Pakistan

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…)

Raza Rumi on Hospitality

14 October 2014

Raza-Rumi 1

A Tidings conversation about hospitality, friendship and loyalty with Raza Rumi, a Pakistani journalist, blogger, author of Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani traveller and follower of Sufi thought. The subject of hospitality holds a certain irony for Raza who is now in exile, forced to flee from his country after narrowly missing an assassination attempt on his life in Lahore which tragically killed his driver.

Malala Yousufzai – A symbol of Pakistan’s Resistance to Bigotry

13 October 2014

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…)

The Hindus of Pakistan

3 October 2014
A seminal book on the Hindu temples of Pakistan should be read by all Pakistanis.
Katas Raj
Kataas Raj
Temples in PakistanJournalist Reema Abbasi and photographer Madiha Aijaz have done a remarkable job of travelling across the length of Pakistan and documenting the state of Hindu temples. The regions that comprise Pakistan are central to the evolution of the Hindu religion and its various offshoots. For instance, the Indian subcontinent derives its very name from the River Indus. In the ancient Sanskrit language, the river was known as “Sindhu”. The Persians gave it the form “Hindu” and through successive generations the land finally came to be known as India, with various forms being derived from this root. Similarly, the shrines in Punjab and Balochistan are perhaps as old as Hinduism itself.

Reema writes at the start of the book – Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience – that her endeavor focuses on “Pakistan’s fraying social order and the sad prospect of it bringing about its own destruction”. In recent decades, the country’s minorities have come under severe attack from extremists and the state has often seemed indifferent or worse, culpable. Reema’s concern is not misplaced. In 1947, the non-Muslim population was nearly 23%. Today it is around 5%. Granted that the separation of East Pakistan caused a major decline in this number but we are all aware of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians migrating abroad. In fact, it has become a class-based exodus. The relatively privileged are the first ones to leave, and sadly, for the right reasons.

(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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