Bangladesh on the Brink

27 March 2015

Unrest sweeps Dhaka after disputed elections, but Bangladesh’s problems extend much farther from the ballot box. Also sparking the flames of turmoil are a stagnant economy, authoritarian rule, and weak governance

Bangladesh

The recent political turbulence sweeping Bangladesh has cost more than 100 lives since January and job strikes have brought near standstill to Dhaka, the country’s capital and economic nerve center. Stretching back to independence, the country’s divorce with Pakistan has left a trail of political instability resulting from frequent military interventions, high-profile political assassinations and a dysfunctional democratic order that revolves around two political parties. Atop these bipolar camps are two women known as the ‘Begums’ — the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. The former is the daughter of the country’s founder and national hero Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, and the latter the widow of the first military ruler Gen Zia ur Rehman, who was popular with the conservative sections of society.

From these parties, politicians, and their resulting governance has flowed a degree of political instability in the country. The recent round of turbulence started with the disputed elections of January 2014 that was held amidst an opposition boycott. This put a question mark on the credibility of the contest. The opposition, notably the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), had demanded a neutral interim administration that could oversee the elections. Hasina refused to budge and proceeded with a one-sided electoral exercise that clearly brought her back into power for another term.

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Pakistan fails its Christians — again

22 March 2015

The dual suicide attacks on Lahore’s Christian churches last Sunday were a continuation of evidently unstoppable violence against the country’s minorities. A gruesome lynching and burning of two Muslim men by a charged mob followed the attack. Christian protestors, sidelined and neglected by the state, attacked Metro Bus stations, blocked major roads and also impeded VIP movements. They were baton-charged and after two days of rioting, the funerals of the blast victims took place. Ghastly as it was, the mob lynching of the two Muslim victims dominated the news space and social media debates rather than the original act of terrorism. Once again, there was something to obfuscate. Sadly, the angry mob did not help its cause either.

Nearly two per cent of Pakistan’s population comprises Christians, mostly poor and marginalised. Pakistan’s hypocritical society makes a class of people clean their homes and streets and then has the audacity to call them ‘churaas’ (a derogatory term for a sweeper). Such is the level of prejudice that many jobs of municipal cleaners specify that only Christians are needed, as many Muslims are averse to performing ‘menial’ tasks. Ironically, there are street signs everywhere citing a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that “Cleanliness is half the faith”.

Ingrained prejudices combined with the Islamic nationalist identity have meant that Christians are lesser citizens in the Islamic Republic. A non-Muslim cannot be head of the state. Children from minority communities are made to read textbooks that denigrate ‘non-believers’ and ‘infidels’. Certain laws on our statute books expose the broadly poverty-stricken Christian community to abuses of the law. Institutionalised discrimination has accompanied the propagation of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ that engenders silence and acceptance of the defacto second-class status of a non-Muslim.

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The City Speaks

20 March 2015

Shaan Taseer’s debut solo exhibition is a ceremonial homecoming for the artist.

ShaanT1The artist, Shaan Taseer

It has taken the gifted Shaan Taseer almost two decades to focus on the natural habitat of his soul – art. This has finally happened. Earlier, this month, 35 artworks by Shaan – all watercolours – were exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi and the show was quite a success. All the paintings were sold, but more importantly this was the moment of arrival for an artist who has resisted the path for some time.

I have known the artist for many years and had seen some of his sketches and watercolours long before. Shaan’s innate talent was chiselled at school and such was his dexterity with lines that I even suggested he pursue his passion as a career. In those days, all of us were busy studying what was ‘relevant’ and the choice of plunging into the world of the ‘starving artist’ archetype was a risk that Shaan did not take. But he continued sketching. While living abroad, he absorbed inspiration from myriad sources. The way North African cities were built and the way the migration of humans and ideas was part of the limitless globe all seem to have influenced the evolution of his style.

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The need to review our India policy

13 March 2015

The Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Islamabad last week generated much interest but the outcome was the usual bureaucratic statements amounting to nothing. The stalemate, however, was broken and the US — a keen supporter of the ‘dialogue’ — welcomed the meeting between the top diplomats of India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also met with the foreign secretary from New Delhi. The talks, as we know, were about further talks. It is a pity that since August 2014, diplomatic channels of communication were stalled. The Indian prime minister’s decision to call off the earlier round in 2014 was unwise and even some Indian commentators had criticised it. Perhaps, domestic dictates, especially of the elections in Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), necessitated a hardline by Narendra Modi. Now that the elections are over and the BJP has forged a coalition government with a soft-separatist party, the domestic calculus may have changed. Despite the Hindu nationalist credentials of Mr Modi, striving for normalisation is a course that he is likely to adopt. Even more so, as India’s economic transformation appears to be his priority, and without a stable region, that goal is hard to realise.

The recent talks, according to the respective statements, reiterated a familiar mantra: Mumbai, Samjhauta Express, trading of allegations of involvement of domestic militancy faced by both countries. The worrying increase in violence along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary were also discussed. Once again, the soft confidence-building measures, such as people-to-people contact, religious tourism and sports were brought up as the panacea to a bitter, twisted legacy of this bilateral relationship.

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One size may not fit all

8 March 2015

Excerpts from my statement:
Raza Rumi, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, says the government has much to do when it comes to reforming madressahs.

“There are three issues of main importance: first the registration and regulation. They have to adhere to a regulatory framework. Second, the curricula that needs to be updated and modernised. No point in teaching Fatawa-i-Alamgiri or such other outdated texts. More importantly, sectarian hate that goes into teaching has to be curbed and discontinued. Third pertains to foreign students and teachers that become part of madressah networks without the necessary permission of the State,” says Rumi. He says that for madressah reform two imperatives need to be considered: first, the “extremist mindset flows out of the theological interpretations which are man-made and sectarian and they need regulation and debate. Second, terrorist activity is limited to only a few. And in the past the Pakistani state has used them as recruitment grounds for jihad abroad. These places and handlers are well-known and can be nabbed.”

However, scores of teachers and students at various madressahs have expressed frustration at what they view as being singled out and targeted for their beliefs.

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‘About suffering they were never wrong’

8 March 2015

Miniaturist Saira Waseem is the latest exponent in a long list of Pakistani artists resisting the country’s political, cultural and social erosion.

Saira waseem4Passion Cycle, 2005

Pakistani art going global is a remarkable story, for it typifies the ineffable contradictions of the country. In part it is a testament to the country’s creative expression, an explosion of sorts; and partly a mode of resistance to the anti-art ideology that is permeating the social fabric. It’s not just painting or the booming art galleries, there is a revival underway of the moribund television drama, the resuscitation of cinema and continuous experimentation with music.

Salima Hashmi, a leading arts academician and practitioner noted in a recent essay that the “proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art.” Our foremost historian, Ayesha Jalal in her latest book “The Struggle for Pakistan” views the creative expression as a resistance to Pakistan’s forced Islamisation. Jalal writes:

saira waseem5

Ethereal I, 2014

“The globalization of Pakistani music has been accompanied by a remarkable leap in the transnational reach of the creative arts…a younger generation of painters are making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to both access and influence a diverse and dynamic transnational artistic scene. The dazzling array of new directions in the contemporary art, literature, and music of Pakistan displays an ongoing tussle between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture.”

Jalal as a contemporary historian reminds us that the domestic battle of ideas and ideologies is not over and is assuming newer shapes. At the same time, the issue of a crumbling Pakistani state haunts the future trajectory. Is the arts and literature renaissance of sorts an antidote to a state unable to fulfill its basic functions such as securing the lives of its citizens? There are some immediate examples from the subcontinent that come to mind: The reigns of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar in nineteenth century India were also remarkable for their artistic endeavours before the final takeover of the British. Not entirely relevant, these are important phases of our recent history to be remembered.

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A CORRIDOR TO A CLOSER SINO-PAKISTANI ALLIANCE?

5 March 2015

sino pak

Chinese influence in South and Central Asia is set to expand through the much-hyped China-Pakistan Economic Corridor just as the United States draws down its presence in the region. The proposed corridor, which plans to connect Kashgar in Western China to Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province through a network of rail, road and energy infrastructure, has become the subject of intense domestic wrangling in Pakistan. Leaders from Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, two under-developed provinces, are accusing the federal government, which draws support primarily from Pakistan’s most populated province, Punjab, of modifying the original route away from the two less developed provinces. The government, which recently approved the route, maintains that it only intends to use existing rail and road networks in Sindh and Punjab until new rail and road infrastructure is built in the less-developed regions. Although it appears that the ongoing dispute is a result of technical considerations raised by China, and for Pakistani authorities these are informed by an underlying need to secure Chinese investment for the planned economic corridor, which would also stabilize Pakistan’s fragile economy. Underdevelopment and ongoing insurgencies in KP and Balochistan increase the cost of constructing new infrastructure, while Chinese and Pakistani governments want to operationalize the corridor as soon as possible. Economic and geopolitical concerns in both countries inform their collective haste. This project will consolidate the growing Chinese power in the region, thereby posing a formidable challenge to Western influence. (more…)

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