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)

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Goodbye, 2014

The year 2014 is over. Finally! It was a dark, depressing and disappointing year for my country, Pakistan. The year started with a brutal massacre of Shia Hazaras in Balochistan by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). During the year, there were many other devastating terrorist attacks. The year ended with more than a hundred children killed point-blank by the Taliban in a school in Peshawar. We want to forget, but we cannot. The pain of all these attacks cannot be wished away even if one wants to. Every day is a grim and gloomy reminder of our scars and then there is fear that the worst is yet to come.

Some people are optimistic that with the military brass and political class united to fight terrorism, things will get better. Unfortunately, the method they have chosen to deal with this menace of terrorism is not the right one. Lifting moratorium on death penalty and executing those on death row and/or establishing military courts is not a solution; it is another form of fighting barbarism by taking barbaric measures. Those who are willing to be suicide bombers will not be deterred by the possibility of hanging to death. As for military courts, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) rightly noted: “...trying civilians in military courts has always been a controversial issue and again one that the superior judiciary has opposed. The system of ‘speedy justice’ has never proved to be fair and often not speedy.” Military courts will not just undermine the superior judiciary but also our civilian leadership at the end of the day.

Instead of improving our justice system, introducing witness protection programme, providing security to judges and prosecutors, our politicians are handing the justice system over to our de facto rulers - the military. Our politicians must take responsibility and not shift it on to the military; a military that has already discredited them many a time in the past. It is time for our civilian leadership to stand up and be counted.

Who would not want terrorists to be punished for their barbaric deeds? We all do, but knee-jerk reactions in the face of a national tragedy - not unusual in this world - would hardly achieve anything. A concrete counter-terrorism policy is needed as well as doing away with the mindset that promotes religious radicalism. We cannot breed religious intolerance and terrorism for decades and think it can be routed overnight. Steps must be taken in order to root out the mindset that breeds terrorism and intolerance in our society: all terrorists - be they our ‘assets’ or not - should be put behind bars and tried for their crimes against humanity; terrorist sympathisers should be taken to task; there should be zero tolerance for mullahs preaching hate from their pulpits; hate speech/material should be banned; crimes committed in the name of religion should be dealt with in the most stringent of manners; textbooks being taught in our schools should be more pluralistic; the government must be get rid of discriminatory laws, etc.

Our unity should not turn into some barbaric form of revenge. If we have to show unity, we must show it to reclaim sanity. Here’s hoping that 2015 turns out to be a better year for Pakistan and for all of us.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A haunted nation

On December 16, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. At least 141 people lost their lives, 132 of them children. Many others are injured.

Writing about the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan's history - and we have seen countless terrorist attacks in the last decade - is extremely difficult. How does one pen down words when all you can feel is numbness? As my friend Umair Javed tweeted: “Don’t know how people are finding the time or mental space to analyse this tragedy’s cause and effect. Just lots of incoherent grief here.”

But it is not just incoherent grief one feels. There is more. Anger. Helplessness. Frustration. Shame. Horror. Disgust. And then grief hits you, once again. Three days have passed since the attack but there is no end to our grief. How can one remain calm when you see the images of the bloodied floors and walls of the school, when you see photographs of the children who have died, when you hear the accounts of the young survivors, when you see funerals all over the city of Peshawar? How?

The horror of this attack has jolted every Pakistani and millions around the world. Many of my journalist friends who visited Peshawar to report said they did not have the strength to do it because there was so much pain all around. Imagine: 132 school-going children, not older than 16 or maybe 17 at most, are no more. They were our future. Our future is no more.

One cannot even begin to imagine the pain of the families of the dead - parents whose children went to the school in the morning and returned in coffins. ‘The smallest coffins are the heaviest’ - these hauntingly heartbreaking words, shared on Twitter and Facebook, are terribly true. Killing children to ‘pay back’ the Pakistani state for carrying out military operations against them is not just barbaric or cruel, it is evil personified. The Taliban are that and more.

Dr Mohammad Taqi, a columnist, says that after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) - Imran Khan's party - came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it has given the TTP a virtual walkover in the outskirts of the provincial capital Peshawar. “The massacre at the Army Public School was not possible without the terrorist having a local support network and sanctuary,” says Taqi. He is of the view that while the law enforcement agencies, military and intelligence services all have the responsibility to pre-empt the tragic attacks like the one at the Army Public School, the buck stops with the political leadership of the province. Sadly, the PTI has been an absentee ruler, leaving the people of Peshawar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the mercy of the TTP. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has practically been without a chief minister since the PTI started its sit-in protests (which have now been called off in the wake of the tragedy) on August 14. Sherry Rehman rightly said that whoever is a friend of the terrorists is a traitor and Taliban apologists will be regarded as terrorists.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said there will be no distinction between good and bad Taliban; a distinction that has been part of our official policy. Our military and civilian leadership are guilty of supporting, aiding, abetting and appeasing terrorists of all hues and colour. There is certainly blood on their hands even if they did not pull the trigger themselves.

Peshawar massacre has no doubt shaken us but we need to make sure such attacks do not take place again. Military action against the TTP can only do so much. Our state needs to go after each and every jihadi on our soil, stop Saudi and local funding of madrassas and take action against hate speech, be it in mosques or anywhere else. Rising intolerance in our society can only be dealt with if these actions are taken. It is a do-or-die situation.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pakistan must aim for Taliban ideology, not just heads

The December 16 Taliban attack is the worst terrorist attack in the history of Pakistan.

Shahzad Iqbal, a journalist who reached Peshawar some hours after the attack, said to me there is extreme depression in the city. “You need a lot of strength and guts to visit the injured and I feel very weak to do that,” said Iqbal. When even professional journalists find it hard to report this horror, it shows that the scale of the tragedy is immeasurable.

The Taliban have a mission and they are hell-bent on achieving it. They have not just terrorised an entire nation but the entire world.

And they will not stop. There will be more attacks, some may be even more horrifying than the recent one. There is only one way to stop this cruelty: crush the Taliban. The state of Pakistan cannot eliminate them just by carrying out military operations. As yesterday’s Dawn editorial (‘New blood-soaked benchmark’, December 17) stated: “Military operations in Fata and counter-terrorism operations in the cities will amount to little more than fire-fighting unless there’s an attempt to attack the ideological roots of militancy and societal reach of militants.”

Pakistan’s military establishment has backed militant outfits for decades. Some of those terrorist organisations have now turned into Frankenstein’s monster by turning on their creators. Selective action against selective militant outfits is not the solution. Action must be taken against all terrorists operating on our soil, even if they are the state’s so-called ‘assets’ in its covert affairs.

Our political leadership also needs to get its act together and stop appeasing the Right. The ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan. The PTI, particularly Khan, has been the chief apologist of the TTP and literally rationalised TTP’s many attacks in the past.

Khan’s dogmatic views about the Taliban and his insistence on talking to them instead of dealing with them have led to further confusion. Marvi Sirmed, a newspaper columnist and human rights activist, says: “Imran Khan will have to now seriously think about what he has been doing…Khan, if he claims to be the ultimate messiah, has to grow a spine.”

If the most horrific attack cannot wake up Khan and his ilk from their Taliban-appeasing stupor, nothing ever will. If our leadership – be it the military establishment, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and/or Imran Khan – continue to mislead the nation by appeasing terrorists one way or another, we will die a slow, painful death.

(Originally published in Economic Times)

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Light and dark

Four different news items: three of them show the dark side of Pakistan while one of them - interlinked with the three in a way - shows how there are people who still give us hope in these difficult times.

One: ‘10 thalassemic children get HIV from transfusions’ (Dawn). The story says: “At least 10 children - between the ages of 5 and 16 - already afflicted with thalassemia, have tested positive for the HIV virus after allegedly receiving a transfusion of infected blood.” This story highlights how neglected our healthcare system is and how much more needs to be done. Ten lives of innocent children have been ruined because of medical, nay criminal, negligence. We do not know how many more lives have been destroyed in the same manner because nobody reported them. Just the other day, a friend was discussing how corruption is prevalent in the health sector in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab. Unfortunately, such stories rarely make it to our talk shows because human interest stories do not get enough ratings. Imran Khan’s dharna would surely get more ratings than a story on the healthcare system so most of our anchorpersons would rather do a political show.

Two: ‘Visually impaired protesters baton-charged’ (Dawn). According to the story, “Representatives of people with special needs accused police of beating up and manhandling the protesters to stop them from raising their demands on The International Day of Persons with Disabilities.” Ironic, is it not, that on a day when the world highlights issues faced by people with disabilities, our policemen beat the very people who had come out to raise their voice for their rights. It was shocking to see the footage of blind people being baton-charged by policemen. This incident was so appalling that no government spokesperson could say anything except condemn police brutality. People with disabilities already have to face countless difficulties every single day in a country like ours but this inhumane treatment shows how little we care for them.

Three: ‘Police open blasphemy investigation against Junaid Jamshed’ (Newsweek Pakistan). The story states: “Police on Tuesday opened a blasphemy investigation against pop star turned evangelical Muslim Junaid Jamshed after he was caught on camera making allegedly disparaging remarks about one of the wives of Islam’s Prophet.” Some of you may remember Pakistani hit single, ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ by Vital Signs. Junaid Jamshed was the lead vocalist. He is now affiliated with the Tableeghi Jamaat. The video in question shows his misogynist comments about women in general, where he also narrates an incident about Hazrat Ayesha (RA). Jamshed has been known to make misogynistic comments in the past but has never been called out by the religious right for his misogyny. Those who filed the case against him are people who condone misogyny but considered his negative comments about Hazrat Ayesha (RA) blasphemous. Even the Jamaat and Jamshed’s mentor Maulana Tariq Jamil had to distance themselves from Jamshed, who was quick to apologise. It remains to be seen whether his apology will be accepted or not. If it is accepted, it would certainly be asked why others accused of alleged blasphemy cannot be pardoned. The debate on blasphemy laws should certainly be reopened.

Four: ‘Asma Jahangir receives Right Livelihood Award’ (AP). It was indeed a proud moment for Pakistan. This year, Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize while Asma Jahangir won the ‘alternative Nobel’. Ms Jahangir is an inspiration for many, including me. She is courageous and never shies away from risking her life for the marginalised. As I wrote at the beginning of my column, Asma ji’s life gives us hope that despite the injustice in Pakistan, there are people who continue to raise their voice against the status quo and make a difference.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

We, the Pakistani fans

Cricket is very close to every Pakistani’s heart. When the country is going through a period of great upheaval, cricket has given us some kind of hope. After losing a T20 match and the ODI series, Pakistan beat Australia 2-0 in the Test series. On a high from the Australian series, Pakistan went on to defeat New Zealand in the first of the three Test match series. The second Test will conclude today (Friday); whether we manage to win it or end it in a draw remains to be seen.

The victory against Australia was all the more sweeter because the series saw skipper Misbah-ul-Haq equalling Sir Viv Richards’ record of fastest Test century and Younis Khan becoming the first Pakistani player to score a century against all 9 Test nations. The only things, albeit the most important ones, missing were actual home grounds and home crowds.

Terrorists attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore back in 2009. Since then, Pakistan has not played international cricket at home. It is not only a loss for Pakistani cricket fans but a huge setback for Pakistani cricketers as well. As Peter Oborne and Richard Heller noted in their article: “Their (Pakistan’s) teams shuttle for eleven months a year between foreign hotel rooms, cut off from the family and extended local networks that are so important to Pakistanis’ in any walk of life” (‘Let’s salute Misbah-ul-Haq and his exiled Pakistan cricket team for restoring national pride’, The Telegraph).

Roger Alton part of the first team to tour Pakistan since the 2009 attack, which was, as he puts it: “made up, largely, of elderly white blokes from London” wrote a touching piece in The Spectator on the return of international cricket in Pakistan recently. No one is sure when international cricket will make a comeback in Pakistan but return it must for we the fans feel sad even when we are elated, we feel a sense of loss even when we are on top of the world.

We celebrate when the Boys in Green win their matches but at the same time we are wistful because we would have liked to see and cheer Misbah-ul-Haq when he equalled Sir Viv’s record, when Younis Khan scored three consecutive Test hundreds against Australia, when Yasir Khan bowled those beautiful leggies, when our cricketers played superb cricket. Alas, we are only able to see it all on our television screens and not live in a stadium in Pakistan. When Rohit Sharma scored his magnificent 264 in front of his home crowd just recently, the high he felt must have been unmatchable not just because of his brilliant innings but also because his own countrymen could cheer him on their soil.

Pakistani cricket fans are an emotional lot, maybe more so than their Indian counterparts, so we get angry when we lose cricket matches but maybe we should give our cricketers a break; we cannot understand the pressure they go through of being away from their families and still performing under stressful conditions. Here’s to hoping that Pakistan keeps performing the way it is now and that international cricket returns to our soil sooner rather than later.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, November 07, 2014

Turmoil, turmoil everywhere

On Tuesday, a young Christian couple Shama and Shahzad in Kot Radha Kishan were beaten to a pulp by hundreds of villagers and thrown into a burning kiln. Shama was accused of desecrating the Holy Quran; she was pregnant at the time. Initial investigations reveal that there was a money dispute, as is usually the case when it comes to false blasphemy charges. Kasur police has registered a case against 600 villagers. This gory incident is a grim reminder of how religion is used to justify mob violence. The Prime Minister and Punjab Chief Minister have said that the killers will be brought to justice, but one cannot hope for justice in a country where men accused of blasphemy are killed in jail by police officers themselves.

Punjab Governor Shaheed Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy who is still on death row. Such is the tragedy of Pakistan. As Dawn newspaper noted in its editorial (‘A chilling episode of mob violence’, November 6, 2014) on Shama and Shazad’s gruesome murders, “Over time, the mob has intensified its violence in direct proportion to the government’s laxity and helplessness… What our politicians have failed to do so far is take notice of their own failure to fulfil a responsibility. Instead, what the rulers have done is to instruct the police to investigate a territory which the law enforcers are unequipped to handle and too scared to venture into.”

One wonders when anyone in the corridors of power will have the guts to reopen the debate on blasphemy laws. Our rulers just take ‘notice’ of such horrific incidents but justice is hardly ever served. Pakistani society’s intolerance is growing at the speed of light but nobody seems to be in a mood to deal with these developments. On the one hand, we have mob terrorism and on the other we have organised terrorism.

Terrorist attacks are quite common in Pakistan and to be honest, a lot of us have become immune to news of such attacks in places and cities we do not inhabit. But we are reminded of how precarious the situation is when a high-profile attack takes place. On Sunday, a suicide attack took place near Wagah after the parade at the border. At least 60 people lost their lives while more than a hundred were injured after the blast. Whether it was retaliation for the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan or an attempt at derailing the normalisation of Indo-Pak relations, the fact remains that terrorists can attack any place at will. To attack a heavily guarded site with such ease raises some important questions vis-à-vis security arrangements, especially when there was intelligence that Wagah could be a potential target.

As if we do not have enough on our plate, our political system is in turmoil thanks to dharna (sit-in) politics. It is hard to see any silver lining under the circumstances, as things are bound to get worse.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

The way forward

Shaheed Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18, 2007. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Karachi to welcome their beloved leader who was returning to her homeland after eight years of exile. Two explosions hit the rally, killing nearly 200 people and injuring hundreds more. Shaheed BB was assassinated on December 27 the same year, only two months after her return.

On the seventh anniversary of the Karsaz tragedy, Ms Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari held a huge rally in Karachi. It was a mammoth show of strength by the PPP — the largest since 2007. By choosing the day of BB’s arrival, the jalsa (rally) was not just aimed at launching Bilawal but to revive the memory of the charismatic Bhuttos. The 26-year-old Bilawal definitely invokes memories of both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shaheed Benazir in the hearts of the jiyalas (PPP loyalists). His looks, mannerisms, speech delivery are reminiscent of both his late grandfather and his mother.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came to power in 2008. Despite completing five years in power and a smooth transition after the 2013 elections, there was no smooth-sailing for the PPP government. From the courts to the media, from the military establishment to the opposition parties, the PPP faced a number of challenges during those five years. Due to its bad governance record and alleged corruption, the PPP was routed in Punjab in the 2013 elections. Its critics call it a regional party now, as the PPP was only able to form a government in Sindh, but its supporters feel the party still has a lot to offer and would be able to revive itself before the next general elections.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s primary objective should be the revival of the PPP’s popular constituency amongst the rural and urban poor besides creating a centre-Left pole of liberal and secular politics as opposed to the current Right vs Right contest in Pakistan’s political arena. In his recent speech, Mr Bhutto-Zardari touched upon issues that are closer to the hearts of the liberal and progressive intelligentsia. By talking about terrorism, religious extremism, sectarianism, Aasia Bibi, and other such issues that no other political leader would dare raise, Bilawal reminded one of ZAB and BB’s courage. However, the young Bhutto should not forget that he has a huge challenge facing him. Reviving past memory is not enough, though necessary.

The PPP is going through a metamorphosis and generational change. It is time for Bilawal to come up with a concrete social democratic programme, which will address the issue of poverty, face the challenge of extremism, develop a new narrative of an enlightened political party in the current situation. The PPP has to find new slogans that have an appeal for the new generation. As opposed to the extreme social stratification of the late 60s when the PPP was formed by ZAB, there is now a huge youth bulge in Pakistan whose aspirations and needs can only be addressed by improving our education system and its relationship with the market requirements of human resource. The PPP’s focus should be on greater social services and ensuring that the Sindh government delivers.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)