Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Above all this is a story of hope for the future.

People often lament about the youth of their times. I suppose it is a rite of passage. Young people are often judged to be disgruntled, good-for-nothing kids going nowhere fast. They are usually a disappointment and often fall short of the expectations of their adults. Their clothes, their hobbies and their choice of entertainment, regularly incite negative responses from the older generation which includes much head-shaking and vigorous finger-wagging. Then the youth cross the threshold and as adults look back at the generation following them and the cycle ironically repeats itself. And so it goes.

I myself, being of a certain age (that shall remain undisclosed), have tried my best to not be a part of this head-shaking, finger-wagging mind-set.  I try to look beyond the few that are truly wasting the best and potentially the most productive and rewarding parts of their lives...and such people do exist.  But then there are those who are not only motivated individuals, but also dedicated to bringing about a better future -- for themselves, for those before them and the ones following them. This is the story of not one but a group of such special individuals.

A few days ago I attended a rally, in New York, against genocide and sectarian killings in Pakistan. The focus was the targeted killing of Shi’as. I went there fired up with a sense of duty and brotherhood. I grew up in Quetta with many ethnicities all around me, enriching my life. Among them were the Hazaras with their beautifully unique features, their musical  language and their rich history. I wanted to be a part of any gathering which condemned this mindless violence. 

The day dawned dreary, cold and wet and I sloshed up to the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza which is a park in front of the UN and a popular site for rallies and demonstrations. Around 3000 people had shown up despite the conspiratorial weather.

I wanted to find out who arranged this event and so I asked a passing organizer if he could take me to the coordinator.  I was introduced to a young woman who looked barely out of college. She was busy trying to find someone to cover for a speaker who was stuck in traffic.She was surrounded by hand-outs and press-kits and had media waiting to film her. Despite the multitude of things unfolding around her, this young woman was in control.

As I spoke to her about the rally, my admiration for her and her dynamic crew grew. Sakina, the chief organizer, is a recent law graduate. She works for Imamia Medics International, an organization dedicated towards the enhancement of the medical, social, intellectual and spiritual well-being of communities.  She was articulate and poised and passionately explained how invested the entire group was in stopping the mindless violence. She masterfully handled the press, the media and the demands of the rally, all of which required her immediate attention.

As I walked around, I saw young people  answering peoples questions and guiding the attendees.  They had food for everyone as well as water and hot tea. They went around making sure that everybody had something to eat and drink and that all questions were answered. They led the congregation along the streets of NY to the Pakistani Consulate in an orderly fashion and presented their petition to the officers.. After that, they continued their demonstration around the corner along Fifth Avenue where organizers handed out pamphlets and informed passers-by of their cause

They managed this rally which had attracted around 3000 people despite the weather. This gathering not only attracted people from all religious sects of Pakistan but also from other countries. It was endorsed by several secular organizations. It had the attention of scholars and academics among them familiar and renowned names like Reza Aslan and Noam Chomsky, to name a few. And it was all possible because the future generation of our world decided to look beyond everything that makes us different and united us on a single platform.  

How could a country whose youth shows the motivation that I saw on that wet and dreary Friday ever lose faith? If the future of our country lies in the hands of accomplished young people like Sakina then there is hope indeed. As Benjamin Disraeli said “The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity”.

Indeed, above all else, this is a story of hope and the promise of a better future.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Let Overseas Pakistanis Vote


In a grand gesture, the Election Commission of Pakistan granted 3.7 million foreign-dwelling Pakistani nationals permission to vote in elections. Huh. I had never realized that this was a privilege, rather than a right. As with all shows of benevolence, however, there is always a catch. Excluded from this group are just as many Pakistanis who hold dual nationalities; in order to be eligible to stand for office or to be allowed to vote in Pakistan, they must surrender their non-Pakistani citizenship. Being in this particular boat, I’m inclined to ask: what, exactly, gives you the right to take away my rights?

By definition, a dual national is a person who is a citizen of more than one country. With that comes the rights -- all the rights -- of citizenship, including the right to vote and the right to compete for office in the elections. Nowhere does it imply that being a national of more than one country reduces one's citizenship to a fraction or, as the Chief Election Commissioner Mr. Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim so succinctly put it, makes you a “Half-Pakistani,” a term which, in my mind, borders on a slur.

Rights granted to the citizens of any country through constitutions are not changeable on whims or fancies. The politicians of Pakistan have always regarded the the Constitution as a list of suggestions rather than a document of concrete ordinances.  Mr. Obaid-ur-Rehman, a Supreme Court advocate with more than 55 years of experience in Pakistan and an expert in constitutional law, says that these amendments are creating a subsect of Pakistanis that are somehow considered less than their counterparts living in Pakistan. He and his colleagues were part of the movement for independence and among the lawyers who laid the foundations for the legal system of the country. Now retired and living with his children in the USA, he feels that his rights are being sidelined on a drummed-up technicality.

I would like to ask the Election Commission about the thought process that led to their decision. Did it conduct a fact-finding mission and gather evidence that proves that citizens are more loyal and invested in the future well-being of Pakistan that those with two passports? Were there accusations of disloyalty, of treason against them?  Are Moin Qureshi, Rehman Malik and Shaukat Aziz more or less loyal than Shahbaz Sharif or Yousaf Raza Gilani?

And what about  those of us who just want to be  part of electing a government?  The audacity of the Pakistani Election Commission to dismiss almost 3 million Pakistanis as unfit to have a voice in an historic election boggles my mind. And then, in adding insult to this injury by calling us “Half-Pakistanis,” this organization shows how disconnected it is with the realities of the world.

Pakistanis living abroad infuse millions of dollars into the economy each year.They send money to their families, they build and support schools, they donate to hospitals and welfare organizations, and they invest in business. Why is their “halfness” not considered when they are propping up the economy? According to Mr. Obaid-ur-Rehman, alienating these generators of foreign exchange can be compared to throttling the goose that lays the golden egg.

Overseas Pakistanis are the ones on the frontlines of the international arena. We are the true ambassadors, the representatives of Pakistan in the world. We are the ones who beam with pride as Sharmeen Chinoy accepts the Academy Award. We gather the tattered integrity of the country when fielding indignant questions about 14 year-olds shot in cold blood for going to school. We have set up Overseas Pakistanis Associations to propagate our culture and values. We register all Pakistani political parties abroad so that we can stay informed. So to me, questioning our loyalty and love for Pakistan is tantamount to the most egregious assault on Pakistani pride. To dismiss, whom I believe to be “more-than-whole” Pakistanis, as half as much is beyond my comprehension.

Our lofty decision-makers were so gung-ho in their wide, sweeping gesture that they also failed to consider the fact that many of those who have lived in the country all their lives hold dual citizenship. Some have been born to foreign nationals, and others have acquired it during the years they spent abroad for education. These people have never considered any nation other than Pakistan as their own. They have been working in and for the country all their lives, and now they are being excluded from participating in its future, both as voters and as potential elected officials -- all because a few entitled individuals deem them not to be “pure Pakistani.”

A more feasible solution would be to take the factor of dual citizenship out of the equation. Pass a law requiring the surrender of Pakistani national status if applying for any other passport. This action would be a much more logical and practical approach to the issue of citizenship. In creating a binary, “either/or” decision for each individual to make, there will be no more room for ambiguity or anger. We need to know where we stand as far as our options as “citizens” are concerned, so that we can be sure that the rights we go to sleep at night with are the same rights we wake up with the next morning.

In a country with such monumental troubles, the way forward should be through policies of inclusion rather than exclusion. Pakistan has always been blessed with the fierce loyalty of its citizens. We do not shrug off these strong emotions just by stepping over a border. The assumption that Pakistanis abroad are suddenly no longer concerned with the welfare of the country, and consequently are unable to make unbiased choices come election time is preposterous. And if that is the opinion of the Election Commission, this offended “half-Pakistani” vehemently begs to differ.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My Hell on Earth


Dust and heat scrubbed this sky of all color. Disfigured roads and dismal buildings littered the
earth beneath it. A desolate land in shades of dirt. He looked upon the building below him.
The veneer of smog and heat created the impression of a mirage, giving the factory an almost
dream-like quality. ”Deathtrap,” he whispered to himself. Day after day, he was sent to observe,
not knowing why. He never questioned, much like the people he would see filing into this
building in just a few moments.
One door. They entered through one door every morning. And they left through one door,
the same door, every evening. There was no other option; all of the others were chained and
padlocked. Whether to keep profits in or miscreants out was debatable, but it was nevertheless
the whim of the owners. And it was without contestation.
He always loved this time of day, before the people were swallowed up by the factory. Before
smiles were wiped off and drowned in the angry buzz of sewing machines. His favorite among
these people was a young girl. Every time he saw her bright eyes and sweet expression, he
would be instantly taken over by love for the Creator. He reached out to her and shrank back in
delight -- another heartbeat was strong within her.
Wait, what was this? One of the older women was holding the hand of a little boy. Oh! This
must be her grandson, the one she was bragging about with such loving pride yesterday. The
supervisor had allowed the boy to stay with her while his mother was at work. ”If he makes
himself useful, I might even give him a few rupees,” the supervisor remarked offhandedly. “He
might have a heart after all,” the woman muttered to her friend.
Once the last of them had walked in, the door locked shut. Another work day had begun, and
it would end after long hours were proffered by those inside. In the end, the workers would
leave the factory with only enough time spared to prepare for the next day. A terrible sense of
foreboding washed over the observer, pulling his attention back to the people inside. Everything
seemed as it had been -- until he heard the screams. A wild keening came from the windows
as the stench of charred flesh overwhelmed him. Angry smoke billowed, cloaking the horror in a
deathly veil. Fiery tongues licked at the desperate souls trying to squeeze through the  windows.
Those who could escape through the bars jumped. Did they hope to survive the fall? Or did they
only hope this form of death was more merciful than the one waiting inside?
A nightmare. Imploring screams tore through heaven and earth, beseeching for help. He heard,
and yet, he did not answer, for he was still only an observer. As he watched, ethereal light
descended from above and the Angel of Death stood before him. He put his hands lovingly on
the observer’s shoulder. “I cannot reap this many alone, my brother. That is why you were sent

Monday, September 17, 2012

250 Lost Lives: The Cost of Western Designer Clothes.



In a world where death and mayhem have become the order of the day, some tragedies still leave us breathless. The fire in the Karachi garment factory, Ali Enterprises, is one of them. The most heartbreaking aspect of this horrific incident was that this could have been prevented had a handful of people placed the value of human life over the importance of making a buck.

Over 500 people worked to put food on the table for their families in that deathtrap of a factory, including a 27-year old pregnant woman and a ten year-old boy. All the exits were locked for fear of theft by the owners who apparently thought that blocking exits was a better strategy than enhancing their close-circuit TVs. The only way out was a door operated by an electronic lock which failed because of the fire.

In Pakistan, laws protecting labor do exist. Pakistan is also a member of the International Labour Organisation's labour inspection convention. By these guidelines, the government should not only be committed to safety but also to regular inspections and to informing the workers of their rights. The Pakistani Constitution has a legislation on health and safety in the Hazardous Occupation Rule 1963, under the 1934 Factories Act which, incidentally, has a section on fire safety, added in 1997. But what good are these laws if there is no implementation. In fact, in a mind boggling decision by Punjab, labor inspections were abolished by executive order. This was meant as a step towards "developing an industry and business-friendly environment" . Sindh, obviously deciding that this was a great positive step, quickly followed suit--perhaps with the encouragement of wealthy and powerful industrialists.

Where was the oversight?  The The federal government has passed on the enforcement of labor laws and safety regulations to the provincial government. But, in a stellar example of avoiding responsibility, immediately after the tragedy, the Sindh Labour Minister, Ameer Nawab, claimed that Sindh Chief Minister, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, had stopped him from taking action against factories violating labour rules. Sindh minister of Industry and Commerce, Rauf Siddiqui, however did give his resignation, showing that he, at least, has a conscience.

The owners were apprehended but granted bail for eight days. Let me refresh your memory: these people are directly responsible for the death of over 250 people and many more injured. How were they considered eligible for bail?  They on the other hand are playing the victim, pointing fingers at invisible extortionists and shadowy threats. Adding insult to injury, the brothers who owned the factory, claim that the reason they wanted bail was to have time to spend with the families of the victims. How blind are they to the grief that they have caused? Did they ever think that the families of the people whose death they have caused might not even want to share this earth with them?

We have come to be part of a society where human life has very little value in the eyes of the people who hold all the power. The common man has become a disposable asset, replaced at a moments notice by the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need. Industrialists believe that the growth of their bank balance justifies all means and any rough patches can be smoothed with money--whether used to grease palms or to wipe away the tears of grieving families.

The onus of this tragedy falls on so many departments. If one officer in one department had stepped up, these lives would not have been lost. But why should we blame just the Pakistani government? Ali Enterprises, the factory that burned down, was producing clothes for a “western supplier”. Why is there no mention of who they were supplying for? No one has come forward because the responsibility falls on them too. But whoever the buyers are, they know that owning up to the fact that their clothes were being manufactured in a sweatshop will not bode well for them. Outraged patrons will boycott their product  and they will also have to investigate the working conditions in all their other facilities.

Most designers outsource to developing countries to escape pesky minimum wage laws of their own countries. Respectable enterprises like Disney and high-end designers like Ralph Lauren and DKNY have all been guilty of using human misery to their advantage. One would think that a small percentage on the revenue will go a long way in making the lives of these workers safe and strict oversight might even eliminate disasters like the one in Karachi--a disaster made more tragic by the fact that it could have been prevented.

The Problem Lies Not in Our Laws, But in Ourselves.



The blasphemy laws of the Pakistani Penal Code have been the subject of fierce debate and the justification to needless violence since these amendments, under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan was born in the name of Islam and by its constitution, the Islamic way of life is to be propagated and protected. Pakistan was also born out of the dire need for religious freedom of the muslims of the sub-continent. This message was displayed proudly on the flag, where a white band proudly streamed next to the green band, declaring to the world that while Pakistan was a Muslim state the rights of all minorities would be protected. The constitution of 1973 declared Pakistan to be an Islamic state and its Article 33  protected everyone  by stating: “ it is the country's duty to discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian, and provincial prejudices among the citizens.”

The changes in Blasphemy laws  brought about from 1982 to 1986 span over several sections in the penal code of Pakistan. In essence it protects any public outrage by forbidding the defiling of the Qur’an, places of worship or sacred objects, defaming the prophet Muhammad (SAW), derogatory remarks against Muslim holy personages, etc. It also increased the punishments of the offences.

Since then the statistics of people accused of blasphemy have  sky rocketed. Out of the four thousand accused, 1000 have had cases registered against them. Half of the cases are against non-muslims who, incidentally make up only 3% of the population. Then comes the part which made the world sit up and take notice--the vigilantism! Twenty of the accused were killed extra-judicially, some while in police custody. Even the accused who were not convicted were subjected to violent persecution with the local religious leaders calling, at times, to burn them alive--without an investigation, without a trial. Does that sound like the workings of a country governed by laws?

Several politicians, lawmakers and minority leaders have tried to argue all sides of these laws. They have tried to call for amendments of the blasphemy laws, others have called to abolish them altogether. Some have died trying, all have failed. My dissatisfaction is not with the body of these laws, so I will not present a case for the amendment or the abolishment of these sections of the Penal Code. My problem is with the enforcement of these laws which makes Pakistan appear as a hard-lining, unjust, unfair  state where human rights mean nothing. Where all you need is a grudge and a cold-heart to point a finger at someone and shout “blasphemer” to bring about all kinds of hurt upon them--whether the accusations are founded in fact or vendetta.

The implementation of these laws is a farce. The latest case of 11-year-old Reshma is a testament to this. The details of this case have been plastered all over the media so I won’t repeat them here. She was dragged from her house, wrenched away crying from her mother, without as much as a thought to whether she was guilty or not or what her rights were as a citizen of Pakistan.  Was it a mistake by a child suffering from a birth defect or was it the conspiracy of a malicious neighbor? Since she was a non-muslim, was the sanctity of the Quran ever explained to her? And the most important question of all--did we plant a seed of hatred and fear against Islam in non-muslims by the way we handled this and other cases like it.

Every muslim, in this world of Islamophobia, is an ambassador of Islam and every non-muslim can potentially convert to Islam. Shakespeare wrote “In time we hate that which we often fear.” We can go blue in the face trying to convince the world that we are a religion of peace but how can we ever hope to convince anyone when are actions are so unforgiving and violent.  

It should not fall upon the civilians of a country to enforce the law. That is the most egregious form of failure of the system. The result is total chaos as the power falls into manic and fanatical hands. Who protects the weak, who stands between the wolves and 11 year-old frightened little girls? The sad part is that her only protection is not the law and the law-makers but her neighbors who are questioning the accusations and have made a big enough fuss that the police have had to put the accuser into protective custody.

The fact that we have a constitution and a penal code declares to the world that we are a country of laws. It says that we have rules and regulations that govern our behavior, that we have a justice system that decides who is right and who is wrong.  So, in an Islamic State, the problem may not lie in the law that protects the sanctity of the religion but in the actions of the law-keepers. All accusations should be followed with a comprehensive investigation. All investigations followed with a fair trial. Accusations of a rabid crowd should not be taken as a verdict, not in a benevolent Muslim country governed by the laws of the Qur’an.

What Does the White Band in Our Flag Mean?


Being a minority of any persuasion is a trying time in a persons life. Since childhood our instinct is to blend in, to be part of a larger whole. We don't  want to be isolated by what makes us different, rather everyone wants to be included and accepted by what makes us similar. But still, as society dictates, some among us are unique--unique enough to warrant a classification of their own by virtue of beliefs, status or disabilities. These groups are the most vulnerable in any society simply because of statistics--they are in a minority. And in a progressive and humane world all vulnerabilities demand protection.

As elementary school children we were taught that the Pakistani flag is symbolic. The green represents the Muslim majority and the white represents the minority faiths. The crescent and the five rayed star represent progress, light and knowledge. Since  Pakistan was wrested away from a formidable power against monumental odds to protect the rights of the then Indian religious minority, the muslims, one would think that all minorities in Pakistan would be protected...especially if we specifically have a white band in our flag to remind us of our fight, our promise and obligation. Especially that!

While Islam is the state religion, article 33 of the Constitution of Pakistan declares that ‘the state shall discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens.’  Amendments made to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986 during the Zia regime and the “Islamization” of the country strengthened the blasphemy laws and suddenly the 3% of the Pakistani population who were not Muslims--but still law-abiding Pakistani citizens--found themselves in dire straits. Since then around 4000 cases have been reported and around 1000 of them have been registered. The amazing statistic is that half of these cases are against non-muslims who make up only three percent of the population. According to Rizwan Paul, Executive Director of LFA ( Life For All),  “around 80 per cent of all these cases have been registered in only eight districts of central Punjab -- Lahore, Faisalabad, Toba Tek Singh, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Sialkot, Gujrat and Kasur”. This is not where it ends.  Around 30 of the accused were horrifically killed by crazed, puritanical mobs, some even while in police custody.

I am not trying to contest or even debate the blasphemy laws. My gripe is with the implementation and blatant abuse of these laws by misguided people with no knowledge, no authority and, most of all, no compassion in their hearts. People should not be living in fear of laws that are meant as protection and as a deterrent to exploitations. The common concept is that anyone, at any time can point a finger and yell “blasphemer” and the witch hunt begins. Some instances rivalling those in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600 where all you needed to burn someone at the stake was an accuser. Neighbors live in fear of neighbors. Accusations are often related to personal grievances, no evidence or witnesses are needed, all you need is a grudge and a cold heart.

But what of the fear of Allah? What about the consequences of bearing false witness? I hope these accusers have their fact sheets in order on the Day of Judgement when we all will have to explain our actions--those who caused such tragedies and those who stood by. And even if one person is accused wrongly and even if one person bore false witness, there will be consequences. Contrary to popular belief, we are all Allah’s creatures regardless of our caste, creed or religion!

Then we hear of  an 11 year old sufferer of Down Syndrome thrown in jail for an act that she may or may not have committed and, if she did commit the act, may not be aware of the gravity and implications of it. We learn that a young doctor  was accused because he tossed aside a card with the name of a medical representative on it and we wonder who protects them? Allah has promised that he will protect the Quran yet we take it upon ourselves to do the job and let misguided fervor throw us back into the middle-ages. On the other hand, we totally ignored the task that Allah has charged us with...to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I hope that as a society we will have a comprehensive answer for that interrogation or a lot of us will be unpleasantly surprised when we end up in a place much warmer than we expected!  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pirates, Ahoy!


Pakistan let out a collective sigh of relief as the Pakistani hostages of the Malaysian merchant ship, MV Albedo, were released and came back home. The hostages have been in custody since November 2010 and the fate of the non-Pakistani hostages still remains unknown. To secure the release of these hostages, there were meetings and negotiations that rivaled any in the corporate world. So the question that arises in the curious mind goes something like this: Who are these pirates and how have they been in business for so long without being apprehended?

The Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia has been lucrative to many countries--ironically, Somalia cannot be counted among them. European and Asian companies illegally fish for yellow-finned tuna and rob Somalia of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue. Then some Italian masterminds came up with a brilliant plan. They made it possible for certain European countries to dump toxic waste in the waters for a fraction of the money they would pay to legally dispose of such materials. These acts have not only devastated the fishing trade, but also caused debilitating diseases in the Somali coastal populations caused by radiation poisoning.

Not a people to take one on the chin, the Somalis developed another trade: piracy. Initially, what started as a rag-tag band of aggressive entrepreneurs, has developed into a thriving business.  They are organized and well equipped. Their ranks include accountants and computer experts. One of their groups has ex-Somali marines as its members and an infrastructure of a small navy with financial directors and admirals at its helm.

These organized bands have the run of the 2000 mile-long Somali coastline. Because of the constant kidnappings, the  freighter traffic has gone down along the Somali coast. The freighters whose size does not allow them to pass through other waterways like the Panama Canal must use the Somali route at the expense of hefty insurance premiums. And that is only if they can find someone gullible enough to insure them.

Almost thirty navies of the world have come together as a multinational task force in an effort to deter the activities of these pirates. But, surprisingly, they have not been able to do much in curtailing the pirates’ activities.The forces patrolling this area claim that they are spread too far and wide to be affective.  When ship owners demanded a naval blockade of the area or an all-out attack on the pirate bases in Somalia, they were told that the sheer immensity of the coastline makes a blockade impossible, and no country wants to involve itself in an attack which may lead to more embarrassment than success. Everyone still remembers Black Hawk Down.

Some have voiced what is painfully obvious: the forces patrolling the area are not being aggressive enough. The US and British have allowed their freight ships to carry armed guards and have trained their personnel in anti piracy techniques.  The Italians station members of their military on some of their freighters. Some navies have entirely different policies. The Kenyans and Tanzanians have a simple one when confronted with pirates: shoot to kill and take no prisoners. But perhaps the safest ships in the waters off the coast of Somalia are those flying the Russian flag. The armed guards aboard the freighters simply blow the pirate boats out of the water and leave the survivors to drown.  Nazdarovya! (Russian for “Cheers!”)

In a Robin Hood-like twist, these pirates support schools and hospitals in the coastal towns. The town of Harardhere, only three hundred miles from the capital city of Mogadishu, where the pirates have established their base, has thrived especially. A percentage from the ransom money goes towards the towns’ hospitals, schools and other local services. "Piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output," said Mohamed Adam, the town's deputy security officer. "The district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital [sic] and our public schools."

CNN reported that the pirates have also set up a stock exchange in Harardhere, where trades are made on future ransoms received by them. Ex-pat Somalis are very active in these tradings. Somali refugees from as far off as Canada invest great amounts of money.  People can also trade commodities for shares. One woman traded a rocket launcher, which she received as a settlement in her marriage, for shares and ended up making quite a profit.

What started as a reaction by some Somalis to illegal fishing has become so much more.These pirates seem to have training. They are known to buy the most up-to-date weapons, some say from the Yemenis. They operate on fast boats, at times based off a mother ship, and are guided by the latest GPS technology. They seem to fear nothing and feel they have “little to lose and everything to gain.”

According to a Kenyan-based security consultant, almost fifty percent of the money is said to go to Islamic militant organizations like Al Shahaab, even though their public stance towards piracy is one of disapproval.  Despite this damaging evidence, the pirates still flourish going up against the whole world. Even though it seems that so much about the pirates is public knowledge, it also seems that not enough is known to stop their activities. Many pirates have been arrested but only a handful have been tried or convicted. Some have been released on the premise that “a search for a nation to prosecute them was futile.” Some countries don't want to prosecute them on their soil because they don't want to be bombarded with requests of asylum. This was probably the case in the Netherlands, where a Somali was granted asylum after completing his sentence, because Somalia was considered too dangerous for him to return to.

The tragedy hits home for us Pakistanis when freighters like the HV Albedo are attacked and 23 crew members are taken, including seven of our own. We saw the daily struggle of the nation to stand with the suffering families as it tried to put the ransom money together. We witnessed our sympathetic media parade before us crying children with folded hands and silent women with appeals screaming in their eyes. We come together, all of us, the Zardaris, the Malik Riazes and the Ishrat-ul Ibads and we give money and we negotiate and we do all that we can back to bring our people back home to their loved ones.

But a few amongst us wonder if this really had to happen. The question is, that despite global efforts, why does piracy still flourish.? Their headquarters are a few hundred miles from the capital of the country, but no action is taken against them. We know where they are, we know who they are and we know how they operate, and yet nothing stands in their way.The navies of the world have come together and as yet have not been able to secure the Somali coastline. The world is bleeding millions of dollars in ransom towards these pirates and there is no end in sight. They are supporting terrorist organizations that have been the reason for the destruction of countries, but the world powers turn a blind eye. And so the curious mind wonders: is everything that can be done really being done? Are the Somali pirates a mere distraction to keep prying eyes away from those particular waters? Some of us wonder if there is something more than just radioactive water and depleted fishing in the Gulf of Aden. People speculate that secret pipelines are being laid, others--the more imaginative ones--claim that a gateway to the stars and beyond has been discovered and is being guarded by the new world order. I personally favor the former theory, but wish for the latter.

The Somali government claims that it is preoccupied elsewhere. There is a lack of central governance as the Al-Shahaab Islamist group, with ties to Al-Qaida, wages a war with the western-backed and internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government. In this case, the burden falls on the nations of the world. Sadly, the countries that can make a difference are more interested in trade revenues than making a humanitarian effort. But then the question remains: Is the solution really that simple--or is it something more?

Is There A Road To FATA


FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) has borne the brunt of US drone attacks. These attacks have been at the center of Pakistani political rhetoric and international attention. This escalated after the unprovoked attack at the Salsala checkpoint which left 24 dead and 13 injured. Pakistan decided to show some spine and actually took a stand against the attacks that result in tragedies on a morbidly regular basis. So much so, that during a conference in Geneva, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, suggested some of these attacks may even constitute "war crimes." Further, his report claimed that these attacks might even encourage other countries to overlook long-established human rights standards.

Every time there is a drone attack, facts and figures are made available about the almost fantastical accuracy of these drones and the number of terrorists it takes out. But the question remains: is anyone in Pakistani intelligence privy to this information? Does the US make the Pakistanis a part of this decision? Does it share information as to the whereabouts of these dastardly terrorists? Is a unified decision reached by both US and Pakistani authorities about the validity of the location of these miscreants as well as the gravity of their guilt to justify summary execution? And please don't tell me that action is taken at such a fast pace that the window of opportunity does not allow for communication, because with the speed of technology and the establishment of combined task forces, this excuse just doesn’t stick. Unless a life is not worth the extra few seconds of thought, if that.

And what happens when these drones hit funeral processions and marriage ceremonies. What goes wrong then? In the few seconds that it takes the drones to reach their destinations,  do the terrorists suddenly replace their terror jam-sessions with a house full of innocents? Then again, the news is quick to report that a terrorist was killed and the other dead, dying and maimed were justified collateral damage. After the usual posturing and huffing and puffing by the Pakistani government, everyone settles down as if the problem is resolved. The people of FATA hold their breath for the next onslaught -- and are never disappointed.

Who protects FATA? Does anyone even care? Do our bearers of offices even know how to get there? The present government of Pakistan, so proud of completing a term in office amidst all the scandals, has yet to allocate time to visit the most ravaged part of its country. I guess their time was taken up by the all-important foreign visits and the trips to supreme court hearings.

The people of FATA have never been very high up on the food chain. It is home to about 2% of the population of Pakistan and out of that, only 3.1% live in urban settings. It is, thus, the most rural and the most impoverished region of Pakistan. Its economy is mostly pastoral and depends heavily on access to routes travelled on for centuries.  Now, on the whims of phantom invaders, these routes are inaccessible to them for various reasons. One of the main roads in Waziristan, which connects the residents to a main market, has been shut down indefinitely due to the fear of IEDs.

As a run-of-the mill citizen of the world it seems implausible to me that, in the world of today, there can be an area of ten thousand square miles in one of the most sensitive areas of the world, and the government of Pakistan can desert it. “Federally Administered” does not mean abandoned, but it sure feels that way. Its population of over three million proud citizen have been left at the wayside and at the mercy of ruthless militants and nobody cares. The void in leadership left by Islamabad was expediently filled by men with agendas of their own, who believe that serving Islam is best done with cruelty and violence. And true to history, Islamabad subjected FATA to the never-succeeded but oft-repeated military operations in 2008, which led to further destabilization and skewed the people's sympathies towards the militants. It also led to the rise of Al-Qaeda leaders like Farman Ali Shinwari, who was a reactionary product of the fate of his family in the 2008 operations in Landi Kotal.

As if that was not enough, the most innocent citizens of FATA are being subjected to yet another threat. There is an active campaign by the self-proclaimed flag-bearers of Islam against the Polio vaccines. Lancet, a British medical journal, reported the highest number of Polio cases in Pakistan in the past decade. So, not only are the people of FATA subjected to death, disfigurement and disability by incessant drone attacks as well as military operations, their young are denied protection from a disabling disease as well. I would like to ask the clerics, like Maulvi Mangal Bagh, to quote one ayah of the Quran which condones such a decree. Why would a religion like Islam allow the propagation of a disease?

This is, ultimately, a failure of Islamabad. The entire region is controlled by proxy with all power given to the Governor of the KPK province who never ventures into FATA. After all, he follows the example of the Federal Government he serves, a government guilty of negligence in the worst possible way.  And thus, the population of FATA is condemned to be the land of the doomed, putting another brick in the wall of Pakistan’s reputation as a failed state, rather than a shining beacon of tolerance and morality that it was envisioned to be.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hippocratic Hippocrites


“I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity.”

I still remember my professor reciting this simple line when I was a young medical student. We were following him on his rounds, and at one point approached a patient possibly suffering from meningitis. The patient had thrown up, and the staff hadn’t gotten around to cleaning the floor by his bed. Our professor explained to us that this was not the patient’s fault and nothing about our demeanor should embarrass him. The fact that we were treating the patient was his right and our job. Then, he quoted this line from the Physicians’ Oath.

In the days that doctors all over Punjab decided to take a stand for what they considered to be their right, they went against the very grain of this oath. These doctors allowed their own needs to supercede the service of humanity. There is no going back from this, and no amount of sugar-coating can take away from the egregious wrong that was committed by them. But then we must also look at this event as a failure of society at some level. What led these doctors to go against an oath that is so sacrosanct?

The fact of the matter is that most doctors are not the heartless automatons that society makes them out to be. They are working at a profession drenched with the misery of humanity. They see and experience life at its most wretched on a daily basis. They literally struggle with life and death decisions every day, and don't always come out on the winning side. And then they have to shrug off the weight of their day and go home to deal with the mundane issues of life.

This is not to justify, in any way, the fact that the consequence of this strike was the loss of many lives and the deterioration of even more. This is not to deny the misery caused by this strike, or to ignore the negative impact it’s still having on so many innocents. On the contrary, I am trying to figure out what these demands were -- demands that would cause an entire organization of caregivers to turn their backs on those who need them the most.  And most of all, it is important to evaluate whether this was a selfish, destructive act by a group of professionals, or the complete failure of the government to resolve an issue before it caused loss of life and infinite suffering.

The Young Doctors Association were, in most part, asking for better pay, safer work environments and respect in the workplace.The Government of Punjab ended up accepting these demands after almost two weeks and many deaths. The bureaucrats kept whining about there being no money in the budget, but when you look at the way finances are handled, you wonder whether it is actually a budget deficit or just gross mismanagement.  Paychecks and worse, pension checks, are being withheld for the month of June by the government of Punjab. Why? June marks the end of the fiscal year, which means that it’s time for the government to air its dirty financial laundry for the world (or, at least, the people it “represents”) to see. So, in order to show less of a deficit than there actually is, it decided to withhold this money. As elected, democratic governments are wont to do. The funniest thing (not that anyone is laughing, really) is that everyone already knows this little “secret.” Looks like the cat’s out of the bag.


On the other hand, there is money for distributing laptops, and there is money to take young scholars on a trip to Europe (Which, I’m sure, everyone who’s been waiting indefinitely for a well-earned paycheck or a well-deserved pension check, appreciate fully). But, all these “good deeds” mean nothing when put up against a single life lost because a financial issue was not resolved fast enough.

Then, one starts to wonder if there is something wrong with the people we elect to office. I know that many will chuckle and say that I am stating the obvious, but I don't mean particular personalities. I mean the social status most politicians hail from: the privileged elite. If you belong to a class that flies to Dubai to be treated for the flu, and crosses oceans and continents for anything more serious than that,  then you probably don't know what it’s like in the OPD of a government hospital, or the everyday trials of a doctor on a remote posting.

These are issues with simple solutions. But solutions cannot be rendered if the responsible are oblivious to the nature or, at times, even the existence of these problems.  Rather, we are left at the mercy of fat-cat bureaucrats who cannot be bothered with certain crises, either because they think the problem will fizzle out or because they are busy elsewhere. Or, we have non-politicians, like Imran Khan, who takes every crisis as an opportunity to declare that he has a solution for it. Captain Khan can, apparently, solve any world crisis in 90 days or less -- but needs to be elected before he will actually do anything. Service without political office is not part of his plans.

By allowing the strike to come to a point where lives were lost is a failure on the part of the doctors who defied their oath and the governing authorities who failed to resolve the crisis in time. Maybe it is time for the common man to become  part of the ruling class. If a middle class medical student with first-hand knowledge of the hospital system becomes the health minister, he or she will be better able to resolve an issue before it becomes a full-blown problem. Only someone who has struggled towards success can truly know the struggles of others. We need leaders with a finger on the pulse of the man on the street, not industrialists and millionaires who have no idea what it is like to worry about a roof over your head and two square meals everyday.

Divided We Fall


This past week, violence in Karachi left its blood-stained calling card pinned to our family's door. Somebody decided to fulfill an unknown agenda by firing blindly into a crowd of people. I wonder if this heartless assassin smiled as my cousin fell to the ground, a bullet ripping through his body, nicking his spinal cord. If the killer felt satisfied while men lay dead or dying. If he felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done, a day well spent.

This son, father, beloved husband and darling little brother lay in Agha Khan Hospital, surrounded by a family too shocked by the sudden nature of this random cruelty to even question why. And as always, all hopes were pinned on the Divine and we prayed. Not only did we pray to Allah, we also begged all those around us to pray with us.

In a moment of desperation, I posted my request for prayers and good wishes on Twitter.

The response was overwhelming, but the tone was as unexpected as a slap across the face. The first response reprimanded me that Mohajirs don't follow the law and should be punished. Another responded that the Mohajirs cannot be blamed because the Pathans started it. Another immediately brought out facts and figures of those slain. In all of this, not once did I mention either the shooter’s or my own ethnicity, and not one person offered any kind words or prayers. This is what we have become.

But is this what we want to be? A nation of blame-gamers, for whom any incidence is an opportunity for pointing a finger. I feel especially let down when our party leaders, the people that we look towards for l guidance, add fuel to the fire. When PTI members staged a pro-judiciary rally and were forcefully dispersed,  they were ridiculed. Nobody thought to stand with them, which in itself is ridiculous. After all, isn't being pro-judiciary a good thing? When MQM decided to commemorate 15,000 slain Mohajirs with a Yom-i-Siyah (Bla on June 19th, not one political party condemned the killings. When rioters in Punjab spilled out into the streets and showed their anger at being deprived of electricity, a PML-N leader claimed on her Twitter  feed that they were non-locals. I would like to know what her definition of a non-local is? Is a non-local a non-PML-N member? Is it a non-Punjabi? Or is it a non-Pakistani? What does she think comments like this will do, other than monger more hate in an atmosphere already saturated with hate?

Creating dissension is never the answer. Divided, we will always fall.The man on the street doesn’t care where your father -- or his father, for that matter -- was born, or where your family was living on that fateful day in August of 1947. He just wants to go to work, to make an honest living, to provide for his family and most of all, he wants to grow old and watch his children grow up. He wants a life without mindless violence. In the end, the question is not who started it, but rather, who will end it.

...Yet Another Gate


Today on CNN, during his interview with Wolf Blitzer, Hussain Haqqani lamented the fact that Pakistan is becoming an isolationist country because of its policies. He indicated that these policies are the reasons Pakistan is struggling in international relations.  This emotion is also rampant  within Pakistan. Pakistanis have a nihilistic attitude towards each other. It is not Pakistanis against the world--it is Pakistanis against each other, at each others throat.

Right now Pakistan is at a very sensitive chapter of its story in an entire book of sensitive chapters. Multiple pillars of its foundation are crumbling simultaneously. A student of history would be hard taxed to find a time in the life of any country where the army, the judiciary, the sitting government, and the media were all involved in a circus of moral ambiguity.

Some might call it a conspiracy, a saazish. But as news anchor Talat Hussain said, the word saazish has been used in Pakistan so much that we have to think before we use it, implying that the word had lost its intensity with overuse.

The latest onslaught started with the rumor that a number of  journalists were being influenced by Malik Riaz, an influential real-estate tycoon. There was talk of transfers of cash, gifts of homes and cars. Historically, Malik sahab never shied from media coverage . At some point, allegedly, he decided that if he could get journalists to say what he wanted, the world would be a happier place for him. Soon after that, a list was circulated with names of journalists and a list after each name of the gifts they had received. Nobody knows for sure how that list found its way into the limelight.  A twitter frenzy ensued with denials flying fast and furious and the dissension among the ranks of news reporters became crystal clear. There was no teamwork, no camaraderie, no loyalties, no friendship. It was every man and woman for themselves. Friends did not vouch for friends. Colleagues did not become incensed over insulted friends. No! The theme was: I will take care of me and you can go down in flames! Good Luck!

I saw the same isolationism in the judiciary. The man in the center of that ...you guessed it, the one and only, Malik Riaz.  He was ordered into court to present his case over the jaw-dropping allegations he made against the son of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. And not just any Chief Justice. Chaudhry Iftikhar will go down in the history of Pakistan as one of the toughest  judges the country has seen.  If Pakistan is Gotham he is Batman! If Pakistan is Metropolis, Chaudhry Iftikhar believes he is Superman. I think that if he wasn’t afraid of ridicule, the man would wear tights and a cape to work! Anyway, so Malik Riaz, to present his case to the court hired a lawyer: one Zahid Bokhari. And in a case of misplaced display of solidarity to the Chief Justice, the Lahore High Court Bar Association barred him from entering the premises. Why? The man was just doing his job. Even murderers and terrorists get lawyers and they are not ostracized. In fact, some of them are the most respected members of our judiciary. And why didn’t the Chief Justice instruct them to not act like spoiled children on his behalf?

The most damning bombshell came when someone leaked footage taken during breaks of an interview of none other than Malik Riaz. The footage showed that the entire interview was orchestrated by the Malik Sahab himself. During the break,  the anchors would discuss what to ask and when to ask particular questions. It became obvious that the management and owners of the studio were complicit in this charade. Especially,  when it was decided that if the program was flowing, breaks would not be taken. It is not often that anybody comes between a studio executive and his sponsers. Malik Riaz is that special.

The next few days will be dedicated to dissecting, analysing and condemning the incident. Jobs will be lost and heads will roll, not literally, I hope. I don't think that it is difficult to find out who had access to this footage. I’m sure there is a very limited number of people that could have gotten their hands on it. But that might just be oversimplifying the matter. Was it a vendetta against the journalists by Malik Riaz or vice versa. Was it the government or the judiciary or the new World Order. If you ask me, with apologies to Talat Hussain, it sounds like a saazish!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Lyari's Pride: Professor Dashtyari


Lyari has documented its history in blood and cordite. Its name has become synonymous with drugs and gang wars, especially in the past few years.  People have been known to dismiss Lyari as a lost cause and will be hard-pressed to find reasons to defend  this dark neighborhood in the heart of Karachi. In all the senseless, chaotic violence, the contributions of Lyari’s children to the history and the story of Pakistan is often overlooked.

Lyari is one of the oldest and hence, by default, the most historic settlements of Karachi. It has given us football players and boxers, activists and scholars. Amongst its sons was one Ghulam Hussain Saba Dashtyari.

Born to middle class parents in Lyari in 1953, his love for education spurred him to strive for more than the meager resources of Lyari could offer him. He received Masters degrees in Philosophy and Islamic studies. Fluent in Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic, he had a great love for the Balochi language. He believed that to preserve one's native language was the  responsibility of every individual and had more far-reaching effects than merely being a vehicle for conversation. He claimed that ‘’Balochi language is an Ocean; the more you dig the more pearl you are able to discover. It is immensely rich in vocabulary and grammar.’’

He proved his love by establishing a library of Balochi literature in Malir. He started it with donations and then funded it with his own salary. Currently the Syed Zahoor Shah Hashmi Library is the host to 150,000 books. He also established a Balochi Language Academy in Karachi.

By profession he was the Professor of Islamic studies at Balochistan University. His work was a constant fixture in leading journals and magazines. He authored many books on Balochi literature, history and poetry. Among his many accomplishments was a compilation of a bibliography of all baloch literature published in the past fifty years.

His life ended suddenly and violently on June 1st 2011, when he was gunned down in Quetta. He was a man who stood on his principles of democracy and nationalism. His love of the written word was profound.  His discussions were always liberally sprinkled with quotes and references. He was a great advocate of education especially for women. A brave and charismatic personality and a writer to the end, his last work, proof reading the complete works of the baloch poet Mir Gul Khan Nasir, were published a few weeks before his assassination.

As a son of Lyari and a proud Baloch, Professor Dashtyari proved that we are more than the sum of our circumstances. He was a role model for many, especially in his birthplace of Lyari. With proper representation and honest distribution of resources Pakistan can have athletes, scholars and writers whose contribution can shape the lives of so many. People are so much more than just a vote-bank for corrupt politicians, they can be the resource that can guarantee us an enlightened and progressive future.