The Bill and the Need for Cultural Currency


*Originally published in The Nation.

There has been much outcry and uproar. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman has called it an instrument for victimization of husbands, and suggested that the government should’ve just declared the ‘husband as wife and wife as husband’. Muhammad Naeem of Binoria has lamented it and linked it to the Nawaz Sharif’s promises to the West for bringing a ‘liberal nizaam’ in Pakistan and an attack against our ‘culture’ and ‘values’. There have been protests and condemnations.

Such has been the reaction elicited from the conservative and religious right in the country by the passage of the Bill for Protection of Women against Violence 2015, which criminalizes violence against women and carries comprehensive remedies and recourse for victims of violence, in the Punjab Assembly.

The vehement opponents of the Bill are proponents of an idea that not only trivializes the occurrence and prevalence of shameful ills and stains on Pakistani society, such as domestic violence, but also believe that it is actually the uncovering and exposition of these ills that really brings bad name to Pakistan and its ‘culture’. They would rather that women be beaten and assaulted in their homes, acid thrown on their faces, buried alive in the name of honor, than let their cries be heard or their wounds be healed.

Yet this reaction is symptomatic of a larger malaise within Pakistan’s culture and society that the Bill has merely managed to reveal. It is a malaise that considers violence against women a legitimate and acceptable force to maintain the stability, sanctity and honor of the family and home; violence as a ‘natural’ instrument of exalted masculinity to ‘straighten a woman up’ or ‘put her in her place’. This is cemented by the presentation of the malaise as a matter that strictly belongs to the private sphere, to the degree that even to speak on violence inflicted upon women is considered a breach of the so-called sanctity of the private. Thus, it may be that the izzat of the home is by a woman, but the woman herself has no right to her own izzat.

Only recently it was reported that a man in the village of Lakha Luddan divorced his wife after she got him arrested for inflicting torture on her.

In light of the existing situation, the fervid opposition to the Bill among certain groups and segments in the country underscore something much greater: the need to create cultural currency for change and reform in Pakistan. Since laws cannot operate in a vacuum, legal strides on issues such as those of domestic violence must be accompanied by efforts to conjure cultural acceptance and traction of the ideas underlying the laws to complement and enforce their strength.

Nazish Brohi sharply captures the predicament confronting women in the country: “Women across Pakistan, meanwhile, continue to face an old ultimatum: they can either claim citizenship of the state or membership of the community. Appealing to the former means expulsion from the latter. Once you go to the police or courts or shelters, there is no going back into the family fold.” This separation between the sphere of the state and the sphere of the private defines a great segment of opposition and anger directed at the Bill by many groups which consider it a breach of space and an encroachment of the exclusive rights such a separation bestows upon the private space i.e dealing with women. This division of spheres aids the aforementioned argument of the sanctity of home and family, an argument that Ammar Rashid of the Awami Workers Party was quick to point out was an “age-old misogynist ruse; used to deny women the vote hundred years ago”, which is being invoked by those targeting the Bill as a dangerous device that can potentially trigger the disintegration of families and its eventual disappearance in society.

One wonders what exactly goes on in the cherished institution of family that such a bill threatens by threatening to expose and punish.

It may perhaps well be true that ideas embodied in legal initiatives, of violence against women being a crime, percolate through to larger society but a top down change must be augmented by the creation of congruent values below in order to render it effective and powerful. After all, a woman brought up to believe that to remain silent in face of violence is to maintain honor would seldom think of appealing to laws. And it is this silence that men make their power and impunity. Therefore, as important as it is for the government to ensure the momentous passage and implementation of the landmark bill, it is equally, if not more, important to undertake a serious and concerted campaign to culturally diffuse the value held at heart of the bill and overturn existing toxic ideas and perceptions centered on the acceptability of violence against women. Such a campaign will have to involve the state and government’s engagement and collaboration with the civil society; and the utilization of means and mediums which resonate with the larger public, such as films, dramas, advertisements, lectures, educational activities, and even religious authority.

To stand its ground against the blackmail and bluster of the religious right protesting the bill, and to dispel ideas that incite and justify violence against women in the first place, are both arduous and uphill tasks for the government but tasks necessitated by the realization that such regressive groups and abhorrent ideas have held the country hostage for too long, and Pakistan must be freed from their shackles if ever to move forward.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Crumble Credibility


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

26th November marks a month since the recent natural disaster struck Pakistan. With a staggering magnitude of 7.5 the earthquake ripped through the northern areas with unparalleled ferocity leaving hundreds dead and thousands of lives shattered. According to the BBC, government officials have stated that ‘at least 10,000 homes were destroyed’.

And it was the issue of the civilian institutions’ response to the devastation that the Senate recently picked up to criticise the government.

The army’s influence in Pakistan is one that is entrenched and patent but despite this being rooted in a long history which has rendered the dominance indelible on the country’s political, social and economic domains, there still remain fronts on which the civilian government happens to give way for the military to spurt ahead, boost and bolster its existing power.

One of these fronts is the response to natural disasters. Within a short span of the recent earthquake’s occurrence, General Raheel Shareef immediately ordered the mobilization of army personnel and resources for relief efforts. This incidence did not escape the recent debate in the Senate which Dawn reported as:

“PPP’s Farhatullah Babar said that Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif had ordered troops to move to affected areas and carry out rescue work without waiting for the government’s directives. “It was a good move, but its implications should be looked into,” he said. The PPP senator regretted that information about losses had come from the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) instead of civilian department and it showed “incompetence” of the government.”

While any efforts undertaken for the earthquake victims from any quarters of the state were both crucial and commendable, it is important to explore the political implications they also happened to contain. One of the clearest political implications of the army having given the first call for action in aiding the earthquake victims was the contrasting impression of the civilian government’s indifference resulting from its momentary inaction.

#ThankYouRaheelShareef

Critical instances like these feed into the popular belief in the Pakistan army’s unparalleled integrity and commitment to the people, inspiring tremendous trust in the military as an institution. This belief is frequently revealed in surveys and polls. The most recent of these was conducted by PILDAT, and while it revealed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to be the most popular political leader in Pakistan, it spelt the age-old result for the army which corresponds to its image among the people: as the most trustworthy institution in the country.

However, this division of trust and popularity is striking since it can be mapped onto the larger landscape of power and politics in Pakistan. The separation of popularity and trust is a key feature of the existing system in the country, where a civilian setup of a democratically and popularly elected government rules but often lacks the trust of the population. In case of natural disasters, this distrust is most evident when it comes to peoples’ willingness to donate to funds for the victims; most are more willing to donate if the material and monetary donations are to be channeled through the army rather than the government.

Although this lack of faith and trust in civilian governments greatly owes itself to the failures and corruptions of previous governments, it has also been sown through decades of dictatorship and their accompanying discourses which were used to justify and legitimate their existence by demonizing civilian rule and institutions. Nonetheless, attention must be called to the fact that the pace and degree of response and action, especially in testing cases such as those of disasters, are battlegrounds where governments’ trust is lost and gained.

It is imperative for the government to realize the indispensable importance of time in framing its response, performance and action in all areas of national affairs let alone natural calamities. It is here that the army takes the lead due to government inertia and delay thereby inevitably succeeding in being posited as an institution more responsive, hence closer to the public and their problems. The government’s delayed response undermines its own credibility which is otherwise pivotal in challenging moments like these during which support can be pocketed by elements inimical to peace in Pakistan.

It is no secret that crises of devastation, displacement and dislocation, compounded by the Pakistani governments’ conventionally slow and sluggish response, are often fertile grounds for non-state actors, militant and extremist groups to flourish in by activating their networks to function as relief groups within affected people while there remains a vacuum of proper government presence and assistance.

Another aspect to note relates to the nature of responses. While the PM announced a relief package for the affected people and ordered the establishment of several mechanisms to ensure its effective deliverance to the people, including a crisis cell for coordination between federal, civil, military and provincial agencies, these are still short-term measures. Cash compensations do not adequately, if at all, contribute to the long-term rehabilitation of affectees which is urgently required in the case of tragedies on the scale of the recent earthquake.

In a country plagued by a deep institutional power imbalance, civilian governments cannot and must not falter and flounder in responding to issues, affairs and crises; creating voids, even if temporary, for other institutions and groups to fill in and fragment its credibility and authority that are both detrimental to the health of the state and dent its potential for a truly democratic future.

Writing in his 1995 article ‘The Signals Soldiers Pick’, the late Eqbal Ahmad stated that the end of military intervention in politics hinges upon ‘the legitimacy of the civilian system of power [being] established over a period of time.’

Undeniably, the legitimacy of the civilian system of power is inextricably tied to its credibility which must be firmly established, constantly guarded and advanced. If a civilian system of power has to be maintained, governments must invest it with the credibility it craves, through their governance and performance, which firmly confers upon it the empowering authority it often lacks. Perhaps the idea that credibility must be constructed and cemented rather than let to chip away is too simplistic a proposition for redressing the power imbalance in Pakistan. Yet it is remains essential to recognize that legitimacy, credibility and authority are intertwined with each other and central to the narrative, if not the reconfiguration itself, of the Pakistani state’s distorted institutional ties. In the sombre shade of this, any sign of government lethargy dashes hopes for democratic civilian ascendancy, or so a military press release would concur.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Parting Ways with Sanity


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

Reham Khan and Imran Khan have decided to part ways.

And it seems we decided we part ways with decency and sanity in wake of  their decision.

Since they picked up confirmation of the decision through PTI’s Naeem-ul-Haq, the media has gone into a distasteful overdrive.

It is often said that a political figure does not have any personal or private life, and although @merabichrayaar was correct to point out that, “announcing the divorce through a political party spokesperson was really not the most privacy protective move”, the social and public response to the matter has been despicable and deplorable.

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In a society with even a modicum of decency, maturity and sanity in it, this decision would not be news. At least not in the sense of what qualifies as news in Pakistan, which is the continuous running of red tickers on TV channels that are religiously engaged in a zealous process of seeking comments on the divorce from all and sundry; trying to claw and probe into the reasons behind the separation; endlessly speculating and spouting sensationalism. Not to mention the trashy animation effects gracing all the slideshows of Imran Khan and Reham Khan’s pictures on channels causing thunderous cracks between each photo to Bollywood scores bursting behind: “Bhula dena mujhe, Hai alvida tujhe, Tujhe jeena hai mere bina, Safar yeh tera, yeh raasta tera, Tujhe jeena hai.. mere bina”.

And of course, how could a glorious opportunity for misogyny have been missed here? From the media to the people, within minutes of the matter’s revelation, speculations and “claims” began to rapidly surface which, as Faiza S. Khan (@BhopalHouse) clearly put it, were plain “misogynistic character assassination” relating to Reham Khan.

Social media also filled up with endless commentary on the matter which was being constructed and presented as a national issue; something that may have repercussions for Pakistan’s economy, foreign relations, domestic affairs or the lives of its 200 million people; because of course, Pakistan has no other issues Alhumdulilah to be bothered with. Not like this is a country where mobs burn down entire colonies of religious minorities; not like this is a country where hundreds of children are killed in a school; not like this is a country where hundreds of children are systematically sexually abused for years in a village.

This isn’t a country like that, no, not at all.

So the public response to this private matter of a divorce between  the couple has everyone involved; everyone concerned, and everyone having something to say.

It almost seems as if an earthquake has struck Pakistan, except that it did a few days ago and shattered thousands of lives but to the silence of the media and the crowd clamoring right now.

According to the BBC, government officials have stated that ‘at least 10,000 homes were destroyed by the earthquake, which struck Pakistan and northern Afghanistan’.

With a staggering magnitude of 7.5, the earthquake ripped through the northern areas with unparalleled ferocity leaving hundreds dead and thousands of lives completely destroyed. The most affected areas are said to have temperatures which can drop to as low as -2 degrees and where there will soon be three to four feet of snow, but where countless people today have nothing but the cold to turn to – albeit some efforts seeking help from people to aid the victims – both the cold of nature, and the cold of human apathy and indifference.

This is the human apathy and indifference that has been fostered in the wake of our collective decision to part ways with empathy, compassion, sensitivity, decency and sanity as we remain glued to the crass circus playing out on the media and in our personal circles at the moment.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

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12140767_1506012896364621_4320524351690497918_nSpeaking of the earthquake, the #LUMSReliefDrive aims to collect both monetary and material donations for the earthquake victims from all over Lahore. The #TurrReliefBus will be operating as part of the to collect donations from different places all over the city. The donations will be personally delivered to victims by a team of LUMS students who will be visiting the affected areas, so please do consider contributing and spreading word about this. For more information, do check the pages:

https://www.facebook.com/Lums-Relief-Drive-1505880633044514/

https://www.facebook.com/events/566258273522038/

Engaging Youhanabad


*Originally published in The Friday Times:


“Taleem aik amanat hai, issko aagay naa puhanchna khayanat hai”

This was Roohullah Gulzari, human rights activist and fellow at Atlantic Council and Emerging Leaders of Pakistan, speaking to the students at Youhanabad as one of three guests invited in a session dedicated to student activism and the pursuit of education against all obstacles.

This was Project Youhanabad.

Started by Minahil Mehdi, a senior at the Lahore University of Management Sciences who has been leading HumAahang a student-led initiative against intolerance, extremism and terrorism, Project Youhanabad was envisioned after the twin blasts that struck a church in the area earlier in March. To show support and solidarity with the Christian community, members of the Democratic Students’ Alliance from LUMS decided to form a human chain outside the church and were joined by other students as well including those who were part of HumAahang. It was during this time that Michelle Chaudhry, who heads the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, reached out to HumAahang resulting in Minahil’s visit to the Foundation’s school in Youhanabad.

It was after that visit that the idea of a summer camp in collaboration between HumAahang and CICF for those studying at the school was devised. Funding was sought, a curriculum charted with Fatima Khalid Khan of Next Generation Pakistan and applications for volunteers to teach at the camp opened. The summer camp began in mid-June and was to be conducted two days a week for two months.

Minahil is quick to clarify though that the summer camp, “wasn’t just a teaching program but a community engagement initiative.”

What exactly is community engagement? Community engagement is not constrained by a single, rigid definition, however, at its heart lays the concept involving participation, education, and the fostering of permanent relationships with a community. In this case, it is interaction with a community for the realization of its growth and development. Community engagement is thus, engagement with a community for the purpose of empowering it.

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The students at the camp varied greatly in ages, with some as young as eight and others as old as twenty. Groups of six to seven students were assigned pairs of two volunteers as mentors; and the groups kept small so to foster a sense of trust, friendship and understanding between the mentors and students; to create a relationship between them that could be stretched out into the future beyond the project whenever the students need any assistance or help.

Interestingly, the summer camp did not involve teaching the usual school subjects such as math and science. Each week has had a different theme with one day was dedicated to instruction and theory and the second to practical performance and examination. There were sessions on critical thinking, world history, public speaking, child abuse, civic responsibilities, human rights, and on music and cultural politics. The idea, according to those running the summer camp was, “To expose the students to disciplines of education they have not known before; to introduce them to new perspectives, new dynamics. Telling them there is more than one way of thinking.”

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To add an element of entertainment to the education, the camp also involved various trips and excursions within the city including one to the Mall Road, where the students were told of its colonial significance. More recently, they were also taken to LUMS and acquainted with the university’s National Outreach Programme (NOP) designed to identify and enrol talented students from all over Pakistan held back by financial constraints.

The objectives of this community engagement initiative branched out into both short-term and long-term. Conceived in wake of the Youhanabad attacks, the immediate aim was to dispel the feeling of isolation and insecurity prevalent in the place; to reach out and help; and to express and demonstrate support.

The long-term objectives strike at the status of the Christian community at Youhanabad, which Minahil helps explain, “Youhanabad is a very underprivileged community; they lack resources, facilities and opportunities. The tragedy is how all of this marginalization has led to the lack of vigour and dreams that every child must have. This is where many cleaners, nurses from our public hospitals, and domestic helpers live. So when we asked the children what they want to do, they said nurses, mechanics etc. We want them to think, why not a doctor instead of a nurse, an engineer instead of a mechanic? We want them to think out of the box. To dream, to challenge themselves, surpass their own potential or in the least be aware of their potential and talents.”

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At its heart, Project Youhanabad sought to engage the students in a way to raise their morale as a minority community, open their minds, cultivate confidence in their potential, expand their sense of possibilities and assist them in their pursuit. It aimed to make them aspire and strive.

However, building long-term relationships was central to the key of community engagement, which is sustainability. Well-aware of this, Minahil states, “We are in fact very lucky that some friends of HumAahang have come forward and offered to sponsor the education of two students from this camp. So this really is what we wanted; for the project to go beyond a two month activity. To make it sustainable not only from our own end as an organization but by investing in the future of the kids because that is all that really matters.”

Project Youhanabad ended on the 14th of August.

In a time when Pakistan has been torn through by the fall and burst of bombs, violence, confusion and despondency, the state has much to do for the amelioration of conditions. But perhaps community engagement is also what the need of the hour is; for people to connect with each other, to help, to empower, and to heal. And if a university student can do it, so can anyone else given the drive and determination. Perhaps the present and future may not appear so bereft of hope if such initiatives are established all over the country and all those scattered are reached out to in spirit of our shared humanity and responsibility to each other, one community at a time.

 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Complicit in their Abuse


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

The revelation of what is being called the country’s largest child abuse case has struck as a horrific nightmare. Two-hundred and ninety children abused in Ganda Singh Wala, most victims being under fourteen even including a six year old boy, their abuse videotaped and copies sold for sums as paltry as 50 rupees. Since 2006, just year less than a decade.

This entire tragedy has been nothing but a damning indictment of Pakistan’s government, state, society and culture; which continue to fail their children.

Sahil, an organization dedicated to the protection of children against abuse, issued 3508 as the number of cases of abuse for 2014. According to the organization, this brings the number of abused children to ten per day. However, it must be kept in mind that this figure has been gleaned from the number of cases reported in places such as newspapers; the real figure has to be staggering since child abuse goes widely unreported in the country owing to the clasp of culture. The practice of such heinous acts not just exists in this country but it is also rather prevalent, but child abuse is duly hushed up by “taboo” and “shame” in Pakistan’s society and culture and it is necessary that this norm ends today than tomorrow.

 

Abused children have done nothing to be held to “shame” – a concept used in our culture to continually silence the victimized and perpetuate such horrors in society. If there needs to be any shame, then it must be on our culture of silence, taboo and denial, and on all those who indulge in it. The silence demanded by our culture in face of such monstrosities is the very impunity and immunity granted to the perpetrators. And it is essential that the unearthing of this appalling case be taken to break this norm of silence by starting a conversation on the issue that can be helped by the government, the media and the civil society.

Further down the rotten list of arguments given against exposing the cruelty of child abuse is the national favorite: ruination of Pakistan’s image. Unfortunately, this argument was parroted by Rana Sanaullah when sought regarding this case who commented that the sordid affair should not have been reported since it brought “shame” to Pakistan’s image. A statement of such low caliber was certainly unbecoming of a provincial minister but perhaps there is scant to expect from those who hobnob and rub shoulders with those whose hands are stained and seeped with the blood of religious minorities. However, it is truly unsettling that such a mindset persists here which finds the revelation and discussion of plagues and problems in Pakistan far more perturbing than the existence of these troubles in the first place. Yet it is nothing more than a testament to our penchant for averting gaze from problems than acknowledging them. “Image” is merely a fancy concept many here use to toy with; to deceive themselves of existing dismal realities in Pakistan, for what good is an image when realities are so ghastly in this country? Where 140 children are murdered in their schools, where a seven year old raped is raped by several men for more than an hour; where hundreds of children are put through indelible pain and trauma, their childhoods forever usurped and lives ruined or put to an end.

It is only hoped that the provincial government won’t and doesn’t share the petty concerns and viewpoint of its law minister and deals with the seriousness the gravity of the matter merits. Dawn columnist Umair Javed correctly underscored the significance of Punjab government’s handling of this issue on social media: “This child abuse case, not some signal free corridor or some elevated expressway, will be the real benchmark for Punjab government’s effectiveness.”

The political figures that pressurized the victims’ families to withdraw allegations need to be named and brought to task along with the MPAs and police officials who refused to act. The government also needs to initiate a federal inquiry into the harrowing matter entailing the harshest of consequences for the sick perpetrators. What has happened in Ganda Singh Wala is neither a first of its kind and maybe not even the largest child abuse racket in the country; it is perhaps only the tip of the iceberg that has been unveiled. Therefore, this case must not be dealt myopically: passed to commissions, retributions handed down to the child abuse mafia involved in this alone and then forgotten as a distant nightmare that befell hundreds of children in a district of Kasur. This case must provide impetus for systematic inquiry into and operation against child abuse in Pakistan which probes its pervasiveness, traces it causes, victims and punishes perpetrators; followed by adequate legislation given teeth by strict implementation. Equally important is the need for a socio-cultural campaign that pushes for a conversation on the issue and convinces victims to come forward, for no such law or operation will work in Pakistan if devoid of cultural and social embrace – the socio-cultural acceptance, approval and support which is currently non-existent in the country whose society is in the grip of twisted notions of honor and shame that forbid speaking up against child abuse.

The fault lies everywhere; with the state, government, culture and society. And until each begins functioning in favor of the humanity, compassion, sympathy and responsibility deserved by the children of this country, we shall all be held complicit in their abuse.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Book Review: Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider and Witness in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar


*Originally written for and published on Eqbal’s Ahmad’s fanpage:

Note:

In the “intellectual indolence” that has reigned in Pakistan, Eqbal Ahmad has been a flare of exception. Although I became acquainted with his life and work long after his demise, his intellectual honesty, courage and brilliance has taught me to think, to learn, to question and to speak up; inspiring me never to dim the dream of a progressive and peaceful Pakistan and world; to stay true to the pursuit of this vision. My admiration for him knows no bounds and I am truly indebted to his work that has educated and awakened the importance of an intellectual consciousness in me. And I would like nothing more than to consider myself but a student of his.

Book Review:

Political scientist, activist, writer, thinker and intellectual, Eqbal Ahmad (1930-1999) was a man beyond his times. Writing his obituary in 1999, the late Edward Said described him as a ‘Companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk’, and ‘perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa.’ Eqbal has rightly been called ‘the astute alarmist’  who uncannily foresaw future trends that later came to develop into concrete realities marking the world. And it is with six incredibly significant examples of this prophetic perspicacity, including the fallout of the Afghan War and that of a possible US invasion of Iraq, that Stuart Schaar begins his book on Eqbal Ahmad.

Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Schaar was friends with Eqbal since 1958 when they were both at Princeton. He carefully traces Ahmad’s journey from a little boy in Bihar who was an early witness to violence, a participant of the Partition, student at the Forman Christian College and Princeton University, one of the notorious Harrisburg 7 (a conspiracy case during the era of the Vietnam War in which the defendants were accused of a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger), professor at Hampshire College in the US, to his return and final years in Pakistan. Each stage steering him towards the distinguished public intellectual and thinker he came to be; a transformation unveiled by light the book sheds on his personal, political and intellectual evolution.

Schaar writes, “The combination of originality, intelligence and fearlessness in confronting power, drew some of the major intellectuals on the Left towards him, including prominent figures in a variety of fields in the US, Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia,. He socialized with writers from around the world and learned from them. He corresponded with leaders of the international Left and in the Indian/Pakistani subcontinent he knew and befriended some of the most gifted intellectuals, while political figures and military leaders courted him for advice.”

Indeed Eqbal Ahmad’s brilliance and numerous travels led to his contact and correspondence with countless people, both those within and outside the realm of power, including Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Frantz Fanon’s widow and Osama bin Laden, and various activists, diplomats, politicians, leaders, journalists, writers, revolutionaries from all over the world. The book makes sure to deal with this important aspect of his life. One of the instances, related to this, mentioned involves Habib Bourghiba’s attempts to get Ahmad to write his official biography while he stayed in Tunisia for his PhD thesis. Ahmad also came to be acquainted with various struggles, especially the liberation movement in Algeria against France.

As his friend, Schaar was able to gain insights not only from his own memories but also from the access he gained to the latter’s family, friends, colleagues and students. Their anecdotes and recollections paint a fuller picture of the person that Eqbal was in each of his relationships: as a father, teacher, friend, colleague and thinker.

[the book even sheds light on the gourmet chef Ahmad was, also including a whole recipe of his at the end]

One of these is dealt with in detail in the book: Eqbal’s friendship with Edward Said, a relationship of immense respect, admiration, solidarity and affinity between both. Regarding which the book holds some wonderful insights in the form of excerpts from the email correspondence between both and the letter of recommendation by Said when Ahmad applied for a job at Hampshire College.

Moreover, the book goes beyond illuminating Eqbal Ahmad’s words and ideas by engaging with his efforts and encounters through which he channelled his ideas and social and political activism; such as his role in organizing and establishing people-to-people Indo-Pak cultural exchanges back in 1980s, which Schaar writes, [they] intended to build a social movement which would….help create a groundswell to move both countries towards reconciliation and peace.”, and his plan to establish a liberal-arts university in Islamabad by the name of Khaldunia (named after the Arab polymath).

Furthermore, Schaar manages to focus on both Eqbal Ahmad’s personal experiences and his ideas and work; by blending both as complements for each other into the narration of his life. To add clarity to the book and lend lucidity to understanding Eqbal’s work, the book neatly divides several of his ideas, stances and polemics on particular issues: (i) Islam and Islamic History; (ii) Imperialism, Nationalism, Revolutionary Warfare, Insurgency and Need for Democracy; (iii) The Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict; (iv) India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh: the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation and Views on Partitioning States; and (v) Critique of US foreign policy: The Cold War and Terrorism. Although these sections do not cover the vast expanse of Eqbal’s ideas in detail, which perhaps can only be accessed through his essays, they are nonetheless, a fair glimpse of his perspective and analytical eminence.

Despite being his friend, Schaar does not remain from revealing Eqbal’s occasional idealism and resulting follies, such as his criticism and attacks on then prime-minister Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari in his Dawn columns all the while hoping and expecting her government to endorse and support his Khaldunia project, which consequently faced many hurdles to its realization.

However, Kabir Babar sees the book as not without its drawbacks for students of Eqbal new and old:

“This book is not without its flaws. A drawback of the anecdotal style in which it is written is that Ahmad’s life is presented with neither chronological nor thematic consistency.

And while the book is revealing, it is by no means a definitive biography, for there are numerous aspects of Eqbal Ahmad’s life that are either ignored or glossed over in this work. For instance, no mention is made of Ahmad’s encounters with Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. Also, while much is made of the impact that Ahmad’s exposure as a boy to Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had on his thought, there is no reference to Syed Abul Ala Maududi, to whom Eqbal acknowledged owing an intellectual debt. Ahmad is said to have directly participated in the Algerian revolution, but few details are provided. In his foreword to a collection of Ahmad’s essays, physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy states that, during successive martial law governments in Pakistan, there were warrants of arrest and death sentences put out on Ahmad. None of this is mentioned in Schaar’s book.”

Nonetheless, Babar is right to point out that, “The subtitle of this book is well-chosen: because he was ideologically difficult to pigeonhole and the scope of his activities and intellect was global, Eqbal Ahmad was an outsider everywhere.”

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All in all, Schaar’s book weaves a truly vivid portrait of the man about whom the late Edward Said said, “Knowing him has been an education”, and on occasion of his [Ahmad] retirement from Hampshire College, “..to paraphrase from Kipling’s Kim – a friend of the world.”. Eqbal was a friend who saw the future before its time, who was an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed all over the world and was an epitome of intellectual honesty and courage – a friend who, in today’s global moment of confusion, crises and clamour, is all the more important to revisit. A revisit for which Schaar builds an important bridge through this book, for there is no doubt that knowing Eqbal Ahmad even today would still be an invaluable education for anyone seeking guidance and direction in hope for a more just, progressive and peaceful world.

—- Hafsa Khawaja

Allah De Hawale


*Originally published in The Friday Times:

A sessions court in Karachi recently dismissed a plea filed by PTI against the Sindh government regarding incompetence and apathy in the face of the devastating heat wave that struck the city. According to a report in Dawn, the esteemed judge was of the opinion that, “Climate change is in control of Almighty Allah…Due to climate changes the season of monsoon also has been effected and rather delayed and for all this we being Muslims have to pray before Almighty Allah to extend the relief to the human being by showing His kindness.”

Energy experts at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, Maha Kamal and Maariyah Wasim recently wrote an article stressing the dangerous scale of climate change for South Asia. While emphasising and proposing proper policy action to combat climate change, they mention that the Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015 marked Pakistan in the ‘extreme risk’ category and comment that, “Climate scientists all around the world now agree that climate change is not an esoteric term but a manmade phenomenon, caused by human activities. Blaming ‘climate change’ without accepting responsibility for the causes of climate change has led to inaction by policymakers, as well as a lack of direction.”

The New York Times’ also recently commented on the fresh findings of British medical journal The Lancet concerning the subject of climate change and its effects on health: “More people will be exposed to floods, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather associated with climate change over the next century than previously thought.”

Furthermore, Michael Kugelman’s article in Dawn throws light on the immensely alarming looming danger of water scarcity in Pakistan: “A new IMF report throws the severity of Pakistan’s water crisis into sharp relief. Back in 2009, the Running on Empty study projected that by 2025, Pakistan’s water shortfall could be five times the amount of water that could then be stored throughout the Indus River system’s vast reservoirs. It estimated that the shortfall in 2025 would comprise almost two thirds of the entire Indus River system’s current annual average flow.” In view of this, the nightmare of a ‘water-starved wasteland’ does not appear too distant as Pakistan’s future.

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However, it seems that no amount of studies, statistics, figures and projections can drive home the point that Pakistan faces a crisis of survival posed by climate change. There cannot be a clearer signal and a more frightful warning than the recent heat wave that claimed a staggering number of 1,200 lives. It can only be wondered with dread what more is in store for a country that, according to the data from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation (ND-Gain) Index, holds a dismal ranking regarding its adaptation to global warming, and yet, has left it all to the Will of Allah alone.

The belief that all lies in the hands and power of Allah is not alien to Islam. However, neither is the norm of the use, abuse and exploitation of religion by the Pakistani state uncommon. Such an argument, as articulated by the distinguished judge, deprives those in power of any agency, which they are otherwise rather quick to exercise. It serves to justify and perpetuate the incompetence that marks government performance in the country; providing them an escape from the responsibilities and duties owed to citizens.

Back in May a motivational lecture on the ‘Morality and Ethics and Public Service Delivery’ by a religious scholar was organised for customs officers by the Federal Board of Revenue.  While there is nothing wrong with motivational lectures, it remains to be noted that it will take a lot more than sermons to “motivate” the epidemic of entrenched corruption and inefficiency out of the bureaucracy. FBR and other state institutions need immediate reforms which sermons can succeed in supplanting.

What the mention of this motivational lecture exhibits is once again, the pervasive use of religion in Pakistan as a convenient substitute for initiative, action, accountability and reform; a use that will intensify as issues such as those of climate change increasingly lay claim to the country.

Perhaps people in Pakistan need to be acquainted with the message given by Professor Mehmet Gormuz, head of Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs in 2014. Addressing muftis from every province after the horrific Soma Mine incident that killed 303 workers, Professor Gormez also responded to then PM Erdogan’s statement that such accidents were matters of fate and nature:

 “Producing excuses about ‘divine power’ for human guilt and responsibility is wrong. The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters. The strength of the believer against the consequences of disasters is important. But similarly important is the believer’s comprehension of the causes.”

From Soma to Karachi, the importance of Gormez’s message resonates; ‘divine power’ and ‘fate’ should not be draped as escapes from human responsibility, or excuses for indifference and inaction.

Perhaps it would be better if those at the helm of power in Pakistan stop indulging in convenient fatalism and immediately revise and implement the National Climate Change Policy. With more than a thousand lives usurped, it is time to abandon the prime method of redressing Pakistan’s pressing problems, a method which can be summed in three words: Allah de Hawale.

– Hafsa Khawaja

The Night is Dark


*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

Five Hazaras were gunned down in Quetta on 7th June. Numbering 500, the bereaved families and members of the Hazara community later protested on the streets with coffins of the deceased. In vain.

Aftab in his youth

Aftab in his youth

Aftab Bahadar was hanged on 10th June. Sentenced in 1992 for a murder along with Ghulam Mustafa, the plumber for whom he worked, he had been painfully waiting on the death row since 22 years. However, both Ghulam and the eyewitness who testified against Aftab only recently repudiated the claim that Aftab was complicit in the crime. According to Guardian and human rights organization Reprieve, Aftab said that when he was arrested the police asked for a 50,000 rupee bribe and said they would let him go if he paid. He couldn’t.

What lies between these deaths is hollowness, a hollowness of promises and vows that continues to jar louder each day since 16th December 2014.

With a seriously flawed judicial system and reportedly the world’s largest number of inmates on death row, believed to be over 8000, the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan was controversial from the start. Yet all reason was jettisoned in an attempt to subdue and satiate the seething fury and mourning after the Peshawar Attack. The decision was oblivious to logic in disregarding the fact that the very desire of terrorists resides in death and the anticipated ascension to heaven; and that an ideology as toxic, bloodthirsty and pervasive as that of extremism cannot be bound, let alone defeated, by the mere physical elimination of its members. Nonetheless, the restoration of the death penalty was made to appear as a seemingly bold and big step against terrorists; symbolic of the state’s newfound deadly and steely resolve against terrorism. However, the reinstatement of the death penalty was but a grand eyewash and façade used to deflect from taking real action on the fronts that demanded immense political will, honesty, courage and tenacity. A reality starkly reflected between the unabated killings in Quetta and the hanging of Aftab Bahadur at Kot Lakhpat.

The comprehensive National Action Plan that emerged in January as the government’s guide to countering terrorism and extremism seems to have been an act of plain political grandstanding since it remains far from any noticeable implementation.

A critical statement on the state of madrassah education by Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed was enough to evoke a spate of hate and attacks against him, prompting fears for his safety. Pervez Hoodbhoy succinctly spoke of the controversy’s implications in his Dawn article ‘The Pervaiz Rasheed Affair’“Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. By refusing to own the remarks of its own information minister the government has signalled its retreat on a critical front — madressah reform.”  Such are the hazards and hurdles associated with the problem of extremism in Pakistan that a mere statement can shackle the government from action. As for the minorities Shikarpur, Youhanabad and Quetta suffice to mention. They continue to be hounded while militant outfits such as LeJ and SSP continue to run amok with their lust for blood.

On the other hand, decisions taken in wake of the Peshawar attack such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s permission to allow teachers weapons inside schools resonate with the coarse nature of political imagination in the country. The prevalence of such poor governance that determines this slipshod management of alarming issues and knee-jerk reactions to them has only recently taken the life of a 12-year old pupil in Swat who was accidentally shot dead by the teacher while he was cleaning his pistol.

Despite the monstrosity that bloodily usurped the lives of 141 children, the government’s reaction has been marked by the customary national cycle of temporary outrage, condemnation, protest, forget and repeat. The recent killings of the Hazara in Quetta and the execution of Aftab Bahadur serve to illustrate the lack of any decisive, solid or substantial government and state action against terrorists and extremists, and the superficiality of the steps taken, such as the restoration of the death penalty, in curbing the cancer.

Little has changed six months since the Peshawar Attack, most of all the captivity of Pakistan and its collective consciousness by political, ideological, social and moral paralysis.

At such a moment in time, one must listen to a dead man speaking from his grave; Aftab Bahadaur’s words from his last letter (translated and published in The Guardian a day before his execution):

“While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say. I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money…I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”

The night ended for Aftab as his last, but for Pakistan, indeed the night remains very dark.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Obfuscation of Reality & the Guilt of being a Minority


*First posted on Dawn Blogs, unedited version below:

“This is an attack on Pakistan”

“They were killed for being Pakistanis, not Ismailis”

This line of response to atrocities within Pakistan is not new but has become rather common and frequent. The horrific recent assault on the Ismaili community in Karachi was also no different in prompting it among many.

However, there is a problem with this.

As mentioned before, attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan are often deemed continuation of the plague of terrorism in the country; violence that is raging yet indiscriminate, targeting and affecting all Pakistanis. However, the danger of this narrative is that it blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; especially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, and now Safoora Chowrangi, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Violence against religious minorities and minority sects is a distinct, targeted violence aimed at their complete extermination from Pakistan. These are not sporadic bouts of savagery but a carefully planned, calculated and continued carnage aimed at ‘cleansing’ the land of pure from, what Lashkar-e-Jhangvi disgustingly decries the Shias as, ‘impurities’.

There is a special distinction motivating these slaughters, that of religious identity, and this distinction cannot be brushed under the blanket of national identity without appearing as a travesty of truth.

Anti-Shia violence precedes the war on terror since sectarian militant outfits like the LeJ and SSP, which have now come to be subsidiaries of major terrorist organizations due to their ideological commonalities, have existed since long. Those who have lived through the 80s and 90s would bear witness to this.

In his piece for Al-Jazeera, Murtaza Hussain mentions:

“It is believed that since the early 1990s, nearly 4,000 Pakistani Shias have been murdered in sectarian attacks, and at a pace which has rapidly accelerated in recent years.”

Minority sects, especially the Shia, are labelled kafir to kill. They are singled out for being Shia and Shia alone. Any attempt to sketch attacks against them as any other reality is akin to the attempts made in the US to paint the Chapel Hill shooting of three Muslim students as a “parking dispute”, anything other than Islamophobia – which clearly outraged many Pakistanis.

Obfuscation of narrative therefore blurs reality and blinds people to the prevalence and nature of injustice.

Therefore, to say that the recent massacre is an attack on Pakistan is to obfuscate the narrative. It is an obfuscation that serves nothing but to perpetuate these atrocities and normalize their occurrence as part of the routinzation of violence in the country.

This long-existing violence has only been emboldened by the prevalence and pervasiveness of state failure and complicity in overseeing the reign of terrorism in Pakistan.

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There is also a rush and tendency in Pakistan to make the perpetrators of these brutalities as monsters, that people from among us can never do such a thing. Yet their ideas are not new. They are the same ideas that thrive among many segments of the Pakistani culture and society; ideas drenched in anti-Shia prejudice. Ideas that run along, “Shias should not be killed but they…” Ideas that see the Shia as deviant Muslims distorting Islam, as religious “others”, which extremists and terrorists derive strength from, subsequently taking them a bloody stretch further by deeming them kafir and wajib-ul-qatal.

However, as denying of internal rot as many are, naturally little time is spent to link all inconceivable acts of such cruelty to foreign forces.

It is important to quote former Pakistan Director of the Human Rights Watch and human rights campaigner Ali Dayan Hasan, who took to Twitter after news of the attack:

“Increasingly, formulaic condemnations and condolences by state institutions in the face of carnage just add insult to injury. Blaming India & others for atrocities against minorities does not absolve the state of failing in responsibility to protect.”

As religious minorities remain besieged by persecution, fear and discrimination in Pakistan, let us not lose sight of the fact that the state, with its spinelessness, indifference and links of patronage with these groups, remains complicit in letting takfiri militant outfits run amok with their hate and lust for blood.

And as a society, perhaps if we cannot stop this butchery, we can at least try not to silence the screaming plight of these communities who are only guilty of being religious minorities in Pakistan today.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Loyalty Oath, More of the Absurd


*Originally published in The Nation.

There is no shortage of the absurd in the land of pure.

In continuity of the norm of absurdity, the returning IDPs of North Waziristan were recently required to sign a certain “Social Agreement North Waziristan 2015”. The document requires the reaffirmation of their allegiance and loyalty to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Frontier Crimes Regulation, along with a host of other things including that protection of government institutions as the responsibility of the tribes.

A report in Dawn mentions some contents of Agreement: ‘If a tribe fails in fulfilling its responsibilities mentioned in FCR, then the government will withdraw all incentives of the tribe or clan including cancellation of national identity card, passport and other documents. Their properties including houses would be confiscated or demolished or they will be barred from the area. The people would be responsible for maintenance of peace, security of the government bodies and action against anti-statement elements.’

The agreement, a compulsory and non-negotiable prerequisite for all returning families and tribes, is alarming in all its character. By placing doubt on the loyalty and allegiance of a people who made the greatest sacrifice and abandoned everything for a war proclaimed in the name of Pakistan; and by placing immense responsibility on them for preventing elements on their land, that caused them such hardship in the first place, is but a travesty that stands as a deplorable testament to the Pakistani state today. The obligation upon the people of North Waziristan to “keep their soil free of anti-state elements” is a clear reversal of traditional roles of the state and the people with the former responsible for the security, safety and protection of the nation. It is a denial and disavowal of the state’s responsibility by the state itself.

However, the origins of such obligations and requirements are not new, rooted deeply in a product of British colonialism of 1901 that still prevails in FATA and upon its people in the 21st century: the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

Formulated to rein in Pashtun opposition to British colonialism, the FCR has only been nominally amended since. Legislation passed by the Pakistani parliament is invalid in FATA due to Article 247 of the Constitution which invalidates the application and operation of laws made by the Parliament, and removes FATA from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts.

It truly is shocking how a colonial relic is very much alive in governing the people of an independent country in the 21st century. And while the rest of Pakistan may debate over the progress of democracy, civil liberties and rights, the people of FATA are still virtually colonial subjects, governed by a colonial set of relations, barred from the share of any political, social or economic development and participation in the rest of the country. The prevailing existence of the FCR in Pakistan is, but a stark reminder of the bleak credibility and character of democracy in the country; and the character of the state and country itself.

The Agreement proceeds to further say that, “You will not become part of any action intended against peace and security of Pakistan and will prevent enemies of the state, Constitution and institutions or local and foreign terrorists from using your soil against the country”.

While the part about not becoming part of any action intended against the peace and security of Pakistan seems fairly clear and innocuous, a second glance reveals the opposite. Since compliance with the FCR has been the main component of the allegiance, challenging the draconian system of laws would naturally constitute a challenge to the state; a disruption to the peace and security of Pakistan. Conflating the FCR with the state, which virtually doesn’t exist in FATA, and Pakistan, is farcical at best. It is also precisely because FATA is virtually removed from Pakistan in every aspect, that the region is open as a fertile ground to local and foreign actors, along with powerful organs of the state, their machinations and plays – a state within the state – all at the expense of the people of the region.

The formulation of this Agreement thus, leaves no room for hope against bringing the people of FATA in the mainstream of the country with full citizenship rights; and attempts to subdue the utmost necessity of doing so. The Agreement is also indicative of the lack of intent prevalent in the corridors of power in Pakistan regarding the reform, repeal of the FCR, or any relief for the people of FATA.

During President Zardari’s tenure, a number of amendments were made to the FCR which included the extension of the Political Parties Order of 2002 allowing the operation of political parties in the region, the right of appeal against decisions of the political agent; and changes in the Collective Responsibility Clause for women, children and senior citizens in cases of arrests and detentions. However, their practical implementation is subject to much debate today; as the amendments themselves remain bound within the FCR framework that still holds FATA in its grip.

The FCR is a chief instrument of the dehumanization of the people of FATA who are daily witnesses to myriad difficulties and horrors, which barely make the margins of our news, let alone national and political consciousness. The late Justice Cornelius is said to have famously remarked that the FCR is “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”. And his words resound even more loudly today.

Perhaps it would be more prudent if our lawmakers, leaders and media persons discussed and debated the conditions of FATA and Balochistan as vigorously as Pakistan’s possible role in a conflict in the Middle East.

For Pakistan cannot move an inch forward with such shards sticking painfully in its heel.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

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

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