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Militancy in Sindh: End of our plural culture?

The recent carnage in Shikarpur has come as a shock for many Pakistanis.

Rural Sindh, invisible from the view of Punjab and Karachi obsessed media rarely makes news unless there is a major political rally or the images of dying children that can enable some quick political point scoring.

For the past decade, the land of Sufis […]

An icon for a sane, just Pakistan

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Salmaan Taseer’s defiance of convention and collective cowardice is one of the watersheds of Pakistan’s contemporary history. His defence of a poor Christian woman purely on the grounds of humanity has chiseled his memory and legacy in stone. Taking a position on a narrowly defined religious issue is rare in today’s Pakistan. Even rarer is to defend someone on the grounds of humanity in a republic that uses religion for its identity and rationale, and where public opinion has been crafted to perpetuate such attitudes.

Within Muslims, this struggle between reason and bigotry is not new. It has existed for well over a millennium. Rationalists have always been the target of fanatics and their patrons in power. In South Asia this is even more complex where the historic evolution of Muslim beliefs and practices has followed an inclusive trajectory imbibing the folk, non-Islamic traditions as an expression of lived, dynamic Islam. In each era, the power of orthodoxy was challenged by unique men and women who took dissent to be more important than the Mullah’s edicts. Bullleh Shah, Dara Shikoh, Princess Zebunnissa among others faced persecution. Dara Shikoh had to lose his throne and his life in pursuit of a humanistic vision that sought to reiterate essence over form, spirit over ritual and synthesis over division. The bigots declared that he was a heretic and his own brother leading the pack, ordered his killing.

Taseer’s politics was fiercely anti-orthodoxy based on his progressive worldview. Unlike a few progressives, he was a staunch Pakistani nationalist and viewed Pakistan as a modern and enlightened country. This was a position espoused by his party – the Pakistan People’s Party – through the 1970s and onwards. In the 1990s, disillusioned with the changing nature of Punjab politics and his own party’s drift towards pragmatism, he took a break and focused on expanding his business empire. Musharraf’s rule came as another faux moment that brought him back into active politics. A short stint under Musharraf as an interim minister was a tricky decision but it was his re-entry into political life. He had decided to end his political ‘exile’. […]

Meeting Salma Bhatti

I met the wife of slain Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and discovered tales of woe, marginalisation and hope


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It has been over three years that Pakistan lost a brave Christian citizen Shahbaz Bhatti for his relentless advocacy of human rights and in particular for wanting to correct discriminatory and anti-people laws that afflicts all Pakistanis – Muslim or non-Muslim. Shahbaz Bhatti’s case has been treated in the same manner as most cases of this kind are. There are high-sounding condemnations; initial activity by the Police, arrest of a few ‘suspects’ and then the dysfunctional, collapsed system of justice takes over.

Shahbaz Bhatti was a serving Minister at the time of his murder. This was the second loss for the PPP – an ostensibly liberal and secular party in power. Earlier it was Punjab’s Governor Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated by his own guard in 2011, and in the same year a federal minister was gunned down in broad daylight. Yet, the response of the government was not what it ought to have been. By caving in to the extremists’ pressure and keeping survival in power as the top priority it lost the chance of changing the direction of the country. True, PPP was beholden by powerful corporate interests of the military and a formidable armed right wing but the impact of it all has been grievous for the country.

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Taseer’s son is in the custody of militants since 2011. The former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son was also abducted by militants and remains a hostage. The public opinion in Pakistan is not concerned, as the middle class narrative holds the ‘corrupt’ politicians responsible and militancy is now viewed as a heroic resistance to the evil West. This is why Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers are free and the case most likely will lead to another unjust outcome. […]

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

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. […]

September 8th, 2014|Pakistan, Politics, Published in the Express Tribune|0 Comments

Pakistan’s perilous democratic transition


Pakistan’s perilous democratic transition has been rocked by the ongoing anti-government protests.

The standoff between the government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition parties continues to accelerate the political uncertainty and damage the fragile economy.

Sharif was elected 14 months ago in an election that witnessed unprecedented voter turnout.

While most opposition parties accepted the results, Imran Khan — the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek I Insaf (PTI) party — claimed there was widespread rigging. There’s not much evidence, however, beyond the usual irregularities of Pakistan’s outmoded electoral system, to back this up.

But a successful campaign, aided by sections of Pakistani media, to de-legitimize last year’s vote has convinced a large number of people that somehow Khan’s mandate was “stolen” in 2013.

Another opposition group, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), led by a Pakistani Canadian cleric, Tahir ul Qadri wants a systemic change and has a list of undeliverable promises to the electorate. His immediate grievance is the brutal police action against his supporters that left 14 dead in June of this year. […]

September 3rd, 2014|governance, Journalism, media, Politics, Published in CNN|1 Comment

Pakistan: Will instability topple democracy?

Even if PM Nawaz Sharif survives the current crisis, his government will be permanently weakened.

Imran Khan's 'freedom march' entered Pakistan's capital on April 15 [Reuters] Imran Khan’s ‘freedom march’ entered Pakistan’s capital on April 15 [Reuters]  

Pakistan is in a state of crisis and the continuing deadlock between the government and opposition parties threatens to derail the constitutional order. Since the beginning of August, the two leading opposition groups – Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) led by a Canadian-Pakistani cleric Dr Tahir ul Qadri – have been mobilising their supporters for a regime change.

Both have different objectives but are joined forces in the moment to oust the incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On August 15, the two groups entered the capital and a few days later marched into the high security Red Zone where all the diplomatic missions and key state buildings such the parliament, supreme court and presidency are located.

The crowds were smaller than expected but they are charged, parked in the capital and willing to storm into the PM House. The army which has been entrusted with the role to protect the state institution buildings has prevented this from happening and it has demonstrated that it will avoid a situation where it may have to intervene by force. […]

August 29th, 2014|Extremism, media, Pakistan, Politics, Published in Al-Jazeera|0 Comments

Farewell President Zardari

Here is something I wrote for TFT, analyzing President Zardari’s tenure

President Zardari has set a new record of being the only democratically elected President to have completed his term and left the office without handcuffs, disgrace or an exile order. The ongoing transition to democratic rule after three decades (1977-2007) of direct and indirect military rule is not going to be a smooth ride. Pakistan’s civilian institutions remain weak and vulnerable to systemic crises. That Zardari bolstered the cause for civilian rule in an incremental manner will be remembered in history despite the reservations of critics in the political arena as well as the media.

In 2008, the decision of the PPP to field Zardari as a candidate was met with public uproar largely constructed by Pakistan’s media industry, which primarily caters to an ‘urban’ and ‘middle class’ demographic. It was said rather authoritatively that Zardari was unfit for office; and not just due to his alleged corruption during his wife’s tenure as the Prime Minister. Pundits opined that he lacked ‘capacity’ and an understanding of Pakistan’s complex issues. In fact, a major newspaper group’s editor and some of its TV hosts predicted on a regular basis that Zardari would be out of power within months.

None of these uncharitable predictions proved true. If anything, Zardari was able to muster support from his old, bitter rivals and made alliances across the political spectrum. For the first time in PPP’s history, it ruled all four provinces as well as the centre, and even bagged a majority in the Senate for after 1977. These extraordinary political skills stunned even Zardari’s sworn enemies. The multi-party coalition enabled the PPP government to undertake unprecedented structural reforms in the shape of the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments to the Constitution of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan was declared a de facto province with an improved rights’ framework and work was started to address Balochistan’s marginalization. After the new National Finance Commission Award, the development budget of the province increased threefold. Most importantly, the state’s obligation to protect the poor from price shocks was articulated through a successful income support programme, which by now serves millions of poor households and empowers women. Reform process in FATA was also commenced, though it remains stymied due to the conflict in the region.


September 19th, 2013|Politics, Published in The Friday Times|4 Comments