Friday, April 11, 2014

We, the eternal losers

A senior journalist once said to me: “It’s good to see that you are still an idealist. Don’t ever change.” We were discussing the situation in Pakistan. The optimist — or rather ‘idealist’ — in me kept arguing with him that sanity will one day prevail in the land of the pure and this country will change for the better.

The next time I see him, I will let him know that I am no more an idealist. That the idealist in me has died. Even after the martyrdoms of Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Bashir Bilour and countless others, I remained an optimist. I thought things could not get any worse. Despite death threats to my friends and colleagues, I thought we must continue our battle against extremist narrative and challenge the status quo. The night my dear friend Raza Rumi was attacked, it finally dawned on me that I was wrong all along.

It was a miracle that Raza survived. His guard was critically injured while his 25-year-old driver Mustafa succumbed to injuries. Why was Raza targeted? Well, he spoke out against the military establishment’s flawed policies, he spoke up for the rights of the minorities, and most importantly, he called terrorists what they really were: i.e. terrorists. Honestly speaking, writing against terrorism or the status quo in the English press does not take many guts because we hardly matter. Those journalists who write in the vernacular or appear on local television channels and do the same are the real brave ones.

Raza was targeted because they knew he could influence public opinion as he was on national television almost every day, challenging their narrative. By now almost everyone has read Raza’s own account of what happened that night (for those of you who have not, you can read it here) so I will not go into the details but let me just say that his near-death experience shook me, for one, more than I could have ever imagined. It was too close to home. He taught me how to make proper chai (tea) some months ago; before that my tea-making skills were either a hit or a miss depending on my luck. Every time that I have made tea since the night Raza was attacked, I think of him and what would have happened if God forbid he had been critically injured or worse. The state has virtually given up on protecting Raza by plainly telling him that they cannot protect him if he steps out.

Days after the near-fatal attack on Raza, another senior journalist — Mr Imtiaz Alam — received death threats. He was threatened for the same reasons that Raza was attacked. Imtiaz sahib may not be afraid of death — he has been attacked before, he has spent many years in jail under both military and civilian governments for speaking out the truth — but I would like to know what this country would gain by our courage. Why would anyone want to put up a fight to save a state that blatantly tells you that you are on your own? Why would anyone risk their lives for a state that acts like a coward? Liberal and progressive people of Pakistan think they can somehow save their country from self-annihilation, but the attack on Raza and recent threats to Imtiaz sahib have made me realise that we are just being naïve.

It is hard, nay impossible, to save a state that wants to go down this path. Yes, we cannot and will not remain silent but sooner rather than later we will all be silenced one by one. And we shall all be the eternal losers, until the day we die.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Fundamental follies

Pakistan celebrated its Republic Day on March 23. This year too, our leaders paid lip-service to the founding father’s vision of a country where everyone would be treated equally regardless of his/her religion or caste or creed. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Minorities, especially religious minorities, have had a tough time in this country.

Our rulers — both military and civilian — have let us down when it comes to the rights of minorities. Burning of Hindu temples, attacking Christian churches and burning of Christian localities, target-killing of Ahmadis and attacks on Ahmadi mosques, Shias being target killed on a regular basis and other such minority rights violations are a black mark on Jinnah’s vision. Our laws have not helped matters either. Blasphemy laws are a stark reminder of how they can be misused to persecute innocents in the name of religion. The assassinations of Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti due to their unwavering commitment to minority rights should have been a wake-up call to the rulers of this country. Instead, their martyrdom resulted in ending the debate on amending or repealing the blasphemy laws altogether.

Pakistan was not meant to be an Islamic state for all Muslims of the subcontinent; had it been the case, all Muslims would have moved to this side of the border. Muslims of minority regions in the subcontinent were at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement. Barring East Bengal, the partition of united India by the British led to the country being created in those areas where there was no mass movement for a new state. Partition created a fissure in the historical process. It is because of this reason that Muslim League leaders from minority provinces then invented a new ideology and gave an ideological colour to the new state because they lacked a constituency there. They subscribed to the notion that Pakistan was to be a state that would become a laboratory of an Islamic state. This was in clear negation of the 1940 Resolution as there was no reference to this new country being a religious state in the resolution. The adoption of the Objectives Resolution in 1949 and further amendments in all constitutions that followed resulted in making religion part of the business of the state.

The Sharif government and our army have now decided to become part of the anti-Shia bloc in the Middle East. Opening up an anti-Shia front will not just lead to consequences internationally but will lead to the worst civil war this country has ever seen. As Mr Najam Sethi wrote in his editorial (‘Leasing out Pakistan’, The Friday Times) last week, the Pakistani ruling classes and military establishment “are rolling up their sleeves to stir the Middle-East cauldron at the behest of a rich ‘friend’ … We are making another irrevocable blunder.”

The rise of fundamentalism in this country is because of the flawed policies of both military and civilian regimes. Instead of learning from history, we are hell bent on repeating the same old mistakes. It is high time that our rulers stop renting out our state to the rich and the mighty and should rather work for the welfare of our own people.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Democracy and terrorism

“Liberal newspaper Express Tribune cowed into silence by Pakistani Taliban,” reads a headline of The Guardian. Those of us in the media had of course heard about a policy shift after a second attack on Express’s Karachi offices last year and now it is out in the open as well. It is tragic that a liberal newspaper had to take such measures because they feel they are on their own and no one is willing to protect them.

Senior journalist Imtiaz Alam, who hosts two weekly programmes on state-owned Pakistan Television (PTV) and two weekly programmes on private TV channel Express News, says that everyone in the media should put up a united front to counter these threats. “Express Tribune is under serious threat because of its consistent radical position. They have been terrorised into silence because of the last attack in Karachi, which was a clear message. Similarly, other media persons who are vocal against militants also feel this threat. Media groups should not be silent on the plight of the other because tomorrow they would meet the same fate. An attack on one media house should be taken as an attack on the media as a whole,” says Alam.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Pakistani media does not feel this way. During the last few weeks, all we saw on talk shows (barring a few honourable exceptions) was various Taliban apologists and/or their representatives telling the government to talk to the Taliban and telling the people of this country to adopt Shariah (i.e. Taliban’s version of Shariah). Pakistan may be a conservative society and one where intolerance is rising day by day but it is certainly not a country ready for the imposition of Taliban’s Shariah. So, to have debates on what kind of Shariah should be imposed was rather meaningless, but at the same time it was quite disturbing.

In the meantime, the government’s response was neither here nor there, and can at best be termed ambiguous. From saying we want peace in the country and thus we are open to talks with the Taliban to carrying out air strikes in the tribal areas further confused the nation. Despite the national security policy that has finally been presented in the National Assembly, we still do not know for sure how the state will deal with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Some people are fast losing their patience with a democratic system because of this government’s noncommittal attitude vis-à-vis terrorism but all those who think a military dictatorship or a technocratic setup would solve our problems need to smell the coffee. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s tweet put it quite aptly: “Dictatorships are the incubators of terrorism. There is no longterm solution to terrorism without democracy.”

From his speech on the sixth martyrdom anniversary of his mother, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, on December 27 to his speech at the closing ceremony of the Sindh Festival on February 15, Mr Bhutto-Zardari has been making all the right noises lately. Those who heard his speech in Thatta last month were of the opinion that it sent shivers down their spines and they were fearful for this young man’s life. He called the Taliban ‘vehshi darinday’ (barbaric animals) and said he would make an example out of them – “I am the voice of the martyrs … even your own families would not come to your funerals and no one would be willing to give a shoulder to your dead bodies,” he said. No wonder then that the terrorists wanted to target Mr Bhutto-Zardari. Intelligence agencies apprehended a vehicle laden with 120 kg of explosive material that was meant to target Mr Bhutto-Zardari in Karachi.

The PPP, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are vocal against the Taliban and other terrorist organisations; the government in power needs to do the same. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should not bow down just because he is afraid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) making inroads into Punjab. The PTI has already confused the youth of this nation to no end as far as terrorism and extremism are concerned. This war may not have been ours to begin with but how can we deny it is our war now that more than 50,000 Pakistanis have been killed by these barbarians? It is time to show the PTI and its affiliates that the state of Pakistan is not willing to negotiate with terrorists. Enough innocent blood has been spilled already. Things will not change overnight but if democracy continues to flourish in this country and the establishment’s flawed policies are scrapped, Pakistan would finally become a peaceful country.

(Originally published in Pragati)

To talk or not to talk...

Talks, no talks…operation, half-hearted operation, no operation…end result: confusion. Despite the federal cabinet’s approval of a national security policy and air strikes against suspected TTP hideouts in the tribal areas, there is still confusion regarding the question of talks with the TTP and/or a military operation in North Waziristan.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz says the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is not serious about peace talks while Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan says the government would still prefer the route of peace talks with the TTP.

There are those who argue that the military wants an operation in North Waziristan but is waiting for a nod from the government while the government is still waiting for a parliamentary consensus on the issue. In a strong democratic country, this argument would have been valid but in a country where the military is the most powerful institution, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Pakistan’s military did not wait for a nod from the civilians before launching a military operation in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and it certainly does not care what the civilians have to say about the military operation in Balochistan. This is not to say that the army is not pushing for an operation but we will have to wait and see what kind of an operation it would be. Others say the air strikes are only meant to weaken the TTP to an extent so that when it starts negotiating with the government again, the state is in a powerful position to make them agree to its terms. This seems a bit farfetched given that the TTP does not recognise Pakistan’s constitution and is not willing to lay down arms. Then there are those who say that the PML-N government is afraid of launching an operation in the tribal areas because it fears there will be a strong backlash in the form of terrorist attacks in Punjab. This seems more logical given that Punjab has so far been the least affected province. Terrorists have not shown their mighty wrath in the province because the state has largely turned a blind eye to the activities of banned terrorist outfits in the province. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, in his recent statements, has alluded to the fact that Punjab is on high alert because of the imminent operation in North Waziristan and a crackdown of sorts is taking place in the province. Blowback in Punjab in inevitable but this should not deter the government from taking action.

We saw in the 2013 elections how Punjab was the only province where the election campaign was rather uneventful and both the PML-N and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) remained unscathed by violence. On the other hand, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were targeted by the TTP and its affiliates. Despite being targeted by the Taliban and consequent setbacks in the elections, these three parties have remained steadfast in calling out the terrorists. The PML-N and PTI should learn some lessons and understand that mealy-mouthed response to terrorist attacks is not what this country needs. Pakistan has already suffered a great deal at the hands of terrorists. Now the state needs to tackle this menace at any cost.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

One step at a time

On Thursday, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for an explosion targeting a police bus in Karachi. Thirteen people lost their lives and 47 were wounded in the attack. The TTP spokesman said their “defensive war will continue until an agreement is reached on a ceasefire” between the government and the Taliban.

Instead of condemning the TTP, their apologists in politics, media and society continue to lay the blame elsewhere. They always come up with an excuse: some ‘third force’ is responsible for these attacks; the Taliban are innocent.

Paranoia and schizophrenia: two words that best describe the current frame of mind of many Pakistanis. We think the world is out to get us while we turn a blind eye to the enemy within: i.e. the Taliban and their affiliates. The government is hell-bent on talking to the Taliban; the same Taliban who continue to bomb our civilians and security forces alike. With each passing day, we cement the path for self-destruction.

The optimist in me says this too shall pass; the pessimist says, ‘Dil ke behlaanay ko Ghalib, yeh khayaal acha hai.’ What gives me hope is that in the midst of all this violence, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is trying to do something different. The PPP’s young scion, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and the Sindh government organised the Sindh Festival (February 1-15) to reclaim our past and glorious culture. The opening ceremony of the Sindh Festival was held in the historic Mohenjo-Daro.

Raza Rumi, journalist and a culture enthusiast, feels the festival is a watershed of sorts in the current political climate of Pakistan where the Right is preparing to hand over the state to the extremists. He said, “As a stark contrast, the Sindh Festival revives the pluralistic and secular past and present of Pakistan. Pakistan is neither a jihadi state nor a product of imported ideologies because it is the continuum of a 5,000-year-old civilisation. Sindh Fest unwittingly emerges as a symbol of hope for an enlightened Pakistan sometime in the future.” This festival is a good reminder for those who think that our history began with Mohammad Bin Qasim that we had the great Indus Valley Civilisation way before he set foot on our soil. This is not to say that holding such festivals alone can counter the extremist tide without any meaningful action by the state against terrorists but when we start taking pride in our heritage, only then can we begin to realise how these terrorists are destroying the very fabric of our society.

Most people in Pakistan are not very familiar with our ancient history. This is obviously something we need to tackle and urgently. Reclaiming our past by owning (and proudly so) our culture and heritage brings us one step closer to pluralism and tolerance. What we need today is more tolerance and less bigotry. Our state needs to play its part in changing this society for the better. The sooner the state realises this, the better.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Politics or culture

A political event, a cultural extravaganza, an attempt to seize back the mantle of secularism, a platform to recast the past, a private party or all of it together

“I hereby declare emergency” are words that have terrorised millions of democracy-loving Pakistanis in the past. But, the way Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari played on these words was witty and profound at the same time.

In a promotional video for the Sindh Festival, Bilawal addressed the nation in a televised address in the same vein as that of Pakistani military dictators. But, unlike the generals, he declared a ‘cultural coup’ instead of a military coup d’état.

It was refreshing to see this humorous take on coups by a civilian leader.

Those who think such festivals are not promoting our culture need to brush up on their history. From paying tribute to the Indus Valley Civilisation through a tableau to a fashion show with songs and dance routines, from a laser show to pop songs, Mohenjo-Daro was the perfect backdrop for a highly entertaining launch ceremony of the Sindh Festival and provided a platform for our past and present alike. Bilawal is slowly but surely seizing back the mantle of secularism through this festival.

“Sindh Festival is a political event, lightly disguised as a cultural extravaganza,” says The Guardian’s Jon Boone. He felt the opening ceremony was at one level just a bit of kitsch fun, owing more to the Lux Style Awards than traditional Sindhi culture. “In reality it was all about introducing Bilawal as a young man determined to push back against the country’s righ-wing, religious killjoys. It’s hard not to admire his chutzpah, but he’s gambling on the existence of a silent majority who agrees with him.”

From the controversy surrounding the damage this event could do to the ancient ruins to being touted as a private party, the opening ceremony at Mohenjo-Daro was criticised for a number of reasons.

While some of the criticism may be justified, credit must be given where it is due.

In a country that does not take pride in its pre-Islamic 5,000-year-old heritage because of rapid Arabisation, the opening ceremony paid rich tribute to Sindhu Kingdom and culture. The tableau at the beginning of the ceremony was slightly provocative as it depicted the pagan culture. But those of us who feel claustrophobic in a society where intolerance for other religions is increasing with every passing moment, it was indeed a treat to watch. Pakistanis should rejoice that a mainstream political party and provincial government are reclaiming our past.

Suhasini Haidar, Foreign Affairs Editor CNN-IBN, was the only Indian journalist at the Mohenjo-Daro opening ceremony. She says that as Indians, they are brought up on the rich history of Indus Valley Civilisation and the wonder that it existed 5,000 years ago but whenever she has spoken to her Pakistani friends about it, they haven’t been so enthused — because their history books haven’t emphasised their heritage quite as much. “To that end, I think Bilawal Bhutto is making an important political statement, by owning this part of Pakistan’s history,” she says.

Haidar feels the Sindh government has succeeded in lightening and brightening the atmosphere that has been sombre because of all the violence.

The festival could certainly have done without the unnecessary controversy surrounding the venue. Saadaan Peerzada, Chief Operating Officer Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, says the look of the venue largely depends on the creativity of the art director. If given a chance, he says, he would have done things differently. “Depending on the space available, I would have preferred to set the stage/entertainment area away from the heritage site, and allowed people to maybe roam around just as they would do if they were visiting Mohenjo-Daro. We have to be very careful when we go into such fragile spaces,” he says.

However, Peerzada hailed the festival as a good initiative taken by the Sindh government and gave them credit for putting up a great show, despite the criticism. “Under the current climate, this is the worst cultural time in Pakistan. Art is not being looked at as a long-term solution. Cultural activities should not be restricted to just one province. Governments need to hold such events in provinces throughout the country. The impact of such events would be greater if such activities/events were promoted. Even organisations such as ours needs funding and sponsorship. Sindh Festival, though an excellent initiative, should not just be used as a political slogan but should be sustained for years to come,” says Peerzada.

Similar thoughts were echoed by singer Ali Aftab Saeed, who performed at the opening ceremony. He feels that the reason why no concerts or other such events are organised by the private sector is because of the high entertainment tax. Saeed says while the Sindh Festival has a political message vis-à-vis countering extremism, all governments — provincial and federal — need to do more in this regard.

When asked how he felt about performing at a huge event like this in the presence of bigwigs like Saeen Zahoor and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Saeed said if it were not for Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, he doubts that youngsters like him and Ali Gul Pir would have been part of the celebrations. “It is all about young and new leadership. There are not many politicians who are active on social media. Since BBZ is quite active on social media, he knows that young artistes like us have a fan following.”

Saeed, who composed the song ‘Chalte jaana’ in just two days, overshadowed other performers at the event.

If truth be told, Rahat Fateh Ali’s performance lacked the energy that Ali Gul Pir and Ali Aftab Saeed provided. Young and hip, these two Alis are certainly going to give music giants a run for their money.

To fight obscurantist forces and their warped ideology, the federal government and all provincial governments need to come together and promote culture. It is being said that privately some politicians of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have also commended the Sindh Festival and want to emulate it in Punjab. If it is indeed true, the credit for reviving cultural activities in Pakistan should go to the young PPP heir.

(Originally published in TNS)

my interview with ADH on Sindh Fest

Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch Pakistan Director and human rights activist, talks about the Sindh Festival, its purpose, and how it reflects on Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari

The News on Sunday: Is the Sindh Festival about politics or culture?

Ali Dayan Hasan: The Sindh Festival is primarily a celebration of history, culture and heritage. It aims to preserve and advance the same.
In the face of an armed onslaught, such a statement of cultural assertion is of course, political. Extremists want to define who we are and to take away the power from us to do so. The Taliban and affiliates are adept at using cultural destruction as a means of asserting ideological control.
If Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is using his political capital to fight this, it can only be for the better. Other politicians should do so too and one hopes they will. Political support and ownership of such initiatives across Pakistan would be welcome.

TNS: Do you think a cultural celebration or propagation can have meaningful impact of the kind you suggest?

ADH: I think it is a well-intentioned attempt to give culture and history a more central place in the national conversation. It is identity politics at its inclusive, tolerant best. Personally, I am from the province and identify with the cultural complexity the festival aims to present. I see it as Sindh in conversation with itself and the rest of Pakistan. This conversation was long-overdue anyway. The festival’s mix of tradition and fusion presents an opportunity to see Sindh as a diverse living dynamic region rather than just a function of clichés about feudalism and ethnic fault-lines. In fact, it deploys culture and its expression to cut through and make redundant the politics of exclusionary ethnicity and the “urban-rural divide”.

TNS: What evidence is there to suggest that the festival attempts to overcome ethnicity or that it can in fact succeed in doing the same?

ADH: I think the festival presents a generational response to questions of history and identity. It assumes that young people — urban and rural — in Sindh can be united through common goals and aspirations. They appreciate history, art, film along with their pre-Islamic and Sufi heritage. It is simple: here you have an event that begins by taking Karachi to Mohenjo-Daro and then goes back and forth between the rest of Sindh and its epicentre in Karachi. It does not see culture in terms of ethnic parochialism but inclusivity.
Ali Aftab Saeed and Beygairat Brigade, young men from Lahore, have sung in Urdu the most joyful celebration of Sindh heard in recent times. Ali Gul Pir has reinterpreted his fabulous satire “Waderay ka beta” into the aspirational “Pakistan ka beta”. And in “Super Saeen” he both mocks and reinvents perceptions surrounding the word “Saeen”. It appears Sindhis can rap as well as appreciate the Kafi. This rejection of geographical, ethnic and linguistic divisions is both unprecedented and desirable. And it is expressed through popular cultural signifiers that have the capacity to long outlive the two-week long event.

TNS: The opening ceremony at Mohenjo-Daro caused some controversy. Wasn’t it irresponsible of the organisers to risk harm to the fragile heritage site by holding a public event there?

ADH: I am neither an archaeologist nor a conservationist so I am not equipped to offer an informed opinion. But I can tell you that at the Sindh Festival curtain-raiser at Mohatta Palace Museum, one of the speakers was Professor Michael Jansen, a leading international expert on Mohenjo-Daro and Unesco’s senior advisor on Pakistan’s world heritage sites. Given Professor Jansen’s involvement, his stature and his affiliations, it would be reasonable to assume due diligence by the organisers and considered approval by the expert.
In any event, all appears to be well as the site has reopened to the public, been photographed and no damage has been reported. I think there is a silver lining to this: we know that we had 20 years or so to save Mohenjo-Daro before the opening ceremony and we have 20 years or so now. So, let’s start.

TNS: What do you think this festival says about the political leadership potential of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari?

ADH:
As I am not into crystal-gazing, I cannot say what it means politically for Bilawal Bhutto. Certainly, between now and 2018, he has a long way to go and it remains to be seen if he can sustain this outreach and if it will translate into electoral gain. In any case, good governance is a different beast from good politics. And of course, the PPP’s governance record leaves a lot to be desired. But as a Karachi-ite by birth, and an individual whose family has been devoted to sustaining and nurturing culture and tolerance through education in the city and the province for generations, I am grateful for the Sindh Festival, the platform it provides and the values it espouses.

(Originally published in TNS)

Friday, January 31, 2014

No more resilience

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds” ― Laurell K. Hamilton

This quote reminded me of what a Hazara man told someone after the recent Shia carnage in Mastung, Balochistan. The man, who lost his wife and daughters in a suicide attack on Shia pilgrims, said: “Yeh jo mai aap ko dikh raha hoon na, yeh mai nahi hoon. Andar se mai khaali hoon abb” [What you see is not what I am. I am completely empty from inside now]. After every attack on the Shias, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claims responsibility but the state does not budge. A crackdown against the LeJ was announced after the Mastung attack but, as expected, it was only a sham exercise.

Shia Muslims are being killed across the country while their killers roam our streets with impunity. When one condemns these attacks, nay genocide, one is asked why just condemn Shia killings and why not other attacks. The answer is simple: while one does indeed condemn all murders, the reason we need to highlight Shia genocide is because they are being killed for their ‘sect’ in this land of the (im)pure. While there is no dearth of terror attacks, other victims of terror in Pakistan are not asked to step down from a bus and show their identity cards to see whether their name is ‘Shia’ enough or not; one is not target-killed for either going to or coming back from performing Hajj or Umrah in Saudi Arabia, one is target-killed either when they are en route to or coming back from ziyaarat (pilgrimage) in Iran; one is not killed because of slogans like ‘Kaafir, kaafir…Shia kaafir’. Death of an innocent is heart-wrenching as it is but when you are specifically being hounded because you belong to a different sect, it makes life all the more difficult. You know your country and society have hit rock-bottom when a conversation between a six-year-old and an 11-year-old revolves around the fact they can both be killed because they have Shia ‘names’.

Every day there is violence in the form of targeted killings, bomb blasts, suicide attacks, etc. Every day one dreads to turn on the television because one bad news after another has now become the norm. Every day is a struggle for people in Pakistan. Every day one thinks whether one should stay in this country or leave it (even if it means living like a second-class citizen in another country).

Unfortunately for us Pakistanis, our state really does not give a damn as is evident from this ironic twist of fate that our prime minister – who made a guest appearance in the National Assembly after more than seven months (please note that he assumed office just eight months ago) – has decided to give the Taliban ‘another’ chance as the Dawn headline puts it. How long will our military and civilian rulers keep giving ‘another’ chance to mass murderers? We are sick and tired of being called a resilient nation. We do not need resilience any more; resilience can go shove itself where it belongs. We need our rulers to take charge and eradicate terrorism once and for all. Enough!

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Que sera, sera

“…And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts.”

These lines from Christopher Marlowe’s famous play ‘Doctor Faustus’ have a different context yet they remind me of a brave Pakistani teenager, Aitzaz Hasan – a 15-year-old boy who embraced martyrdom when he confronted a suicide bomber who wanted to bomb his school in Ibrahimzai, Hangu. The list of brave people in Pakistan is long: brave teenagers (be it Shaheed Aitzaz or the living legend Malala), brave leaders (Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Shaheed Salmaan Taseer, Shaheed Bashir Bilour), brave cops, brave soldiers… and it will get longer if our state keeps paying lip-service to the bravery of these people without doing anything substantial to address the issue of terrorism, extremism and religious intolerance. I am not sure if God intends “harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts” in Pakistan but I do know that Aitzaz Hasan’s martyrdom has had no effect on the terrorist sympathisers/appeasers at the state level.

A posthumous bravery award, tributes from the army chief, prime minister, etc., mean absolutely nothing if the state is unwilling to take action against the Taliban and their terrorist allies. Why should the sacrifice of a 15-year-old boy, who had much to see, go in vain? As much as it pains me to say it, young Aitzaz’s huge sacrifice will eventually come to nothing because of the flawed policies of our military establishment and the cowardice of some of our politicians (read the ruling party at the federal level and the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). The military considers the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) an enemy but terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are not considered enemies despite the fact that they are operating alongside the TTP. Terrorist outfits like the LeJ, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), et al, are as bad as the TTP, yet the military is not willing to go after them because of vested interest. Our political leadership is not ready to confront the menace of terrorism either out of cowardice or reasons best known to them -- and them alone. The people of Pakistan are constantly being misled by leaders like Imran Khan who still have the audacity to say that we should ‘talk’ to the Taliban. What good talking to these monsters will achieve is beyond my comprehension but one thing is clear: we cannot go on this path of self-destruction.

The lyrics of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ (Whatever will be, will be) remind one of life in Pakistan. We really do not know what awaits us: whether we will live to see tomorrow or not, whether another young Aitzaz will have to tackle another suicide bomber to save hundreds of lives or not, whether this state will continue to self-implode or get its act together or not…whatever will be, will be. Here is to hoping that our military and civilian leadership get their heads out of the sand in 2014 and save Pakistan before it is too late.

(Originally published in Mid-Day)

Friday, January 03, 2014

The son also rises

Six years ago, Pakistan lost a brave – if not the bravest – leader, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Six years is a long time but every year on December 27, we mourn her martyrdom; we cry for a leader loved by millions of Pakistanis.

In an interview with the Herald in 2000, BB said: “Either the democratic forces win or the establishment wins. If the establishment wins, the past will be repeated and that is what has happened for 50 years. If the democratic forces win, maybe the 21st century will be different for Pakistan. It is a fight and we are unable to say who will be the winner. But then, democracy is also about evolution. And democracy is also about fighting for what you believe is right and not giving up.” Benazir Bhutto did not give up on her country, she did not give up on the people of Pakistan, she did not give up on democracy; she knew she could be, nay would be, killed but she came back to fight for a democratic and pluralistic Pakistan.

“2018 belongs to Bilawal,” said a senior journalist after hearing Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP’s) patron-in-chief’s impassioned speech on BB Shaheed’s sixth death anniversary. Many people lost hope after her assassination but on December 27, 2013, their hopes were reignited by her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Nobody can ever replace BB Shaheed but in her son, her jiyalas see their new and true leader.

He may be a ‘kid’ but this 25-year-old boy has done what most men double his age are afraid to do. Not only did he openly challenge the Taliban and their sympathisers but his secular, progressive and pro-people vision was there for all to see. His courageous speech reminded one of BB Shaheed’s valour. When he said, “Dehshatgardon ke jo Yaar hain, Ghaddar hain, Ghaddar hain” [Friends of terrorists are traitors], Mr Bhutto-Zardari provided this country with a much-needed alternative to rightwing politics.

For far too long, Pakistani politics has been dominated by rightwing, centre-Right and extreme-Right political parties but now the PPP is trying to go back to its Left-of-Centre roots. Whether the young patron-in-chief can deliver on his promises or not remains to be seen but in a country where the most popular prime minister (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) Pakistan has ever seen was hanged by a military dictator, where the most beloved leader (Benazir Bhutto) was assassinated in front of her followers, where the most populous province’s sitting Governor (Salmaan Taseer) was assassinated in broad daylight because he dared to defend an innocent Christian woman charged with alleged blasphemy, Bilawal’s clear vision against military dictatorship, terrorism, extremism and militancy must be lauded. One does not have to be a PPP supporter to know that it takes guts to say what he did. Pakistan can certainly become a truly democratic and strong country if we have more such youngsters amongst our midst. BB Shaheed, you must be proud of your children; so are we.

On another note, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is on trial for treason. He may leave the country on one pretext or another to save his skin but a former army chief being tried for treason means Pakistan has come a long way. Long live democracy!

(Originally published in Mid-Day)