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Publish At Your Peril

South Asia remains one of the most repressed regions for journalists and by governments muzzling the freedoms of the press, the region’s democratic gains are in jeopardy.


South Asia, home to one-fifth of the world’s population and growing fast, has undergone major democratic transitions in the past decade. Today, all the countries in the region are governed by democratic systems. With Nepal’s successful toppling of its monarchy a decade ago and Pakistan’s transition to democracy from military rule, the portents have never been so encouraging. Similarly, Afghanistan, the victim of perennial conflict, is also moving towards democratic governance and reform. These developments are ground-breaking given the turbulent history of the region.

Yet, on one vital test of democracy — freedom of the press — the region is lagging. Between 2013 and 2015, South Asia remained one of the most repressed regions for journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, which publishes a press freedom annual index ranking 180 countries based on the freedom granted to members of the press, countries in South Asia rank discouragingly low.

Most of the countries in South Asia have scores in the bottom two tiers on the press freedom index. In the 2015 index, South Asian countries remained fairly stagnant from previous years: Pakistan ranked at 159th place; Bangladesh was ranked 146th; Sri Lanka was ranked 165th; and the Maldives was ranked at 112th place. […]

Bangladesh on the Brink

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


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.


A definitive history of Pakistan

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. […]

Conspiracy Theories as ‘History’

Pakistan’s official historian in a book on education has to say this about 1971 tragedy when we lost half of our country. I don’t blame the minds who cite ‘external’ conspiracy at the drop of the hat because this is what we have popularized. Overlook the failings and crimes of Pakistani state and blame it on everyone else. Three generations have internalized this and I guess this is enough time to shape norms and ‘truths’. ‪History‬ and its teaching is farce. It would have been funny had it not resulted in such disastrous consequences for a populace esp the young minds.

Image via Manan Ahmad, a professor at ‪Columbia‬ University.


Reclaiming One’s Voice



Raza Rumi cuts through the high decibel terrorism rhetoric to voice some ground realities of Pakistan, all this while braving attempts on his life.



A few months back, I had to leave my country simply to ensure that I would not be left dead. The price of public positions is hard. Perhaps I had ruffled too many feathers or was simply unlucky to have caught the attention of those who tried to kill me. I am trying to make sense of things that may have fallen apart for me. But have they? I keep trying at making sense of my country, the one I belong to and the one I love immensely.

Nuclear state. An Islamic Republic. A Failed state? Endless labels and categories have been accorded to what Pakistan represents today to the world at large. Some facts speak for themselves but perceptions are deceptive as they start morphing into realities. Pakistan is also a resilient country and inspires me to fight the odds, the demons that have to be defeated and the endless list of things that need to be done.

Contrary to what most diagnose, Pakistan’s trajectory was not inevitable. The country’s founder, almost a demonic figure in India, attempted to set a direction in his August 11 speech by recognising that religion could mobilise people and politics but cannot be an instrument for governance. “We are starting with this fundamental principle,” said Jinnah, “that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.” The famous words followed: “…in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” Critics say it was too late. Others think this was the only way to shape statecraft when a new state had come into being. Perhaps all of this is irrelevant now. Sixty seven years later, Pakistan is hardly the country it was geographically or otherwise in 1947.


Mehdi Hasan: A bridge over the troubled divide

My tribute to Mehdi Hasan published here

He was the musical Midas who transcended borders with the same mastery that he transcended genres

Mehdi Hassan is gone. His devastated fans across the globe will mourn the loss of a voice that ruled their hearts for nearly half a century, a voice in which Lata Mangeshkar said she had found bhagwan.

Mehdi Hassan was born in a family of musicians in the town of Luna of district JhunJhunu in Rajasthan around 1927. Rajasthan is famous for its haunting melodies and the expanse of the desert, which celebrates man’s primal relationship with nature. Reshma is also from this region. Hassan’s father Ustad Azeem Khan and Uncle Ustad Ismail Khan were well known classical musicians and it is said that Mehdi Hassan’s first ever concert was at the Maharaja of Baroda’s darbar when he was just eight years old.

With Partition in 1947 this gharana moved to Pakistani Punjab. A young Mehdi Hassan took up the job of an automobile mechanic, something that he was supposed to have been quite adept at. But within a few years, it was his musical talent to which people began paying attention, and by 1952 he was singing at Radio Pakistan.

Mehdi Hassan remained a prized treasure of Radio Pakistan for nearly half a century. I remember growing up listening to his film songs, ghazals and thumris on radio. The launch of television in the 1960s provided an additional platform to Hassan and some of his memorable performances are from those black and white days of television programming.

Hassan proved to be a musical Midas. Whatever he touched turned to gold — from the poetry of famous Urdu poets to romantic film numbers. […]

July 22nd, 2012|Arts & Culture, Music, Published in The Hindu|5 Comments

On Kabir, Bulleh Shah and Lalon Shah

Not a great recording of my talk at Kuch Khaas, Islamabad.

Kuch Khaas_ Raza Rumi on Kabir, Bulleh Shah and… by razarumi1


October 22nd, 2011|Arts & Culture|2 Comments