Silencing LUMS, Resilencing Balochistan


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”

Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.

Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.

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However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:

“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”

While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.

Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.

To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.

It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.

Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.

The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.

More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.

In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.

This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.

Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.

People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.

And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.

Balochistan is bleeding.

And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.

And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.

As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.

Thus, the ‪#‎ShameOnLUMS‬ trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today

In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.

While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:

“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.

 However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.

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Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

Less than four months since the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistan has seen the Shikarpur bombing, the Peshawar Imambargah and Youhanabad attacks.

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

Much has been said about attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, and it is often that the violence against them is explained by brushing it into the general epidemic of terrorism afflicting the nation and country; violence that raging yet indiscriminate. Certainly, attacks on religious minorities do add to and reinforce the plague of violence in Pakistan yet they are not one and the same thing. The danger of this explanation is that it is a narrative which blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; specially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Ali Sethi’s recent article in The New York Times on the Youhanabad attack states:

‘According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.’

Moreover, although Youhanabad falls in Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency; he hasn’t visited it once since the attack. This does much to demonstrate the crass neglect and disregard prevalent in the ruling party’s leadership on the issue, aggravating the spiralling state failure at the cost of numerous Pakistani lives.

The extremist intolerance and hate that set off bombs in Youhanabad also bred further violence as two men were burnt alive by the resulting angry mob in broad daylight to the glare of photos being snapped and videos being captured through mobiles by the perpetrators.

As gruesome and reprehensible was the lynching, it is important to view the incident clear of the inevitable and intense emotions clouding it. Waqqas Mir, writing for The News on Sunday, offered the needed perspective:

“A mob is a mob and its violent actions need to be condemned for that reason alone. The religion to which violent individuals belong is not helpful in explaining the violence or, more importantly, controlling it.”

Religion can certainly not be held culpable in cases such as these which are clearly not specific to certain groups in the society if we are to recall that the savage lynching of two brothers in Sialkot happened not long ago.

However, the violent turn of events after Youhanabad revealed an equally important aspect contributing to the dismal position of Christians in the country: cultural and social.

The Youhanabad bombing and the mob that horrifically took the lives of two men spurred a rush of reactions. Soon some sentiments morphed into degradation of the Christian community in Pakistan.

Many expressed shock, outrage and despair at the incidents, yet a flurry of tweets and comments also ran along the lines of “chooray chooray hi hotay hain”. The attachment of choora as a disparaging and condemnatory label for the entire Christian community is neither new nor uncommon, and this was put to ample display during the ugly turn many comments took as the news of the mob murder emerged. Such is the extent of its use and commonality that choora rings synonymously with the Christian community in the country for many.

Language is the vehicle of culture, and inevitably, cultural prejudices.

Choora, a pejorative to belittle and degrade Pakistani Christians, is rooted in the utter lack of respect and recognition associated with those who have menial occupations in the society. The comments sought to shamelessly demean the Christian community by way of the label since socially and culturally, little respect is lent to the work of those who toil after the dirt and filth we leave in our wake, not quite different from this filth spouted at the Christian community; a religious minority whose members included illustrious individuals like Cecil Chaudhry, Mervyn Middlecoat, Justice Cornelius and Samuel Martin Burke who lived their lives for Pakistan.

The application of choora in its cultural context therefore ‘others’ Christians by degrading them as some sort of second-class citizens who are unequal to the rest. This is similar to the linguistic treatment of khawaja sira or khusras which is reflective of our societal treatment of them; in the form of exclusion; subjection to humiliation and jokes.

While to some these may ring only as mere words, they are nonetheless expressions of the deep-seated beliefs prevalent in many segments of the Pakistani society; cultural crutches for the bigotry that perpetuates prejudices against the cornered Christian minority. These reflect and reinforce prejudices that manifest as apathy towards their problems, grievances and pleas, and in the most extreme of cases, as bloody sores as in the form of Joseph Colony, Shama and Shehzad’s cruel murder and the Youhanabad bombing.

The white in our flag is soaked red and it is time it is reclaimed; but for that the state and society must work and change in unison; the latter must rid itself of cultural beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that sustain and perpetuate prejudices against religious minorities in Pakistan.

And for a start, we can all begin by challenging and changing the language of prejudice.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~~

~ Every Inch of This Land is Soaked with the Blood of its People


*Don’t usually prefer penning such despondency but this was written right after the Karachi Airport Attack; with a seared heart:

Every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its people,
Every corner with fear and ordeal;

Peace left long,
Abandoned us with scorn;

From death and violence there is no respite, pakistan-unrest-karachi-airport-1
Helpless screams our plight;

Bodies pile in heaps,
From this land of green, only red seeps;

Grief marches,
And suffering strides,
But bravery reigns,
And resilience still resides;

The sigh between mourning,
The breath between cries,
The time between two calamities;
Is the only peace, out of life, that we can now prise;

They say there is a world beyond,
They say there is a heaven,
And we believe, for we’ve seen our heaven thrown to hell;

For every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its people,
Every corner with fear and ordeal.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~ Enamoured


 

 

To those afar, she appears the pompous plump;

Her bearing ostentatious,

Her voice piercing;

Her beauty mendacious;

 

But to those who opened their eyes to her dazzle,

She is a goddess,

Of vivacious manners,

Under whose spell fell numerous warriors and rulers,

Adorning her with the jewels of their civilizations,

They sought to bring her under their own banners;

But history took to unsheath her mercilessness,

And withered all Maharajas, Rajas and Emperors,

Yet she remained unblemished,

Bestud with all the kingdoms’ splendour;

 

 view of Historical Badshahi Masjid lahore

 

With the richness of diversity her bosom swelled,

Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Parsi – all to her embrace were impelled,

Her body became the canvas of cultures,

And her gardens accomplices in forbidden meetings of lovers;

From her veins the poets drank to intoxication;

In her company philosophers and thinkers indulged in contemplation;

 

 

The winds of time have rumbled past since,

But even today,

Infront of her majesty and grandeur,

Can dare not stand a rival or contender;

 

She throbs with life, with no blink of sleep,

Pounding with vibrant resilience as the heart of a land whose wounds are deep;

 

A part of me, she has become,

I dwell in her, and she dwells in me;

There is calm in her clamour;

In which whirls my soul,

As I love her for her all madness; enamoured.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

 

Before You Speak to Judge.


*Written back in 2010.

Before you cast a look of disgust on my face,

Decree my value by it, that too in haste,

Ever do you wonder, what made it lose its grace?

 

 

From the abundance and lack of crisp paper,

The fortunes I posses, you suppose,

To where it really lies, you fail to peek and know,

For it is the heart in which wealth is held, sole and alone,


By how I walk, by what I eat,

How magnificent my abode is and in which street,

You draw a conclusion of what I am,

Not by my deeds but all these?


All my actions,

You examine and dissect,

 What forces me to inherit these ways, do you ever check?

The scars it left,

The bruises it gifted me and of much it made me bereft,

With your hands tied to your back,

In one glance, from the unfathomable depth of my painful past,

 You think the real reasons you can fetch?

 

Deeming me a sinner,

Declaring others future inhabitants of heaven,

Who are you to say?


Because when open will 
crack the grounds,

And swallowed will be mankind,

With each’s souls by the Angel of Death, impounded,

On our bodies will lay the same single cloth of white,

No riches in hand, no tongue to speak,

Time would’ve crumbled to dust with and with no second to contrite,

So remember the Last Day,

And through what you’ll trudge,

When you speak to judge,

As we have our own paths to pave,

For at the end we’d have separate graves.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

A Land Stained by the Blood of its Own


The massacres and bloodletting in Pakistan seem to have no end, and along with 180 million other people, I too, have been riven due to them between helplessness, hopelessness and pain; to which I have given the following expression:

Splattered blood,

Splintered bodies,

Strewn limbs,


To live the living have ceased,

To rest, the dead have no peace,

Houses increasingly empty,

For graveyards now burst at the seams,

Karachi-Target-KillingA certain name, a particular belief,

Spell a license to be killed,

For the land of pure must be rid from these burdens of filth!


Apathy dances naked and unashamed,

Chiselling hollows where hearts should lie,

Mocking humanity,

Chasing it into vanity,


Fear and suffering reign,

As relics of worlds unknown, tolerance and harmony are remembered to remain,

To survive another day,

Or to die in one piece,

We make pray,

For not a speck of land in this country, is unstained by the blood of its own,

Not a single home in this country, in its cries of mourning, has been alone!

~ H. K

Sean Penn and The Qaumi Phenomena of Beyghairati


On Saturday, American actor Sean Penn who starred in the award-winning ‘Dead Man Walking’ which featured two of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s tracks, came on a visit to Pakistan to meet and help the flood-victims of Badin.

Sean Penn in a traditional Sindhi Ajrak.

This is not a first for Penn, who had extensively and actively taken part in the relief activities following the devastating earthquake in Haiti and is known for his social activism.

During a time when most people around the world, stay away from Pakistan out of fear, threat and the perception that has been created of it by the international media, Penn’s sudden arrival sparked excitement and surprise in most quarters of the Pakistani people – while in the few rest, a typical and common reaction was evoked: of ‘Ghairat’ and ‘Beyghayrat’ [Honor and Dishonorable].

The members of this Ghairat Brigade, rued and lamented the existence of such days, when people from other countries come to dish out and toss ‘alms’ in the ‘begging bowls’ that have been thrust into the hands of the nation, by the corrupt rulers while they indulged in the orgy of deepening their own pockets [ This is precisely, their perception regarding foreign aid ] . And how ‘Beyghairat’ could our people get to smile at this and accept its occurrence?

Though, its quite a conundrum to determine how someone’s genuine intention to bring succor to the distressed, is an act of foreigners coming to condescendingly chuck a few pennies for poor people, as they have made to look through the expression of their thoughts.

But now that the topic of ‘dishonour and being dishonourable’ has been approached, let us also be reminded of a bigger example ‘Beghairat,’ executed in the land of pure.

Beyghairat is that nation, out of which only a handful pay their tax. A nation, which justifies its wrongs as a ‘natural’ result of having wretched as leaders, which they themselves elect. A nation, that possesses the self-inflicted malady of amnesia; which forgets its forlorn after a customary time period of notice. One, that has selective compassion, tolerance and concern. One that refuses to accepts the best of its own, on the basis of their relationship with Him.

One that shamelessly makes choices when it comes to acknowledging its daughters, rising for Aafia Siddiqui, yet with blithe or no concern for Fakhra Younas, Zareena Marri or Uzma Ayub.

A nation, that spares no moment to spur into action out of indignation, when those outside seem to breach its sovereignity and integrity but has forever closed its eyes towards the trangressors rupturing the country and its very pith, from within. Pointing fingers at devils of foreign origins, intentionally unbeknownst to the sneering Satans inside.

A nation, that fancies drowning in denial, than facing the scorch and sear of the truth. One, that rushes to hold vigils for Steve Jobs, but never for those slayed everyday, from whose blood, this soil has been drenched red. A people, whose sensibilities are more hurt and whose outrage more elicited by a nude body and a distasteful show, instead of the charred body and dreams of a poor man in despair, who died in vain, hankering for a four-square meal for his children.

Beyghairat is a nation, which is fine with the sights of its future withering away begging in the morning, and sleeping the hunger pangs away on cold, stone footpaths at night. A nation, blind to the massacres and deaf to the plight of its own.

Come to think of it, the phenomena of ‘Beyghairati’ and all that it pertains, isn’t really a phenomena – it is actually the nature and state of us, as a people. 

So, when a nation that itself is audaciously inglorious, speaks on the tragedy of the lack of ‘Ghairat’ in Pakistan, it is nothing but a joke cloacked in glaring hypocrisy.

All apart, a hearty thank you to Sean Penn, for trying to aid the flood-hit of Badin, who have long been shoved back into neglect by us all.

~ Hafsa Khawaja