, Dera Ismail Khan and other places where the army is involved
  9. More civilian control over the army and more oversight and transparency in its budget-making
  10. Swift increase in our electricity generation capacity and a long-term plan to ensure that power supply keeps up with demand
  11. Cheap and efficient public transport in all cities
  12. Enough government schools, teachers and teacher training institutes to guarantee state of the art primary and secondary education to all Pakistani children
  13. Streamlining and modernizing the syllabi of madrassahs
  14. Stringent consumer protection laws and consumer courts
  15. Laws against sexual harrassment in the workplace and against domestic violence
  16. A social security net for the poor, including food stamps and a bureau to help Pakistanis find work and train them for jobs
  17. Government health clinics in rural areas
  18. Provision of electricity to every village in Pakistan
  19. Modernization and expansion of Pakistan's railway system
  20. It complete its five year term and facilitate free and fair elections at the end of its tenure.