Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Crime and apathy

Sixty-eight years ago, Pakistan got independence from British colonial rule that led to the partition of the Indian Subcontinent – today (August 14), Pakistanis are celebrating our Independence Day. Every year, the ruling elite (military and/or civilian) pledge to make our country a better place but every year our problems increase. This year, too, things are no different.

One of the most shocking child abuse scandals has recently rocked the country. According to media reports, around 400 videos of child pornography were made involving at least 280 children in Kasur in the Punjab province. Instead of being jolted out of their slumber after this case came to light, the Punjab government, Punjab Police and some sections of our media went into an overdrive to downplay the horrific crime. From saying the actual number of children is less than what has been reported to denying it was child abuse, citing it as a case of homosexuality and consensual sex to mixing it up with a land dispute, the excuses being given to sweep this crime under the rug are shameful.

For a moment, let's assume that the number of children is way less than what has been reported in the media, does it really matter? And how can a minor have 'consensual' sex? Somebody who makes a child indulge in sexual activity is committing a crime. Period. Now let's come to the numbers. Even if one child is sexually abused while being filmed and his/her family is later blackmailed, it should be appalling enough. Numbers do not matter in this case. What matters is our ruling class and society's reaction to child sexual abuse.

If this had happened in any other country in the world, people would have come out on the streets demanding justice for the innocent victims. Here we have only seen the parents of some of the victims out on the streets. Human rights organisations, activists and some in the media are the only ones raising their voice while everyone else is concerned with saving the 'image' of Pakistan. This sort of apathy is why the parents and the victims took years to come forward.

As an editorial ('A tale of horror') in The News puts it: "The suffering of these people needs to be eased. There is only one thing that may reassure them – the shame is not theirs; it is ours as a nation. Whenever there has been a public discussion on high amounts of child sexual abuse in the country, it has been collectively shut up. We can begin to change that today by admitting: ‘shame on us’."

On this Independence Day, Pakistanis should reflect on why we feel no shame when child sexual abuse goes on right under our noses and feel angry when such incidents are highlighted in the media. Why are we so worried about image-building when what we really need to do is ensure that justice is served and these children and their families are provided psychiatric help and therapy? Their scars should be treated as our collective scars. If even our children are not safe from abuse, then there is hardly any point in celebrating our freedom.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Curtailing sectarianism?

I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp earlier this month with a group of Pakistanis. We have all read about the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust but none of us were prepared for the feelings that swept us when we set foot in Auschwitz. It had an eerie feeling to it and it felt as if the air was heavy with grief. When we visited the gas chambers and prison cells, one could literally feel the pain and terror on one’s skin. The visit was a sombre affair. When we left, I could not shake off the fear for a very long time. It also reminded me of the way members of the Shia community, especially the Hazara Shias in Balochistan, were being target-killed in Pakistan by the banned sectarian outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

On Wednesday morning, leader of LeJ Malik Ishaq was killed by the police in a gunfight when allegedly Ishaq’s supporters attacked a police convoy in order to free him near Muzaffargarh. Ishaq’s two sons, his deputy and 11 others militants were also killed in the gunfight according to the police. While this is the official account of the police, there are rumours that it was a pre-planned police encounter (read extra-judicial killing). In his latest Newsweek Pakistan piece, ‘Killing Stroke’, Ejaz Haider says: “Ishaq’s killing, going by sources within the police, is the culmination of a year-long debate within the establishment on whether Ishaq was more useful dead or alive. There were arguments on both sides.”

Malik Ishaq, a notorious terrorist who could not be convicted because witnesses were either eliminated or terrorised into not appearing before the court, was taken into custody a few days ago by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) for investigations in recent sectarian killings in South Punjab. Some people argue that Ishaq’s killing is quite symbolic as it would not have taken place without the nod of the establishment, which means that the establishment now wants to rein in sectarian killings. Others believe that the LeJ had a strong foothold in Balochistan, which was problematic for the new Pak-China Economic Corridor and also for the Afghan peace talks and that is why the establishment decided to get rid of Ishaq and the LeJ leadership.

Columnist and activist Marvi Sirmed says: “The death of Malik Ishaq, his sons and even the second-tier leadership of the LeJ is an intense blow to the banned outfit. It will take many years for them to recover from this.” Sirmed believes that it has basically been done because Malik Ishaq was moving closer to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) over the past few years and he was the harbinger of militant anti-Shia sentiment. Marvi Sirmed says Ishaq’s death will strengthen Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) chief Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi and with Ishaq’s death, the ASWJ will be mainstreamed as a legitimate political party (Note: ASWJ is a front for the banned outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan). “This is a bid to bring the militants of an anti-Shia sectarian organisation to the mainstream through ASWJ, which is now awarding tickets to its candidates in many constituencies for the upcoming local bodies elections in Punjab and Sindh,” says Ms Sirmed.

It remains to be seen whether the hydra of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan will be curtailed in the wake of Ishaq’s death or not.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Criminal lies

Lying is a normal human trait. Those of us who claim they never lie are also lying. We all lie...but most of our lies are harmless and just a tactic to save ourselves from getting into trouble. However, one should always draw a line when lies become vicious and/or malicious. Unfortunately, some people think it is okay to malign someone through a lie as long as it serves their purpose, not realising that it is criminal to do so.

Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan is a glaring example of such criminal acts. He has repeatedly lied about various things but one of his most criminal lies was about renowned journalist and former caretaker Chief Minister Punjab, Mr Najam Sethi. For the last 18 months, Imran Khan and his cronies have been peddling a lie, without a shred of evidence, on every platform from TV interviews to dharna stage to political rallies, etc that there is an audio tape where Mr Sethi is allegedly talking to Mian Nawaz Sharif on election night and saying something along the lines that “penti penture” (35 punctures) have been made (basically meaning that in 35 constituencies, elections have been rigged).

Mr Khan and his followers then went on a rampage and started a hate campaign against Sethi. They alleged that Sethi was ‘rewarded’ by Mian Nawaz Sharif after the elections when he was given the post (honorary post, mind you) of Chairman Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). This tape never materialised because it did not exist but Khan continued to claim he would bring it out in the open when the right time came, not admitting that there was no tape indeed.

It is said that words can hurt the most but this lie did not just hurt Mr Sethi’s person but his journalistic credibility as well, something he has worked hard to earn over decades. Najam Sethi sued Imran Khan for defamation last year. For over a year, Khan did not respond to the court’s direction to file a reply. His lawyer was fined for wasting the time of the court. When he finally responded on oath, in writing he confessed that the allegation “was not an assertion of facts” and that he had heard it from media sources. Subsequently he publicly admitted it was “just a political statement”.

Mr Sethi says: “Imran Khan has maligned me continuously for 18 months and I will not rest until he apologises to me. My family and I have been hounded by his supporters. It has been a tough time for us. But I have been vindicated and Imran has been roundly discredited.”

What kind of a man and a political leader Khan is can be seen by the fact that he has so far refused to apologise for his blatant lie regarding Sethi. Those media people, politicians and PTI supporters who fell for Khan’s lie regarding Sethi are now quite remorseful and have apologised for their mistake. Many columns have been written about this issue and many television talk shows have discussed Khan’s lie but Khan himself feels no shame. A man who preaches ethics and honesty to others is himself quite dishonest.

It is time to apologise, Mr Khan. Sethi deserves your public apology and much more!

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ramzan diplomacy

In my last column, I talked about the absurdity and inherent dangers of the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan in recent months. From threats of cross-border strikes from an Indian minister to Pakistan’s Defence Minister declaring our arms are not meant for decoration, from Indian Prime Minister Modi’s bombastic anti-Pakistan statements in Bangladesh to our military establishment’s accusations about Indian involvement in terrorism in Pakistan, the war of words between Indian and Pakistani leaders had certainly reached a crescendo.

Such level of hysteria is not unknown between the two neighbours but this time around, there was a sense of betrayal in this warmongering hysteria. The reason being that there was hope that peace would finally prevail in the region after Mian Nawaz Sharif, who is openly committed to the idea of peace with India, came to power followed by the formation of a strong BJP government in India. Mr Sharif’s Muslim League and the BJP have right wing bases in their respective countries and are not hounded like the Indian Congress or the Pakistan People’s Party when they try to make peace overtures. It was in this context that the recent verbal spat between the two South Asian neighbours raised many an eyebrow.

With no end in sight to such jingoism, peaceniks -- and even those of my fellow countrymen who are not considered ‘pro-India’ -- were all equally alarmed. In the past, we have seen how cricket diplomacy has been used on numerous occasions by these two countries to bring a semblance of normalcy back to their otherwise hostile relations. This time, Ramzan diplomacy was used by Mr Modi and Mr Sharif to reach out to each other and call for peace and harmony in the region. Indian Prime Minister Modi called his Pakistani counterpart Mian Nawaz Sharif earlier this week to greet him on the beginning of the holy month of Ramzan. This one phone call finally brought down the soaring temperatures to a thaw. Mr Modi also announced to “release detained Pakistani fishermen on this pious occasion”.

In its editorial (‘Modi’s phone call’), Dawn newspaper said: “We hope there will be no more inflammatory statements and jingoism. Instead, the respective leaderships in New Delhi and Islamabad must put their heads together and formulate a plan that can address each other’s concerns and pave the way for long-term peace in the subcontinent.”

Pakistan is fighting an internal battle so ugly and so dangerous that its survival depends on winning it. Peaceful relations with India would help it in many ways, apart from bringing economic growth and regional stability. India, too, cannot be held hostage to an arms race when its people expect far more from it at the economic front. Restraining the respective bad mouths should be a good omen for the overall political environment. It is hoped that better sense prevails, continues and the two countries come back to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Of hawks and doves

One: ‘Spy pigeon’ detained in India after crossing border from Pakistan
Two: Modi told China, Pakistan economic corridor unacceptable – Sushma
Three: Centre plans ‘carnival’ to mark 50 years of India-Pakistan War of 1965

The first news item is quite hilarious given the absurdity of the claim in this tech-savvy 21st century world. Social media had a field day with this news report as memes were made, Bollywood songs shared, witty blogs written, etc. On the one hand, this news item is indeed funny but on the other, it also shows how much mistrust there is between the two South Asian neighbours. Decades of enmity and hawkish policies have led to this — that even a pigeon that flew over from across the border was seen as a potential threat.

Relations between India and Pakistan have rarely been peaceful and after the Mumbai attacks in 2008, things inevitably got worse. The second news item points to further escalations between the two countries. As an editorial (‘India’s objections to CPEC’) in Dawn newspaper related to this news item noted: “Apart from the fact that CPEC is a bilateral matter, the project, if implemented in a transparent manner and keeping the aspirations of all stakeholders in mind, has the potential to transform the economics of the region for the better…Such mistrust between the two [India and Pakistan] has impeded progress in so many areas, besides doing nothing to tap the potential of the region’s billion-plus inhabitants.”

The third news item is disconcerting to say the least. Dawn editorial on this War ‘carnival’ said: “Mr Modi’s government may have its own agenda in making these plans, but it is difficult not to find such a display of gratuitous chest-thumping abhorrent.” Peaceniks on both sides of the border are quite alarmed at these new developments, and rightly so. Being hawkish is one thing but celebrating victory in a war that led to death and destruction is akin to taking hostility to another level.

One can obviously not absolve Pakistan and its establishment’s flawed policies vis-à-vis India either, but the Modi government has certainly not helped Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to normalise Indo-Pak relations. Proxy wars, cross-border attacks, hostile policies, weaponisation, etc., have already cost this region quite a lot. It is time to put an end to such madness and invest in peace so that our future generations do not have to suffer at the hands of such policies.

On another note, Pakistan successfully held an international cricket series at home after six years. The Zimbabwe cricket team played five matches in Pakistan; two T20s and three ODIs. Gaddafi Stadium was packed on all five days despite the fact that the crowds had to face a lot of discomfort due to strict security measures around the city and especially around the stadium. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Punjab government, Punjab Police and other law enforcement agencies must be commended for a job well done. Pakistani cricket fans are indebted to the Zimbabweans, which was quite evident by the way the crowds cheered for their cricket team. Here’s hoping that other cricket teams visit Pakistan as well.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cricket comes home again

Today, Pakistan will play against Zimbabwe at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore. Pakistani cricket fans are ecstatic. They cannot wait to see the match. Tickets for the first T20 have been sold out. And why not? We have waited for six long years for this. The images of the Zimbabwe cricket team arriving at the Lahore airport on our television screens made me shout out loud with joy. It was an emotional moment because after six years, international cricket was has finally returned to Pakistan. It has been a long wait.

I vividly remember the day the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked back in 2009. Sitting in front of a television, I could not stop my tears while watching the horror that was unfolding in the heart of Lahore. We have seen many a terror attack in this country, but we all thought that cricket is too sacred to be attacked, even for terrorists. As Ahmer Naqvi, journalist and writer, recently wrote: “Until that moment, I was among several people (perhaps even a majority of Pakistan fans) who thought cricket would never be attacked.”

Thus the shock of watching a visiting cricket team being attacked was gut-wrenching, to say the least. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan cricket team survived the attack but for cricket lovers in Pakistan, everything changed. No international cricket team was willing to tour our country. Our home series were being played far from home. Most of us could only celebrate Pakistan cricket team’s wins from a distance. We would curse them when they performed badly, not realising how difficult it is for a team to play away from its home grounds, not knowing when and if they would be able to perform in front of a home crowd. In a video posted on the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) website, our ODI Captain Azhar Ali says he will play an international match in Pakistan for the first time. For an international cricketer, it is unthinkable that he has not played an international game in his own country, but that is how things are in Pakistan. Many cricketers in our current squad will be playing an international match for the very first time in their homeland.

I have often said to my Indian friends that you people take everything for granted, be it democracy or cricket but we do not. We simply cannot take anything for granted in a country where we hear bad news every single day, where we have seen our friends being attacked by terrorists, where we have seen our friends being killed, where we have seen how democratic governments cannot function because of conspiracies to destabilise their regimes, where we have seen children being massacred, where we have seen religious and ethnic minorities being target-killed, where we have seen progressive voices being silenced, where we have seen so much blood and gore that we think we have become immune to everything, until another horrendous terrorist attack shakes us. This is Pakistan. This is how we live.

Security in Lahore is extremely high due to the Zimbabwe series, but we don’t mind because it is important that nothing untoward happens during this tour. The measures taken by the government, the PCB and its staff, and our law enforcement agencies are commendable.

Today, I will be standing in the stadium along with thousands of other Pakistani fans and celebrate the return of cricket in my country. I know I will have tears in my eyes...tears of joy...because it is not often that we cry with joy. Mostly, our tears are full of pain and shock and disgust. Today, we will celebrate because cricket comes home...finally!

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Of courage and humanity

Last month, I wrote a column about silencing dissent in Pakistan when an academic discussion on Balochistan was cancelled by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) allegedly at the behest of the government and intelligence agencies. It was a disappointment for many at the university as well as our civil society. Sabeen Mahmud, founder of the Karachi-based cafe The Second Floor (T2F) and a peace activist, decided to hold the same talk at T2F. Titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’, the seminar went well. Sabeen posted pictures of the seminar on her Instagram feed. Later that evening, as she left T2F, Sabeen was gunned down in her car. Her assassination was absolutely shocking and devastating.

Sabeen was a remarkable, honest, hard-working and genuine person. It was courageous of Sabeen to hold a seminar on missing persons and Baloch rights. She took up causes because she truly believed in them; she did not want fame, money or anything else. The night of her assassination, a friend said: “Sabeen believed in the place she lived in.” She believed that people must talk; they must debate and discuss issues, however sensitive they may be. Like Sabeen, there are many who still believe in the place we live in but her brutal assassination makes me wonder whether it is of any use. One by one, voices of dissent are being silenced. The space for liberal discourse is shrinking. Each attack on a human rights activist is a huge setback for progressive and liberal people of Pakistan.

When fingers were pointed at intelligence agencies following Sabeen’s murder, a campaign was launched against those who dared to question the state institutions. I A Rehman raises a valid point in his Dawn column (‘Who is killing the good ones?’): “The people have no interest in putting any innocent person or group or service in the dock. They will be satisfied if the government can find the culprits (and no dead bodies, please). So long as that does not happen the aggrieved citizens will be free to arrive at their own conclusions, however unfounded or unfair to some that might seem...It is certainly unjust to accuse any agency of wrongdoing without a reason. But if an agency is routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong in the country its leaders must ponder the reasons for such unenviable popularity.”

Yesterday was the first death anniversary of lawyer and human rights activist Rashid Rehman. He had received death threats for defending Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University accused of blasphemy. Rehman had officially lodged a complaint with the District Bar Association president after he was threatened by two lawyers and two other persons who asked him not to appear in the case. Rehman was shot dead at his office in Multan.

People like Sabeen Mahmud and Rashid Rehman give us courage but at the same time their assassinations make us lose faith in the system and, above all, humanity. Thus, one must laud the Karachi University (KU) faculty, especially Dr Riaz Ahmed, who went ahead with a seminar on Balochistan on May 6 despite the KU administration’s directive not to hold it. People like Dr Riaz and all those who attended the seminar restore some faith in humanity despite all that is happening around us. It is time to salute courage, for courage is now a rare commodity in the land of the pure.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)