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)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hostilities no more

Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Dr TCA Raghavan, recently said that there is a need to remove misperceptions between New Delhi and Islamabad for the restoration of mutual trust. He said: “India and Pakistan should behave like normal trading partners...Fears that enhanced trade with India would result in Indian goods flooding Pakistani market, rendering local traders out of business, is misplaced.” Giving the example of China and India, Dr Raghavan emphasised how this is the way forward for countries to remove barriers in the larger interest of their nations.

The Indian High Commissioner is quite right. Despite the baggage of partition, territorial disputes and decades’ old hostilities, these two neighbouring countries can make way for peace and stability in the South Asian region by strengthening their trade ties. Once this hurdle is passed, the next step should be to have an easier visa regime between the two neighbours. One of the most significant reasons SAARC has not had much success is because of the continuous tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad. SAARC has the potential to be as successful, if not more, than the European Union but only if the two nuclear-armed neighbours decide to give peace a chance. If one looks at the election campaigns during the last three general elections in Pakistan, no mainstream political party has ever led an anti-India campaign. In fact, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), mainly won because it focused on domestic issues like power shortage, economic growth but, at the same time, it also promised to have peaceful relations and trade ties with India. It is no secret that PM Sharif is invested in the idea of peace with India. His voters have no objection to this policy either.

There was once a time that the people of Pakistan obsessed about India as much as our security establishment and the state. Not anymore. The average Pakistani does not obsess about India unless pressed or provoked on the issue. In that sense, the rivalry with India is becoming more and more passive at the societal level. It is only at the level of the hard right-wing organisations and the military establishment, where it still remains a pressing issue. Even the Pakistani media has changed over the years. Sociologist and political commentator Umair Javed says Pakistani media falls into jingoism when nudged along by the military establishment, but by and large, the media has almost inadvertently made Indian pop culture a major part of Pakistan’s urban life. Indian television shows, Bollywood news and gossip are often covered by the mainstream media without fuss. By and large, our politicians, media and our people have come a long way vis-a-vis India.

There are many Pakistanis who want to visit India and many Indians who want to visit Pakistan. If people-to-people contact through liberal visa policies could be encouraged, Indians and Pakistanis would be able to travel to each other’s countries and see for themselves what lies across the border(s). That would break many a stereotype. Trade and cultural ties would lead to economic growth and stability in the region. The two states must facilitate this process.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

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)