One year after: On the endangered freedoms in Pakistan

10 April 2015

Car fired uponIt has been a year as I wrote here since I was almost assassinated. I have already posted the tribute to Mustafa who died in the March 2014 attack. Here are a  few other stories that were published recently.

It has been a year since I lost a close associate, an employee, a friend. After I miraculously escaped a carefully planned dénouement, there was much to celebrate: the chance to live, the experience of having defied death. But this living has come with a death at its very centre. Young Mustafa, who had still to experience life, was deprived of that. What can it be called? An accident? An assassination? Crossfire? Or the sheer randomness of death?..”

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) wrote this last week: A year after Raza Rumi attack, little change for Pakistan’s beleaguered press

Rumi says he still receives threats. “After I criticized the violent ideologies of extremist groups, two different Twitter users responded, threatening that a fatwa would soon be issued calling for my death,” he told me, citing just one example of a response to tweets he had posted. “Near the end of July, when I highlighted 10 problems with current day Pakistan, including its laws that discriminate against religious minorities, I received the following message: ‘My sources telling me they’ll reply of] each tweet with bullet, 10 tweets so far and 10 bullets.’ “

For now, Rumi plans to stay in the U.S. “I am terrified of what might happen if I return to Pakistan,” he told me.

Car bulletAnnie Zaman at Global Voices Pakistani Journalist and Blogger Remains in Exile, One Year After Violent Attack

Rumi longs every day to go back and walk freely on the streets of Lahore, but at the same time he is terrified of what might happen if he returns. And he is regularly reminded of the threats in Pakistan. “Other journalists, my friends, and my family have all warned me that they believe I will be tortured or killed if I return.” Albeit from afar, Rumi continues his fight against extremism and to promote an open, tolerant society.

Daily O published this story: Why Pakistan is the most dangerous country for journalists The country is still as unsafe as it was a year ago, when Raza Rumi was attacked.

A year on, living in the US, some may think Raza is leading a life of comfort. But that’s far from the truth. He told me last week, “It has taken me some time to register that my life is not the same. Impacted by trauma, I have continued with my work minus the broadcast bit.” When I asked him why he is afraid, he said he was “petrified that someone may just get hurt on my account and for the time being I cannot take the risk until the state dismantles the militant networks and assures people like me of protection and that freedom of expression is allowed without bullets reaching you”.

I can understand his anguish, but feel terrible that people like Raza have to leave the country. He certainly was more than a conventional journalist. He was affiliated with think tanks, managed one for some time, a public intellectual and someone who was heavily engaged with youth activists across the country.

I am grateful to Abdul Majeed Abid for this lovely piece – much of which is overly generous –

“Why don’t English-language journalists say the same things on the national media as they write in their columns or say at literary festivals?” In his usual self-effacing style, Khaled sahib responded: “It is a difficult task. You should remember what happened when a colleague started saying the same things on the national media that he was writing for TFT. He was shot at and had to flee the country to save his life.”

car attackedKhaled sahib was, of course, referring to my friend, elder brother, and mentor, Raza Ahmad Rumi. “He’s j
ust the wrong kind of Pakistani – the kind that is killed nowadays,” to quote Raza’s childhood friend, Ali Dayan Hasan.”Abdul piece is entitled The Wrong Kind of Pakistani – last year Ali Dayan wrote a long essay with the similar title which more than about me is the larger state of my country:

The tragedy is that the “moderate,” the empowered and the affluent, are brazenly, smugly complicit in the mass cull of people and voices. The insurmountable obscenity is the ease with which the “respectable” can move from offering you cups of tea to rejoicing in the hateful, dehumanizing gaze of the killer upon you. It is the dead-end where blaming the victim is an act of compassion.

If you condemn targeted killings of Shias, goes the logic, then you must surely be Shia yourself. If you are not, you are a suicidal attention-seeker. You deserve even less sympathy than the Shia who could not help being killed because unlike him, you asked for it.

Raza Rumi asked for it.

Alas, this is how it is. As I keep on saying, things will change. They can’t remain the same. Inshallah.

after attack 2 After the attack

More Than “Just” a Footnote

3 April 2015

A year after gunmen attacked his car, killing his young driver, I mourn the loss of Mustafa

 

mustafa2Mustafa – associate, companion, employee, friend

It has been a year since I lost a close associate, an employee, a friend. After I miraculously escaped a carefully planned dénouement, there was much to celebrate: the chance to live, the experience of having defied death. But this living has come with a death at its very centre. Young Mustafa, who had still to experience life, was deprived of that. What can it be called? An accident? An assassination? Crossfire? Or the sheer randomness of death?

In 2008, on returning to Pakistan after a stint with the Asian Development Bank, I hired Mustafa. Another candidate, who could not work full-time, referred him to me. I was a little hesitant to hire someone so young but during the various tests, he proved to be a responsible driver and immediately endeared himself to my family, including my young children, who later became his friends.

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

He shared my enthusiasm for old buildings, random signs, rickshaw posters and pop art

Mustafa, a resident of Kasur, was the eldest child of a landless, working-class family. They had to stock wheat after every harvest, lived in a house that sustained damage after every monsoon, and faced the brutal marginalization of being who they were in the essentially classist rural society of Punjab. Mustafa’s venturing out to the city, therefore, added a bit of pride in addition to financial support for the family. He was choosing not to be a manual labourer, but opting instead for better-paid “high”-skill-based employment. I found out about all these nuances as we spoke about his village and the dynamics therein. (more…)

A year ago, I was almost killed

28 March 2015

A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.

I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.

(more…)

Bangladesh on the Brink

27 March 2015

Unrest sweeps Dhaka after disputed elections, but Bangladesh’s problems extend much farther from the ballot box. Also sparking the flames of turmoil are a stagnant economy, authoritarian rule, and weak governance

Bangladesh

The recent political turbulence sweeping Bangladesh has cost more than 100 lives since January and job strikes have brought near standstill to Dhaka, the country’s capital and economic nerve center. Stretching back to independence, the country’s divorce with Pakistan has left a trail of political instability resulting from frequent military interventions, high-profile political assassinations and a dysfunctional democratic order that revolves around two political parties. Atop these bipolar camps are two women known as the ‘Begums’ — the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. The former is the daughter of the country’s founder and national hero Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, and the latter the widow of the first military ruler Gen Zia ur Rehman, who was popular with the conservative sections of society.

From these parties, politicians, and their resulting governance has flowed a degree of political instability in the country. The recent round of turbulence started with the disputed elections of January 2014 that was held amidst an opposition boycott. This put a question mark on the credibility of the contest. The opposition, notably the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), had demanded a neutral interim administration that could oversee the elections. Hasina refused to budge and proceeded with a one-sided electoral exercise that clearly brought her back into power for another term.

(more…)

Pakistan fails its Christians — again

22 March 2015

The dual suicide attacks on Lahore’s Christian churches last Sunday were a continuation of evidently unstoppable violence against the country’s minorities. A gruesome lynching and burning of two Muslim men by a charged mob followed the attack. Christian protestors, sidelined and neglected by the state, attacked Metro Bus stations, blocked major roads and also impeded VIP movements. They were baton-charged and after two days of rioting, the funerals of the blast victims took place. Ghastly as it was, the mob lynching of the two Muslim victims dominated the news space and social media debates rather than the original act of terrorism. Once again, there was something to obfuscate. Sadly, the angry mob did not help its cause either.

Nearly two per cent of Pakistan’s population comprises Christians, mostly poor and marginalised. Pakistan’s hypocritical society makes a class of people clean their homes and streets and then has the audacity to call them ‘churaas’ (a derogatory term for a sweeper). Such is the level of prejudice that many jobs of municipal cleaners specify that only Christians are needed, as many Muslims are averse to performing ‘menial’ tasks. Ironically, there are street signs everywhere citing a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that “Cleanliness is half the faith”.

Ingrained prejudices combined with the Islamic nationalist identity have meant that Christians are lesser citizens in the Islamic Republic. A non-Muslim cannot be head of the state. Children from minority communities are made to read textbooks that denigrate ‘non-believers’ and ‘infidels’. Certain laws on our statute books expose the broadly poverty-stricken Christian community to abuses of the law. Institutionalised discrimination has accompanied the propagation of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ that engenders silence and acceptance of the defacto second-class status of a non-Muslim.

(more…)

The City Speaks

20 March 2015

Shaan Taseer’s debut solo exhibition is a ceremonial homecoming for the artist.

ShaanT1The artist, Shaan Taseer

It has taken the gifted Shaan Taseer almost two decades to focus on the natural habitat of his soul – art. This has finally happened. Earlier, this month, 35 artworks by Shaan – all watercolours – were exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi and the show was quite a success. All the paintings were sold, but more importantly this was the moment of arrival for an artist who has resisted the path for some time.

I have known the artist for many years and had seen some of his sketches and watercolours long before. Shaan’s innate talent was chiselled at school and such was his dexterity with lines that I even suggested he pursue his passion as a career. In those days, all of us were busy studying what was ‘relevant’ and the choice of plunging into the world of the ‘starving artist’ archetype was a risk that Shaan did not take. But he continued sketching. While living abroad, he absorbed inspiration from myriad sources. The way North African cities were built and the way the migration of humans and ideas was part of the limitless globe all seem to have influenced the evolution of his style.

(more…)

The need to review our India policy

13 March 2015

The Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Islamabad last week generated much interest but the outcome was the usual bureaucratic statements amounting to nothing. The stalemate, however, was broken and the US — a keen supporter of the ‘dialogue’ — welcomed the meeting between the top diplomats of India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also met with the foreign secretary from New Delhi. The talks, as we know, were about further talks. It is a pity that since August 2014, diplomatic channels of communication were stalled. The Indian prime minister’s decision to call off the earlier round in 2014 was unwise and even some Indian commentators had criticised it. Perhaps, domestic dictates, especially of the elections in Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), necessitated a hardline by Narendra Modi. Now that the elections are over and the BJP has forged a coalition government with a soft-separatist party, the domestic calculus may have changed. Despite the Hindu nationalist credentials of Mr Modi, striving for normalisation is a course that he is likely to adopt. Even more so, as India’s economic transformation appears to be his priority, and without a stable region, that goal is hard to realise.

The recent talks, according to the respective statements, reiterated a familiar mantra: Mumbai, Samjhauta Express, trading of allegations of involvement of domestic militancy faced by both countries. The worrying increase in violence along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary were also discussed. Once again, the soft confidence-building measures, such as people-to-people contact, religious tourism and sports were brought up as the panacea to a bitter, twisted legacy of this bilateral relationship.

(more…)

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