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Sabeen Mahmud, Martyr for Free Speech

29 April 2015

The appalling murder in Karachi last week of Sabeen Mahmud is a stark reminder of challenges that human rights defenders face in Pakistan. Ms. Mahmud, 39, had devoted her life to creating an alternative to the religious nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state over recent decades, which has led to a proliferation of violent jihadist organizations. She was gunned down on Friday night as she left the arts center she had founded.

In the country’s largest city, troubled by violence and crumbling institutions, Ms. Mahmud created a hub to promote the arts, harness creative talent and foster democratic dialogue. Since 2007, The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, had evolved as a small but significant arena for pluralist and secular movements in the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan’s deeply conservative, repressive society, this was a kind of liberation theology.

Hours before she was shot, Ms. Mahmud, a tech entrepreneur as well as a social activist, hosted human rights advocates who were campaigning against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in insurgency-hit Balochistan Province. After the government ordered the cancellation of the event, which was called “Unsilencing Balochistan” and was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Ms. Mahmud offered T2F as a venue.

The government is deeply worried about the insurgency in Balochistan. The commonly held — and vigorously promoted — view is that Pakistan’s great rival, India, is supporting the insurgency. Thus advocating for the rights of the Baloch people is regarded as treasonous.

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Counterterrorism: rhetoric vs reality

18 April 2015

Amid the controversy of Pakistan joining the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the media focus has shifted from the implementation of theNational Action Plan (NAP), the guiding counterterrorism policy framework. After months of heralding the NAP as the panacea for all that afflicts Pakistan, there are signs that some of the policy commitments may be waning.

This is not to say that progress has not been made.  The most recent monthly report stated that between December 2014 and March 2015,32,000 ‘suspects’ were taken into custody on various charges and over 28,500 operations were conducted across the country. In Punjab, the security agencies undertook 14,791 operations. In addition, law enforcement agencies arrested thousands of individuals and killed 37 terrorists. Of those arrested, the government claims, 727 were “hardcore terrorists”. The details of who these are, and the charges made, remain unknown.

Nearly 4,000 people were also arrested for violating the rules on using loudspeakers and 887 cases were also registered for hate speech. Apparently, the Federal Investigative Agency, the FIA also registered 64 cases for illegal financial transactions and arrested 83 people. The State Bank of Pakistan froze 120 accounts containing Rs10.1 billion under the NAP drive.

These otherwise encouraging claims have been challenged. First, as of early April, only 22 of 61 convicts executed were terrorists. A report by a leading national daily revealed that among the thousands who had been detained, only 140, or less than one per cent, had links with terrorist organisations. The most important link in bringing alleged culprits to justice is prosecution; and it remains unclear how many would actually be prosecuted and tried in a court.

Another positive development has been the drive to verify mobile SIMs. Nearly 25 million (out of 103 million registered earlier) unverified SIMs have been blocked by early April. This has happened after inexcusable delay. Mobile phone is now a key instrument used by techno-jihadis globally. Similarly, the government claims that due to operations by paramilitary agencies, target killings have gone down by 57 per cent and extortion by 37 per cent in violence-ridden Karachi.

All these coercive actions constitute tinkering on the margins of the problem. The core actions under the NAP have been, not unsurprisingly, brushed under the carpet. In March, Nacta stated that the drive against proscribed militant groups, reform of madrassas and the repatriation of Afghan refugees were “no more under consideration” for these were time-consuming and needed long-range planning. Isn’t that precisely what a state under siege ought to be doing?

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More Than “Just” a Footnote

3 April 2015

A year after gunmen attacked his car, killing his young driver, I mourn the loss of Mustafa

 

mustafa2Mustafa – associate, companion, employee, friend

It has been a year since I lost a close associate, an employee, a friend. After I miraculously escaped a carefully planned dénouement, there was much to celebrate: the chance to live, the experience of having defied death. But this living has come with a death at its very centre. Young Mustafa, who had still to experience life, was deprived of that. What can it be called? An accident? An assassination? Crossfire? Or the sheer randomness of death?

In 2008, on returning to Pakistan after a stint with the Asian Development Bank, I hired Mustafa. Another candidate, who could not work full-time, referred him to me. I was a little hesitant to hire someone so young but during the various tests, he proved to be a responsible driver and immediately endeared himself to my family, including my young children, who later became his friends.

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

He shared my enthusiasm for old buildings, random signs, rickshaw posters and pop art

Mustafa, a resident of Kasur, was the eldest child of a landless, working-class family. They had to stock wheat after every harvest, lived in a house that sustained damage after every monsoon, and faced the brutal marginalization of being who they were in the essentially classist rural society of Punjab. Mustafa’s venturing out to the city, therefore, added a bit of pride in addition to financial support for the family. He was choosing not to be a manual labourer, but opting instead for better-paid “high”-skill-based employment. I found out about all these nuances as we spoke about his village and the dynamics therein. (more…)

A year ago, I was almost killed

28 March 2015

A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.

I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.

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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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