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)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Our different ways

Indeed the subcontinent has strange ways of doing the same things again and again without even expecting different results. We have a ceasefire agreement that we repeatedly break by rotation and blame one another without fail. Yet, the politicians, by rotation, try to embarrass their opponents in power for being cowardly. Not to be left behind is our media fanning jingoism without ever contemplating to report without bias. Never have we, on both sides, ever blamed our own side of any wrong.

A case in point is the current tension between India and Pakistan that has again escalated without any palpable justification. Thanks to our peculiar ways, both countries are playing their usual blame game. Pakistan maintains that its forces retaliated in response to ‘unprovoked shelling’ and Indian aggression, while India maintains the exact opposite. Unfortunately, those who have suffered have nowhere to turn. As Dawn noted in its editorial (‘Civilians in the crossfire’, October 9, 2014): “India blames Pakistan, Pakistan blames India; meanwhile, the worst sufferer is the civilian population on either side of the divide.” According to the BBC, this is the “biggest escalation in violence in the Kashmir region in years”. At least 19 people have lost their lives on both sides of the border, while dozens have been injured.

While these clashes go on, everyone – be it political parties, media, military – has gone an extra hawkish mile. From leaders of the Congress party and others in India settling scores with the ruling BJP to opposition parties in Pakistan trying to embarrass the PML-N government, we can see the height of political opportunism in both countries. Defence ministers of India and Pakistan have also been entangled in a war of words. The media on both sides, too, has turned nationalism into jingoism. Under normal circumstances, one would have been amused at reports in the Indian media that our troops fired at the Indian security forces due to Pakistan’s loss to India in the Asian Games hockey final. But, things are not normal, as 19 innocent people have died so far and a futile border conflict goes on despite a ceasefire agreement.

Many in Pakistan are bewildered as to why Pakistani forces would open its eastern border when it is heavily engaged in Operation Zarb-e-Azb on its western front. Some analysts believe that such an aggressive approach by the Indian security forces is because of the upcoming state elections in Haryana and Maharashtra, which the BJP is projected to be winning. Indians, on the other hand, think Pakistan wants to escalate tensions to give cover to its militants to cross over across the LoC. International pressure is also piling up on both countries to resolve the issue.

Frankly speaking, it is a moot point who fired the first shot as there is no independent source to confirm one side of the story or the other. Could we take pain to reconsider our ways of conducting state business and learn to live in a neighbourhood that is gratifying for both sides and not at each other’s expense? I have my doubts, since we are in the habit of living differently.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, September 26, 2014

A different revolution

A policeman shot two men in Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi yesterday. One of them lost his life, while the other was wounded. Both men were accused of blasphemy a charge punishable by death in Pakistan. While no death sentence has been carried out for those charged with blasphemy, non-profit organisation, ‘Life for All’ says that at least 48 blasphemy-accused have been killed extrajudicially. In most if not all cases these laws are misused by those wanting to settle property disputes, personal vendetta, etc. Both Muslims and non-Muslims have been targeted due to these laws. It is quite easy for anyone here to label someone else a ‘non-Muslim’ or accuse them of blasphemy, as there is hardly any accountability when a crime is committed in the name of religion.

For years, human rights organisations and activists have been asking that the blasphemy laws should either be scrapped, or at the very least reformed, so that they cannot be misused to settle scores. Once a person is charged with blasphemy, his/her life is at risk. Those critical of the controversial blasphemy laws are also in danger. T

he debate on blasphemy laws ended for all intents and purposes when two high-profile politicians were assassinated three years ago. In 2011, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by his bodyguard for speaking in defence of Aasia Bibi, a blasphemy-accused. Taseer’s murderer was treated like a hero by many. The same year, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down for the same reason. Human rights advocate Rashid Rehman was killed earlier this year for defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy. It is because of such incidents that lawyers are afraid of defending those accused of blasphemy, judges are afraid of dismissing the charges and most people are afraid of speaking vocally about the issue.

In trying to appease the religious Right, our rulers have made it impossible for people to question any laws made in the name of religion. Many people who have spoken about minority rights, incitement to violence in the name of religion, and other such sensitive issues have had to face threats at the hands of fundamentalists. Not everyone has the capacity to deal with the trauma of being hounded by the fundos, which is why a lot of people choose to stay away from sensitive issues.

More than a month has passed since the ‘dharna revolution’ started in the capital for electoral reforms and the ouster of this government. Such is the tragedy of this country that no dharnas (sit-ins) would ever take place here for the rights of the minorities and those arrested on false blasphemy charges because of fear… fear of those with guns and bombs. Pakistan needs a different sort of revolution. We need to revolutionise our mindsets in order to fight extremism. If we lose our battle against extremism, we would eventually lose our country. One hopes that some day we realise which battles are worth fighting for.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Civilian vs civilian

The way the word ‘revolution’ is being thrown around in Pakistani politics these days is comical and tragic at the same time. Two ‘revolutions’ Inqilab March (Revolution March) and Azadi March (Freedom March) are being led these days in Islamabad by Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri and chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan respectively.

Dr Qadri and his workers staged a sit-in because more than a dozen of his workers were killed during police action in Lahore back in June. The police and government refused to register an FIR until yesterday. The FIR has been registered against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his brother Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, amongst others. While Dr Qadri’s demand to register this FIR is legitimate, many are wondering at the drama being played out on the streets of Islamabad.

On the other hand, Imran Khan wants Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif to resign period. He has not only used filthy language for the prime minister and elected parliamentarians but the way he has addressed his opponents during his countless speeches in the past two weeks is unbecoming of a national ‘leader’. While both Qadri and Khan have succeeded in exerting enormous pressure on the government by staging a sit-in in front of Parliament House with thousands of their supporters, many believe they want to wrap up the entire democratic set-up. There is also speculation that violence may ensue if Qadri and Khan’s supporters decide to storm the buildings in the Red Zone.

If we take a look at the cast of usual suspects at both marches, we see the Chaudhry brothers of Q-League fame flanking Dr Qadri and Sheikh Rasheed et al at Khan’s protest. Those who are familiar with these characters know their strings are pulled by the powers that be. As Awami National Party’s (ANP’s) Bushra Gohar puts it, “All the king’s men have joined hands and are working on a prepared script.”

In the best case scenario, the prime minister will survive the recent crisis but he will lose a lot of his authority, which he had been trying to assert vis-à-vis the powerful establishment. In this case, it means that the civilians on the streets were successful in bringing down the civilians in the corridors of power. If the government survives, PM Sharif will not emerge as a winner. He would be considerably weakened, especially on the foreign policy front. It is believed that Sharif is being ‘cut to size’ for several reasons, especially because of his insistence on trying General Musharraf for treason and moves for regional peace. Most analysts believe it is because of these reasons that the establishment was unhappy with the Sharif government. The prime minister has met the army chief twice in three days.

In the worst case scenario, Qadri and Khan’s mobs can go out of control and create a situation leading to the breakdown of the constitutional machinery, which will provide the military the opportunity to once again emerge as political arbiters. Whether it will act in the mode of General Kakar or General Musharraf is an open question.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)