Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).


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From ghairat brigade to Maya brigade – Daily Times 28/01/12

OVER A COFFEE: From ghairat brigade to Maya brigade —Dr Haider Shah

Stuffing talk shows with personalities from a showbiz background for their face value rather than intellect is a dangerous trend. The ethics of research and reporting do not appear to be taught to the young zealots of our media outlets

The Mayan year 2012 is almost a month old now. I had stated in an earlier piece that I thought the Mayan prophecy had phoney origins. Nevertheless, the year 2012 could still prove catastrophic for Pakistan as Planet X (Mansoor) was on the trajectory of hitting our country. Luckily, the planet has changed its course and hopefully will miss us now. But I was little aware that a homegrown Mayan cataclysm would suddenly spring into action and rock the country.

In our Facebook-based Rationalist Society group, members usually only agree to disagree on various socio-political issues. However, last week they were all one in their condemnation of a morning show host Maya Khan and her brigade. I was a bit taken aback as morning shows are normally a nice blend of information, entertainment and education. But when I watched the video clips of the morning show programme posted on our group site, I also subscribed to their cause. Three reminiscences flashed back to me after watching the show. First, it reminded me of the painful hunting scene from nature documentaries in which a poor hare is chased relentlessly by a pack of wolves and ultimately devoured. The hapless couples in the park chased by the Maya-led horde did not look much different from the defenceless hare.

Second, the show reminded me of a movie that I had watched many years ago. It was based on the real life story of two cadaver (corpse for anatomy) supply criminals: Burke and Hare, who operated from the abject squalor of one of Edinburgh’s worst slum areas of the 19th century. The two entrepreneurs started off by supplying the corpse of an old tenant to Dr Knox of University of Edinburgh to reclaim the debt the dead tenant owed them. As the two got a taste for this easy wealth from an accidental transaction, they looked for further opportunities to exploit. Like vultures, they started spotting old and abandoned persons and would bring them to their lodging for letting them die and realising profit from the corpse supply to Dr Knox. Soon, instead of waiting for natural death, they started suffocating their drunk victims to death for a quicker delivery. The local populace was uneasy over the disappearance of many residents and finally the police arrest the criminals when one day a student of the university is murdered by the two criminals and his corpse is supplied to the medical school. Dr Knox, who had turned a blind eye to the activities of the criminals, also sees his career ruined in the end.

In many ways our electronic media is acting like Hare and Burke with impunity. Many commentators rightly complain that if you have a black gun or a black camera in your hand, you are then a law unto yourself in Pakistan. Beginning with vigilantism against some anti-social elements, now the private spaces of citizens are being targeted. The overwhelming outrage against hounding of park-goers by the Mayan brigade is therefore a pleasant surprise. It is encouraging to see that the social media and civil society played a positive countervailing role in putting a brake on the unchecked onslaught of camera-wielding desperados. Bold sting operations to uncover the corrupt practices of the military by Tehelka magazine (http://www.tehelka.com) in India is one thing, and turning human misery into a saleable commodity for credit ratings by our TV channels is another. The black camera should be used for the former while the latter should be strictly a no-go area.

The third reflection pertains to the recent phone hacking scandal in the UK. The investigative reporters of the News of the World tabloid breached privacy laws and used phone hacking to come up with scoops. The paper, once considered to be the most influential tabloid of the Murdoch family-controlled media empire, had to be shut down in the wake of a public outcry. Many arrests followed and the case is being investigated for the involvement of owners and editors of the paper. The Maya brigade breached fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, namely inviolability of dignity of man, freedom of movement and non-discrimination in respect of access to public places. While bulldozing these rights of the park visitors, the media team of Samaa TV morning show prima facie also committed the offence of assault or criminal force with intent to dishonour a person under Section 350 of the Pakistan Penal Code. The offence is punishable with a prison term of two years or fine or both.

The delinquent TV channel after sounding remorseless for some time finally caved in as the wave of public discontent kept menacingly growing. A feeble apology has been aired by the channel believing it would suffice. Now it is a question for the honourable courts to determine whether a suo motu notice for the possession of liquor bottles in privacy is a more befitting case than this dishonouring of human dignity in public and then presenting it as entertainment to millions of viewers. At a macro level, the incident raises many worrying questions about the haphazard mushroom growth of the electronic media. Stuffing talk shows with personalities from a showbiz background for their face value rather than intellect is a dangerous trend. The ethics of research and reporting do not appear to be taught to the young zealots of our media outlets. When rape victims are asked senseless questions like “how do you feel after rape?”, the level of training and quality of reporting in the electronic media is not difficult to assess. Perhaps it is high time the electronic media got its act together. From Hare and Burke to News of the World, every criminality has its day.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com


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The day the dam broke —Daily Times 21/01/12

OVER A COFFEE: The day the dam broke —Dr Haider Shah

With bated breath the whole country is waiting for the glorious coming of his highness, Mansoor Ijaz. A beaming Akram Sheikh, in a charged voice, has declared that Mansoor was coming to establish truth and demolish falsehood

The year began with the hype created by Memogate-related judicial activism and estranged relations between the civilian government and the military establishment. If the holy security paradigm is put aside for a while and the contents of the so-called memo are examined, one is reminded of the chaos sketched by humourist James Thurber that erupted in Columbus, Ohio in 1913. Thurber speculated in his ‘The Day the Dam Broke’ story that the scare started when one man, possibly late for a lunch date with his wife, began to run east. And this suddenly set in motion a wave of anxiety that culminated in the whole town running for life amid rumours that the dam had broken.

Pakistan’s climate is particularly suited for similar kind of chaotic scenes triggered by rumours of all sorts. In fact, in 2005 the Thurber story suddenly became alive in Peshawar when the whole city was swarmed in the middle of the night by rumours of a tsunami (a real one, not that of Imran sahib). Mr Zafar Ali Usafzai wrote a nice piece about it then in a national daily. Those who staunchly believe in an imminent end of the world due to rampant immorality were fully justified in exacerbating the chaos but interestingly highly educated families were also not far behind in going berserk and heading towards Islamabad in heavy showers and a dark night. I was then not in Peshawar but in London so I remained deprived of the great laughter that various family members and friends had had at each other once their folly became well established. No one has any right to grin at the sight of fleeing Peshawarites in the wake of a chaotic situation created by a prophetic dream of a local religious personality. What happened then in one city is now happening at the national level and the most respectable institutions of the country are part of the chaotic mayhem.

With bated breath the whole country is waiting for the glorious coming of his highness, Mansoor Ijaz. A beaming Akram Sheikh, in a charged voice, has declared that Mansoor was coming to establish truth and demolish falsehood. The historical Mansoor gave away his own life to remain loyal to his mystical beliefs. The 21st century Mansoor, on the other hand, is coming on his own terms and amid full protocol to the court with the stated aim of putting his adversary to the sword. Modern day Mansoors are faring much better than their counterparts of medieval times.

In the memo the US government is promised that a new national security team will be appointed by the civilian government. If a government is enjoying a majority in parliament, it is fully empowered to choose any security team it deems fit. Thereafter, six offers were made in the memo. First, an inquiry commission to investigate fully Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Since the whole world was shocked at this incident, it was in our own interest that a commission was formed that comprised people who enjoyed a reputation of integrity at the international level. These demands were also made by Nawaz Sharif in the media on many occasions. Second, it was assured that the inquiry would be transparent, and not a cover-up effort, and all those found responsible would face termination of service. This demand was also made by Nawaz Sharif and all opinion makers in the media soon after the Abbottabad incident. Third, the security team will either hand over all al Qaeda leaders to the US or let it kill them if it is beyond Pakistan’s capability to arrest them. Many sensible opinion makers have been arguing for this policy paradigm change of ending our embrace of extremism and instead re-establishing respectable ties with the international community. Even Nawaz Sharif has been heard many times stressing the need for ending terrorism-prone policies and beginning a new phase. Fourth, to allay the fears of a stealth strike against the nuclear facilities of Pakistan, it was proposed that a mutually acceptable framework for disciplined monitoring be developed. For the ‘ghairat brigade’ (honour brigade) this might be a red rag but seen rationally it is the way forward. Pakistan cannot act like Iran for long. It is getting crushed under the overwhelming burden of its nuclear assets. What it needs is the energy that can keep its factories running and pots boiling. Once Pakistan gains the confidence of the international community about its nuclear programme, it will be in a better position to seek help in its energy sector. No country, big or small, can solve its problems on its own. It has to cooperate with the outside world and trade some part of its sovereignty to deal with internal economic problems. Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Italy have recently done that. We cannot be an exception. Fifth, the Section S of the ISI, which harbours militants, would be disbanded. Again not only all major opinion makers have been calling for this for long but Nawaz Sharif has also on many occasions called for ending interference in neighbouring countries. Sixth, bringing to justice all perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and handing over the criminals with clear guilt to India. Nawaz Sharif fondly mentions the Lahore visit of Vajpayee and the backdoor Kashmir diplomacy to normalise relations with India. Cooperating with India in the Mumbai attacks investigation would not only give a boost to Pak-India relations but also help improve Pakistan’s image in the international community.

So these were the six proposals made in the memo written by Mansoor Ijaz on the alleged insistence of Husain Haqqani. Both the military and civil governments in the past had been using the US and Saudi mediation in backdoor diplomacy between India and Pakistan. The army chief was reported discussing the future political setup with the US ambassador by WikiLeaks and the PML-N’s Punjab government, military establishment and the judiciary had joined hands in ending the Raymond Davis affair after the US pressure became unbearable. It is a well-respected principle of parliamentary democracy that “a parliament can do anything but make a man a woman, and a woman a man”. All the six measures proposed in the memo could have been taken by a government that enjoys majority support in parliament. Parliament has all the power to decide through the government who is to head the security organisations, what kind of inquiries are to be held, and what to do with all military assets, including nuclear ones. So even if the memo had been written by Husain Haqqani, what is objectionable in its contents that has made the whole countrymen run for life? Can a small child not go and tell the honourable judges that the dam is intact?

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com


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Washing dirty linen with memo soap-Daily Times 14/01/12

OVER A COFFEE: Washing dirty linen with memo soap —Dr Haider Shah

Sceptics can argue that whatever good name the judiciary had earned by pressurising the government to write a letter to the Swiss court has been blotted by its judicial activism in the case of another letter written by a shadowy character

As the Mayan 2012 has now commenced, various signs of impending disaster are becoming all the more noticeable — at least in Pakistan. We were repeatedly warned of a tsunami wave by Kaptaan (Captain) sahib in 2011 and now it was the turn of a commando to break the news of an earthquake during his recent public address. Karachi, being a port city, can whip the poetic imagination of any leader to become a Mayan soothsayer but the epicentre of the latest tremors experienced in Pakistan was in China this time.

It is an ironic coincidence that Pervez Musharraf, the army chief in 1999, had also visited China when Nawaz Sharif’s government was torpedoed by the Kargil misadventure. The visit proved a turning point in relations between Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf as the telephonic conversation between Musharraf and his deputy General Aziz was hacked by Indian intelligence and its full transcripts were released to the Indian media on the eve of the emergency visit of our then Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz. The transcripts are available on the internet and, like WikiLeaks, have an important learning value for understanding the civil-military relationships in Pakistan. It is not difficult to spot three clear themes in the discourse. First, major foreign policy initiatives are the handiwork of one or two army generals. Second, they take the civilian masters for a ride and in private conversation even sound contemptuous and third, they demand that the political leaders and institutions should act as their transmitters and mouthpieces only. The two army generals in a few minutes-long conversation confirmed between themselves what the foreign minister of a democratically elected government should and should not say. This time, however, the stir in China was created by the prime minister’s remarks against two army generals. It seems that Prime Minister Gilani, like Hamlet, is feeling crushed between the competing demands of a hawk and dove residing in his distraught self.

Some time back I had argued in this paper that the memo saga has thrown a pie in everyone’s face except one character, Mansoor Ijaz, who has become a household name overnight. Some developments in the past had given rise to hopes that sanity would prevail and the policy makers would return to the real issues rather than chasing a mirage. But unfortunately the Memogate scandal is now turned into a business of washing dirty linen in public. In the process, no institution has remained unscathed before a confused public. An honest appraisal can find no winner in this national tragedy as arguments and counterarguments are not in short supply on all sides.

Not all brands sell well. Coca-Cola learnt it the hard way when the soft drinks giant launched ‘New Coke’ in 1985 as a reformulation of Coca-Cola. The attempt proved a major marketing failure and the company was forced to reintroduce the classical formula of Coca-Cola to save its future. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has also tried the new ‘Zardari’ brand in place of its popular ‘Bhutto’ brand but it has not worked well. In its bid to save a doomed brand, the party is compromising its future prospects. In cases involving its ideological purity it has shown no remorse in making compromises, e.g. backtracking on the blasphemy legislation and its lukewarm attitude in the Salmaan Taseer murder case. But it is showing uncanny resolution in not writing a letter to the Swiss courts, come what may. For a genuine supporter it is not one of those causes that are worth dying for as it is neither glorious nor heroic.

Now let us review the role of the judiciary. Its intransigence over the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issue is both understandable and commendable. The formulation of six options in the latest verdict leaves sufficient room for the government to exercise graceful pragmatism. The choice of words in certain sections of its judgement was not very tasteful though. If the elected prime minister can be called ‘dishonest’, then sceptics can remind us of the Raymond Davis affair where the judiciary’s role left many questions unanswered. The souls of Wali Khan Babar and Saleem Shahzad also clamour for justice. The judiciary is under oath to be the guardian of fundamental rights of all citizens but hundreds of missing persons in Balochistan are losing their right to life with no major tremors caused at the Constitution Avenue of Islamabad. Sceptics can argue that whatever good name the judiciary had earned by pressurising the government to write a letter to the Swiss court has been blotted by its judicial activism in the case of another letter written by a shadowy character.

The supporters of the judiciary can cite the recent case of former UK immigration minister Phil Woolas who was ejected from parliament after two high court judges ruled that he lied about his Liberal Democrat opponent during the general elections. Consequently, Woolas not only lost his seat in the Commons and was barred for three years but was also suspended by the Labour Party. Britain is the mother of parliamentary democracy. Perhaps we can learn from them that a democratic system can only function well if it is lubricated by respect for law and good governance. The counterargument can be that the British judiciary has earned its respect by its impartial conduct that spans over centuries. The Pakistani judiciary, with the Dosso and Zafar Ali Shah cases in its heritage, has to go a long way before it reaches that level of universal respectability. It made a promising start after the deposed judges were reinstalled with massive public support. It has to work hard to dispel the perception that it is under the shadow of the military establishment. Actions speak louder than words. The return of General (retd) Musharraf will be a godsent opportunity. Both Nawaz Sharif and the judiciary can then provide reassurance to any shaky believers as the whole world will be watching to see if both will act as swiftly as they did in the case of the Memogate saga.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com


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The Mayan 2012 in Pakistan, Daily Times, 7/01/12

OVER A COFFEE: The Mayan 2012 in Pakistan —Dr Haider Shah

No lions roared inside the Supreme Court when Saleem Shahzad was murdered within a short distance from the court and when Osama bin Laden was found enjoying a visa-free stay in the garrison town of Abbottabad

The tearful 2011 bade us farewell leaving behind sweet and sour memories of all sorts. The new year does not look much different from the previous years but it has stepped in with a halo of significance hovering above its head. The popular US urban superstitions industry, drawing inspiration from ancient Mexican mythology, has been packaging the year 2012 as the apocalyptic year. Like any faith system, the doomsday believers also believe in things they want to hear and hence live in a world created by their imagination. They churn up all sorts of religious, scientific and astrological reasons why a Central American ancient civilisation’s hypothetical calendar foretells the end of life on planet earth. The fact that NASA denounced such stories as an “internet hoax” is not sufficient to shake stern believers.

Faith is always a big industry and opportunists do not miss any chance of making hay while the sun shines. A 2009 science fiction movie ‘2012’ directed by Roland Emmerich was the major promoter of the destruction myth. The marketing team of the movie actively promoted spurious claims about the end of the world in 2012 in order to pocket good revenue from the movie. Interestingly, our pseudo-science expert preachers are also making good money by running documentaries about the end of time on many private channels. The Mayan prophecy may be as good as a nursery rhyme such as the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ story but I feel like subscribing to the myth as far as its descent on Pakistan is concerned. The profiteers from the 2012 myth claim that the apocalypse will happen in different ways. Some point fingers at a rogue planet Nibiru or ‘Planet X’, which is going to hit Earth in 2012. Others look suspiciously at some sort of cosmic alignments while still others hold solar storms responsible for causing massive earthquakes. The movie ‘2012’ popularised these cosmic events resulting in a massive tsunami destroying the whole world. All these stories are figments of popular science fiction and NASA astronomers laugh them away. But maybe not in Pakistan!

The year 2012 here began under the lengthening dark shadows of the Memogate saga. We have time and again been warned of a tsunami by our cricketer-turned-politician as well. As if this was not enough, the Planet X is soon going to descend on us. The only difference is that instead of Nibiru, the planet hitting our country is named Mansoor. The volcanic activity in the Supreme Court is also dangerously high and it seems that huge tectonic movements resulting in the collision of various institutions will result in large scale earthquakes causing destruction of all that was so painstakingly built in the last four years. Mayan soothsayers say that December 21 is the doomsday but in Pakistan the cataclysmic forces may not wait that long. The gods of mayhem seem to have already written down the script. Only the mortals are now left to play their part to engineer the destruction.

Standing in the freezing December wind of London to join a demonstration for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2007, I have come a long way to become a subscriber to the doomsday prophecy for Pakistan when the apex judiciary is considered to be free and independent. Sometime back I wrote about perception management in this paper and had argued that in public life it is always important to watch our actions and see what perceptions are being strengthened or weakened. While I find the mayhem-mongering of our TV anchorpersons a sign of impatience, I also find the present government criminally negligent in responding to the negative perception of corrupt and bad governance. On this yardstick I found the main opposition party, the PML-N, and the Supreme Court more sensitive to public perceptions as they responded immediately to negative criticism on many occasions. But as the shadows of Mayan year 2012 reached Pakistan, some strange forces have started impacting everything in the country.

For quite some time, like many others, I have been holding the Supreme Court in great esteem for exhibiting independence and bravery after its restoration. But I am also not unaware of the perception that the judiciary’s independence in swirling the stick ends where the military’s nose begins. It is pointed out that no boldness has so far been seen in the alleged abduction and murder of the Baloch youth by the security agencies. No lions roared inside the Supreme Court when Saleem Shahzad was murdered within a short distance from the court and when Osama bin Laden was found enjoying a visa-free stay in the garrison town of Abbottabad. The memo petition was therefore a great opportunity for the Supreme Court to dispel any aspersions cast on its very honourable image. The golden opportunity has unfortunately been lost. Despite the harshness of her tone, I feel that Asma Jahangir deserves a keen hearing when she declares that she has sniffed the movement of tectonic plates.

Justice should not only be done but also be seen to be done. The Supreme Court could have used the opportunity to show to the world that the doctrine of necessity was dead for good. If it thought clubbing a phony petition of a Canadian national with the main petition was in the interest of justice, it should have also not ignored the petition filed by the chairman of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Engineer Jameel Ahmad Malik, who had prayed that the ISI chief should be suspended and investigations be ordered as Mansoor Ijaz had claimed that the ISI chief had visited Arab countries to stage a coup against a democratically elected government. The claim may be totally wrong but if investigations can be ordered against one government servant, why can the same not be done in case of another government servant? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If for the traditional ‘national interest’ reason the court did not want to go to that extent then at least it could have ordered the Parliamentary Committee to complete its investigations within a reasonable period, say one month, and advised the petitioners that they could return to the court if they were not happy with the outcome of the Parliamentary Committee’s investigations. This way the court would have shown its respect to parliament and the perception that it is menacingly encroaching upon parliamentary powers would have been dispelled. Unfortunately, the judgement has strengthened the perception that the demon of the doctrine of necessity has returned with a vengeance.

Reportedly, the planet Mansoor is aiming for Pakistan soon. The Mayan prophecy therefore might come true in Pakistan, if not anywhere else.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com