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No exit

The US must not forget the importance of a democratic, pluralist Pakistan

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

The recent visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad is a continuation of the improving relations between Pakistan and the US. From the declared frenemies in 2011, things have changed thereby proving that nothing is permanent in international relations except interests.

Kerry during his visit lauded Pakistan’s ongoing fight against terrorism and urged the authorities to take action against militant groups that threaten regional peace and stability. Furthermore, the State Department has declared Mullah Fazalullah, commander of TTP fighting Pakistani military, a global terrorist and froze his US assets, if any. On Tuesday, Afghan authorities reportedly apprehended 5 suspected planners of the Peshawar school attack based on the intelligence shared by Pakistan. This came after the weekend visit of Pakistani intelligence chief to Kabul and his meeting with President Ghani.

What distinguished Kerry’s current visit from earlier visits by US officials was that Pakistan Defence Council and other such xenophobic networks did not carry out public demonstrations against the US. A clear effort was made that such an embarrassment is avoided. Phrases such as ‘drone strikes’ and ‘violations of sovereignty’ were missing in the official communiques. Both countries are back to their old military to military relationship and trust deficit has considerably narrowed.


Finally Pakistani state honours Manto

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer – God or he.” (Manto’s self-composed epitaph)

The decision of Pakistan’s civilian government to accord the highest civilian honor to Saadat Hasan Manto comes as a minor, though significant, attempt at our national course correction. It took fifty seven years and a light year of denial for the state to recognize the worth of our great writer and commentator. Even though Manto dreaded the idea of a posthumous award, the conferment of a top state honour is a debt that Pakistan’s anti-intellectual and repressive state owed to the genius of our times.

Saadat Hassan Manto was born on 11 May 1912 in united Punjab’s Ludhiana district. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career spread over two decades, he produced at least 250 stories, scores of plays and a large number of essays. He also worked with the All India Radio. Perhaps the best years of his life were spent in Bombay where he became associated with leading film studios. Manto also wrote a dozen films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib. The last one was produced into a movie after he moved to Pakistan in January 1948.

After 1947, Manto was shoddily treated by the new state of Pakistan. This towering writer had become a sensation even before his migration to Pakistan. Manto’s scathing irony and the proclivity to subvert conventional wisdom was already well recognized. But it was the senseless and horrific violence of the partition which gave a new dimension to his writings, and made him both into a story-teller par excellence and a social historian of immense depth and variety.

In Pakistan Manto was tried for ‘obscenity’ and the right wing launched a full-fledged campaign against him. It is a bitter irony of our confused society that in 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has entertained petitions from an Islamic party representative and a former judge against television channels airing Indian programmes and thereby spreading ‘fahashi’. Manto’s chilling story “Thanda Gosht” – a no-holds-barred indictment of violation of woman’s body and desecration of humanity invoked the ire of puritans. It is a separate matter that the story has gained global traction and acclaim.

As Ayesha Jalal says Manto was ‘vulgar’ because what he saw in his surroundings was vulgar to him. It was the environment that caused him to attain that degree of directness in his writings. Manto was faced with over half a dozen charges of obscenity, three of which occurred before Partition and three after he moved to Pakistan. Even out of these, the court found only two stories in which he had transgressed the law and was liable to punishment. It would be unjust to call a writer’s work obscene just on the basis of two stories. But then we are good at defying logic. […]

Pakistan: Prime Minister Gilani’s ouster – what next?

My recent analysis for Express Tribune published yesterday:

 Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s inevitable ouster has created another storm in Pakistani politics reminding us of the endemic political instability that has plagued the country since its inception. The judicial verdict, which renders Gilani as disqualified since April 2012 may lead to further legal crises. The Supreme Court had its intentions quite clear since January when it rebuked the PM for not implementing its orders. The elected government continued to defy court orders and made political capital out of the judgments, invoking its troubled past with the judiciary.

The recent allegations of corruption levelled by infamous business tycoon Malik Riaz on the chief justice’s son added another twist to the executive-judiciary struggle. Many observers viewed the hand of the executive behind this move. Several detractors of President Zardari also hinted at the latter’s role in this saga. The Supreme Court swiftly reacted and unified in the face of what was interpreted as an ‘attack’ on its independence. The decision to disqualify Gilani therefore comes as a sequel and cannot be isolated from the recent events. Concurrently, the court has also been active on the missing persons case, which implicates powerful members of the security establishment.

Since 2007, there has been a redistribution of power within Pakistan’s formal state structure. The judiciary has emerged as a relatively independent player and has distanced itself from its historical ally, the military. This new reality and power shift was a messy one as it entailed conflict with the civilian and military arms of the executive at various points in recent years. Yesterday’s decision comes as a final expression of this intra-state struggle. Whether this struggle will involve a showdown with the security agencies remains to be seen. However, given the court’s resolve to assert its authority, this eventuality cannot be ruled out. […]

Can we afford to bypass Jinnah’s Pakistan?

By Raza Rumi

Published today by Jinnah Institute, Islamabad:

Notwithstanding the contradictions inherent to pre-1947 Muslim politics, Jinnah was clear about certain fundamentals. Pakistan was to be a secular, democratic state. It was not destined to be a national-security obsessed and a paranoid military-intelligence complex.
Pakistan was to be a federation and Jinnah’s advocacy in the 1930s and 1940s was majorly focused on achieving a de-centralized governance paradigm. Finally, the new state was envisioned as a peaceful country, which would interact and establish relations with its neighbour India following the US-Canada model. Jinnah indicated that he would not mind settling down in his native city Bombay after his retirement. All of these facts are on public record and not fantastic or imagined tenets of his vision. What was so alarming about Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan that had to be virtually undone by the custodians of a Praetorian state? Not unlike Pakistan’s history, Jinnah’s legacy is a contested and fractured narrative.

After successive victories, the right wing of Pakistan won a significant battle under General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) when it officially established the “ideology of Pakistan”. However this victory was not limited to official pronouncements but significant institutional changes were also effected to achieve a colonial archetype from South Asian history i.e. a “permanent settlement” of ideological contours. Lord Cornwallis may have undertaken such a settlement for Bengal’s fertile land but Pakistan’s education system, the media and the public discourse finally declared such a settlement as the sacred “truth”.

This sacred “truth” nullified Jinnah’s vision and historic struggles to achieve a fair deal for the Muslims of India, which had culminated in the creation of a truncated and “moth-eaten” Pakistan.

In terms of domestic governance of the new polity, Jinnah’s speeches to civil servants, firm advice to military officers and even to some of his errant politician colleagues were clear. The bureaucracy and the Army had to operate within the legal boundaries and a new direction for the post-colonial state had to be negotiated without undermining the rule of law and the imperative of creating a citizen-responsive state. To the military men Jinnah said the following in June 1948:“…I should like you to study the constitution which is in force in Pakistan at present and understand its true constitutional and legal implications.” And, to the civil service, […]

August 14th, 2011|History, India-Pakistan History, Pakistan, SouthAsia|20 Comments

Regressive governance (book review)

“…the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind.”– Ibn-e-Khaldun

 Pakistan’s ‘crisis’ of governance has now acquired an axiomatic status. Local and foreign experts have been grappling with the precise nature of how the Pakistani state has transformed over the past decades. In particular, the state’s inability to turn into a citizen-responsive, accountable entity is a major tragedy of our times. Ilhan Niaz’s award-winning book, The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan 1947-2008, is a significant narrative on the philosophical and historical dimensions of governance or lack thereof. Perhaps the most impressive part of his endeavor is the fact that his is an indigenous analysis, emanating very much from a Pakistani scholar who has chosen to rough it out in a public sector university.

The book uses a wide range of declassified records available at the National Documentation Centre in Islamabad and, therefore, posits a fresh perspective on both the political history of Pakistan as well as how the culture of exercising power in South Asia permeated the insular, mock-Weberian state created by the British. In this respect, it is worthwhile to say that Niaz has also ventured into exploring the marked regression of Pakistan’s ruling elites – something that few studies before his have attempted. As he puts it, the state apparatus has over time become arbitrary, proprietary and delusional. […]

An existential crisis

On 4 January, Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer was killed by a member of his security detail, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. But as disturbing as the assassination itself were the circumstances surrounding and following the governor’s death… In the aftermath, the hold of Pakistan’s religious lobbies has proven to be so powerful that no mullah, not even one appointed and paid by the state, was willing to conduct his funeral rites. While progressive civil-society voices have condemned both the incident and the direction in which Pakistan is heading – an act of great courage in these times – they remain a desperately small minority.

The entire incident epitomises the very real existential crisis in which the Pakistani nation now finds itself – one that relates to its very identity. Successive governments in the country have been quiescent before the forces of religious fundamentalism, and over the years brought in legislation to appease the religio-political forces – including the blasphemy laws that have been under such scrutiny of late. Today, this has reached a situation in which the country’s religious minorities (constituting less than five percent of the national population) are beleaguered amidst a legal system that denies them basic human rights. In turn, this has enabled fundamentalist ideologies to take firm hold in the minds of government functionaries. The support of the state and its security agencies, including sections of the armed forces, to such sections has now reached a point where they are becoming a threat to the very existence of the Pakistani state itself – at least, in the form we know it. […]

February 2nd, 2011|Personal, Published in Himal Magazine|6 Comments

Salmaan Taseer: A life less ordinary

139E80B6-061D-496B-936B-6E0BC6DF1912_w640_r1_sRaza Rumi remembers the man that was Salmaan Taseer

o these liars and swindlers, these contractors of faith

I am a rebel, I am a rebel

The last time I met Salmaan Taseer Shaheed (STS) was in the Punjab Governor’s House. This was a typical Lahori winter evening: misty and quiet, the palatial colonial mansion making it slightly surreal. A foreign dignitary was visiting; and I was part of the Lahori chatterati assembled in the stately living room that reeked of the Raj. Amid the chatter I took the opportunity to point out the rising tide of extremism in the country, and advised STS to be extra careful about what he said. STS’s response came with his characteristic bravado: “I am not afraid of these Mullahs. Should I stop speaking and stay at home?” He also said: “Being afraid is the worst state of mind.” Within seconds STS had cracked a joke and as always used his irrepressible humour to illustrate just how unafraid he was.

Two weeks later, I was in the same grand room, but in another state of mind: I was shocked and bewildered because STS had been gunned down in broad daylight. My grief since the day of his death has not abated and in fact has turned into a strange despondency: permanent and ominous. In his own words, STS was the “last man standing” against bigotry in a country that is slipping into the hands of extremists who have banned critical thinking and espouse the ideological project designed by the Pakistani state.

Twenty-two years ago I was introduced to STS as a friend of his children, Sara and Shaan, and his razor-sharp wit and unabashed irreverence have stayed with me ever since. Unlike most Lahori parents I had met, this man was refreshing and ultra-engaging. He would joke incessantly about us young lot, our idiosyncrasies and foolish squabbles. Over the years he even chided me when I took sides in a sibling rivalry or failed to tell him what his son or daughter were up to.


January 20th, 2011|Personal, Politics, Published in The Friday Times|23 Comments