Jul 29

Tragedy of the subcontinent

Posted on Friday, July 29, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Tragedy of the subcontinent

India-Pak relations have hit rock bottom again. Who is responsible and why?

The record shows that Nawaz Sharif has tried to bury the past and move forward in a pragmatic manner. But Narendra Modi hasn’t reciprocated in the same spirit. Domestic compulsions have now compelled both leaders to adopt hostile positions.

Mr Sharif went to the “inauguration” of Mr Modi in 2014 because he wanted to start an unconditional new chapter in good relations. But the Indian Foreign Secretary muddied the waters by an unprovoked statement on Kashmir. Undaunted, Mr Sharif proposed foreign office talks on all issues without preconditions on “core” issues. But Mr Modi clutched at a feeble excuse – a proposed meeting between the leaders of Kashmir and the Pakistani delegation — to back out at the last minute. Mr Sharif tried a third time in 2015 when he agreed in Ufa to send a delegation to Delhi to talk about the way forward on common issues, including terrorism. But the Indians again balked at any reference to Kashmir and the meeting was called off. It seems that any mention of the K word by Pakistan – even as a fig leaf for public consumption at home — is anathema to India. In 2014, Mr Modi was canvassing in J&K and didn’t want to dilute his message to his hard line electoral constituency by seeming to be talking to Pakistan on Kashmir or allowing Pakistan to talk to the Hurriyet leaders. Now he is waging a brutal repression in Kashmir and doesn’t want the K word in headlines again. But for precisely the same sort of domestic reasons, Mr Sharif has been compelled to thunder about the mass human rights violations in Kashmir during his own election campaign in AJK.

In between, win-win opportunities for both sides have been wilfully squandered. A revival of cricketing ties at neutral venues was agreed upon between the PCB and BCCI in 2015. But Mr Modi didn’t allow this to go ahead. More significantly, a far-reaching trade agreement has been on the anvil since 2013 but Mr Modi has studiously refused to get on with it despite India’s long time insistence on precisely such an agreement as a building block for peace.

Meanwhile, vested interests on both sides continue to thwart the road to peace. Despite the military establishment’s lid on them, fringe non-state jihadi elements in Pakistan are occasionally able to slip across the border and terrorise India, as happened in Pathankot recently. Instead of accepting this as an inevitable hiccup, and despite concrete reassurances by Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, India has ratcheted up such incidents as “deliberate provocations”. On Pakistan’s side, evidence has piled up of the “offensive-defence” doctrine of India’s NSA in sponsoring terrorism in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan. This has provided ammunition to the chest thumping, war-mongering lobby in the country.

The situation in Kashmir is dire. A new intifada has risen. There is no foreign hand in it as many Indian observers accept. It comprises the angry alienated youth of a new generation of Kashmiris who have grown up in the shadow of brutal occupation by the Indian army. There is not a single family in Kashmir that has not lost a son or brother or father in the struggle for freedom and democratic rights. There isn’t a single family in Kashmir whose mother or daughter or sister hasn’t been violated in one way or another by the soldiers of occupation. In the old days, when the occupation forces shot on protestors, the demonstration would break up because people would run away from the hail of bullets. Today people rush out of their homes and run toward the site of conflict to rain stones on their oppressors. Yesterday, their heroes were “freedom fighters” in exile in Pakistan. Today, they are hailing their very own Gurus and Wanis. Yesterday, some of them wanted to be autonomous within India and some of them wanted to be part of Pakistan. Today they all want “Azaadi” from both India and Pakistan. Yesterday, there was no one in India who was ready to listen to their cry of anguish. Today, Arundhati Roy isn’t the only one who is pleading their cause. Yesterday, there was a conspiracy of silence in the Indian media against the atrocities committed by the occupation forces in Kashmir. Today, stories of mass graves and videos of beautiful Kashmiri faces pocked with pellet wounds are going viral on the internet.

Before long, however, it will be business-as-usual again between India and Pakistan. This week a high level BSF delegation came to Pakistan to talk border management with the Pakistan Rangers and we can be sure that there will be talk of talks between the two before the year is out but nothing concrete will come of it. Before long, too, the repression will take its toll in Kashmir and a sullen and angry silence will descend on the valley, until the next time round.

This is the painful tragedy of the subcontinent.

Jul 27

Aapas ki Baat – 27 July 2016

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Jul 26

Aapas ki Baat – 26 July 2016

Posted on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo

Jul 22

Candle in the Wind

Posted on Friday, July 22, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Candle in the Wind

The killing of social media starlet Qandeel Baloch has galvanised Pakistan’s civil society. Her violent and untimely death (she was all of 26) at the hands of her brother has led to outpourings of shock and grief from across our social divisions, and has brought to light a vibrant demographic of young, web-savvy women who look upon self-expression as a fundamental and inalienable right. It’s as if Qandeel, in her brief career as a raging Internet celebrity, had touched the hearts and tickled the fancies but also expanded the imaginations of young Pakistanis.

She was born Fauzia Azeem, one of twelve siblings, into a poor family in Dera Ghazi Khan. Married at 17, she quickly fled her allegedly abusive husband and sought shelter in Darul Aman. Thereafter she held a string of jobs before auditioning in 2013 for the popular TV show Pakistan Idol. In her audition Qandeel Baloch (she had already taken on this enigmatic stage-name) was obviously cast as a “disaster” candidate: her attempts at singing were met with pained expressions on the judges’ faces and were complemented with kooky “coiled-spring” sounds signifying a mechanical error. Though Qandeel went along with the ditzy role ascribed to her by the show’s producers (she tottered in on very high heels and wrung her hands repeatedly), she was keen to make an impact: she was exuberantly dressed, armed with English phrases, and belted out some genuinely melodic notes before being escorted off the stage by one of the judges.

In her subsequent engagements with the public, Qandeel adopted a more radical strategy. Instead of relying on television, she turned to the unregulated and potentially explosive circuitry of Facebook; instead of sticking to a “safe” girl-next-door image, she began to peddle the persona of a faux-naive, helplessly sensual dilettante. Dressed in revealing outfits like tank tops and frocks, she held forth in a cutesy, hiccupping voice on such disparate national obsessions as the dysfunction of Pakistan’s cricket team, the ethics of celebrating Valentine’s Day, and the prospect of her own ardour-filled marriage to Imran Khan, whose surname she deliberately mispronounced, in the way an Indian actress might. All this was interspersed with repeated usage of the word “like”, a trendy American tic, and her simpering renditions of Urdu poetry.

In other words, Qandeel was pitching herself as a new kind of Pakistani entertainer, one who combined humour, fashion, and the modern-day drama of relentless self-documentation with a good deal of titillation; and from the surge in her followers on Facebook, who eventually numbered more than a million, as well as the impassioned and frequently vitriolic comments posted under her videos, it was easy to see how the formula was working. Love her or hate her, you couldn’t ignore Qandeel Baloch.

Alas social media, while quick to give exposure, offers its “stars” none of the protections afforded by traditional mediums such as TV and film; and herein lies a crucial, fatal difference. For while she gained notoriety quickly, Qandeel could not have translated her viewership just as easily into money; nor did she burrow her way into “showbiz” with the backing of powerful patrons.

In the last month of her life, Qandeel exhibited an urgent desire to overcome the limitations of her career as a social media sensation. First she tried to amp up her relevance by taking selfies in a hotel room with Mufti Qavi of the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee; then she put out a risqué music video – again combining provocative images with a sociological subtext – lampooning society’s controls on women’s bodies. According to news reports, she was hoping to parlay the publicity (and liberal goodwill) generated by these stunts into a lucrative gig on Indian reality TV show Big Boss. And all the while she was managing the pressures exerted by her still-provincial family: telling TV anchors she had received death threats from her brothers (whom she supported financially) and declaring that she planned to leave the country with her parents after Eid. (In that last assertion we can sense the swing and ballast of her game plan, a thrilling escape followed by a more secure career as a TV celebrity.)

Sadly, the mores of a moribund society closed in on Qandeel before she could realise her desire for liberation. In the end, while visiting her parents over Eid in Multan, she was strangled to death by one of her brothers, a self-confessed drug addict who later said he had killed her for “bringing dishonour to the Baloch name.” We need not take that statement at face value, and should analyse the deed for all manner of base motivations. But in the meantime we should remember Qandeel Baloch as the first of her kind, a talented, self-made artiste who tested the limits of our sensibilities, and who came to embody, in her colourful life and terrible death, the lingering chasm between our social media and our social reality.

Jul 20

Aapas ki Baat – 20 July 2016

Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo