Dr. Haider Shah

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


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Balochistan resolution: a wakeup call? Daily Times, 25/02/12

OVER A COFFEE: Balochistan resolution: a wakeup call? —Dr Haider Shah


In every crisis situation when a certain threshold is crossed, the damage control through use of power alone becomes increasingly difficult. This realisation has finally dawned upon us and there is a feeling of a bit of panic in official circles 

The unrequited gesture of love from Rehman Malik towards Baloch rebel leaders has apparently failed to create the desired dramatic effect that seemed to have been sparked by the recent resolution on Balochistan presented by Dana Rohrabacher on February 17 in the US House of Representatives. The resolution had received no coverage in the US mainstream media but it was quickly picked up by the Pakistani media, and then was followed by a frantic reaction from all quarters as the move was interpreted as a part of a grand plan by the US to dismember Pakistan.
The US government took no time in making it clear that the resolution was a private affair of a Congressman and did not reflect the US or the Congress’s majority opinion. If we did not have a cupboard full of skeletons, we would have brushed this resolution aside with a disdainful laugh. The biggest blow to the credibility of the resolution came from Christine Fair, a prominent US security studies expert of Georgetown University who along with Ralph Peters, T Kumar, Ali Dayan Hasan and Dr M Hosseinbor, testified as a witness in a Balochistan hearing convened by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and chaired by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Ms Fair raised serious concerns over the sincerity of the Congressman’s real intentions. In a piece in a US daily she concludes: “I can say with some certainty that the hearing and the resolution that followed it have much more to do with partisan politics, and possibly resource-grabbing, than with any interest in the ongoing human rights crises in Balochistan.”
Other characters involved in tabling the resolution are also chips off the same block. For instance, Ralph Peters wrote a controversial article ‘Blood borders: How a better Middle East would look’ in the Armed Forces Journal in 2006 in which he proposed redrawing of the map of the Middle Eastern countries on the basis of common ethnicities. He lists Pakistan as one of the losers in his suggested scheme and comments: “What Afghanistan would lose to Persia in the west, it would gain in the east, as Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier tribes would be reunited with their Afghan brethren. Pakistan, another unnatural state, would also lose its Baloch territory to Free Balochistan. The remaining ‘natural’ Pakistan would lie entirely east of the Indus, except for a westward spur near Karachi.” The Balochistan resolution, therefore, was not a surprise as similar voices were heard in the past as well.
The rankling caused by two Congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher and Louie Gohmert, could therefore be clearly heard in the frantic declarations made by Rehman Malik. There is a growing feeling that Balochistan, though a local issue, has finally received global level attention. For the time being the wind has been taken out of the Congressmen’s sails by the US government. But the US is active in the South Asian region with two immediate policy imperatives. One, to stabilise the Afghan situation and two, to monitor Iran and its build-up in the region. On both accounts it seeks Pakistan’s cooperation and Balochistan can be used as a bargaining chip when it suits US interests. The recent media coverage of missing persons cases in Balochistan and the human rights situation is bound to shift the balance against the overt and covert policy makers of Pakistan. In every crisis situation when a certain threshold is crossed, the damage control through use of power alone becomes increasingly difficult. This realisation has finally dawned upon us and there is a feeling of a bit of panic in official circles.
History matters. The ‘path dependence’ theory of economics summarises this key point. A cursory reading of the history of the Raj in India establishes that many of our problems date back to the British and earlier times. The areas that were peaceful and well governed under the British continue to be the hub of all developmental activities as compared to those areas that were historically troublesome and violence ridden. Pakistan inherited the British nightmarish problem of dealing with characters like the Faqir of Ipi in the Pashtun tribal belt and Baloch nationalists in the Khanate of Kalat and other areas of Balochistan. The British policy in these tribal regions was mainly on account of using them as a buffer between the Indian Raj and the Russian Empire. The political agent and jirga system were therefore a very ad hoc setup aimed at keeping the areas quiet with occasional stick and carrot. The tribal leaders were bribed for their continued support and those who would stir some trouble were harshly dealt with to act as a deterrent.
Pakistan not only inherited the historic problems of poor governability in these regions but also adopted the same governance models in the troubled regions. The Pashtun tribes became a good source of irregular foot soldiers for waging proxy wars against neighbours while Balochistan became a region of natural resources and some strategic assets like a seaport and nuclear explosions. People and their welfare remained low on the national priority list. The British methods worked in those times because the British were a dominant military and trade power of the then world. We are unfortunately neither of the two and the imperial methods of rule have failed to work. The maximum damage has been inflicted by the self-imposed men in uniform. Much blood has already been lost due to the handling of our uniformed messiahs. Now it is left to the politicians from all mainstream political parties to take charge and thus rescue the patient who is lying in a precarious condition.

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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Ghalib: the poet of rationalist humanism; Daily Times, 18/02/12

OVER A COFFEE: Ghalib: the poet of rationalist humanism —Dr Haider Shah

Ghalib chided Sir Syed to stop relishing the past and instead divert his attention to the British institutions. It was perhaps this jolt coming from an intellectually honest giant that forced Sir Syed to undergo a metamorphosis 

Iqbal and Ghalib are often cited as the poets who ushered modernity in classical Urdu poetry. Personally I am a big fan of Iqbal as a poet but am of the view that he is overrated as a thinker. An author of Greek philosophy comments that the problem with writers like Homer is that you can find anything you want in their writings, whether you support democracy or autocracy. Iqbal is over-promoted as he is an essential element of our carefully carved national mythology.

On the other hand, Ghalib has never been taught as a thinker in our school or college syllabus. One or two ghazals (love poems) or a couple of his letters — that is all our students get about Ghalib. This is a great disservice on the part of our syllabus designers. Ghalib has remained extremely underutilised as a rationalist thinker in a society where rational thinking is one of the rarest commodities. “Supply creates its own demand,” the famous Say’s Law, though undermined in mainstream economics, reigns supreme in general social life. By supplying irrational and hatred-prone ideas in our schools, we have been creating greater demand for consumption of such discourse at the societal level. Our journey from idealism to pragmatism and abstraction to the real world would have been possible if we had been teaching Ghalib as a thinker and reformist.

Four broad themes characterise Ghalib’s life. First, he can be declared a ‘secular sufi’ (mystic), a trait that we find in Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well. Ghalib begins his deewan (collected poetry) with the metaphor of a picture and says that the grief of separation from the Creator is transferred to paper by every writer and artist. Ghalib’s belief of wahdat-ul-wajood (unity of being) is best captured in his verse in which he poses an intelligent question in a very rational way: “Na tha kuch toh khuda tha, na hota kuch toh khuda hota, daboya mujh ko honay ne, na hota mai toh kya hota” (When there was nothing, there was God; had there been nothing, God would still have been, My ‘being’ is my undoing, If I were not, what I would have been) — the obvious logical answer is God. Second, he had a big ego and self-esteem. He himself declares in a verse that even in matters of worship I value honour so much that once I marched back from the Ka’aba when I found the door of the Ka’aba shut, i.e. God had not welcomed me like a good host. All men of letters tend to be egocentric. But in Ghalib’s case the interaction of ego with the third feature of his life, financial management, created problems of all sorts for Ghalib. In the traditional 19th century Indian society, there were very few sources of livelihood for men of Ghalib’s stature. The secular and brutal laws of economics do not discriminate between luminaries and the ordinary. If outgoings are not matched by incomings, life is difficult. Ghalib experienced a tormented life as he came across countless personal tragedies, e.g. the mortality of his sons, the burden of looking after his brother’s family and then the deaths of his friends during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

It is the fourth characteristic of Ghalib’s life that is less known but is the most important for us. Ghalib, despite his education in traditional Muslim disciplines, was able to break himself free from the constraints of communal belief systems. It is this freedom that enabled him to rethink many topics of classical Urdu poetry and present them in new meanings. For instance, in a verse Ghalib refers to the much maligned ‘raqeeb’ (the rival suitor) as a human being and hence absolved if he as a messenger got himself embroiled in love with Ghalib’s beloved. So overwhelming is the influence of Ghalib on Faiz Ahmed Faiz that the latter also picked up the same theme in a poem titled ‘Raqeeb’. Faiz not only named his first work ‘Naqsh-e-Faryaadi’ after the opening words of Ghalib’s Deewan but also borrowed the name for his collected works ‘Nuskha Hae Wafa’ (accounts of love) from one of Ghalib’s verses. But it is not just the humanist poets and writers of modern times that draw inspiration from Ghalib. He was a major influence in shaping the reformist ideology of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Altaf Hussain Hali as well. Reportedly, Ghalib was asked by Sir Syed to write a taqriz (a laudatory foreword) for his well-researched book Aaeen-e-Akbari. Ghalib, against all expectations, instead wrote a Persian poem in which he took Sir Syed to task for worshipping dead people and their obsolete institutions. Ghalib chided Sir Syed to stop relishing the past and instead divert his attention to the British institutions. It was perhaps this jolt coming from an intellectually honest giant that forced Sir Syed to undergo a metamorphosis from a conservative Muslim to a rationalist reformer.

Ghalib has another important relevance for Pakistan, as his financial management was not much different from Pakistan’s macroeconomic management. He had no sources of income and in the absence of honorariums from the wealthy, relied heavily on petty debts. There is one stark difference though. Ghalib did not harbour any illusions about the sustainability of his financial management as he frankly says: “Qarz ki peetay thay meih, aur samajhtay thay ke haan…rang laawegi hamari faqa masti eik din” (We would drink with borrowed money and solemnly knew that our lavishness in adversity would be our undoing one day). Ghalib had no difficulty in admitting it but could do little in freeing himself from financial woes as not many possibilities were available for an aging poet in that era. Pakistan, on the other hand, is fortunate that it can easily come out of its economic straits if it sets its priorities right. All it needs to do is to divert lavish spending on defence to the social sectors and pursue trade-friendly policies in the region. For that it requires the humbling realisation that being a spendthrift on non-productive sectors is not sustainable. Ghalib can, therefore, rationalise our public policy making as well, in addition to educating us in humanism.

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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Culture: the sacrificial animal? Daily Times, 10 Feb, 2012

OVER A COFFEE: Culture: the sacrificial animal? —Dr Haider Shah

The main aim of primary level books is to encourage book reading and establish a lifelong friendship with books. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistani books no such consideration is noticeable

Like many unresolved controversies, there are many polarised views about our national culture. What is Pakistani culture is an issue that needs an analysis in its own right and I leave it for some other occasion. Here I want to emphasise the national trend of sacrificing culture at the altar of religious fervour.

Just a few days ago, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote a nice piece in a local English daily about the quality of school education as reported by the recently conducted empirical study titled the ‘Annual Status of Education Report’ (ASER). The report paints a dismal picture, as about 40 percent of the students are found unable to read or write a basic sentence in Urdu or their mother tongue. Dr Hoodbhoy discusses the futility of an education system that is based on serving and promoting an assumed ideology rather than encouraging genuine learning. I was also planning to write something about the same issue as I felt very upset after making some unsuccessful attempts aimed at finding some learning material for my young primary school children.

I am one of those Pakistanis who live abroad and wish to see their children retain their historical roots. The desire does not come from obsessive patriotism but has a more rational basis. Studies have shown that children who are proficient in two languages on average outperform those who speak only one language. Moreover, a language is a gateway to a new culture and knowing more languages is always an asset in the shrinking multicultural world today. I was, therefore, filled with the desire of teaching my children Urdu and Pashto so that they do not remain deprived of the opportunity of studying the literature of Pakistan one day.

I began my search with the help of Google to find out if there were good online Urdu teaching facilities available. The experiment proved partly discouraging and partly educative. It transpired that we Pakistanis are obsessed with teaching religious lessons with the help of much software. The most common service offered is learning the Quran and stories about various religious personalities. It appears that formal teaching of Pakistani languages is a very low priority as obsession with Arabic and its teaching has eclipsed any concern for our own languages. Consequently, there is hardly any language teaching material available for our children in this digital age. After much research I stumbled upon a children’s magazine in Urdu published by a national newspaper. The contents of the magazine reminded me of K K Aziz’s book, The Murder of History, in which he had catalogued the propaganda-based textbooks with very low quality of paper and unimaginative subject matter.

Much anecdotal evidence suggests that children rate Urdu as one of their least favourite subjects. Perhaps they are not to blame for that. The textbook writers in Pakistan forget that teaching young minds is a delicate art requiring imagination and ingenuity. All over the world books written for primary school students are therefore colourful and attractive. Authors writing books for young children are very attentive to the cognitive needs of budding imaginative minds. One sees animal stories, colourful cartoon images and other attention grabbing material in books meant for children. The main aim of primary level books is to encourage book reading and establish a lifelong friendship with books. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistani books no such consideration is noticeable. Instead of giving importance to the learning needs of children, there is a clear display of obsession with stuffing the young minds with morality and religiosity lessons. Open any textbook or a magazine, and you will first find a poem in praise of God, i.e. Hamd, in dry and dull poetry. Then is the turn of a ‘naat’. Following these there will be countless lecturing lessons on various religious themes. A few stories about religious personalities and moral quotes adorn other pages. It is thus not surprising that children feel completely disconnected from such books and cram the lessons under the threat of caning or other punishments.

The Pakistani diaspora living in the western countries is caught between the competing demands of religious and cultural identities. The former has emerged as a clear winner. The most defining concerns of Pakistani communities relate to hijab (headscarf) for women, building mosques in every second street and establishing Islamic centres. If you wish to learn about the local culture of Pakistan, you will hardly find any institutional arrangement. There are no lessons in Pakistani music and other fine arts. The local colours of Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi and Baloch culture are nowhere seen in any centre set up by the Pakistani community. One can see more black amama- or burqa-clad women in Birmingham and Bradford than in Pakistan. At times one feels that Pakistanis are trying to become more Arab than the Arabs.

The Arabised cultural identity assumed by Pakistanis is not only devouring our national cultural heritage but is also becoming a nursery for terrorism-prone propaganda for the ever angry radicalised youth. Recently, a UK court awarded jail terms to nine youngsters of Pakistani origin who had received training in Pakistan and wanted to carry out terrorist acts in London. The stereotypical identity no longer reflects the universal message of love of Bulleh Shah, Rahman Baba or Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. One does not know what the Pakistani missions are doing abroad, other than stamping passports.

Dr Hoodbhoy mentions that the textbooks are interested in teaching “Alif se Allah, Bay se Bandooq and Jeem se Jihad”. Children’s books need to be purged of all such radical agenda-driven material. Children are more at home with a mouse, duck or a puppy character in their books. In this I find Ghamidi sahib’s stance very appealing. He rightly says that the purpose of our early education should be to make our children become good human beings. Once they become good human beings, they are more likely to become good Muslims as well. Perhaps the textbook writers can follow this very rational advice and produce books that meet the psychological needs of young children. A book needs to be readable before it can be of any use. Children are most sensitive to this basic requirement of a good book.

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 doctor’s dilemma – Daily Times, 4/02/12

OVER A COFFEE: The doctor’s dilemma —Dr Haider Shah

With a good risk management system in place, the occurrence of untoward incidents can be minimised but not completely rooted out. Problems will still creep in through the slightest crevices in the system

Life is precious and its loss is always deplorable. Nothing can, however, be more tragic when a life-saving medicine becomes a messenger of death for more than 100 poor patients. Though political opportunists have quickly seized on the incident to make some political capital out of a multi-faceted issue of public policy, the sad incident is more a wakeup call for reinvigorating our inept healthcare management. The situation is an interplay of many dilemmas and reminds me of Bernard Shaw’s play, The Doctor’s Dilemma, which was later screened as a movie in 1958.

The main theme of the play is about the dilemma a doctor faces in using his scarce cure for tuberculosis by deciding whether to use it for a poor colleague or for a talented artist with questionable morals. Shaw also highlights another dilemma faced by the then doctors who wanted to get rich by grappling with the temptation of carrying out expensive but useless treatments of patients. The play popularised the need for greater involvement of the state in providing healthcare services and hence paved the way for the National Health Services (NHS) in the UK. Doctors paid well by the state were therefore saved from the general dilemma of choosing between personal prosperity and patients’ welfare. Today the NHS is the second biggest constituent (i.e. 17 percent after pensions, which is 18 percent) of total public spending in the UK.

Three important lessons can be learned from the large scale deaths caused by contaminated medicine, Isotab. One, it has exposed a complete absence of any regulatory mechanism for the medicines market. In fact, the incident is just the tip of the iceberg as the whole health sector is in a mess. For decades powerful predators have been feasting on the miseries of powerless patients — from corporate-minded doctors to pharmaceutical profiteers. There are thousands of unregulated pharmacies all over the country where you can get any kind of medicine without any prescription. A patient is never sure if the medicines purchased are genuine or fake. Thousands die every year due to this massive disregard for proper healthcare. But the calamity of the heinous situation had so far remained hidden because we have a complacent national attitude, which sweeps every criminal negligence or incompetence under the carpet of ‘it was God’s will’. For the first time we have discovered the temporal causes and in the process saw that the whole healthcare system was rotting.

Two, such is the state of our technical development that our laboratories were unable to detect heavy contamination of the medicine. Of what use are our nuclear installations and luminaries like Dr A Q Khan and Dr Mubarakmand if we cannot set up labs that, like the London and Swiss labs, can determine purity of life-saving medicines? What can a health minister or a chief executive of a hospital do if the technical system for ensuring the purity of drugs is non-existent?

Three, our public sector has still not embraced risk management and internal controls as the cornerstone of an efficient and accountable management. A stitch in time saves nine but we are in the habit of digging wells when the building is on fire. Management by walking around (MWA) is a good way of exercising control but it should supplement and not replace an effective system of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Executives, at the provincial or organisational level, must put in place a sound risk management system. Back in the 1950s in the UK, Thalidomide was prescribed to relieve morning sickness in the first few months of pregnancy, which later caused unpredicted serious birth defects. The resulting outcry kick-started medicines regulation in the UK. In Pakistan, we still are waiting for one in 2012. No doubt the government has shown criminal negligence by not setting up a Drug Regulatory Authority and instead remained embroiled in a dispute over the ownership of a Lahore-based hospital with the provincial government after the promulgation of the 18th Amendment. But our media should also share part of the blame as it spends all its energy on bringing the heavens down on Memogate kind of mumbo jumbo.

There is another worrying aspect of our health sector as well. The doctors’ associations behave not much differently from organised mafias; just the way all other professional bodies in Pakistan conduct themselves. Here in the UK, the British Medical Association acts as a watchdog over the conduct of doctors and does not take leniently any complaint of professional misconduct of registered doctors. Many doctors have lost their licences after disciplinary action by the association. How many doctors have lost licences due to action by the doctors’ association in Pakistan? This is not unique to doctors though. Recently, the lawyers’ association came to the rescue of a lawyer who had been charged with murdering his servant. Our doctors also quickly congregate to protect their comrades though they never take any action against the delinquent professionals in their ranks.

With a good risk management system in place, the occurrence of untoward incidents can be minimised but not completely rooted out. Problems will still creep in through the slightest crevices in the system. For instance, just recently in Belfast, Northern Ireland, three babies died in the neonatal unit of the city’s Royal Maternity Hospital after the outbreak of an infection. Twenty-three more babies are feared to have the same infection, as their parents are awaiting the results of tests. However, the health standards have quickly come in force to prevent any further havoc. Instead of a war of words for responsibility between the politicians, the focus is more on learning from an incident and putting good standards-based reaction systems in place.

The doctor’s dilemma is part of our national dilemma. The UK spends 17 percent on health (16 percent on social welfare and 13 percent on education) and seven percent on defence. In Pakistan, our priorities are altogether upside down, as we spend 30 percent of the budget on defence. How do we change from being a security state to a welfare state is a dilemma that we need to resolve soon. Health and progress are concomitant and we need better healthcare if we want to progress as a nation.

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