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.