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A haunted nation

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

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

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

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 …

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 d…

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 o…

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 violen…

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 Part…

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…

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 blas…

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…

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 cons…

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…

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 pe…

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 incompe…

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, i…

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…

Chance to reboot ties

Nawaz Sharif's first meeting with Narendra Modi sparked censure in Pakistan but dialogue shouldn't remain hostage to old rhetoric

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not ruin Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony by unpleasant or embarrassing statements about UN resolutions or jugular veins. But India's Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was not so polite. She focused squarely on the Mumbai terror attack and demanded a swift trial of the seven Pakistanis accused of orchestrating it. Sharif was risking brutal censure back home for not mentioning the 'K' word even as Singh was playing to the gallery. Should Nawaz have accepted the invitation in the first place if the outcome was going to be so one-sided?

The perennial naysayers are already shaking their heads in disgust: Nawaz foolishly went the extra mile and Modi brutally stopped him in his tracks. Nawaz expressed a desire to move forward unconditionally and stressed the importance of trade and people-to-peop…

The Shining

Narendra Modi won the Indian elections with a landslide victory. It was certainly quite a disappointment for many around the world to see a man accused of being complicit in a communal pogrom all set to become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. Some Pakistanis tweeted critically about Modi’s win but were told to mind their own business and look at the mess Pakistan is in.

When Sherry Rehman and some other Pakistanis raised a question about the number of Muslim MPs in the newly elected Lok Sabha, they received flak for it. A lot of Indian Muslims felt offended that Pakistanis were showing ‘concern’ about them while many others ‘reminded’ Pakistanis of the treatment meted out to the minorities in our country. Those tweets were not condescending but were in fact coming from people who keep an eye on international politics and comment on it.

If you look at the tweets from the Indian Twitterati, many of them consider it their birthright to comment on anything and everything…

Patriotism under threat

The top journalists and rights activists of Pakistan are accused of treason in a petition before the Supreme Court of Pakistan for allegedly undermining the message of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, the Two-Nation Theory, the ideology of Pakistan and Islam ‘at the behest of India’.

The petition was filed by notorious conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid. Those accused are Hamid Mir, Najam Sethi, Imtiaz Alam, Asma Jahangir, Nusrat Javeed, Sirmed Manzoor, Marvi Sirmed, Beena Sarwar and Hassan Nisar, among others. While no one needs a certificate of patriotism, it is important to know why these people are considered ‘dangerous’ by zealots, bigots and self-proclaimed ‘patriots’.

Hamid Mir recently survived an assassination attempt. He had received threats from the ISI. Najam Sethi has been under threat from both state and non-state actors for his brave and rational political analysis. Asma Jahangir has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy and has consequently received threats fr…

Write at your own peril

Pakistani journalists are no strangers to danger. In the old days, they faced threats from the government, military establishment, political parties, goons, mafia and odd militant groups but now things have changed for the worse. From their phones being tapped by state agencies to their movements being monitored both by state and non-state actors, not only are their lives devoid of any privacy but also those who have received threats from either state or non-state actors, have to constantly look over their shoulder. When journalists become news themselves, it shows how precarious the situation really is.

We have known for a long time now that non-state actors have become as powerful as state actors. The Express Media Group was targeted by the Taliban twice in the span of a few months. The state was not willing to guarantee its security so the group's liberal English daily, Express Tribune, had to change its policy. It stopped criticising the Taliban.

March 28 further proved the po…

Interview with Imtiaz Alam on media-military conflict

Veteran journalist and SAFMA secretary-general Imtiaz Alam says journalists must unite to systemically address the problems of press freedom in Pakistan

Mehmal Sarfraz: Is it correct to say that the media is under attack and those who target journalists operate with impunity?

Imtiaz Alam: The media is indeed under attack. According to SAFMA’s South Asia Media Monitor, Pakistan was among the top five countries deemed dangerous for journalists. Last year, 10 journalists were killed in Pakistan while in the last four months, five journalists have already been killed. The complexity of the threat to journalists makes it worse. You don’t know who will target you. Sometimes you can be a better judge of the attackers knowing your own situation, while sometimes you are caught in the crossfire.

The extremist forces have expanded their tentacles everywhere. They now have mass pockets and a wider support-base. They have become more resourceful, more organized, and have efficient logistics. They n…

Dirty media wars

In my last column for this paper, I had written about a near-fatal attack on my friend and fellow journalist, Raza Rumi. It was an emotional piece because my friend could have died in that attack. Having been through a near-death experience and seeing his driver dying in front of him, Raza Rumi is not sure if journalists can work with freedom under these circumstances. The state has virtually told journalists under threat that they are on their own and the state cannot protect them. “Pakistan’s media has always been under some kind of threat. After a long struggle it gained freedoms only to be muzzled by non-state actors and private militias and gangs, which act with impunity. Often they are linked to state institutions that patronise them and in other cases more powerful than the law enforcement apparatus,” says Raza. He is spot on.

Barely three weeks had passed when another journalist — Hamid Mir — received six bullets in Karachi. Thankfully, he survived. Mir is no ordinary journali…

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 …

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 commitmen…

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…

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 s…