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)

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)