Published in the Express Tribune

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.

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What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?

4 November 2014

Another tragic day. A mob attacks a Christian couple after accusing them of desecration of the Holy Quran and then burn their bodies at a brick kiln where they worked. Religion, class, bigotry and exploitation all mixed up.
Reminds me of another piece that I wrote in 2012 on the burning of a blasphemy accused and the inability of law/state/police to salvage the situation.

The chilling news of a man burnt alive in Bahawalpur on alleged charges of blasphemy has escaped the national media as well as our collective conscience. Other than a token condemnation by President Asif Ali Zardari, no major political leader has bothered to talk about this ghastly incident.

After the brutal assassination of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, we had given up the hope of even holding a debate on man-made colonial laws on blasphemy. The voices that were asking for a review of the legislation had to retreat as the majority Sunni-Barelvi interpretation captured public discourse. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri was defended by the same lawyer who viewed ‘rule of law’ as an articulation of a personalised, anti-democracy and Sharia-compliant version of justice. The fact that a former chief justice of Lahore is Qadri’s lawyer reflects the inherent biases and indoctrination that have spread in our society. If a billionaire, liberal politician could be murdered on the streets of Islamabad, what hope does a supposedly deranged man in the deep south of Punjab have?

The rise of vigilantism is also indicative of state failure. Not long ago, we witnessed the inhuman lynching of two young men in the Sialkot district where the state machinery stood by and extended tacit support to ugly scenes of dead bodies being paraded around. A few months later, I was invited to a television talk show where, to my surprise, I was surrounded by a lawyer and a so-called aalim (religious scholar). During the show, the cheerful aalim continued to find obscure and irrelevant references to justify mob-lynching as a kosher form of justice. (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…)

Negligence, the biggest disaster in Pakistan

18 September 2014

As if the ongoing political crisis was not enough, we are in the middle of a natural disaster, once again. As before, the state appears to be woefully unprepared. More than 23 districts in Punjab, 10 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and five in Gilgit-Baltistan have been affected by the September rains killing more than 270 and affecting 2.4 million people. The federal government says that nearly 45,000 houses have been damaged and 1,544,653 acres of irrigated lands have been inundated thereby impacting livelihoods.

Taken by surprise, the federal and provincial governments are running around undertaking rescue work with plenty of photo-op sessions. The Pakistan Army remains the most resourceful arm of the government and has rescued thousands of stranded people. Once again, the detractors of democratic governance — many of whom are assembled on the streets of Islamabad — view this calamity as another sign of failed ‘fake democracy’.

If media reports are true then the current government, despite briefings, did not accord disaster risk reduction the priority it needed. If anything, the disturbing scenes of a submerged Lahore made a mockery of the Metro Bus glory that was achieved only a year ago. Without a local government, proper drainage and early warning systems, Lahore’s development meant nothing for all those who suffered in the rains. (more…)

Will a new power-sharing arrangement emerge from this crisis?

8 September 2014

Since early August, Pakistan has been battling itself, once again. Two opposition groups have paralysed the federal government and the capital for weeks through street protests that eventually turned violent. Imran Khan without an independent verification believes that last year’s election was rigged and that he was unfairly deprived of power. Imran’s unlikely ally, Dr Tahirul Qadri, returned from his home in Canada to bring about a ‘revolution’. Qadri’s definition of a revolution resonates with Pakistan’s middle class tired of corruption but promises no structural change except decimating the parliamentary institutions and rubbishing the country’s constitution.

Pakistan’s beleaguered prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, dealt with calls for his resignation with some fortitude. On occasions, he lost nerve by ordering crackdowns that left hundreds injured and at least three dead. Earlier, his brother — and yes, family rule also irks the middle class — who rules the country’s largest province, mishandled a mob of Mr Qadri’s supporters and a police action in June left at least 14 dead. All this while, the elected government at the helm remained deeply suspicious of the country’s powerful military that still holds the ultimate veto power on national and foreign policies. PM Nawaz has a terrible history of getting into a confrontation with the army and in 1993 and 1999 he had to step down without completing the constitutionally mandated term of five years. In 1999, he suffered additional humiliation by being ousted through a coup led by General Musharraf, faced imprisonment and remained in exile for seven years. (more…)

Watching the watchdog

27 August 2014

“Democracy is like an infertile woman that cannot produce anything”, thundered a popular columnist (a real opinion-maker) at the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA) convention held in Washington, DC. A few women participants objected, but overall, the trashing of ‘democracy’ back home in Pakistan was applauded by many a successful professionals present in the audience. Later, at another event I heard the view by a speaker that Muslims and democracy are incompatible. These are not isolated sentences. A worldview that Pakistan’s Urdu media has cultivated considers democracy a colonial legacy that the British left. A few go to the extent of arguing that in an Islamic Republic a Caliphate is the only option.

Another columnist recently wrote how our democratic and constitutional system is the “rotten dress which protects certain segments of society” and now the time had come to decide if we could live with an ‘itchy’ body [politic]. Considering that half of Pakistan’s existence has been under the rule of a narrow group of civil-military bureaucracy, it is difficult to argue how can even a most imperfect democracy not be more inclusive? (more…)

Directionless: trapped in a vicious cycle

17 August 2014
The image below is that of a painting by the amazing Pakistani artist Saira Wasim and it relates to the theme of my piece below published in Express Tribune recently.
We just celebrated our 67th independence anniversary amid a show of hard power and political maelstrom — a beleaguered prime minister, cacophonous calls for ‘change’ and civil-military wrangling. If anything, the current crisis is reminiscent of Pakistan’s self-perpetuating curse: directionlessness and endemic instability. It does require a major effort by the ruling elite and intelligentsia to keep recurring trends alive and scuttle potential for progress. And we seem adept at it.

A year ago, it was hoped that Pakistan’s democratic transition was proceeding in the ‘right’ direction: one elected government followed by another, a free media, an independent judiciary and a military reviewing its past policy of interventionism. Obviously, such a situation imparted hope for policy revisions and course correction. Most importantly, given the nature of Sharifs’ support base, the promise of economic revival seemed realistic.

Our structural constraints and the dwindling quality of leadership have come to haunt us again. So, within a year, the political future looks uncertain; and in such a situation, the scope for deliberated policy reform becomes even more limited. The federal government has been battling for its survival since June and its capacity for democratic negotiation is almost absent. While the apparent cause for instability is lack of consensus on election results and mythical charges of rigging, the underlying factors are deeper and more worrying.

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