human rights

Meeting Samiya

5 December 2014

I saw Dukhtar with the film’s protagonist, rekindling memories personal and political

Sumayya

It was utterly delightful when my friend Samiya Mumtaz – now a celebrated actor – informed me that she was visiting the US to attend the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) where her recent film ‘Dukhtar’ was being premiered. SAIFF is a formidable film premiere destination for South Asian filmmakers in the United States. Dukhtar is also Pakistan’s official entry for Oscars and there was absolutely no reason to miss the opportunity to see it. But more importantly, to meet Samiya who since her foray into stardom has become as stars do – plain inaccessible.

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York. The moment you emerge from this station life seems to take on a different hue, given the unreal energy of New York City, arguably one of the great man made wonders of our times. The train was late which basically meant we had a little time before reaching the festival venue, so we found a healthy eaterie that excited Samiya, given her lifestyle choices. Samiya who had wanted to be an organic farmer growing up realized her dream by working on a farm outside Lahore for many years. This led to the launch of Lahore’s first organic foods store – Daali – that has turned into a local brand impacting how food is viewed and consumed in gluttonous Lahore. (more…)

Meeting Salma Bhatti

28 November 2014

I met the wife of slain Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and discovered tales of woe, marginalisation and hope

 

salma bhatti

It has been over three years that Pakistan lost a brave Christian citizen Shahbaz Bhatti for his relentless advocacy of human rights and in particular for wanting to correct discriminatory and anti-people laws that afflicts all Pakistanis – Muslim or non-Muslim. Shahbaz Bhatti’s case has been treated in the same manner as most cases of this kind are. There are high-sounding condemnations; initial activity by the Police, arrest of a few ‘suspects’ and then the dysfunctional, collapsed system of justice takes over.

Shahbaz Bhatti was a serving Minister at the time of his murder. This was the second loss for the PPP – an ostensibly liberal and secular party in power. Earlier it was Punjab’s Governor Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated by his own guard in 2011, and in the same year a federal minister was gunned down in broad daylight. Yet, the response of the government was not what it ought to have been. By caving in to the extremists’ pressure and keeping survival in power as the top priority it lost the chance of changing the direction of the country. True, PPP was beholden by powerful corporate interests of the military and a formidable armed right wing but the impact of it all has been grievous for the country.

salma bhatti2

Taseer’s son is in the custody of militants since 2011. The former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son was also abducted by militants and remains a hostage. The public opinion in Pakistan is not concerned, as the middle class narrative holds the ‘corrupt’ politicians responsible and militancy is now viewed as a heroic resistance to the evil West. This is why Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers are free and the case most likely will lead to another unjust outcome. (more…)

Pakistan’s beleaguered Hazaras

17 November 2014

The attack on the Hazara community in Quetta last month, which left 10 dead and many injured, comes amidst the recent spate of violence against an intensely vulnerable and ghettoised community. Pakistan’s new theatre of sectarian killings, the troubled province of Balochistan, is turning into a parable of disastrous policies that are being pursued ostensibly to bolster Pakistan’s national security. Since 2009, such attacks have become the norm and the worse impunity of attackers underlines state complicity.

In early 2013, two bombings targeting Hazaras in Quetta killed over 180 people. The community sat in freezing cold for days with the dead bodies of their loved ones, waiting for effective action by the state. Nothing came out of that except assurances, token arrests and high-sounding platitudes by opportunistic political parties. The truth is that the infrastructure for sectarian hatred has grown right under the nose of security agencies. This terrorist infrastructure is inextricably linked to militant bases in Punjab, patronised by a spineless provincial government and a fast radicalising state apparatus that has accepted the power of those who preach hatred and execute their brazen agenda through target killings. No judge or prosecutor has the courage — and why should they put themselves in the line of fire — to curb and punish these networks. The political class, eager to appease rabid clerics and right wing business lobbies, continues to build metro buses or hold rallies while graveyards fill up with lesser citizens of the Shia, Ahmadi or Christian variety.

(more…)

In Pakistan, ‘Blasphemers’ Like Me Receive Militant ‘Justice’

14 October 2014

Like so many others, I was recently targeted in a cold-blooded assassination for speaking out against extremism.

Pakistan has acquired a strong reputation of imprisoning a large number of men and women accused of “blasphemy.” Far from a fair trial, most of the accused are not even safe from mobs and vigilantes who assume the powers of both judge and jury. For a country that is ostensibly governed by a written constitution, this is extremely worrying. More so, when the state as an arbiter of human rights is silent, or even complicit in such human rights abuses.

The latest victim of the zealots’ ire is Mohammed Asghar, a 70-year-old man who also happens to be mentally ill. It is not surprising that there are some in Pakistan who want to see him dead. Asghar has been sentenced to death for blasphemy for various acts which, given his mental condition, he may not be aware of.

Asghar was formally sentenced to death in 2014. Despite his diagnosis in the U.K., of suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the court chose to declare that he was competent to stand trial. However, late last month, a prison guard driven by self-styled zealotry burst into Asghar’s cell, and shot him in the back. The guard fired a second shot, narrowly missing. Restrained by others, the assailant nevertheless managed to get a good kick in as Asghar was taken to the hospital. Eyewitnesses have revealed that the  guard chanted, “Death to the blasphemer!” as he swung his boot at the old man. (more…)

Prioritising polio eradication

12 October 2014

Nothing exemplifies the state of Pakistani society and its governance better the resurgence of the polio virus. Here is a country boasting of world’s fifth largest army, a nuclear arsenal, and utterly defeated by a contagious virus. In fact, we may have beaten our own record with more than 200 cases having been reported this year already. The world wants us to present a vaccination certificate when we travel outside the country. And the killing spree of health workers aiding the vaccination campaign continues unabated. Still, many Pakistanis ask, why is the world targeting Pakistan? Is it not enough for the world to be alarmed that more than 80 per cent of polio cases in the world are located in Pakistan?

In less than a year, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Balochistan, Sindh and Fata have seen dramatic increases in the total number of reported cases. In 2013, K-P had nine cases; now the number has crossed 40. It is, however, the conflict-ridden Fata where children are most vulnerable. Last year, there were 37 reported cases and as of September 2014, 135 polio cases have been confirmed in the region.

Ask a common Pakistani and there will be a reference to Dr Shakil Afridi, a ‘spy’ who has undermined the credibility of immunisation campaigns by running a fake campaign in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Dr Afridi, the international NGO and the CIA were irresponsible to say the least. But this is not the full story. Pakistani authorities and thousands of parents are far more irresponsible in failing to administer polio drops to vulnerable children. (more…)

“Lahore broke my heart”

5 October 2014

Author Reema Abbasi spoke to me about her travels across the country while researching for ‘Historic Temples in Pakistan’. Some excerpts from the conversation.

Reema abbasiReema Abbasi with her book

What was the inspiration to author a book on Pakistani temples?

For the last 10 years my reporting, columns and editorials concentrated on socio-political issues with a strong focus on secular values already enshrined in Islam. The tide of Islamism eclipsed Pakistan’s happy confluence one grew up in. So I felt it was time to make a concrete contribution through a topic that fused history through antiquated symbols of unity — which, in this case, belong to the ancient faith of Hinduism — and an essentially tolerant populace that believes in humanity and the pull of history.

This is why the book is “Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience” as it documents structures that can challenge time and shuns the idea of the supremacy of any singular faith. Every call to prayer demands respect.

Your book tells us multiple stories. The temples are endangered but there are positive stories as well. How would you give an overall view?

By and large, Pakistan and its communities deserve much praise for the upkeep of these age-old treasures. Many are now heaps of stones such as Tilla Jogian or Suraj Kund, but then disuse does that all over the world. Our over a year long journey across the country was an eye-opener. It sprang one surprise after another and assailed many presumptions with Kali Ki Gali in Peshawar, Shivala Mandir in Mansehra, a pujari’s words in Pindi:  “Yeh mutthi bhar dehshatgard kitna bigaar leingay?” to name a few.

But Punjab broke my heart, especially Lahore, a jewel layered with many diverse eras, has forced its Hindus to live with the greatest of burdens – false identity. They live lies by adopting Christian names.

Has the Sindh government proven to be a better guardian of the Hindu places of worship than other governments? Or is it the same story everywhere?

Sindh has done a tremendous job of maintenance, restoration, and reverence, so has Balochistan with Hinglaj and much of KPK honours its shrines. Punjab has lost over 1000 pre-historic emblems to neglect, greed and bigotry. (more…)

I know how men in exile feed on dreams

26 September 2014
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To the accompaniment of songs, poetry and history, Raza Rumi spent a bittersweet evening with fellow exiles exploring the state of his banishment

Raza rumi and neelam

Neelam Bashir and Raza Rumi

“Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.” ? Ovid

I sat there, on a wooden deck with a motley crew under the summer sky. Deep into the suburbia of Maryland this was a spontaneous get together with a diverse group of Pakistani-Americans. The sorted, integrated types not at odds with the ‘evil West’ as we know it back home. Yet, they were exiles, dislocated in their own way. This was a strangely intimate evening with so many stories that merged into a moment of connection, a nameless bond.

Noreen and Amjad Babar – old residents here – are great hosts. Their home, an open house in all senses, hosts all the progressives across the length and breadth of the United States. That evening when we all congregated perchance, it was a melee of writers, poets, doctors and journalists of Pakistani origin. This was also the weekend when the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) was holding its annual convention.

Far from home

Pakistani American doctors hold a huge festival every year where they congregate, network, vent and even make matches for their hybridized children.

This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan

I was invited to speak at a panel organized by Karachi’s Dow Medical College Alumni (formally known as the ‘Dow Graduates Association of North America’) that attempts to raise the unpopular issues of extremism and progressive change in Pakistan. This year’s event was dedicated to hundreds of doctors who have been killed for their ‘wrong’ faith in Pakistan. Most notably, Dr Mehdi whose assassination did not even invite a simple statement of condemnation from Pakistan’s so-called ruling ‘democrats’. The panel was great: Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, poet-writer-journalist Hasan Mujtaba and the bold columnist Dr Taqi. Haqqani amused the audience with his wit and exceptional command over Pakistan’s history. Only a few bilingual speakers can match his erudition. (more…)

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