A letter to Gandhi

(In 2017-18, an Indian friend wanted to collect essays from Pakistanis on how they view MK Gandhi across the border. I wrote this short letter to Mr. Gandhi that I recently saw in my collection. Sharing it with the BP community. )

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Birla House,
New Delhi.

Dear Mr. Gandhi,

My name is Abdul Majeed and I am writing to you from the city of Lahore, Pakistan. I have been asked to write about you by an Indian friend of mine and I accepted his proposition. I feel ambivalent writing about you since I have thought about you in myriad ways over the course of my life. I grew up in a conservative Muslim household in a small Punjabi town called Sialkot and first learned about you in the ‘Social Studies’ textbooks taught to schoolchildren. My first impression of you as a person was quite negative since the role assigned to you by virtue of ‘Two Nation Theory’ (or TNT, as I now call it) was that of a Hindu politician who opposed the formation of Pakistan and probably hated Muslims. Like many schoolboys of my age, I idolized Mr. Jinnah, your arch-nemesis and a founding father of Pakistan. For us, Jinnah was the David to your Goliath, a defender of minority rights against all odds, an impeccably dressed man who stood up to the might of Hindus and saved Muslims of India from a cultural annihilation. In our imagination, he was everything you were not. We used to make fun of your attire and your persona. I grew up in a society where violence was the channel through which you expressed your masculinity and thus we thought your non-violent methods were signs of cowardice. I learned that All India Congress, a party you led for many years, did not support the idea of an Independent Pakistan (or a divided India, depending on whom you ask) and refused to believe in Partition even after two separate countries had been established.

My outlook towards history and towards your personality changed when I went to boarding schools in the northern part of the country. While the basic ideological framework remained in place, facts added up through the years. At one point in time, I could recite the whole ‘Pakistan Studies’ book by heart in two hours, including names of the books written by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a Muslim educationist and reformer in Nineteenth-century, charter of demands presented by the Shimla deputation to Viceroy of India in 1905, consequences of Bengal’s partition in 1905, Minto-Marley reforms of 1909, Fourteen points of Mr. Jinnah (a proposal for constitutional reform in British India) and the Islamic clauses in Pakistan’s three constitutions. You might be astonished to know that history books in our schools start the story from the Nineteenth century as if nothing happened in this land before. The boarding schools I went to, were located near Mansehra (containing artifacts from two thousand years ago) and Taxila (where the oldest University in the world was once present) respectively, sites containing artifacts from a past I never had. I knew you as a wily politician who duped Muslims during the Khilafat Movement. The word ‘Mahatma’ was used as a prejudicial slur towards anyone ‘Indian’. I often got called by this name because I was a vegetarian.

Years later, I ended up seeing you in a different light. I was roaming the streets of New York City in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when I chanced upon a statue of you in Greenwich village. A week after that, I saw another one of your statues at the MLK memorial in Atlanta. I learned about your influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and the strategy of non-violence resistance. It was around this time that I read Arundhati Roy’s foreword to ‘Annihilation of Caste’ and ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire’. As I grew up, I came around to the idea that human beings contain multitudes and having contradictions is partly what makes us human. On one hand, you paid lip service to the idea of caste in Indian society, on the other, you made public displays of spending time with the untouchable community. You accelerated the fusion of religion and politics in India during the late 1910s and the Khilafat movement and you also held fast when Pakistan was not paid money it was due after partition. You used elements of Hinduism in your political and social message and were eventually gunned down by a Hindu nationalist. You didn’t subscribe to the Two nation theory but the last century proved you wrong. India and Pakistan have grown and keep growing apart as a Sunni state and a Hindu state. Some of your ideas were as controversial then as they are now. You were in favor of treating Nazis with peace and non-violence and you lived to see how that turned out. In Pakistan during the 2000s, some people wanted to talk to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and that didn’t go as planned either. The question then is, how does one deal with groups whose founding ideology is based on violence? With this, I’ll leave you in peace in your forever abode.

Greetings from Lahore,

Abdul Majeed Abid



Film Review: What Will People Say?

**Caution: Spoilers Ahead**

Image result for what will people say film

I was watching the film ‘What will people say’ (courtesy, Kanopy), an official selection at the Toronto film festival in 2018. It is a story familiar to anyone who grew up in Pakistan or in a desi family abroad. A young, second-generation Pakistani teenage girl (Nisha) in Norway wants to live her life like any other teenager in her peer group but is restricted by her parents. Like most rebellious teenagers anywhere in the world, she finds ways to do what she wants to do (go out partying with a friend in the middle of the night) but stops just shy of having physical relations with one of her guy friends. One such day, she gets caught by her father who finds one of her male Norwegian friends in her room and starts beating him and then turns his fury on her. A neighbor calls the police and Nisha is escorted to a safe place by Norway’s version of the CPS.

After spending a night at CPS, Nisha’s mother calls her to tell her that everything will be okay and that her father will pick her up from CPS in a few minutes. Nisha, being a teenager, falls for this trap. She ends up on a flight to Pakistan with her father. Her father leaves her at his sister’s house and returns to Norway the next day. Nisha tries to contact someone in Norway but she has no access to international calling or internet. Her first night, she tries to run away in the streets but comes back to find her aunt at the door telling her that the nearest airports in 350 Kilometers away. At another instance, she tries to send a message to one of her Norwegian friends via facebook through a net cafe but is caught and her Norwegian passport is burned. She spends eight months at that place. While she is there, she falls for one of her male cousins living in the same house.

One night, they are caught kissing at night by local police who beat him mercilessly and ask her to strip at gunpoint. The police then ask the guy to fondle her in front of them, all while taking photos of them. The couple is then dragged to their house and police demand money in exchange for deleting those photos. Nisha’s father is summoned from Norway by the Pakistani relatives and she is sent back. While Nisha’s father is in Pakistan, he spits at her face and then takes her in a taxi to the top of a mountain and orders her to jump from there. She tries to plead with him while he throttles her and tries to push her. He is unable to, and they end up back in Norway.

There is a family meal and her mother tells her that they are giving her a final chance. The prospect of her becoming a doctor is brought up and that it would be one way in which the honor of family can be redeemed. Some of the dialogues used by her mother upon her return are,

People don’t even invite is to weddings anymore.
I wish you were stillborn”.

Within a few days of her return, she comes back from school to find that there is a ‘match’ ready to happen. The boy (Adnan) is a doctor in Canada and from a Pakistani family. Adnan’s aunt is visiting Nisha’s house and he is present via Skype.

Her father muses out loud that she can study and later work once she is in Canada. The boy’s aunt says ‘No, there is no need for studies or work. Adnan earns plenty of money. She’ll later be busy enough with children and the house”.

Nisha’s mother agrees with this statement.

After a brief chat, the ‘match’ is finalized and they are officially “engaged”. Sweets are consumed by everybody present (they are Pakistani, after all). The boy’s aunt then says, “Nisha, we are doing it only for your wellbeing”. The following night, Nisha, who had been rooming with her younger sister, decides to run away from the house again. It is snowing outside and before she leaves, her younger sister (who is about 6-9 years old) wakes up and sees her leave but doesn’t say a word. Once she has climbed down from her third story apartment, she walks towards the street outside their apartment complex and looks back. Her father is standing in the window, looking at her. Their eyes meet for a few moments and then Nisha takes off in the snow, running far away from the house. The End.

I thought the movie was generally well-made. There is some exoticization of Pakistan, as one expects in most films for a primarily western audience. The narrow streets, old houses, mountains in the background and a dilapidated bus, with Khawaja-siras (transgender people) selling boiled eggs to passengers, the old school vegetable and fruit market, classrooms without whiteboards and households without domestic servants. I read later that the story is loosely based on the life of its director, Iram Haq.

The premise, as I said earlier, is familiar to a Pakistani or a Pakistani-origin person. The rank hypocrisy of Pakistani society, the guilt-trapping (Pakistani parents’ favorite sport), violence in the name of honor and efforts to ‘save face’ in the community are daily realities of a desi household. While honor killings get splashed as headlines (deservedly), there is a lot of ‘micro-violence’ that happens every day in a middle-class Pakistani household with young girls (I’m talking about a representative sample). Some of the statements that I have bolded and put in quotation marks in the synopsis are familiar tropes of Pakistani parents, once they find out that the human being they created is not a robot that they can program. The situation, however, is much more dire for girls than it is for boys. Particularly when it happens abroad. One of my mentors used to say that Pakistanis in the diaspora tend to be normal people until their daughters start growing up. If it were up to Pakistani parents, they would bottle up puberty of their children and throw it away in the trash, instead of dealing with it like people everywhere else.

I write this not just as a commentator but as a witness. Both of my sisters, at different times in their lives, were ‘disciplined’ when they developed an interest in men that my parents had not chosen for them to marry. Sister number one was a teenager and had a crush on one of her teachers (which is the most teenager thing that I can think of). The guy in question used to visit our house for coaching (a normal occurrence for our household, to be clear) and he belonged to a lower-middle-class background. Once the ‘crush’ was discovered, he was banished from our house and my sister was warned never to mention his name again, or there would be dire consequences. She was 16 at the time. Around the time that she turned 17, she was engaged to a cousin who was studying abroad at the time. She got married at 18 and has lived abroad ever since. She has always been an obedient and slightly-passive child and has done okay in life, despite the obvious disadvantage.

Sister number 2 has always been a more outwardly emotional and strong character. Her first ‘issue’ arose during teenage years when she was found talking too many times with one of the male cousins. She would also ‘dress up’ (as much as one could in a provincial Punjabi town) when she went to coaching centers in the city during her high school years. Later, when she was in college, she needed some help with coursework and an acquaintance who worked in that profession was asked to help. The acquaintance deputed one of his juniors to help my sister. Fast forwards a few years and they were romantically involved. My parents were having none of that. They tried to ‘arrange’ her marriage at different places but she would stage some sort of stunt (act cold/be sarcastic/or just being rude) to get out of it. She tried to kill herself at least twice during this period. She was probably physically beaten more than once as well (I was at boarding school between 2000-2006 and in med school for 5 years after that so I only heard these things second-hand). I had met the dude in question and found him to be okay, nothing too spectacular or bad. As the firstborn male, I held a certain role in the family so I first cajoled my mother (who hated the guy partially because he was 10-12 years older than my sister and partially because he came from a lower-middle-class family and my sister has always had ‘high’ ambitions) and later my father (who felt guilty for having introduced the couple in the first place) and sister number 2 finally got married to him.

Were my parents monsters or merely representing the middle class, small-town, religious morality that they themselves grew up in? I don’t know the answer to that question. They are otherwise very decent, educated, ‘honorable’, pious people and a neutral observer meeting them for the first time won’t be able to see anything wrong outwardly. The pathos inflicting my parents is not restricted to them, it is shared by everyone around them, most of the society is rotten. And it’s not getting any better with time.

P.S A book that deals with issues of ‘honor’ in the Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Britain, is ‘Maps for lost lovers’ by Nadeem Aslam. One can also glean some knowledge about this from certain portions of the movie ‘Blinded by the Light’.


The damage done to third world countries by Harvard and UChicago

I recently read an article in The Economist about Jair Bolsonaro and one of his prominenet supporters  (a UChicago economist) and it remineded me of the damage done by such ‘luminaries’ to other third world countries such as Pakistan.

“In July, at a convention of his small and inaptly named Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro unveiled his star hire. Paulo Guedes, a free-market economist from the University of Chicago, has done much to persuade Brazil’s business people that Mr Bolsonaro can be trusted with the country’s future, despite his insults to women, blacks and gays, his rhetorical fondness for dictatorship and the suddenness of his professed conversion to liberal economics. At the convention Mr Guedes praised Mr Bolsonaro as representing order and the preservation of life and property. His own entry into the campaign, he added, means “the union of order and progress”.”

Further in the article,we learn more about the adventure of ‘Chicago Boys’

“[Chile’s dictator from 1973-90, Augusto] Pinochet sensed, rightly, that corporatism would require him to share power with his military colleagues. Instead, he called on a group of civilian economists, dubbed the “Chicago boys” because several had studied at the University of Chicago, where the libertarian economics of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman held sway.

The Chicago boys applied these principles in Chile, whose economy had been wrecked by the irresponsibility of Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist overthrown by Pinochet. Their programme would eventually lay the foundations for Chile to become Latin America’s most dynamic economy at the turn of the century. But it was akin to a major operation by trial and error and without anaesthetic. They slashed import tariffs and the fiscal deficit, which fell from 25% of GDP in 1973 to 1% in 1975. They privatised hundreds of companies, with no regard for competition or regulation. Worried that inflation was slow to fall, they established a fixed and overvalued exchange rate. The result of all this was that the economy came to be dominated by a few conglomerates, heavily indebted in dollars and centred on the private banks.

In 1982, after a rise in interest rates in the United States, Chile defaulted on its debts and the economy slumped. Poverty engulfed 45% of the population and the unemployment rate rose to 30%. Pinochet eventually dumped the Chicago boys and turned to more pragmatic economists, whose policies contributed to Chile’s post-dictatorship prosperity.”

Pakistan was one of the countries that was ‘advised’ by economists from Harvard during the 1950s and 60s.

M. Ziauddin, veteran Pakistani journalist, wrote about the influence of Harvard and UChicago on Pakistan’s economy in his piece titled: Way Out of Deepening Inequality.

Some critique of the Harvard Advisory Group’s (HAG) broader actions can be found in a paper (found here and without paywall here) by Nadeem ul Haque and Mahmood Hasan Khan (Haque obtained a PhD from UChicago and Khan from a Dutch University).

“The HAG vision was flawed in three respects and sowed the seeds of the distorted development of the economics profession in these three respects.

First, it did not attempt to develop an economics profession that was rooted in the country. They left the universities and colleges in a state of neglect attracting resources to these new non-academic, semi-bureaucratic institutions and attempted to give them the lead in the profession. Without the seed of the pure profession being nurtured and jealously guarded in academia, the profession was bound to have a distorted growth.

Second, the HAG trained economists were very different from the economists of the time. The HAG training was very development oriented and specific to Pakistan. They were not encouraged to do any theoretical or pioneering research. Third, given the importance of HAG and the new institutions and the symbiotic relationship between these institutions and the bureaucratic and political setup of the time, these HAG trained economists acquired a large and visible role in the economy. These visible economists not only played an important role in Pakistan’s history but also distorted the country’s perception of an economist, the economics profession and economic policy.

By design, the HAG group was interventionist, plan and budget allocation oriented. They mistrusted the market and had the arrogance of having more information than the market and the rest of society. Interestingly enough, the HAG training of development economics was collapsing on itself. Because these people had no behavioral relationships in mind and no faith in markets, they did not merely push policy levers and study response lags and dynamics. Instead, they developed lengthy plans or wish lists and used the bureaucratic structures to control the environment to make these plans happen. This control-oriented and market-mistrusting civil service loved this new intellectual force given to their view.

A second element in the thinking of the HAG economist was the concern with inequality. Haq and Baqai (1986), two important economists of the HAG era, note with concern that “early writing on economics in Pakistan surprisingly did not contain much reference to poverty related themes.” It is very interesting that most of the early econometric or behavioral research is done mainly by the HAG advisor, whereas the work on measuring poverty, productivity (the ratio calculation work) is done by the Pakistani economist. Before anything about the economy was understood, poverty indices, regional inequality indices, and declines in real wages (when hard wage data was hardly available) were the main areas of concern.

The manner in which these economists were trained itself created a certain perception of economists in the country which lasts till today. These economists were trained to be policy-oriented development economists. A sharp distinction was made between such economists and those who studied more theoretical and academic economics. The erroneous impression was unintendedly cultivated that the study of theory or more rigorous economics is of limited use to the country. Such a pursuit was considered a luxury that the country could ill-afford. This view has persisted and developed over time and reinforced the perception that to be a good economist for Pakistan a grounding in economic theory is not only not required but perhaps may even be a hindrance. The result is that there is a tremendous disrespect for academic and theoretical economics. The term “ivory tower” intellectual was used to describe anyone who attempted to read and keep abreast of academic economics. Instead, an amalgam of general knowledge and mild development verbiage has been established as sound Pakistani development economics.’ Fragmentation of the Profession”.


Book Review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

One of the many things in life that fascinate me is the way something becomes news. In my previous life in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to explore this issue further. I interacted with plenty of journalists, both as a source of news and sometimes as a reporter. I was never involved in decisions that happened in the newsroom or any particular editorial decisions but I saw journalists working at close quarters. I was intrigued by many things and asked a lot of questions. One of my friends who used to work at BBC Urdu service once said that BBC’s way of reporting a story is to give everybody a chance to speak. If a bicycle is stolen from an apartment complex, BBC journalists would like to talk to the owner, the thief and if possible, even the bicycle. BBC’s standards are not widely followed in Pakistan (based on my limited view) and a lot of local reporting by correspondents of major newspapers and TV channels is cursory. I also became aware of this issue when I talked to people working at Punjab Lok Sujag, a non-gvovernmental organisation with local roots which had previously worked in making Punjab’s culture more popular (by staging plays in Punjabi, translating major works of fiction in Punjabi and holding an annual Punjabi mela [fair]).

I recently read a excellnt book that dealt with issues of all things ‘news’. It was published in 2007-8 by British journalist, Nick Davies. He spent most of his career working at the Guardian and The Observer in England but he did oversees stints in Australia and United States as well. The book starts off with an exploration of the ‘millenium bug’ story that gripped the attention of a lot of people at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ll let Mr. Davies do most of the talking here.

Where did the millenium bug story start?

“As far as I can tell, the story first hatched one Saturday morning in May 1993, in Toronto, Canada. Inside the city’s Financial Post, on page 37, there was a single paragraph. Under the headline, ‘TURN OF CENTURY POSES A COMPUTER PROBLEM’, the story recorded that a Canadian technology consultant called Peter de Jager was warning that many computer systems would fail at midnight at the start of the new century and that few companies had taken steps to head off the problem.

Rather like the B-movie egg which is laid by the alien in the dark corner of the peaceful suburb, this little story broke out of its shell and slowly started to distribute its offspring around the undefended planet. By 1995, it had spread out of North America into Europe and Australia and Japan. By 1997, bug stories were being sighted all over the globe. By 1998, they had multiplied tenfold, infiltrating media outlets of every kind, and they were still mutating and dividing, still penetrating more and more newspaper columns, more and more broadcast news bulletins until finally, as Millennium Eve approached, they achieved a global conquest of the media, tens of thousands of bug stories infesting almost every news outlet on the planet.”

The financial cost of the story

“Journalists reported that the British government had spent £396 million on Y2K protection. They also reported that it had spent £430 million. And that it had spent £788 million. The American government had spent far more, they said – $100 billion, or $200 billion, or $320 billion, or $600 billion, or $858 billion, depending on which journalist you were reading. Anyway, it was a lot. Beyond that, the private sector had spawned a mini-industry of companies selling millennium bug kits, while publishers turned out bug books and bug videos, and estate agents sold bug-resistant homes, and a few families sold their houses and fled to remote cabins in order to give themselves a chance to survive the coming bug-related chaos.”

How he defines ‘Flat Earth News’

“This [millenium bug story] is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda”

An issue that befuddles ordinary consumers of news (like myself) is the difference between objectivity and neutrality. Should journalists be telling the truth (Objectivity) or just giving both sides of the story (Neutrality)?

“Neutrality requires the journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately (under threat of discipline) from expressing the judgments which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth-telling. If two men go to mow a meadow and one comes back and says, “The job’s done”, and the other comes back and says ‘We never cut a single blade of grass’, neutrality requires the journalists to report a controversy surrounding the state of the meadow, to throw together both men’s claims and shove it out to the world with an implicit sign over the top declaring, ‘We don’t know whats happening-you decide’.

The damage goes further than merely abandoning the primary purpose of journalism. It actually transfers the truth-telling judgments out of newsrooms and into the hands of outsiders.”

Mr. Davies mentions that most of the news stories in major newspapers are lifted straight from news agencies, which could be local and global. Two global agencies that he talked about are Associated Press (AP) and Reuters.

“Just like PA (Press Association, England), their concern with accuracy is deliberately different from a newspaper’s concern with truth. One man who has spent many years as a senior executive from Reuters echoed Jonathan Grun from PA explaining to me that Reuters was not concerned about the truth. The agency would try to provide an accurate amount of an opposing point of view: ‘But it isn’t an agency’s job to start choosing between these voices and saying who is telling the truth’. All the great flat earth news stories have travelled via wire agencies into the unprotected global media.  It was AP and Reuters who told the world about the millenium bug and the weapons on mass destruction, who carried the myths about drugs and crime and radiation and education and all the other Huckers, big and small. All these stories were accurate, in that they faithfully recorded what somebody had said; none of them were true”.

The epilogue of the book starts with some golden words from The Simpsons: “Journalists used to question the reasons for war and expose abuse of power. Now, like toothless babies, they suckle on the sugary teat on misinformation and poop it into the diaper we call the six ‘o clock news”.


Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)

Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words,
” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”

The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )

Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.

I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.

For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.

Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.

“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”

Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism.  As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.

What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).

Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.

ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.



Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 2)

I showed up at the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS) a few days after the rally. The person who had called the meeting was running late so I just loitered around. It was a two-room apartment that had been modified into a makeshift office space with some spare area for sitting, with floor cushions etc. There was a book rack full of books in one corner. The lady who managed the place was present there and said Hello. A few minutes after I had arrived, two boys a few years younger than me showed up as well. We started chit-chatting and it turned out that one of them was a student at LUMS and the other went to another private school. We were talking about democracy when they revealed that they were not in favor of democracy at all and then spent the next hour arguing why they thought so. They were under the influence of Hizb-ut-Tehrir, an Islamist organization that wanted to establish a caliphate. I tried to argue with them using rationality and logic but they were not willing to listen to a counter-argument and eventually stormed off. I discovered that IPSS was offering a short course in Political Economy and History and all I had to pay for was a copy of their syllabus.

Salmaan Taseer (ST) was a larger than life person. He grew up in a literary family, with his father passing away at an early age but the familial ties and his family’s social standing in the Lahori society gave him a footing in the tightly-knit hierarchy of Lahore’s elite circles. He was an active member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) during its heyday, starting in 1968 and through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule (1972-77). After Mr. Bhutto was hanged (1979) and PPP was under threat by Dictator Zia’s government, ST wrote a biography of Mr. Bhutto. I attended a talk by one of the fact checkers on ST’s book (at the cafe, Books n Beans, a small liberal enclave for such events) and she remembered how hard she had to work to meet ST’s standards. ST was instrumental in arranging for Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Lahore in 1986 and the grand reception that ensued. He was elected in the PPP wave that swept most of Pakistan during the 1988 elections. He didn’t win another election in during the rest of his political life. However, he was considered PPP’s man in Lahore, someone who could take on the Sharif’s of PML(N). ST started an English daily in the early 2000s, called Daily Times (DT) which started with much fanfare and even had an Urdu counterpart. Continue reading “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 2)”


Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)

I have a special interest in Aasia Bibi’s case because it was the assassination of Salmaan Taseer that shook most of my worldview and lead me to a completely different path in life. It coincided with my political awakening. I was a 4th-year medical student at the time (January 2011) when the incident took place and I started my new journey. I grew up in a conservative, Salafi family in small town Punjab. I had always been a bookworm, interested in reading the news and reading all kinds of books (more in Urdu than English, mostly because books in Urdu were much more accessible to me). When my classmates in high school were busy memorizing textbooks for history, I was reading books in the school library that had not been read for ages (including both English and Urdu books). I was more interested in biographies and didn’t read (or had access to) books on politics and social sciences written in English. I was curious but didn’t have enough material to understand my own curiosity.

I was aware of the Aasia Bibi case and considered it a bigoted attempt by the village folk as a way to settle scores (not an uncommon occurrence in Punjab, my homeland). I was heartened to see Governor Taseer’s photos in the news when he visited Aasia. I had actually written a letter to Governor Taseer about some issue with our university exam (Governor of Punjab is the de facto Chancellor of all public universities in the province) a week before he was assassinated. From a political standpoint, I did not like him because he had been used by Zardari (President of Pakistan at the time and belonging to Pakistan Peoples Party-PPP) as a pawn to keep the PML(N) government in the bay. It was during this period that photos from some private events attended by the Taseer family were ‘leaked’ on social media. They showed the Taseer family in swimming pools and the ladies in swimsuits (which was considered too much skin). Those photos were circulated on Facebook and then on news channels by both PML(N) folks and later by the religious right which had started calling for Salmaan Taseer’s head after he visited Aasia in jail.

At the beginning of January 2011, I had taken part in an inter-collegiate competition taking place in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and was still living in the slightly less-bigoted mindset that was present in LUMS. The assassination on January 4th, 2011 took place a day after I came back from LUMS. A few short years before that, Lawyers movement (2007-08) had swept urban parts of Pakistan in a frenzy and it felt like a new era for raising your voice, to demand greater freedoms. Some of my friends from high school had played an active role in the movement and LUMS had been a citadel of resistance during those days. The band, Laal (meaning Red) had sung some of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poems and made a wonderful video talking about protest. After 8 years of Musharraf’s ‘hung democracy’, the politico were back in action. (Side Note: for admission to 11th grade in a military-run boarding school, I had to write an essay on demoracy in pakistan (in 2004) and I used the words ‘hung democracy’ in my essay. I got admitted. Omar Ali of BP went to the same school.) There used to be a ‘study circle’ oraganised by some LUMS students (current and former), who had taken active part in the Lawyers movement, at a place on Jail Road, Lahore near my hostel which I had attended twice. During one of the sessions, Ashar Rehman (Taimoor Rehman-of Laal’s uncle and brother of Rashid Rehman, editor of Daily Times) talked about his days fighting alongside the Baloch against the Pakistan army and how he learned tactics of guerrila war from Che Guevara’s books. At the other session, a lady who used to be active in leftist circles in the 1940s (I believe it was Tahira Mazhar Ali, Tariq Ali’s mother) talked about the freedom she enjoyed in those times, roaming Lahore in her tonga. Continue reading “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle(part 1)”


Maududi and Iqbal: A Brief History

A few days ago, on the occasion of Allama Iqbal’s proposed birthday (November 9th was chosen by a committee created in the 1970s), Mr. Rafi, a Pakistani commentator on twiter tweeted that

“Iqbal chose Maududi to head Dar-ul-Islam in Pathankot to reconstruct Islam in a new light and eventually Maududi founded Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) so Iqbal is indirectly a founder of JI as well” (my translation, the original tweet was in Urdu).

Having written extensively on Jamaat-e-Islami and Maududi in the past and with a moderate knowledge of Iqbal’s poetry and prose, I was not thrilled by this simplistic association. In my opinion, it was a tenuous argument and required a bit more nuance and detail. To set the record straight, I went back to some of my source materials and re-read about the relation between Iqbal and Maududi. I wrote a brief blogpost about this issue in April 2012 for Pak Tea House blogzine (May it rest in Peace), which you can access here.  Following is a detailed look at interactions between the two gents. (For more, see Vali Nasr’s Mawdudi and the making of Islamic revivalism)

The first time Maududi and Iqbal crossed paths was in the 1927 when Maududi wrote a series of articles on the issue of the concept of Jihad in Islam titled”Islam ka qanun-i Jang” (Islam’s law of war), in twenty-two issues of his magazine Al-Jam’iat beginning in February and ending in May 1927. The articles were well received in Muslim intellectual and political
circles. Mawdudi was lauded for his service to Islam by Muhammad Iqbal;Muhammad Ali; Mawlana Ahmad Sa’id of the Jamiat-i Ulama-i Hind, who wrote a complimentary note about the first installment; and the eminent alim, Sayyid
Sulaiman Nadwi, who saw to the publication in 1930 of the articles in book form under the title Al-Jihad fil-lslam (published by Darul-Musannifin in Azamgarh). The first time Iqbal met Maududi was in 1929 in Hyderabad where he had gone to deliver a lecture.

In 1937, Iqbal wanted to establish a model ‘darul-ulum’ (house of knowledge) in Punjab to lay the foundation for a new Islamic worldview, which would in turn facilitate the creation of a Muslim national homeland. His friend Niyaz Ali, a retired civil servant, wanted to establish a waqf (endowment) using a piece of land he owned in Pathankot, a small town in Punjab.

Iqbal’s aim was evident in his letter to the rector of al-Azhar in Cairo, Shaikh Mustafa al-Maraghi, requesting a director for the intended darul-ulum; Iqbal asked the Egyptian alim for a man who was not only well versed in the religious sciences, but also in English, the natural sciences, economics, and politics. Al-Maraghi answered that he had no suitable candidate. Iqbal was disappointed and handed the task of selecting a suitable overseer to Niyaz Ali, but he remained firm about establishing the darul-ulum.

Niyaz Ali, meanwhile, searched for a suitable administrator for his waqf. He turned first to the famous Deobandi alim, Ashraf Ali Thanwi, but Thanwi rejected the offer. Niyaz Ali then tried to encourage Mawdudi to move to Punjab (Maududi at the time was in the state of Hyderabad working ), though he made him no firm offer and the two disagreed about the aim of the project. Niyaz Ali insisted Mawdudi consult with Thanwi, with whom Mawdudi was at loggerheads, along with the rest of the the Deobandi Jamiat-i-Ulama-i Hind. Disagreements, however, were soon overshadowed by mutual need.
The situation in Hyderabad was fragile, and Mawdudi had come to the conclusion that it was not the best possible place for launching an Islamic revival. This made him more interested in Niyaz Ali’s project, and he solicited
the job of administering the waqf. Unable to find any other suitable candidates, Niyaz Ali was inclined to agree, but the final decision had to await a response from al-Maraghi. Niyaz Ali asked Iqbal to write to Mawdudi and invite

Unable to find any other suitable candidates, Niyaz Ali was inclined to agree, but the final decision had to await a response from al-Maraghi. Niyaz Ali asked Iqbal to write to Mawdudi and invite him to settle in the Punjab. Iqbal arranged for him to come to Lahore and serve as the imam of the Badshahi mosque at a salary of 100 rupees per month and to partake in Iqbal’s plans for the revival of Islam, “umraniat-i Islami ki
tashkil-ijadid” (reconstruction of the social aspects of Islam). Mawdudi turned down Iqbal’s offer on the grounds that he did not want a payingjob that would restrict his freedom. Niyaz Ali then suggested Maududi as overseer of the waqf and secured Iqbal’s agreement to this appointment.

At the meeting , Mawdudi’s appointment was confirmed, but Iqbal did insist that he establish at Pathankot some form of educational institution with a clearly defined curriculum. Mawdudi accepted Iqbal’s scheme and agreed to use the
waqf to train a number of capable Muslim students and young leaders in Islamic law as well as modern subjects. Although the project was essentially educational, the imprint of Maududi’s politics was evident in its name, Darul-Islam (Land of Islam).

All this cooperation was uncharacteristic of the independently minded and self-righteous Maududi, especially since it was clear that by no means had he abandoned his political objectives. Accepting the position was, therefore, partly
out of respect for the celebrated poet and the appeal of being a close associate. Following their meeting with Iqbal, Mawdudi and Niyaz Ali agreed on the terms of Mawdudi’s position as waqf overseer, and Niyaz Ali included Maududi
in the waqf’s governing committee, the Darul-Islam Trust.
Niyaz Ali guaranteed Maududi the autonomy he had asked for, but not the permission to involve himself in political activity, because their agreement with Iqbal regarding the nature of the waqf’s projects precluded it. Mawdudi agreed
to these terms. In the November 1937 edition of the Tarjuman, it was announced that the journal would be moving from Hyderabad to Pathankot; Maududi arrived there on March 16, 1938.

After Iqbal’s death, JI cadres tried to cash in on Iqbal’s brand and called Dar-ul-Islam his brainchild but Maududi himself had a different view. Maududi argued that “the commonality
of views between ‘Allamah Iqbal and me are limited to our belief that Islamic law should underlie the revival of our religion; my thoughts and intellectual probing are my own.” Iqbal did not conceive of the Darul-Islam project as it eventually unfolded, and Maududi was not Iqbal’s choice to lead it. Even after the two met again in 1937, Iqbal’s opinion of Mawdudi was guarded. Mian Muhammad Shafi, Iqbal’s secretary, recollected that he referred to Maududi as
“just a mullah [low-ranking cleric] ,” someone more suited to lead the prayers at the Badshahi mosque than to oversee a pioneering educational project.

Now, in hindsight, did Iqbal’s poetry influenced Maududi and JI’s conception of Islam and the world? It depends on if you want to focus on Iqbal’s more Ummah-focussed poetry and his ideas about mixing of religion and Islam. You would find some overlap in ideas but it is hard to separate the threads in some instances. Whether Iqbal wanted it or not, JI cadres used his poetry for their propagands. But then, such is life.




Book Review: Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak (Silent no more?) by Lt Gen (Rtd) Shahid Aziz

The late great Asma Jahangir once described Pakistan’s generals as ‘duffers’ on national TV. While it would be disingenuous to generalize a whole group as duffers, one can infer that within a strictly hierarchical structure as the army, loyalty to the force and to the commanders is considered a greater asset than intelligence or aptitude. A better experiment would be to take a look at the books written by various retired generals through the decades and reach a conclusion. It can also help us understand what type of characters are highly valued by the institution and thus given promotions. Many of the earliest officers in Pakistan Army wrote their memoirs including (but not limited to) General Ayub, General Sher Ali Khan, Air Marshal Asghar Khan and General Gul Hasan.  General Sher Ali Khan was an ‘ideologue’ of the elusive ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ while Ayub Khan and Asghar Khan had slightly more pragmatist views in that regard. Lt Gen Shahid Aziz belonged to the former category. According to his account, he was an honest officer who always put the interest of institution before any other interests.

He described himself in the following words in his book:

“Why am I full of contradiction? Why can’t I be balanced? Then I console myself with the thought that a pendulum has a balance too; what use is a balance that is static and frozen? Real balance is in movement. One should be flying back and forth on a swing.” (Translation: Khaled Ahmad)

Reading the book, one gets the impression that he was slightly more PakNationalist than the average military Joe and his levels of self-righteousness were high enough to prompt him writing that book. He knew exactly what he was doing and was a man of his (however flawed) convictions. He was the kind of guy who refused to vote for Zia in the sham referendum held in 1984, despite being asked by his superiors in the military, the type of officer who wouldn’t display a star and Pakistan’s flag on his staff car.  Musharraf obviously was wily enough to see through Shahid Aziz’s simplistic stupidity and didn’t promote him as the Vice-Chief of Army Staff. You can see his cognitive dissonance in the book that he has no shame (or self-awareness) appropriating Faiz’s work (the book is littered with poems by Faiz and Ahmad Faraz, both of whom were harsh critics of despotism and military rule in Pakistan and left the country rather than stay under a military dictatorship).

I think he’s the ultimate Nasim Hijazi character (Man on a white horse), someone who imbibed the whole PakNationalist Muslim narrative and decided to live accordingly. By PakNationalist Muslim narrative, I mean believing wholeheartedly in the ‘Two Nation Theory’, believing in conspiracy theories that the US-Israel-India nexus is constantly working to undermine the sovereignty of Pakistani state, holding the military at a higher pedestal than politicians and believing that Pakistani Islam is supposed to save the rest of Muslim world. Throughout the book, he refers to Taliban (of any variety) as ‘Mujahideen’, without any shame or remorse. His view about Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is the following:

“The bombs that kill innocent Pakistanis in bazaars and mosques are planted by friends of America, and this terrorism is done to persuade Pakistan to embrace America more closely, allow the government to pursue pro-America policies, and to alienate Pakistan from the mujahideen. But this trend of support to the killers of Muslims is an open rebellion against Allah.”

In the book, he mentioned two instances during his training in the US when he was approached by people who wanted him to leave Pakistan army and join the US army in the same position that he held in Pakistan. This sounds preposterous because you need to be a green-card holder or a national to enlist as an officer and you can’t be inducted straight as a commanding officer.

One of the more interesting (but not completely unsurprising) aspects of his book was the discussion of nepotism and corruption within the ranks of the army (especially corruption during weapons procurement and the way DHA scams people). Such things, if ever pointed out by civilians, would constitute heresy and treason. Another aspect that intrigued me was his criticism of war tactics during 1971 (he fought along the Kashmir border) and during Kargil (when he was part of ISI).

The most useful part of the book is when he discusses his role as a first-hand observer of Musharraf’s coup and its aftermath. He was also part of the team that selected people for running different ministries under Musharraf and he spilled the beans on how Ministers of Finance, Commerce, Trade, Industry, and Petroleum were ‘pre-selected’ and Shaukat Aziz never even appeared before the interview panel. He was initially optimistic about the monitoring mechanism put in place to hold the relevant ministers accountable but things didn’t work as smoothly or ideally as he wished. He laid the blame squarely at Bureaucracy’s feet.

His thoughts post-9/11 were:
“After 9/11 the bitter reality of a unipolar world was exposed. This incident happened under suspicious circumstances. A lot of American experts claim that this incident was orchestrated by American Intelligence Agencies and Jewish terrorists”.

He was bitter about the fact that Musharraf allowed US forces to use some of our Airbases (Shamsi, Zhob, Dalbandin, Jacobabad). He also mentioned how Indians sneaked into Afghanistan right after the organisedUS-led operation and took over TV stations in Kabul. According to his account, American forces didn’t keep Pakistan informed regarding their hunt for Al-Qaeda militants and knowingly pushed then towards Pakistan. About the first encounters between SSG unit and Al-Qaeda militants, he was full of praise for the militants and commented: ‘how can you compare a salaried individual with a guy who is looking to be martyred?’

Regarding the Indian Parliament attack in December 2001, he had this to say: “After The Delhi bomb attacks, Pakistan was accused in the world as a terrorist haven. This was a ridiculous claim. By that time, Pakistan had ceased help to Kashmiri Mujahideen. ISI was strictly acting upon the new policy. Obviously, Kashmiri Mujahideen were not an organized group, they were nothing more than a ragtag army who were fighting in the way of Allah, not listening to anyone. However, the government wasn’t involved.”

There were tensions within the top brass in 2002-03, which have been highlighted by the author. There were turf disputes between ISI and Army, involving some captured Al-Qaeda militants, close coordination between Army and CENTCOM,  and development of a Quick Response Force and a Special Operation Task Force within SSG. There were two assassination attempts on Musharraf in the period 2003-4 which were orchestrated by people within the military.  He, however, voted for Musharraf in the 2001 Referendum. (Just an aside, I was an ‘observer’ for the Referendum near a village in Mansehra and saw how people brought NICs of dead people to the voting station so that those people’s vote could be counted).

His reflections on becoming CGS (Chief of General Staff):
“My tenure as CGS was really hard for me. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. In Afghanistan, we collaborated with the U.S. while waving the flag of non-partisanship and were equally responsible for massacre of fellow muslims, a dictator who came to the fore promising change became President for five years based on a sham election, Incapable and corrupt politicians were promoted by the army to run the country, compromises were made on Kashmir under American pressure, separatism in Balochistan was promoted, commercial TV channels were allowed to manipulate our nation’s narrative, ‘Pakistan First’ was used as a slogan and there were efforts to reform Islam under the auspices of ‘Enlightened Moderation’. He argued with Musharraf in favor of keeping the Kashmiri ‘Mujahideen’ as proxies against India.

He rails against both secular people and religious people because they don’t follow what he thinks is the righteous path. According to his plan, religious education in regular schools should be updated and secular education in religious schools should be updated so that in a decade, students of both systems are on par with each other. He sparred with Musharraf and his friends over this at dinner parties. The more alarming insight from the book is that such view and such officers were popular in the army. He also had a romantic view of the ascetic life, free of the burdens of money, job and retirement.


Book Review: The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel baloch was murdered in cold blood two years ago. She had rose to prominence as a ‘bold’ social media personality, challenging Pakistani society’s consensus on ‘morality’. Her selfies, vlogs, Live videos and twitter posts were shared and re-shared thousands of times as soon as she posted them. Sanam Meher’s book on her life is a poignant portrait of Qandeel’s (real name: Fauzia Azeem) life, where she started, whom she encountered on her ascent up the ladder of popularity and the obstacles she faced by Pakistan’s entrenched patriarchal culture. The book is important not only because of Qandeel’s story but because it focusses on other people, such as Digital Rights Activtist Nighat Dad and a female police officer who was tasked with investigating Qandeel’s murder. While she was alive, I personally didn’t care much for her but I remember receiving the news of her killing while I was in a library preparing for my USMLE Step 1 and the shock that I felt. She has been re-branded as an icon of feminism after her death and the National Assembly closed a loophole in the law regarding ‘Honour Killings’ soon after her death.


Islamabad-based band Bambu Sauce sang a song titled ‘Wazir-e-Azam Qandeel Baloch’ a few days before she was killed. You can listen to it here: