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 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 15

Edhi’s legacy

Posted on Friday, July 15, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Edhi’s legacy

“The public will be allowed to enter the National Stadium through gates number four, five, six and eight,” announced the DIG Traffic on the day of Abdul Sattar Edhi’s funeral in Karachi, before adding, without shame or irony: “The VIPs and VVIPs, most of whom will be coming from Defence, Clifton and Shahrah-e-Faisal, will enter through the main gate.”

The main gate for the rulers, the “other” gates for commoners. Business as usual in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where doors are always being opened for the high and mighty.

But it is a testament to Abdul Sattar Edhi’s greatness, and to the tragedy of the country he leaves behind, that on the day of his funeral, Pakistan’s credibility-hungry generals and politicians were lining up behind his coffin to bask in some reflected glory.

Who was Abdul Sattar Edhi? A conventional timeline places him in a strife-ridden century: born in 1928 in what is now Indian Gujarat, this young Bantva Memon was deeply affected by his mother’s physical paralysis, and tended to her until her death when he was 19. After Partition, Edhi moved to Karachi and sold cloth in its wholesale market. But the panoply of afflictions in that migrant-heavy city appealed to his conscience: in the 1950s he set up a drug dispensary, then a makeshift hospital to treat victims of an influenza epidemic, then an ambulance service for the victims of the 1965 war with India. In the last thirty years of his life, as Karachi was wracked by ethnic and sectarian violence, Edhi’s duty-bound ambulances could be seen beeping from site to site, their red-and-white logo a hope-instilling icon of commitment and consistency.

For such a motivated man, Edhi was remarkably free of ambition. In fact it would be accurate to say that his life was one long exercise in self-abnegation. Famously “simple” and unfussy, Edhi sat on a wooden bench in his office, slept in a windowless room and drew no salary from his sprawling network of charities. He is said to have owned only two pairs of clothes when he died. In these Tolstoyan attempts at transparency and moral exactitude, this perpetually perturbed-looking, white-bearded nana (as he was called by the children in his orphanage) was steadfastly assisted by his wife Bilquis, who came to embody the virtues of patience and forbearance, the necessary sabr to hissaadgi.

The accounts of acquaintances and journalists all conjure up a clear-eyed man, one who had no time for abstract or overly romantic ideas about poverty. “Never give to beggars,” he once told a wealthy philanthropist from Lahore. Another time, recalling the plight of people wounded in the 1965 war, he admitted, “My heart became so hard after that. I made humanity my religion and devoted my life to it.”

In the 1990s, he was approached by General Hameed Gul and Imran Khan for mercenary enlistment against Benazir Bhutto’s government. But Edhi refused to redeem their conspiracy with his participation, even when they threatened him with force. “They wanted to fire a gun from my shoulder,” he told an interviewer, “but I wouldn’t let them.”

How might we assess the legacy of such a Spartan and singularly upright figure? First, by placing him in a long line of revolutionary ascetics, men whose renunciation of wealth and power bestowed on them a purifying aura of spiritual and moral authority. The Buddha, the Sufis, even Gandhi with his complicated engagement of colonial power, all rose to prominence through a paradoxical shunning of privilege; it was their symbolic embrace of poverty that became their capital, their nearness to suffering that elevated them in the eyes of a cynical and motive-wary public. For Abdul Sattar Edhi, who lived in a particularly turbulent time, and who witnessed first hand the toxicification of Pakistan’s religious fabric, that passage to sainthood was lined with the additional pitfall of the new-age missionary’s deceptive piety. Let us not forget that Edhi was operating his orphanages and soup kitchens in the age of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and other insidious “charities” whose bright and shiny aid programs are often fronts for hate-filled recruitment drives. Indeed, let us uphold Edhi’s stance on religious discrimination as reformist and exemplary: “There were many who asked me, ‘Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?’ And I said, ‘Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.’”

In one of his last interviews, a visibly ailing Edhi expressed a wish to see a political revolution in Pakistan. When pressed for details, he prophesied a Khomeni-like savior. “When conditions deteriorate to such an extent,” he said in his frail, phlegmy voice, “such men become inevitable. They may be late, but they are inevitable.”

Alas, such men and their predictably self-righteous and often misplaced passions pale in comparison to the transparent services of one Abdul Sattar Edhi, a man whose wilful residence on the margins of society offers the only template for Pakistan’s salvation – and that is the truest (and oldest) form of democracy.

Jul 8

Stability and continuity

Posted on Friday, July 8, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Stability and continuity

Pundits forecast that the next three months are critical for the survival of the Nawaz Sharif government. Their claim is based on the fact that there is a wellspring of public opinion against the corruption of politicians as revealed by Pananaleaks, which the opposition parties, led by the irrepressible Imran Khan, are going to exploit after Eid. The plan is to launch street protests to force the prime minister out of office.

The case against Mr Sharif is based on two facts: his two sons are beneficiary owners of offshore companies and his daughter was declared a dependent in his declaration before the Election Commission of Pakistan whereas she is also a shareholder in an offshore company. The first point is moot because his sons are neither dependents nor residents of Pakistan and it is not illegal for Pakistanis to own offshore companies. The second could be more problematic if his dependent daughter cannot prove she is no more than a mere trustee on behalf of her beneficial-owner brothers.

Both the PPP and PTI have filed references against Mr Sharif before the Election Commission of Pakistan and both are girding up their loins to heave Mr Sharif out of office via street agitation. Will they succeed?

Clearly, the pundits, like the PPP and PTI, are banking on some other factor to clinch the ouster of the beleaguered prime minister who refuses to budge. What is this “third” force or factor?

This is the “national security” establishment. This establishment does not like Mr Sharif for a number of reasons. It dislikes his “independent” demeanour in foreign policy formulation and implementation, traditionally its exclusive preserve. It hates him for putting an ex-army chief on trial for treason. And it believes him to be both corrupt and incompetent. It would dearly love to see the back of him but is constrained by several factors. Mr Sharif is an elected prime minister, and that too from Punjab, the heart of Pakistan, with a significant support base and organized political party with roots amongst the people. He has tenaciously fought his way out of many political storms. Short of a military takeover or ouster by the Supreme Court, he won’t quit. But the prospects of both happening are not bright.

The military isn’t quite ready to risk the internal and external consequences of a takeover and the SC under the current chief justice isn’t in the same aggressive political mode as his predecessor who shot down one prime minister and was aiming at another before retirement overtook his ambitions. So what is this hullaballoo all about?

One plausible theory is that the establishment wants to weaken the prime minister rather than get rid of him (because he will then do its bidding more readily in all matters of interest or concern to it) by stoking the opposition into street agitation and putting him on the back foot. The advantage of this approach is that he will then be more amenable to the pressing demand for an extension in the tenure of the three chiefs of staff of the establishment.

The speculation is focused especially on the army chief who has avowedly declined to seek or accept an extension in tenure like his predecessor but is under pressure from other vested interests among his ranks to hang on in some “acceptable” manner. This could be a legal extension in the service rules enabling all three chiefs to enjoy a four-year tenure rather than the current three years. Since the incumbent army chief is scheduled to retire in November this year, all this must be accomplished within the next three months before a new chief is announced, making the current chief a lame duck.

Mr Sharif must therefore be weighing his options just like the establishment and the opposition parties. If he doesn’t grant the desired “extension”, will the establishment get him? If he does, where is the guarantee that the establishment won’t still get him, if only to prove that it can’t be “bribed” against the “national interest”? Indeed, where is the insurance against much the same sort of pressure in 2017-18?

There is no doubt that General Raheel Sharif has so far demonstrated that he is the man of the hour. Some of his national security decisions have been courageous and far-reaching. Continuation in policy is therefore desirable. Equally, however, a case can be built against an extension in service because it is not in the collective interest of the institution that he serves and represents and the soldier-gentlemen to follow are likely to be no less good and competent.

Indeed, the case against an extension in service for the army chief or all service chiefs, regardless of their merits, is no different from the case for elected governments to complete their tenures regardless of their incompetence or lack of integrity. Pakistan desperately needs stability. But stability can only come from continuity that puts the pundits of doom and gloom out of business.

Jul 1

Offensive India

Posted on Friday, July 1, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Offensive India

Statements from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj have triggered a debate on the contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy and who is responsible for the stalemate in Indo-Pak relations.

Sushma Swaraj says “some powers are opposing cordial relations between Modi and Nawaz Sharif”. Mr Modi claims that there are “multiple power centers in Pakistan” which make it difficult for New Delhi to “draw a Lakhsman Rekha (red line) for talks with Pakistan.” He asks: “who should India talk to in Pakistan? The elected government or with other actors.” He goes on to explain that “there are different types of forces operating in Pakistan but we only engage with a democratically elected system”.

Both Indian leaders are referring to the powerful role of the military establishment in Pakistan in fashioning and implementing national security policy in which India figures centrally. They are thus implying that (1) the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif is severely handicapped in its ability to chalk out foreign policy, much less to deliver on it; (2) India is handicapped too because it will only talk to an elected government in Pakistan. The thrust of both statements is to inform the world that “democratic India” is willing and able to conduct a dialogue with Pakistan but Pakistan’s civil-military divide is an obstacle to it.

This has prompted Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, our interior minister, to ask Ms Swaraj “which powers in Pakistan don’t want India-Pak ties” and to admonish her for “personalizing the nature of the cordial relations between PM Modi and PM Sharif”. Sartaj Aziz, our de facto foreign minister, has retaliated by portraying Pakistan as the evergreen peace player and India as the perennially intransigent one. If both sides are being economical with the truth, what do the facts reveal?

It is true that the military establishment has fashioned the “national security state” of Pakistan and considers itself its “sole” guardian and arbiter. It is true that Pakistan’s foreign policy is shaped directly and indirectly by it. It is true that when elected civilian leaders like Benazir Bhutto in 1988-90 and Nawaz Sharif in 1997-1999 tried to steer India policy out of the hands of the military establishment in significant departures from their stated goals, they were “dismissed” for their audacity. But it is also true that India has been willing to talk to the generals when they have been in power in Pakistan, so long as it served its strategic goals. It was ready to talk to General Zia via cricket diplomacy in 1987 and it talked with General Musharraf at length in the 2000s via a back channel over the future of Kashmir.

Therefore the problem with India is not who to talk to in Pakistan but what to talk about. Pakistan has always wanted to talk about Kashmir first and foremost but India has always put other issues like trade and people-to-people contacts on the agenda and Kashmir last of all. This led to deadlock. But the situation has changed significantly in the last decade without breaking the deadlock. Pakistan is ready to relegate Kashmir to the status of a fig leaf and discuss all other issues, including terrorism, but India now insists on talking about terrorism only without any commitment to discuss other issues like trade, let alone Kashmir. In fact, India is only interested in focusing on one dimension of terrorism – that which emanates from Pakistani soil – but refuses to acknowledge, let alone discuss, RAW’s new doctrine of “offensive-defense” in sponsoring terrorism against Pakistan. In fact, it can be argued that since the activation of RAW in Pakistan by India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, India has been avoiding talks on terrorism and focusing on “enlightening” the world about Pakistan’s “sponsorship” of terrorism across its eastern and western borders. This, regardless of the fact that Pakistan has signaled its readiness and goodwill by concretely alerting India to the threat from non-state actors in Pakistan, a gesture that India has grudgingly acknowledged by saying that “the government or agencies in Pakistan have no hand in the terrorist attack on Pathankot airport.”

It is therefore disingenuous of Mr Modi and Ms Swaraj to refer to multiple centres of power in Pakistan as the sole reason for not talking to the civilian government in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani military’s worst critics at home and abroad now admit that its focus is on grappling with terrorism inside Pakistan as an existential threat to state and society and not in consciously exporting terrorism to India or Afghanistan as state policy.

Pakistan’s civil-military leadership is ready to talk strategic peace with India even if there are tactical differences of opinion within it on how to proceed sequentially. But it is Narendra Modi’s India that has fashioned a new strategic doctrine to isolate and destabilize Pakistan in which talks of any sort, even on trade in which the balance of gain is heavily tilted in India’s favour, are thought to be counterproductive.