Sanitary murders

Two famous events this week. One was the very showy investigation of the PM for money laundering that resulted in a verdict that there isn’t sufficient evidence. The other was a very public and gruesome lynching of a student by fellow students for alleged blasphemy.
I wonder which will shape the nation in days, months and years to come.
In the first, an accusation was made with lots of hearsay but no proofs. Never mind that the PM and his team repeatedly confabulated and obfuscated to incredible levels, the system just did not have the wherewithal to find proof. In the end 2 judges felt that a “smell” was sufficient and 3 felt that the case needed more investigation than the supreme court could do. In the final analysis the case was punted off to the army which can now hold it over the PM in his final “lame duck” year as premier. No systems were formed, people were generally kept unaware of what happened behind closed doors and there is no more accountability than there was a year ago.
In the other event, it is suspected that the lynched student was silenced from criticizing the university admin. This was followed up by 3 sisters shooting someone that they and a mullah had accused of blaspheming 12 years ago. The mullah was an uncle of the deceased and apparently in a family feud with him. So is this how personal enmities, petty grievances and monetary differences will be settled from now on? Have we created the perfect perpetrator less crime, completely sanitary murders.

Saif ul Mulook Lake, Naran, Pakistan: The Beauty, the Splendour and the Missing Development

The beautiful and majestic lake Saif ul Mulook , nestled in the Naran, Pakistan, is considered one of the most picturesque in the world. And the lake deserves this reputation. The pristine lake perfectly reflects the blue sky above and green mountaintops around. The sight simply takes your breath away. This is the stuff of legends (literally). The famous epic poem by the same name (Saif ul Mulook: The Journey of Love) by the Sufi poet Mian Mohammad Baksh is placed here.

A visit to Saif ul Mulook, however is bittersweet. The lake is pristine, its shores are not. The lakeside is strewn from debris from the last rock slide, of which they are many. You cant spend much time there because you cant sit. There is no place to sit. A few boulders are too few for many to sit upon. But that is not the most tragic of things there.

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The main business around the lake is begging. There is little commercial activity. Some tuckshops and a solitary restaurant. The rooms in the only hotel were all unoccupied (this is Ramzan). There isnt much locals can do to survive. Its heartrending to see 4-5 y/o children, grown men and elderly all begging to survive. There are no local women visible.IMG_20160625_115908764.jpg
Part of the problem is getting there. There is no road. Just a mountain path carved into the side of a mountain, strewn with 2-3 feet boulders and ditches. It passes through a mini glacier and sometimes narrows down to allow only a single vehicle. The road from Naran is around 10 km but takes around an hour and you feel lucky to be there. No mere cars can make the journey and only a few ruggedized jeeps operate.

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But then getting to Naran is not that fun either. You can either come via Islamabad-Murree-Abbottabad-Naran way, or Islamabad-Hasanabdal-Abbottabad-Naran way. The third Muzzaffarabad-Mansehra-Naran is too horrendous (a single dirt road cut in the side of a tall mountain) to consider. Either way, what is around 100 km as the crow flies and 17-230km by actual road actually takes around 6 hours. You often go through cities and single lanes at that for tens of km at a time. One part of this route includes the euphemistically named Karakoram Highway. This is essentially a single lane village road that stretches for at least 50-60km of the way we took. This is how we trade with our biggest trading partner: China.IMG_20160625_105754384

The point is. There is so much scope here. Natural beauty abounds. There is scope for normal tourism, eco-tourism and more. The locals don’t need to starve or wait for handouts. There is plenty possible. But first the government needs to decide. Either contribute with better roads and infrastructure (phones don’t reach most locations and many locals have not even heard of internet). Or get out of the way with arbitrary rule changes and the license raj that is holding private investment back. One or the other would work. But why is it not being allowed to.2016-06-25 11.28.47

Reading Arendt in Islamabad

Hannah Arendt in her magnificent “Eichmann in Jerusalem” pointed out that you don’t have to be a monster to do horrible things. Even “normal” and even “decent” people do monstrous and evil things in the right set of circumstances.

Adolf Eichmann was the civil servant responsible for ensuring that his concentration camp ran “efficiently” and that the trains transporting Jews to the camp ran smoothly. He was of course aware that Jews came here to be executed, but to him the job assigned to him held precedence over any personal feelings (and he did show extreme remorse on occasion). The prosecutors during his trial tried to paint him to be a monster but he was not even remotely in that zone. To him it was a job to be done and to be done well. Even when during the fall of the Nazi regime, he was told to stop the trains, he ensured that they still ran; because that was what his state had demanded of him and that surely his superiors were wrong in countermanding that process. When asked why he countermanded his orders to keep the trains running his response was simply: “oh but the trains must run”. Not out of spite or hate for Jews (which he apparently did not have), but merely to do what the society of his time deemed correct and right. No personal feelings in the matter.

In covering Eichmann’s trial in Israel for her newspaper, Arendt correctly identified something more sinister than an evil monster. She identified that in a society where right is wrong and wrong is right, ordinary citizens do monstrous things while not recognizing this atrocity. They even feel that they are doing the right thing. In this way the evil that they do becomes “banal” or commonplace. She called this the “banality of evil”.

I am reminded of this in the light of the events of the past month. Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salman Taseer for what Qadri thought was an insult to the Holy Prophet. A month ago Qadri – who had appealed for mercy but not shown remorse over his act – was hanged after the last of his appeals was turned down. In his funeral and later tens of thousands mourners poured onto streets and much ink was shed his heroics. Some who did not agree with his killing still felt that he was justified. Some of the street protests turned violent and Islamabad was held hostage by these protesters for days. They even demanded that all Ahmedis be exiled from Pakistan. The overwhelming feeling was that use of extreme violence was justified to enforce the will of people over their dissenters. And of course there was that often repeated under current that Salman Taseer had brought this upon himself. So killing over dissent is justified and that dialogue is to be met with force.

The easy thing would be to declare that our moral compass is flipped and that we too are experiencing “banality of evil”, but that would be too easy. The more difficult questions would be why did we get this way, what should we be thinking through at this point and where would our paths – current or the alternative where shrink back from abyss – lead us. But think about ourselves and do it honestly we must.

Ghettoisation and Its Discontents


Today, Norway turned away hundreds of Pakistani asylum seekers. Does this mean that our welcome has run out. If so that is sad.

Immigration is allowed in part on humanitarian grounds. Its based on a shared concept of humanity. No wonder then that many of the countries that lead in accepting immigrants are also the ones that push for human rights.

That was why many of Pakistanis were accepted to Norway and elsewhere. In the recent bouts of crushing surge of refugees from Syria plus the few incidents of religiously motivated violence by refugees in these countries, many of the host countries have started questioning who comes knocking.

One can not stop people from thinking what they do. In a civilised society, neither should we try. But its a bit more than that. How we think is shaped by all that we see and hear. Our societies have too long indulged in a “west-o-phobia” to misdirect how badly the society (actually the governments of our societies) treats people. Suppression of social, intellectual and economic freedoms is a given. The state seeks to mold how you think and only a narrow stream of beliefs is accepted with harsh consequences for dissent.

This has led to the use of religion to control minds. Hence the devastation of our curricula in schools, abandonment of millions of children to madrassahs, laws that exclude individuals based on religious beliefs and even more perniciously, the fanning of bigotry to silence dissenting voices. These have extracted tolls from the society. This is not helped by the fact that many of the young generation grows in households that were shaped by what they see in the Middle East which does all that we do and in spades.

Lets face it. We have a problem. Not because Norway wont accept those that we chase away. But because many of these were so poisoned that even in their adapted homes they seek to rebuild the society that they escaped from. This is the worst form of Stockholm syndrome. It is grounded in part by the need for our governments to control minds at home but also in what has happened due to these policies. Muslims today feel that they are superior to others and yet victimised unfairly by “them” (anyone who does not prescribe to the obscurantist form of religion that many of us are now prescribing to). We want to preserve ALL that is described as “us” with little questioning of whether it is helpful. This is called Ghettoisation and it totally afflicts the Muslim “Ummah”.

The question is whether we have the moral courage and intellectual capacity to find our way out of this mess. I hope so. Doing so would certainly require questioning the role of religion in running the society and there would be lessons to be learnt from Europe. This does not mean in any way to denounce the religion. It means that as many of us have adapted to the modern times in our individual lives while still following the religion as we feel comfortable, so should the society. I dont see an alternative to such as change. I dont think Muslims as a whole will die out or be relegated to footnotes of history. But the way out is difficult and really must start now.

Why Politicians Don’t Smile and the Political Crisis in Lahore and Islamabad

I never realised it until I worked closely with them, politicians in Pakistan dont smile much. The more senior they are the less they smile. Of course this is completely opposite of what you see in the US or UK. Smiling is a gesture saying: “I am going to be nice to you”. Politicians in the US or UK thrive at the pleasure of their voters. They must behave nicely to their constituents. A US politician who can’t kiss a few babies on the campaign trail should probably just not contest the election. So what’s different with Pakistani politicians. Their power comes from who they can push or extract favours from, that is what they are elected for. Helping voters and their approval means little. If you are in the business of pushing people, you dont smile, you scowl. Pakistani senior politicians are somber people, they scowl a lot.

We are seeing this in the current crisis playing out in Islamabad and Lahore. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the legally elected Prime Minister with over 50% of seats in the National Assembly is running scared against the onslaught of Imran Khan who has fewer than 10% of the seats and Tahir ul Qadri who has absolutely none. Both want to topple his government and dream of becoming kings. 

Imran Khan feels that electoral rigging in May 2013 elections cost him Prime Ministership. Why he is turning to street protests 15 months later is beyond me. Never mind that FAFEN felt that although there were malpractices, all parties did them and they would not changed very many seats. Surely not the 120 more seas that PTI needed to form government. The courts agree with this conclusion. So now Imran Khan has taken to street intimidation (ironically their partners in KPK government are Jamat-i-Islami, the seldom elected masters of street intimidation). There is an implicit understanding that PTI and its leaders are demonstrating: People and their will means little, when you want political power, do it by force. 

Tahir ul Qadri is doing the same. He never contested elections. He even tried to stop them last year with his week long siege of Islamabad (where he got the 50+ crore rupees it must have taken to do that is beyond my understanding). He too is using his street power to topple the legally elected government of Pakistan and has explicitly expressed this aim in public. 

The leader of the nation, Nawaz Sharif, also has little confidence in the will of the people. Ideally when faced with intimidation from IK and TUQ, he should have come out and said: “the right to protest is constitutional and we respect that. Please use these designated public spaces legally to do that. We will listen and talk with you. But you can not hold entire cities hostage. Your protest must only happen on holidays. Dont stop the businesses because we are a poor nation and cant afford the roughly 20 billion rupees that this stoppage will cost the residents of Lahore and Islamabad for each day that you hold your dharna”. But this is not what he did. His minions used heavyhanded and sly approaches such as closing off petrol pumps and commandeering cargo containers (wonder if they paid for their use) and blocking roads and adding to the misery of the people. They were faced with illegal protest and feel reluctant to use legal force of the state to restrain it speaks volumes of their belief in the system. They could have relied on the voters that brought them into office and said: we are faced with this challenge, help us sort through it. It may have been difficult and perhaps even uncertain but that would have brought the voters into the decision making centre and would have strengthened the government. But that didnt happen because like IK and TUQ, NS also does not believe that voters have any say in all of this. They too resorted to what they understand politics to be: overt and covert weilding of power. After all, that is what politics means in Pakistan. Its not about pleasing the voters or making allies.

Nawaz Sharif’s Missing Allies

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan finds himself under attack from many sides. His tussle with the army aside, nearly all political parties are assailing him; PTI is planning a “million man march” on the capital to depose him. PTI is supported by the megalomaniac Tahir ul Qadri who predicts Sharif’s ouster before the end of this month. Is Nawaz Sharif really that precarious and if so why. He is one year into a 5 year term that he won with a clear majority. He spoke extensively of this “mandate” last year. So why is this mandate not important anymore.

In any government there is a group of people who place and keep people in power. These selectors of governments are all powerful and must be appeased. In a functioning democracy, these would be all eligible voters. Governments serve at their pleasure and are removed when voters turn against them. Its a little more complex in not so well functioning democracies such as ours. So while the voters put Mr. Sharif in the office, his concerns with the shenanigans of a party with 10% of seats in the national assembly and a politically lame bombast suggests that the selectors are other than the voters who made Mr. Sharif the Prime Minister. For Pakistani politicians, the selectors are the generals, other politicians, business leaders, large land holders and bureaucrats. In short, the game is that of collusion where favors – called private goods in the language of economists – are exchanged behind the scenes. Politicians are placed and allowed political offices so that they can enable private goods to their cronies whom they must continue to appease. Their voters simply dont count, they are merely needed to overcome the formality of elections.

This understanding is well manifest in the policies of this and previous governments, who once in office completely ignore the voters. Prices of staples sky rocket and the government uses these to put up more tariffs that benefit cronies and empowerish the common man. The country plunges into darkness and we still have price fixing, subsidies and free electric connections to state run corporations – the cost borne by those who actually pay their bills. These common voters will be ignored until the next elections. However, as they have shown in the past 3-4 elections, they are not passive. They have voted out non-performing politicians each and every time. So why dont politicians work to win over their voters as much as they appease their other cronies.

But this need not continue to always be the case. Nawaz Sharif is in a particular position to break this trap. His party has done enough in Lahore to keep their grip on a plurality of voters. What if they actually treat ALL their eligible voters as “selectors”. The advantage would be that they would become less vulnerable to the PTIs and PATs of the world; even more sure against the generals who will eventually balk against powerful politicians. However, this will come at a cost. For sure the close group of cronies that surround Mr. Sharif and propel him from one bad policy to another will be resentful and will try to block any shift to favor voters over the cronies. There will be reprisals from them and other cronies who will see their private goods disappear. There may even be a dangerous period where there wouldnt be sufficient voter support and the pushback from the cronies may still be strong enough. But Mr. Sharif (and his brother Shahbaz Sharif) are savvy politicians as they demonstrated in the opposition in the past 5 years. Surely they can negotiate some of these rough winds. Once they find their footing with the support of their voters, they are looking at a new Pakistan – not just in slogans by you know who – where voters participate the government and Pakistan establishes a robust and prosperous democracy. And Nawaz Sharif may yet find his name in history books with the likes of Park Chung-hee of South Korea and Deng Zhou Peng of China; rather than just a footnote in someone else’s history book.

Women and Religion – Learning from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is beautiful. Its got it all. Beaches, hills, forests, culture. All of it. Just like Pakistan. But unlike Pakistan, its also a tourist destination. Visiting and travelling in Sri Lanka, it really stands out that Sri Lanka prospers by respecting its women and its religious diversity.

Coming from Pakistan, it strikes you. Women are everywhere. On trains, rickshaws, walking unchaperoned on the streets. Everywhere. And no one minds. Strange. Caught an impromptu group of teenages, young men and women break dancing on the sidewalk just outside the train station. There was a huge crowd around. Some cheering, some filming with their phones, others simply watching or cheering. Not one jeer, no frothing at the mouth at the moral decay at display. On the train and then on our public bus in Colombo, women sat in all locations. There wasn’t even a “women’s only” section. No one teased or misbehaved. Oh that and women sit on motorcycles normally. Not in the sack of potatoes style you see in Pakistani cities (but curiously, not so much in Pakistani villages).

Makes me wonder that perhaps this extra space for Sri Lankan women is not what leads to their being vulnerable to disrespect and jeers that we see for their Pakistani counterparts foolish enough to come into public spaces without a chadar, dopatta, hijab or naqab. Maybe its something else. Like the men in the society expectating women to behave in this way. And if they dont, then they will pay a price.Some will be jeered, others physically beaten, acid thrown upon or simply killed for not listening to their male handlers. Kind of like the protection money that store owners have to pay in Karachi if they dont want their shops vandalised by their “protectors”. Makes you wonder if this “chadar and chardiwari” business is a protection racket after all.

The other thing is that you see are the mosques, churches, hindu and buddhist temples all over the place. They are the best kept buldings in their neighbourhoods, as places of worship tend to be. And if you talk to the average person on the street, they are extremely respectful of religious differences. We passed a mosque near iftar where cars were badly parked causing a traffic jam. The taxi driver told us that this happens at iftar and around Juma prayers and while normally it would result in fines for blocking the traffic (this was near the presidential palace) but for these times (iftar and juma prayers) the police make an exception. For all I can tell, religious diversity is not only tolerated, it is part of the culture.

I wonder why Sri Lanka has adopted gender and religious tolerance when we lost it. Even in the middle east, you find all kinds of diversity tolerated in Dubai. Is it because they need to attract foriegners; and not so in Saudi Arabia which draws its wealth from under the ground and where a single family and its friends rule a population of 30 million people. But we are not rich in Pakistan. We havent harvested our natural resources. We even go out of our way to discourage businesses. So may be its time to ponder, if our cultural obscurantism is meant to keep the control of a few over the many. And if so who and why do the rest of us allow it.