Published in the Express Tribune

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.

(more…)

Challenges for the PML-N

22 June 2014

In early June, the PML-N completed one year in office and presented its second budget before the Parliament. Both these events were overshadowed by the ghastly attack at Karachi airport and the vulnerability of the major installations to terrorism. Within days of this attack, the long-delayed operation in North Waziristan was launched. Nearly a week ago, the PML-N blundered by using excessive force against the workers of Paksitan Awami Tehreek (PAT), a political adversary in Lahore resulting in the deaths of eight PAT activists. Such use of brutal force has led to public outrage and nervousness in the PML-N camp is evident.

The succession of events comes in the wake of four major developments. Three are domestic and the fourth is regional. First, tensions between Pakistan’s powerful military and the prime minister have been building up. While the structure of Pakistan’s power relations is tilted towards the civil-military bureaucracy, the immediate cause for the recent tensions happens to the continued incarceration of former President Musharraf. Dozens of conspiracy theories are flying around but this was bound to happen. Sharif and his cabinet are doing what the law tells them to. After all, General Musharraf violated the Constitution for the second time in November 2007. The first violation — the 1999 coup — gained some measure of legal cover through the Supreme Court decision but the second one was not ratified by a judiciary which shifted its policy of siding with the military executive in early 2007. (more…)

Farzana Parveen and the death of the state

1 June 2014

Farzana’s brutal murder represents all that is wrong with us.

It has become a useless routine to condemn the most ghastly acts of violence and injustice in Pakistan. For many, these are daily occurrences and thus the levels of desensitisation have grown. So has the brutalisation of society, when it adapts to some bare facts and upholds and sometimes celebrates the worst of what constitutes custom, tradition or ‘culture’. What else would explain the fact that there were dozens of passerby near the Lahore High Court — known for its imposing architecture and not the delivery of justice now — who silently witnessed the death of a woman scorned for choosing her partner? Worse, the police did not intervene either. This has become the norm with what we know as the ‘state’ in Pakistan. It chooses to remain indolent, indifferent and even complicit at times. This has left the citizen vulnerable. The weaker you are, the more chance there is of your life meaning absolutely nothing.

A few weeks ago, I underwent the worst of nightmares. Seeking help on a roadside with two wounded men: one almost dead and the other struggling to stay conscious. My romanticism for my own country was shattered on that fateful night of March 28. I am privileged and lucky that I escaped a brutal, unsung death but a life was lost. A large crowd had gathered to ogle at the blood sport but none of them was willing to help in taking a near-dead body out of the car. On a busy street, no car was willing to stop to take my injured driver to the hospital. Farzana’s death and her calls for help have only reopened my wounds — far from healed and as painful as before. This state of our society, drunk on honour, pride, ghairat and other medieval notions of self-worth, has crossed all tolerable levels of dysfunction. Yes, two girls were also hanged, allegedly gang-raped in India, and crimes against women are prevalent in other societies as well. But, at least, there is collective uproar, pressure on the governments and results. (more…)

Pakistan is not afraid of Modi’s win

19 May 2014

Finally, the verdict is out. The Indian electorate has given a clear message by electing Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) precisely in this order. The 16th general election in the neighbouring state was contested around the issues of governance, corruption and development. The dismal performance of the Congress’s second term was compounded by a leadership crisis, the diarchic model of governance and highly mediatised incidence of corruption scandals. Mr Manmohan Singh, despite his personal reputation, seemed helpless and at times, directionless. Modi seems to have fully benefited from the public disenchantment with coalition politics and a decade of Congress rule. India is now ruled by a right-wing party with a thumping majority. Unlike the earlier terms, the BJP is in a position to form the government on its own and the opposition has been virtually reduced to naught. (more…)

The politics of Imran Khan and Dr Tahir ul Qadri

12 May 2014

My latest column for Express Tribune published under the heading: “Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri & a dharma”

Pakistan’s electoral system is far from perfect. Like most other state functions, electoral laws and practices need to be reformed. In a democracy, this is to be undertaken by the legislature and through a multiparty consensus. The allegations of rigging since May 2013 are all too familiar. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which garnered 19 per cent of the total votes(and fewer seats in the National Assembly) has been crying foul of ‘massive rigging’. Now exactly after a year of elections, and quite cynically exercising power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), the party is launching a protest through a sit-in in Islamabad. Concurrently, another self-styled reformer, Dr Tahirul Qadri, is also launching a protest against the ‘system’. We all have serious reservations about the ‘system’ but the alternative provided by Dr Qadri is vague as well as populist.

These two protests come in the wake of recent tensions between the civilians and the military. Given Pakistan’s history, the PTI’s protest and the return of Dr Qadri from the safe environs of Canada are termed being ‘sponsored’. It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of this perception. However, the timing of these protests against the credibility of a parliament — of which the PTI and its leader, Imran Khan, are part of — is somewhat problematic. This time the responsibility of rigging is being termed a collusive project of the ruling PML-N, the judiciary and the largest television network, ie, Geo Tv. (more…)

Moving ahead after the attack

4 May 2014

It has been a month since I survived a lethal attack aimed to silence me forever. The support of my family, friends and colleagues has been monumental in dealing with the trauma, especially that of seeing young Mustafa die — an unfortunate victim of the bullets that the assailants fielded for me. The Punjab Police have reportedly apprehended a gang that has been carrying out such activities. It remains to be seen if the creaky, dysfunctional criminal justice system will deliver justice. Nevertheless, the efforts of the police have been commendable in tracing and arresting the alleged attackers.

Much has happened in the last month. Halfway, I had to leave the country given the sense of insecurity that surrounded my daily life and the potential power of those who attempted to kill me. The issue of journalists’ security remains a huge question mark for the government in power as another colleague from Geo TV was brutally attacked on April 19. The core issues since then have been sidelined and the politics of blaming Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency has overshadowed everything else. Is there freedom of speech in Pakistan? How much of it is granted and what are the lines that cannot be crossed by journalists? (more…)

Pakistani journalists under threat

1 May 2014

For Express Tribune

That a detailed Amnesty International report on threats to media in Pakistan is all doom and gloom about the safety of journalists is hardly a surprise to anyone who may have been following recent developments. The report reveals that 34 journalists may have been killed since democracy was restored in March 2008 and authorities have failed to stop human rights abuses against journalists, who also continue to face threats, harassment and torture as well as abductions.

In the past few days, public debates have attempted to grapple with key questions of media responsibility and the dangers of implicating national security institutions when the country is in a state of war. While there has been much discussion, the key question of journalists’ safety has not been addressed. Regardless of whoever was involved, a television anchor was attacked in broad daylight. Earlier, the Express Group has suffered nearly half a dozen brutal attacks in which many of its staffers were killed or injured. The federal government has not moved beyond the usual lip service. In the case of attack on Raza Rumi, the Punjab Police have nabbed a gang in Lahore but it is unclear whether effective prosecution lies ahead. In many cases of this nature, the accused eventually get freed by the courts due to insufficient evidence. Even if there is substantial evidence, in some cases the judges are too scared to give verdicts due to the threats they face. Given this alarming situation, the citizens at large and journalists in particular have lost trust in the ability of the state to maintain security and ensure justice.

Had the debate been steered in this direction, we may have moved towards a consensus of sorts. The opportunity has been squandered temporarily. But there is no reason why this debate must not continue. It is time for the journalists’ associations to devise a unified list of demands and ask the government to deliver on its promises. It is high time the government demonstrated its will and assured people that it values media freedoms and will do all it can to minimise risks faced by media workers.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2014.

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