Published in Indian Express

The new Bhutto

3 January 2013

My piece published in Express India

In his first political address, Bilawal Bhutto took a stand against extremism

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari made his debut political address on the fifth death anniversary of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, in a small, dusty village in Sindh, synonymous with the Bhuttos and their tragic lives. Dynastic succession is not unusual in Pakistan or South Asia, and Bilawal has been the chairperson of the party since his mother’s death. However, he has stayed away from active politics in the past few years, completing his studies and getting acquainted with the gigantic party machinery. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) remains one of the largest parties in the country, with a presence in almost all provinces and regions of Pakistan.

On Thursday, Bilawal reminded everyone of the sacrifices his mother and grandfather had made and connected with his core constituency — PPP workers and supporters who have been in search of a charismatic leader since the demise of Benazir. His father, President Asif Ali Zardari, is a skilful political player but lacks popular appeal. His public movements are also constrained by the security threats faced by moderate and liberal politicians.

Standing at Garhi Khuda Baksh, the site of the imposing mausoleum of the Bhuttos, Bilawal reiterated the old narrative put forward by his family: how democracy and popular will had remained and were still confronted by the powerful forces of the permanent military establishment and the judges. Pakistan’s Supreme Court is now a freer institution but in the past, it has played second fiddle to the military and often ruled against the PPP. The hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a case in point. So Bilawal addressed top judges: “Can’t you see the blood of Benazir Bhutto on the roads of Rawalpindi? I, as an heir of Bhutto, ask why the killers of my mother have not been punished.” (more…)

When India meets Pakistan

21 July 2012

I just returned home to Lahore after spending two days at the Pakistan-India Social Media Mela organised by a Karachi-based peace organisation. Many Indian bloggers, writers and journalists attended. There were visa issues, but the Pakistan High Commission staff in New Delhi stayed back in their offices till 10 pm to process papers. Pakistan Interior Ministry Advisor Rehman Malik played a critical role in expediting visas and even visited the venue to meet the Indian guests.

At the conference, there was no sign of any argumentation or regurgitation of old narratives. Younger members of the Indian delegation interacted with their Pakistani counterparts and despite some hawkish headlines on social media, there was not a single incident of an Indo-Pak spat like those we are used to. Unlike other gatherings, this was an unpretentious event and rarely dabbled in self-conscious claims of “tackling” bilateral ties. This is what we need in the subcontinent: greater movement of people, goods and ideas, and to stop deceiving ourselves that we can live in the 21st century as Cold War-bitten countries.

The day before the social media summit was to begin, the Indian authorities decided to hand over the Pakistani soldier who had accidentally crossed the border into India. The response to the incident was swift and reflected the growing level of trust between the two states. In the subcontinental universe, subtle shifts and nuances matter, given how intractable positions have been. (more…)

The Music Doesn’t Stop in Peshawar

2 July 2012

A story that I co-authored with Manzoor Ali, published here

On June 18, celebrated Pashto singer Ghazala Javed and her father were murdered in Peshawar. Text messages and news alerts from the city’s famous Lady Reading Hospital started to spread across Pakistan. Ghazala, for so many Pakhtuns, had been eliminated. The police later indicated that her ex-husband might have been involved as he wanted her to give up her singing career. However, until the investigation is complete, the cause for her death cannot be ascertained.

The story of Ghazala’s last years reflects the travails of Pakistan and its province, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), till recently known as the North-West Frontier Province. Her family left Swat in 2007 for Peshawar after the Taliban started gaining power in the valley. In Peshawar, her career witnessed a meteoric rise. She was noted as a rising star with a promising future. During the last three years, the Awami National Party (ANP)-led provincial government has also undertaken a glasnost of sorts by focusing on culture and encouraging the arts industry. But the efforts of Pakistani politicians face a formidable foe in a conservative culture and Taliban militancy. While artists like Ghazala take risks and perform, Taliban militants continue to threaten artists, blow up shrines, CD shops, cinemas and internet cafes. In April 2009, another promising Pashto singer and lyricist, Aiyman Udas was killed on the outskirts of Peshawar. The police suspected her brothers, who were against her musical pursuit, to have perpetrated her death. It remains an unresolved mystery to date. (more…)

Lahore’s lost spring

22 March 2012

Lahore, a centre for the arts and learning in the early 20th century, has been the custodian of a plural, vibrant culture for decades. Its walled city, unlike several other old settlements, has continued to survive despite the expansion of the city. So have its peculiar features: its dialects, cuisine, community linkages and, of course, rich festivals such as Basant. As the capital of Punjab, Lahore used to celebrate Basant — the arrival of spring — in a colourful manner.

Since the medieval times, Basant was acknowledged and celebrated by the Chishti saints. Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi turned it into an act of devotion, and Amir Khusrau’s songs captured the multi-layered evolution of this festival.

Punjabi poets such as Shah Hussain gave a Sufi flavour to it. Hussain, in one of his kaafis, says: “The Beloved holds the string in his hand, and I am His kite.” The festival offered a meaning to all and sundry: from playful kids to lovers and Sufis; from profit-seekers who developed livelihoods around the festival to the community as a whole.

Basant was celebrated by all communities prior to Partition: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs treated it as a Lahori festival with an identity linked to the city. In this milieu, Allama Iqbal was known to be an avid kite flier. But the post-1947 rise of clerics meant that inclusive cultural practices were to be treated with suspicion. For many decades, the Pakistani mullahs have ranted against Basant as an “unIslamic” festival and one that endangered public morality.

Unfazed by these fatwas, Lahoris continued with the festival. It even received state patronage on various occasions. A citizen of Lahore, Mian Yousaf Salahuddin (the grandson of Iqbal), turned his old Lahore haveli into a cultural hub and, over time, Basant celebrations became an international attraction. By the 1990s, proactive civil servants turned Basant into a great regional festival. Lahore’s then deputy commissioner, Kamran Lashari, provided full backing to the holding of this event in the 1990s. That was perhaps the time when Basant also became most controversial due to its scale and the increased hazards of unregulated kite-flying in which metallic or chemical-coated string was used.

The use of this string instead of the traditional dor caused many deaths each year and the local government was unable to enforce regulations on its usage. The metallic wire would get entangled in electricity cables in the old city, leading to electrocution. The courts intervened and asked the Punjab government to ban the festival in 2007.

Ironically, the banning of Basant did not take place in the name of religion but through a public interest litigation. However, the ideological opponents of Basant have been happy with the outcome and have created an uproar each time someone raised the question of reviving Basant after putting safety measures in place. But Lahore is a poorer place now. It is devoid of this public celebration, especially for thousands of impoverished workers in the old city and neighbouring towns where Basant was celebrated with great fervour. (more…)