Friday, April 10, 2015

Silencing dissent

One would think that a nuclear-armed state with the world’s fastest growing nuclear programme would not be afraid of a discussion being held at a private university on a ‘sensitive’ topic. Think again. The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was going to hold a round-table yesterday (Thursday, April 9) on human rights in Balochistan titled ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’ but due to the intervention of state agencies, LUMS was forced to cancel this academic discussion.

According to a report published in Pakistan Today, LUMS faculty member Dr Taimur Rahman said: “A delegation from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) visited LUMS and presented a letter calling for cancellation of the talks. They said that Balochistan is a sensitive issue and that the moot could be used to malign Pakistan.” Dr Rahman added: “The talks were aimed at understanding the Balochistan issue and discussing ways on how to resolve the long-standing problems of the Baloch people. It was supposed to be an academic discussion, which was muzzled for no good reason.”

A press release issued by concerned faculty, students and staff at LUMS reminded the government of Pakistan that our country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees these fundamental freedoms and rights; these same rights are also enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. Asking a private university to cancel a discussion on Balochistan is a gross violation of democratic principles. One wonders why a state that boasts of its atomic arsenal at the drop of a hat is afraid of an academic discussion.

The Baloch have faced discrimination at the hands of the Pakistani state for over six decades now. There is a nationalist insurgency and uprising in the province as a result of the state’s oppressive policies. Thousands of Baloch have disappeared and hundreds of mutilated bodies of the Baloch have been dumped in various parts of Balochistan over the last few years. Both international and national human rights organisations have blamed the country’s state intelligence agencies for their involvement in this kill and dump policy. To quash an insurgency in this most brutal way shows how the state is unwilling to adhere to basic democratic norms. By forcing LUMS to cancel a discussion on Balochistan proves yet again how both the military establishment and the government in our country do not value the freedoms guaranteed by international covenants and/or our constitution. For them, any discussion on human rights violations by the state and challenging their policies is ‘anti-national’. Instead of focusing their energies and resources on curbing religious extremism, our state is more interested in curbing freedom of expression lest it leads to uncomfortable questions about state policies.

The government of Pakistan and the military establishment need to get their priorities straight if they are serious about saving our country from plunging into madness. Silencing those who believe in finding a democratic solution to our problems is no way to go about it. Discussions such as the one that was recently cancelled do not pose any threat to Pakistan’s existence. The real threat to our existence is the thriving terrorist/jihadi network spread all across the country. How about taking on the real threat instead of a perceived one?

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fighting misogyny

I recently saw a very powerful play, Jan Se Mann Ki Jai Ho, on the plight of women in India and around the world. It dealt with various aspects of gender inequality but the most compelling part was the one on female foeticide. The monologue of an unborn baby girl was sensitive, emotional, overpowering and tragic at the same time. I don't think there was anyone in the audience – male or female – who did not cry at the end of that monologue. It reminded me of my own country, Pakistan, as well.

When a girl child is born, we often see family and friends with sad faces, saying things like: ‘Challo koi nahi, agli baar insha’Allah beta hoga’ (It’s okay. God willing, you will give birth to a son next time). In many local hospitals, the hospital staff do not ask for bakshish (tip) when a girl child is born out of ‘pity’ for the family. Girls are seen as a ‘burden’ on the family. Even though we now see more working women in urban areas in Pakistan, many of them face sexual harassment at the workplace. Malala Yousafzai, a young girl, was shot by the Taliban because she raised her voice for women’s education.

From (late) Benazir Bhutto, to Asma Jahangir, from (late) Tahira Mazhar Ali to (late) Madam Noor Jehan, Pakistan has no dearth of powerful and influential women who made a mark in history and continue to do so. We, in the Indian Subcontinent, are still dealing with gender discrimination despite the fact that independent India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all had female prime ministers and women have held other powerful positions in leading industries, including the media. Unfortunately, our women still have to face sexism in all forms day in and day out. The way news packages are made focusing on what women parliamentarians are wearing to their objectification in TV serials and advertisements shows how we in South Asia treat most women with utmost disrespect. In the electronic media in Pakistan, we sometimes see how female co-hosts are made to sit in a television programme as mere showpieces: they are asked to look pretty, nod at their male counterparts and not say much during the show. It is a sad reflection on our society and the patriarchal mindset that dominates our region.

After the Indian cricket team’s defeat against Australia in the World Cup semi-final yesterday, we saw misogyny on social media when actor Anushka Sharma was trolled because of Virat Kohli’s performance on the field. It was disgusting to see the attack on Ms Sharma because of her gender. Sexist jokes and sexist attacks are not funny. Period. Phrases like ‘hum ne chooriyaan nahin pehni hui hain’ (we are not wearing bangles) are commonly used in this part of the world to show your machismo. It is this attitude and mindset that we need to fight to end gender inequality.

So, the next time a girl child is born in your family, please ensure that she is treated with love, respect and dignity. Education and awareness is equally important to fight such regressive attitudes. Empowerment of women will lead to unimagined progress of our nations. Let’s do it.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Selective accountability

Pakistan has a new Senate Chairman, Mr Raza Rabbani. Pakistan’s democracy has not always resulted in the best leadership taking charge of important portfolios, but Mr Rabbani known as ‘Mr Clean’ and a thoroughbred democrat from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is a perfect choice for the post of Senate chairman. On the other hand, the new Deputy Chairman Senate Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidri, senior leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) is from a rightwing party. We will see how this pans out for the future of the Senate. A progressive chairman and a regressive deputy chairman in the Senate is a reflection of our society and democratic process. Pakistan voted out a progressive party, the PPP, because it could not deliver on economy and governance. We voted in a rightwing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), because many people believed it would lead to economic growth. Unfortunately, the PML-N has hardly done anything to improve the economy.

It is said that our politicians have different priorities. In Punjab, the ruling party is more interested in making underpasses, flyovers and/or roads than investing in the education system, healthcare, etc. While the civilians can rightly be blamed for skewed priorities, nobody raises the issue of our military’s priorities. In a country with a huge youth bulge and inadequate employment opportunities, the amount of money we spend on nuclear arms is unjustified to say the least. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Pakistan is ahead of India in the nuclear arms race by 10 atomic weapons. According to a report, while India has 110 atomic weapons, Pakistan possesses 120. It is quite alarming to see how much money we spend on atomic weapons when we have to repay foreign loans, run on foreign aid and are unable to give a boost to our economy. The arms race in the South Asian region is not just unfortunate but quite dangerous. It makes peace between India and Pakistan all the more important.

With rising extremism and militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the entire region feels threatened. After decades of supporting militant outfits for its own vested interests, our military establishment is finally taking some steps to counter some of those same outfits. It is important that at this point in time, our media and civil society should exert pressure on both the military and the government to go after each and every militant organisation instead of going after selective outfits. It is also pertinent to put pressure on the state, as a whole to start spending money on the people of Pakistan and our education system, to counter rising intolerance in society instead of spending money on nuclear weapons.

Ever since the dharna (sit-in) days, some people have started asking why democracy has failed to deliver in Pakistan. From the imbalance in civil-military relations to the incompetence of the political class, many reasons are given to justify this. Some of those who say that democracy has failed, conveniently forget how the military has directly ruled this country for more than three decades and how it has been indirectly ruling for almost forever since Pakistan came into being. The way the military establishment cleverly manoeuvres the political system is interesting to say the least. This is not to say that our politicians have not made mistakes. Yes, many of them are corrupt and many of them are not interested in improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, but to blame them for the downward spiral of the country is wrong. Democracy in Pakistan will start to deliver gradually, but only if we hold both military and civilians accountable. Selective accountability of our politicians is not the answer to our woes.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Reclaiming lost space

Lyse Doucet, BBC’s chief international correspondent, wrote a very nice piece on the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) recently. The headline said: “Book lovers defy the bombers”. While it is literally true that despite real security threats, people still thronged the LLF, it also reminds one of how there are not enough events to celebrate literature, art and culture in Pakistan. Most of us do not like it when people say we are defying bombers or the Taliban by holding such events, or that we are a resilient nation. Yes, it may be literally true, but then again, we also know that we cannot escape bombs and bullets so we may as well make the most of our lives while we are at it. This is why the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and the LLF are events that people look forward to attending every February.

The organisers of both events must be commended for their dedication and hard work. It is not easy to convince locals, let alone foreigners, to participate in such public events. But, in my opinion, the key to their success is also related to the thirst of the Pakistani people for learning something new about international/regional politics, for having some form of entertainment in their lives, their penchant for celebration, their love of art and culture despite the rising intolerance, and, also, for escaping the harsh realities of their everyday lives, even if it’s only for a few days.

Thousands of people attended both KLF and LLF. The atmosphere at the events in both Karachi and Lahore was exuberant. Both festivals had interesting panel discussions on a wide array of subjects, and gave people a chance to interact with writers, artists, journalists, scholars, academics, civil society activists, and many more celebrated figures one would not get a chance to meet otherwise. It also gave people a chance to meet friends, catch up with people they have only interacted with on social media, eat (yes, we really enjoy our food!), mingle around, or just enjoy the energy all around. It also gave people a chance to reclaim their lost space the right to gather at a public event. This is something that most countries around the world take for granted, but Pakistanis have been gradually ceding this space to the religious Right over the years we do not have musical concerts as often as we used to in the past; the number of theatre performances have also gone down (especially in Lahore); literary events are few and far between; instead we see militant organisations and religious parties holding more rallies, public events, etc. Apart from economic reasons, in part this is due to the security situation in Pakistan, and in part due to the rising intolerance in our society.

I A Rehman sahib wrote in Dawn, “The organisers at both festivals [KLF and LLF] had their security scares. The lesson is that the fight against intolerance and violence is necessary, among other things, for reclaiming the people’s right to write, paint, and sing the way they want to and wherever they want to. Without that right, human life will be no better than a wild growth of grass.” No one could have said it better. It is time to defy all odds and reclaim our lost space, organise/support events like the KLF and LLF, and celebrate life.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sunday blues (or greens?)

Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain recently used the choicest of derogatory words to describe the women who were part of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI’s) dharna (sit-in). His comments regarding PTI leader Shireen Mazari were exceptionally crude. Hussain later apologised to Dr Mazari; his apology was accepted by the latter.

We often say that the South Asian culture is very respectful towards women but that is not necessarily the case. In fact, mostly it is women politicians or women belonging to a politician’s family who are at the receiving end of offensive remarks. Mr Hussain’s is just a recent example but we have seen countless times in the past how leaders have discredited other politicians by attacking women. It is sad to see that usually when there is a fight between political parties and/or leaders, we see character assassination campaigns are launched instead of objective criticism of their politics or policies. If our political leaders cannot learn to respect women, how can we expect their followers to treat women with respect? It is vital for each and every one of us to hold these political leaders answerable for spreading misogyny and reaffirming patriarchal values in a society where gender discrimination is rampant.

In other news, India and Pakistan will play against each other for the sixth time in the World Cup this Sunday (February 15); India has won all five matches (1992, 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2011) in the past World Cup tournaments. Millions around the world will be glued to their television screens to watch a contest expected to be the most watched match in cricket history. I have always wondered why it is that when it comes to an Indo-Pak cricket match, even an avowed peacenik like me treats the game as a matter of life and death (figuratively speaking of course).

My friend and journalist Aniket Alam once wrote an interesting piece on spectator sports (‘The Discipline of Spectator Sports’, The Post, March 21, 2007). Alam writes, “It’s not that there is politics in sports, but that spectator sports simulate an important feature of democratic politics — public competition — and thereby become a replacement for real political engagement… Class divided nations, both democracies and tyrannies, by their very structure, need spectator sports for survival since they divert the energy of the people from real political contests into the simulacra of public contests.” Alam says his critique of spectator sports is influenced by Umberto Eco’s writings on the same topic. The case he makes against spectator sports is quite strong and logical but despite that, I know for a fact that I will be cheering for my cricket team on Sunday.

I cannot speak for Indians, but for many of us Pakistanis, cricket is a form of escapism. We are a divided nation when it comes to our political ideologies, religious beliefs, ethnicities, languages and much more, but cricket unites us in a way that nothing else does. Maybe it is this sense of unity that leads to a collective heartbreak when our cricket team loses and a collective celebration when it wins a game. We dismiss the amount of pressure we put on our cricketers — they, too, are human beings after all and are bound to make mistakes. The match on Sunday will surely be a nail-biter and I am not ashamed to say that whatever the outcome of the match, I will be crying — either tears of joy or sorrow. Wishing both teams the best of luck but hoping that Pakistan wins against all odds. Good luck!

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, January 30, 2015

More democracy

“Pakistan’s future viability, stability and security lie in empowering its people and building political institutions…the fundamental battle for the hearts and minds of a generation can be accomplished only under democracy” — (late) Benazir Bhutto.

It is said that no one is indispensable but many in Pakistan still feel that there was no one like Benazir Bhutto and she was indeed indispensable for our country. Shaheed BB, an iconic figure for millions in Pakistan and around the world, was assassinated seven years ago. Her loss is felt every time our security establishment tries to discredit our political class and/or when our politicians themselves make a mockery of the democratic system.

When our parliament acquiesced to public (and establishment) pressure after the Peshawar school massacre and sanctioned military courts, I was reminded of BB’s interview to the Herald more than a decade ago. She said that democracy is about evolution and it is also about fighting for what you believe is right and not giving up. Pakistani politicians did not even put up a fight. They gave in. They failed the democratic system, they failed the people who voted them in, and they failed those who struggled to restore democracy and those like Ms Bhutto who sacrificed their lives for democratic rule in Pakistan.

As if it was not enough that the Sharif-led PML-N government gave up the country’s foreign policy and defence policy following Imran Khan and Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s dharna (sit-in) politics, created a parallel judicial system run by the military following the Peshawar attack, this government also somehow managed to oversee Punjab’s worst petrol shortage crisis. Lest we forget, the Sharifs have ruled Punjab for the last seven years. Last week also saw 80 per cent of the country plunge into darkness for a few hours due to a power breakdown. The security situation is so precarious that parents are afraid to send their children to schools, colleges and universities as educational institutions are on high alert. According to reports, additional army units were deployed inside Lahore’s premier school/college, Aitchison, yesterday.

Not only do we have to live in constant fear for our lives but we also have to deal with acute governance failure. At times like these, one actually wonders how this country is functioning. This leads to undemocratic forces asking for the ouster of democracy. They say that almost seven decades have passed since our independence and yet we are struggling to evolve as a country. For them, the answer lies in either martial law or a technocratic setup. As a friend puts it, there is no democracy in military dictatorships and there is no delivery under (Pakistani) democracy. Well, democracy may not have delivered but neither have military dictatorships.

One of the first things the government should realise is that instead of a centralised system, we need devolution of power at the local level via local bodies elections. Unless our ruling elite is willing to devolve power, the people will not feel relevant. Once the people are involved in the democratic process, our country will finally evolve. Meanwhile, what we must understand and internalise is that we do not need less democracy; we need more of it.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ending our never-ending suffering

One month ago, Pakistan saw its deadliest terrorist attack in Peshawar at the Army Public School (APS), where more than 130 children were shot dead by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There was an outpouring of grief and anger after the APS attack that we have never witnessed before, despite the fact that terrorism has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistanis over the last decade. Our government responded by lifting the moratorium on the death penalty, and our parliament quickly sanctioned military courts. Hanging terrorists, or speedy trials, will not serve any purpose unless there is clarity on our state’s policies vis-à-vis militant outfits.

According to a report published in the Express Tribune: “Pakistan has decided to ban the Haqqani Network, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and 10 more organisations.” If this is true, then it is indeed a huge paradigm shift and there is still hope for the country’s future. We always hear how brave and resilient we are as a nation. Maybe we are, but would it have mattered even if we were not? We would still have to face terrorist attacks. We would still have to send our children to schools, despite real fears. We would still have to carry on with our lives even though there is depression and dread all around us. It is high time our state dealt with the menace of terrorism — crushing it once and for all, so that we do not need to be brave any more, so that we can openly howl in anguish and not be labelled cowards, so that we can live in peace. Pakistan and Pakistanis have suffered enough. We should not be expected to put up a brave front every time there is a terrorist attack. Bravery and/or resilience do not mean we should continue to suffer endlessly.

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif visited APS Peshawar when it reopened on January 12. In its editorial (‘Monumental courage’, January 13, 2015), Dawn noted: “The horror these premises saw was too much, and took place too recently; too many spoke silently by their absence. Those who had to make such a difficult decision can be offered only the empathy of a nation in mourning, for perhaps there was never really a choice when it came to reopening the school.”

The images of students entering the school and parents seeing them off pulled at everyone’s heartstrings. Nobody could hold back their tears after seeing those scenes on their television screens. As Dawn quoted Pakistan-born British author Nadeem Aslam’s hauntingly apt words in the same editorial: “Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.”

Today (January 16), to mark the one-month anniversary of the Peshawar massacre, Pakistani civil society will hold protests against terrorism in the country’s major cities, as well as in some other countries around the world. As a nation, we must resolve to eliminate terrorism from every part of our country. As a nation, we must put pressure on the government and the military to take proper action against all terrorist outfits and not take unjust shortcuts like military courts. An end to terrorism and religious extremism is the only way we can survive as a country, and as a nation.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)