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)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How the Nawaz Sharif government failed to read Imran Khan's theatrics

With Islamabad coming under siege, notices of dramatic political change were posted by two so-called "revolutionaries". It was a different matter that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri claimed there were millions of people present at their respective sit-ins while official and independent sources put the numbers in thousands.

With nobody fully certain how things would go from the occupation of the capital's Red Zone on August 19, the matter of possibly inflated figures was almost an aside.

Their rhetoric could be gauged by their rallying cries. Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was leading the Azadi March (Freedom March), and Qadri, chief of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), his Inqilab March (Revolution March).

Khan, afflicted by a messiah complex, never really came to terms with his party's poor performance in last year's general election. From his original demand for an investigation into rigging in four constituencies, he broadened his agitation to different levels of vagueness. His core demand of electoral reform and audit were seen to be valid though he did himself no favour by repeatedly hurling accusations of rigging and corruption at not only the ruling party but also the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker set-up, members of the judiciary and even a television channel.

Journalist Najam Sethi, who was the caretaker chief minister of Punjab during the 2013 election, said that every domestic and foreign election monitoring team had declared the election as the fairest since 1970. Said Sethi: "When the government conceded Khan's demands by committing to electoral reforms as demanded by him and asking the Supreme Court to investigate the four constituencies, he shifted the goalpost and now seems intent on provoking an army intervention." To this end, Khan threatened to storm the Prime Minister House unless PM Nawaz Sharif resigned. Military spokesman Major-General Asim Bajwa tweeted on the night of August 19 that buildings in Islamabad's Red Zone were symbols of the state and being protected by the army.

The legendary cricketer is a master of drama and escalation. He asked his supporters to start a civil disobedience movement, announcing PTI's resignations from all assemblies, except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it is in power. Reports suggested that many PTI parliamentarians were not happy about the resignations, and these resignations were not immediately submitted.

But given Khan's flair for heightened spectacle, there was a general consensus that the all-party committee the Sharif government finally set up to talk to Khan at the nth minute should have been mandated a month ago to settle all issues with him, especially the charges of rigging. The government could have made the legal position on electoral petitions very clear early on (that is, the only competent authority are the tribunals, not government). It could have also set up an electoral reforms committee within a few months of taking charge, and most importantly, it could have made a requisite amendment to the People's Representation Act, 1976 that would have connected the Election Commission of Pakistan to the election tribunals, and so allowed the process of electoral audits to proceed at a greater pace than is the case now.

The marches on Islamabad came against reports of tension between the civilian government and the army. It is believed that Sharif's decision to not let former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, off without a trial has not gone down well with the Pakistani army. The military is also perturbed by the prime minister's peace and trade overtures to India and, to an extent, to Afghanistan. "It has tried to do a hard reset of the civil-military relationship balance through a soft coup d'etat," said columnist Mohammad Taqi. "The military created a crisis only to anoint itself as the ultimate arbiter of domestic political disputes as well retain its firm grip on foreign and national security policies."

In fact, talk of a technocratic set-up, the 'Bangladesh model', with the military in alliance with the judiciary installing an interim government, re-surfaced once again during the crisis. Army intervention, Sethi felt, would be disastrous for Pakistan, for political parties and for civil society.

"Certainly, the army cannot thrust Imran on Pakistan," he said, "through the backdoor because he does not represent Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan provinces and would be a red rag to the rest of Pakistan's ethnic and political communities. Indeed, a formidable opposition would rise to confront the military."

Who'd explain that to Imran Khan?

(Originally published in India Today)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Crime in the name of religion

Crimes in the name of religion are committed all over the world; Pakistan is no exception. Our rulers tell us that religious minorities are treated equally but the opposite is in fact true. In the ‘Land of the Pure’, threats, attacks, targeted killings of people from minority sects/other religions and different forms of religious hate crimes have risen considerably over the years.

A woman, her two minor granddaughters and an unborn child died earlier this week in Gujranwala, Punjab. Several others were injured. They did not die an accidental death. Their houses were set on fire on purpose by an angry mob. Footage from the scene showed people cheering while the houses were burning. These houses belonged to the minority Ahmadiyya community, a sect that has been persecuted over the decades in Pakistan after they were officially declared ‘non-Muslims’. In 2010, two Ahmadi mosques were attacked in Lahore. Around 100 Ahmadis lost their lives in those violent attacks. Shaheed Salmaan Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab, was one of the few high profile leaders to have condoled with the Ahmadiyya community publicly.

The ‘justification’ given for the recent atrocious act was an allegedly blasphemous Facebook post by a member of their family. An Ahmadiyya community spokesman denied the allegation of blasphemy and said it was “completely false”. The real reason was simply the fact that these people were Ahmadis.

The propaganda against the Ahmadiyya community is so widespread in our country that an attack against the Ahmadis is hardly ever condemned and is instead celebrated. Such is the fear of the Right that no outrage is expressed by our rulers when attacks against the Ahmadis take place. When Mian Nawaz Sharif expressed sadness over those attacks back then and called the Ahmadis his ‘brethren’, he was attacked by the rightwing media and the religious Right for it.

With the exception of some honourable journalists, most of the media in Pakistan has played a negative role when it comes to the minorities, especially the Ahmadis. Before the Gujranwala incident, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi — a religious scholar considered to be a ‘moderate’ mullah by some — made baseless allegations against the Ahmadis on a talk show. Such comments have led to incitement to violence in the past as had happened after Amir Liaquat’s show a few years ago. When a channel can virtually be taken off the air and a media group hounded for criticising the military establishment, why is no action taken against hatemongers spewing venom on our television screens?

It has become quite a norm in Pakistan to accuse someone falsely of committing blasphemy. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), blasphemy cases have risen from one in 2011 to at least 68 last year, and around 100 this year alone. Whenever one thinks that nothing can shock one any more, something terrible happens again and shakes our faith in humanity. The Gujranwala incident has done that and much more. The joy on the faces of the murderers of these innocent people will haunt our memories forever.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Whither humanity?

After nine days of death and destruction in Gaza, a ceasefire deal has finally been reached to end the fighting between Israel and Palestine. On the pretext of attacking Hamas, Israel has slaughtered hundreds of innocent Palestinians, including women and children, in the process. The pictures of those who have lost their loves ones are gut-wrenching while images of those who have died in these attacks leave one speechless.

There are those who try to justify Israeli violence by blaming Hamas and/or past Palestinian leadership. What they conveniently forget is that Israel has one of the best militaries in the world with an abundant supply of modern weapons while the Palestinians are no match for its military might.

They also tend to ignore Israel’s expansionist agenda, which seems to be getting worse every passing year. The suffering of the Palestinians in the last six decades is well-documented. The recent spate of violence has left more than 220 Palestinians dead, with more than 80 per cent of them civilians according to the UN.

Unfortunately, the international community as well as the Arab world has plunged into yet another exhibition of criminal apathy as innocents continue to die in Palestine due to Israeli aggression. In any other situation, this would be called an act of war and an illegal invasion, but Israel’s offensives are always ignored because of its strong US-backing.

It is not surprising that the US has adopted such a nonchalant attitude towards Israeli aggression. The US policy vis-à-vis Israel has always been the same, i.e. let Israel do whatever it wants regardless of the havoc it wreaks. And worse, provide justifications for its actions later.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said something deeply touching after visiting Gaza during the recent crisis: “First, never will even the most impressive television footage properly capture the depth of fear and despair felt in the homes and hearts of Gazans who are yet again facing death, devastation and displacement… Too often in their lives have Gazan civilians been denied their dignity. Anonymity in death or injury is the ultimate denial. It is also too comfortable for the world and the parties engaged in the hostilities. Palestinians are not statistics and we must never allow them to be treated as such. They are human beings like others in the world, with their identity and the same hopes and expectations for an improved future for their children.”

Israeli unilateralism and the west’s silence will only lead to more hate and bloodshed while nothing would be left of either the ‘Two State Solution’ or of the ‘Land for Peace’ policy. It has all but been washed away in a flood of violence.

Israel remains a threat to the peace process and would always loom as a treacherous shadow over Palestine. Unless and until the international community flexes its muscles and makes Israel realise it cannot get away with its blatant aggression, nothing in the Middle East will ever change. In fact, things would keep getting worse.

The solution suggested by the Economic and Political Weekly in its editorial a few years ago should be heeded: “Remove the lie of an independent Palestine, which has never been allowed to exist and will perhaps never be and demand the secularisation and democratisation of the state of Israel.”

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

The walking dead

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a heart-rending report titled ‘We are the Walking Dead’ on the plight of the Shia Hazara community in Balochistan. The 62-page report is an indictment of the state’s failure to protect Shias from being massacred by the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a banned militant group.

The accounts of Shia Hazaras interviewed by HRW will send shivers down anyone’s spine but the apathy shown by Pakistani authorities towards their plight is downright nauseating, to say the least.

According to the HRW report, “While the LeJ has continued to attack and kill with impunity, Pakistani authorities have responded by suggesting that the Hazara accept ever-increasing curbs on movement and religious observance, and ongoing economic, cultural and social discrimination as the price of security. The persistent failure of the authorities to apprehend attackers or prosecute militant group leaders claiming responsibility for the attacks suggests that the authorities are incompetent, indifferent, or possibly complicit in the attacks.” The Shia Hazaras are considered to be the one of the most peaceful communities in this country and yet they are being targeted mercilessly for their faith.

HRW’s Brad Adams says, “There is no travel route, no shopping trip, no school run, no work commute that is safe for the Hazara. The government’s failure to put an end to these attacks is as shocking as it is unacceptable.” Frankly speaking, hardly anything shocks us anymore. Apart from a handful of progressive and sane elements that raise their voice for the minorities, nobody even bats an eyelid when Shias or other religious minorities are target-killed.

It is the government’s responsibility to nab the murderers of Shia Hazaras but the way the authorities have turned a blind eye to the massacre, one is left with no hope of justice ever being served. Balochistan is a province heavily guarded by the military due to the Baloch insurgency so it is hard to imagine that the LeJ can operate there with immunity without state collusion.
The Shia Hazaras are indeed the walking dead; their murderers waiting to kill at will. Ahmadis, Shias, Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan live in extreme fear. Many of them have had to leave the country because of the state’s unwillingness to protect them.

The state patronage provided to extremist militant groups who target the minorities adds to their woes. Saudi influence is another huge factor when it comes to religious extremism in Pakistan. The Saudis keep pumping money into madrassas to fan sectarianism.

The state of Pakistan descended into chaos many decades ago but more alarming is that its society’s moral fabric is now fast eroding. Shaista Lodhi, a morning show host on Geo TV, had to flee the country after receiving death threats because ARY News host Mubasher Lucman accused that blasphemous content was aired in her show.

What can one expect from a country where a young girl like Malala Yousafzai is accused of being a foreign agent and where conspiracy theories abound regarding her shooting? In a country where a journalist who got shot six times is treated as a criminal rather than a victim, one can hardly expect any sympathy for the religious minorities.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Games of violence in Lahore

Eight innocent lives were lost on Tuesday in Lahore as a result of a police attack on the residence of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) leader Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri. Apparently, the police was sent there to remove barricades but what ensued was a bloody battle. The scenes on our television screens looked right out of some autocratic state where state brutality is a norm. One could hardly believe they were being beamed live from the middle of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.

According to the the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), “This is not the first incident in which the lack of police training and their capacity for crowd control without violence has been badly exposed. It is not likely to be the last. In fact, Tuesday’s incident makes it abundantly clear that there are no bounds to police brutality in action against political rivals of the parties in power.”

Police brutality is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan but firing live bullets on protesters, no matter how unruly they are, is not how democratic governments go about it. The order to remove those barriers reportedly came directly from the Punjab government, but in trying to show Dr Qadri and his supporters who the real ‘boss’ is, the Punjab police went overboard and ended up spilling innocent blood.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at a loss for words at his press conference. The responsibility now lies with him and his government to actually punish the culprits. The Punjab government and CM Shahbaz Sharif are known for coming down hard on their political rivals but one cannot comprehend how they could have given orders to shoot protesters. Thus, it is very important to find out who ordered that the shots be fired.

There are many who think that moves were afoot to destabilise the Nawaz Sharif regime way before this incident took place. When the likes of the Chaudhry brothers, Sheikh Rasheed and others joined the Qadri bandwagon, it seemed like a conspiracy hatched to either oust the Sharif government or weaken it. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri is known to be an establishment stooge, who has quite a following in this country despite being a Canadian citizen. There was already tension between the military establishment and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but the North Waziristan operation and an alleged deal on the Musharraf trial resolved the issue to a certain extent. Just when it seemed that the military and Sharif were on the same page again on these issues, the Lahore incident took place.

While there is no justification whatsoever for the deaths of innocent people, the timing is suspect. The military has certainly gained popularity because of the North Waziristan operation. The entire nation seems to be behind the armed forces in their fight against the Pakistani Taliban. Some analysts believe that the Lahore incident will either be used to cut Mian Nawaz Sharif to size by turning him into a lame-duck prime minister or it will pave the way for a technocratic setup. Unless the Sharif government deals with this issue properly and refrains from violence when Dr Qadri arrives in Pakistan, it will lose the game.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, June 06, 2014

A self-imploding media

The recent media wars in Pakistan have once again exposed the myth of ‘freedom of media’ in the country.

It all began with the attempt on the life of the country’s most famous anchorperson, Hamid Mir. The allegations made by Mir’s family against the ISI chief and the decision by Geo to repeatedly air them for the next few hours led to an unprecedented backlash against the country’s largest media group. One can have a debate on the merits and demerits of Geo’s coverage but since the Jang Group has already apologised for its “excessive, distressful and emotional” coverage, it would be an exercise in futility. The real, and more pertinent, debate should be about the way other media houses have dealt with the issue because the aftermath of Mir’s attack has left the Pakistani media in tatters.

According to Amnesty International, “Up to 80 percent of Jang Media Group’s distribution in print and on the airwaves has been disrupted by media industry bodies, apparently under the orders of the Pakistani military.” It is unfortunate that many people have commended this move instead of condemning it. What is more distressing, nay disgusting, is how other media houses have joined the ‘Ban Geo’ bandwagon instead of realising the potential damage such a move could have on the media itself. In their bid to please the military establishment, several media houses, journalists and analysts have outdone themselves.

The way some news channels and newspapers have ripped Jang/Geo apart is a classic example of hara-kiri. The Jang Media Group is no saint when it comes to following media ethics but no amount of corporate greed can justify the disgraceful behavior by its rival media groups during the recent crisis.

Amnesty International further added that several journalists from the Jang Group have “received daily threats and harassment by unknown individuals by phone and in person. Many dare not enter their offices or identify themselves as belonging to Geo TV or other Jang Media Group outlets for fear of being attacked.” Jang’s resident editor in Multan was brutally attacked last week. At a time like this, the journalist community should have shown some spine and stood up in solidarity with their comrades. Instead, some of them have justified the attacks on their fellow journalists while others remained silent at the plight of those working for the Jang Group. Even more shocking is how some well-respected senior journalists have turned this incident into an issue of Jang/Geo’s monopoly in the Pakistani media. Do they not realise that if the largest media house loses this ‘war’, the media will be the biggest loser in all this because no one would dare cross any ‘red lines’ again.

A practical civil war has started within the media — something even those who started this campaign against Jang/Geo could not have envisaged themselves. Some say it was bound to happen; the media thought it was too powerful and could not be taken to task for anything. Well, the military establishment and its cronies have shown us how the media can be cut to size. Delusions of grandeur and race for ratings have finally set the Pakistani media on the path to self-implosion. Let’s hope better sense prevails before it is too late.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)