Dr. Haider Shah

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


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Contempt: worth dying for?, Daily Times, 28/4/12

OVER A COFFEE: Contempt: worth dying for? —Dr Haider Shah

If the executive feels that the court has crossed its limits by issuing a wrong decision, it can approach the legislature as it enjoys a majority and can hence undo the decision

On the television screen, one watches many horrible scenes, like a bomb blast carnage, havoc caused by natural calamities and tragic air accidents. But two scenes proved most painful for me as a viewer and stand out clearly. The first one relates to Mumtaz Qadri when he was garlanded by a group of lawyers outside the courtroom. The second scene was witnessed on Thursday this week when a smiling prime minister (PM) remorselessly collected greetings from party supporters that had encircled him after he came out of the court with a conviction for contempt of court.

There were many occasions during the last four years when the PM could have claimed martyrdom and perhaps I would have been in the forefront giving him a congratulatory hug. For instance, the Domestic Violence Bill had been languishing in parliament for many years. Frustrated with lack of progress, the government could have promulgated the law as a Presidential Ordinance, which would have caused a stir among the right wing radical political parties and their sympathisers in the media. In an imaginary conspiracy-ridden world, the court might have declared the law void but the government would have refused to budge on a principled stand of human rights-related legislation. If the PM was then forced to resign, he would have been celebrated as a martyr for the cause of human rights.

There was again a very appropriate occasion when the ‘memogate’ crisis was in full bloom. As the PM thundered in a speech that no state-within-the-state would be tolerated, I jumped with joy and readied myself to forgive the government for all its acts of omission and commission, as in this heroic struggle against the deep state, it needed our unconditional support. Again, in an imaginary situation, the deep state-judiciary nexus would have forced the PM to lose his seat and we would have conferred the honour of martyrdom on a heroic PM.

Another opportunity for exhibiting bravery and steadfastness was when the court had asked the deep state to produce missing persons. The PM could have issued a clear order that if a single person remained missing he would dismiss the heads of the agencies responsible for that. In the ensuing tussle, if he had lost his prime ministership we would have all lit candles in his support.

When late Salmaan Taseer was shot dead, and civil society and human rights activists made loud calls for revisiting and rationalising the Blasphemy law, the PM could have shown his zeal for martyrdom. He could have boldly declared that examining, amending or repealing any law is the exclusive power of the legislature and any person or organisation threatening the sovereignty of parliament would be sternly dealt with with the full force of the law. In this imaginary situation, if the radical elements in the media, in connivance with the judiciary, had brought down the PPP government, we would have had no hesitation calling the PPP a great martyr for the cause of championing human rights and secularism.

But on all these occasions, the PM proved a runaway who took refuge in the safety of political expediencies. A bold statement issued in a defiant voice against a state-within-the-state in the morning was taken back the next evening. Salmaan Taseer’s family was left in the lurch. The chirpy Sherry Rehman disappeared from the scene, as Rehman Malik became the outspoken supporter of the Blasphemy law, promising that all voices of rationality on these issues would be muffled by brute force. In Balochistan, the party has shut its eyes to human rights abuses, appearing clueless in the wake of incessant killings of people belonging to the Hazara community. 

In this despicable imbroglio, one genuinely feels sorry for Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan. The saintly figure of the lawyers’ movement has done himself no favour with the arduous task of draping an emperor that imagines wearing the finest suit in the world. He was worth much more than a senate seat. In the Indian movie, Damini, Amrish Puri demolishes the case of a rape victim with his clever advocacy. Neither in Damini nor in the political arena, lawyers are only lauded for their advocacy skills. If brilliant lawyers help the government in flouting Supreme Court judgements, they do not win an ovation — whether the lawyers win cases for martial law dictators or civilian aristocrats.

It would be helpful to revisit the fundamental structure of constitutionalism in our country. The separation of powers between three pillars of the state is also backed up by a system of checks and balances. If the executive feels that the court has crossed its limits by issuing a wrong decision, it can approach the legislature as it enjoys a majority and can hence undo the decision. This is what Indira Gandhi did when she was disqualified by the Allahabad High Court on the charge of corrupt practices during an election campaign. She not only changed the law that empowered the court to disqualify her but also amended the constitution. The Indian Supreme Court though, struck down the amendment, invoking the doctrine of ‘Basic Structure’. Instead of wilfully disobeying the court’s judgment, the PPP government should have passed a nullifying Act of Parliament. In all probability that would have been challenged in the court again, but at least a shameful precedent of contempt of court would have been avoided. 

In a popular Hollywood movie on Robin Hood, just before Robin and Azeem are catapulted over the castle wall to save Marian, Azeem asks Robin, “Is she worth it?” Robin replies, “Worth dying for.” When Yousaf Raza Gilani decided to commit contempt of court by disregarding its clear directive, one must have asked the PM, ‘Is the cause worth dying for?’

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


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Imran’s PTI: Noah’s Ark or doomed Titanic? Daily Times, 21/4/12

OVER A COFFEE: Imran’s PTI: Noah’s Ark or doomed Titanic? —Dr Haider Shah

While Khan has made space for himself in the national political scene, we have not observed grand scale defections to his bandwagon

Last year, much before Imran Khan’s public meeting in Lahore, I had examined the Khan buzz in one of my articles. I had then made a prediction that the new political party would only try to dent the urban strongholds of PML (N) and possibly, in some areas of Pakhtunkhwa, while in other areas of Pakistan, it would make little headway. I had also predicted that the rhetoric of change would remain long on words and thin on substance, unless a few fundamental questions were well addressed. Not much has changed even though enough water has flowed under the bridge.

Listening to a recent interview of Imran Khan on TV, one could easily see that Imran resides peacefully in a simplistic world of mythology. There are two main themes of his discourse. One is corruption, and the simple solution offered is that corruption will end within days, if not hours, when he becomes the prime minister. Second, it is Amreeka ki jang (the US’s war) and we are told that once we come out of it, there will be peace all around.

It is helpful to imagine a water supply system when we talk about corruption. As water flows from main tanks and reaches households after passing through a network of pipes, money also travels from the national kitty and reaches the hands of individual earners. Corruption corresponds to leakage of water from the pipes. Prevention of leakages can only be meaningful if the water tanks have enough water. Curbing corruption can also only be productive if the volume of money in the national kitty is enhanced. That is only possible with improved trade and a better investment environment in the country.

This leads us to Khan’s second rhetorical pronouncement, which runs counter to the first objective. By promoting the jingoistic jihadist doctrine that the UN-backed Afghan war is Amreeka ki jang, and we should come out of it, he is essentially prescribing economic suicide for Pakistan, as 85 percent of Pakistani exports are to countries that directly or indirectly support the Amreeka ki jang. When we turn our back on the world, and hobnob with people that the international community considers terrorists, what kind of international investment can we expect in Khan’s brave new Pakistan?

Imran has been referring a lot to Malaysia and Turkey in outlining his vision of Pakistan. Half-truths are always dangerous as these can result in daydreaming. First, let us look at Malaysia. Do not forget that there is a strong Chinese community that is about 25 percent of the population, but contributes 60 percent to the economy. A budget is a quantified plan. Just looking at the budgetary allocations of Malaysia can be educative. In its latest budget, 85 percent of developmental expenditure was allocated to the social sector and the economy, and only eight percent to security, while in operational expenditure, 47 percent was allocated to the social and economic sectors as opposed to 12 percent to security needs. Data speaks louder than words. If Pakistan wants to become Malaysia, then it needs to redefine its national paradigm. Ambitions cost money and mere wishes do not help beggars ride.

Next is Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan. Again Khan falls short of telling the whole truth. Erdogan represents the lower middle class of Turkey, which was sidelined under the elitist military-backed regimes of past years. Khan would have benefitted a lot if he had taken a course in pragmatism from Erdogan. While Khan is glamourising a holy war against the NATO forces, Erdogan has emerged as one of the trusted friends of Obama in the last few years. Not only is Turkey a part of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, it has played an active role in training of the Afghan forces and construction work in Afghanistan. One analyst describes Turkey as “a linchpin of US policy in the Middle East, a NATO partner, an ally in the effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a bridge to Iran.” Recently, it allowed hosting of the US radar system on its soil despite outcry from Russia and Iran. Investors are flocking to Turkey because it has integrated itself well with the international community.

Khan’s grasp of history seems to be superficial as is evident from his statement that before the British rule in India, there was a very just system in India. This dose of Nasim Hijazi-style history must have come from people like Haroon Rashid, Hamid Gul and Zaid Hamid. His belief that an elected SHO will resolve the problems of law enforcement is impressive as a fantasy alone.

Instead of merely tinkering with the leakages in the pipes, Pakistan needs paradigmatic changes to set itself on the course of economic progress. In this regard, the recent thawing of trade relations with India is a welcome step and the opposition party deserves appreciation too for sharing a strategic consensus with the government on this vital policy decision. The demand for ending our aimless adventure in Siachen by Nawaz Sharif was another bold initiative. Only visionary initiatives of these kinds can redeem Pakistan’s economic development, as rhetoric alone cannot bring about any change.

The initial deluge of expectations seems to be settling down in the case of the PTI. While Khan has made space for himself in the national political scene, we have not observed grand scale defections to his bandwagon. Many stranded politicians and ambitious newcomers had jumped into Khan’s party, as they believed it to be a Noah’s Ark in the troubled political waters of Pakistan. The subsequent internal wrangling and the change of heart by some famous names suggest that this ark does not have sufficient deck space to accommodate too many political animals. Whether those who joined the PTI will find the party a Noah’s Ark or discover it to be a doomed Titanic, only time will tell.

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 Domestic Violence bill – Daily Times, 14/04/12

OVER A COFFEE: The Domestic Violence bill —Dr Haider Shah

It is interesting to note that both Hindu and Muslim clerics showed uncanny solidarity in opposing the new law as they argued that their scriptures fully endorsed child marriages

Popular perceptions are generated when similar events happen on a regular basis. In the last few days, the media’s attention was grabbed by the relentless killings in Gilgit-Baltistan on the basis of religious beliefs and the Senate’s rejection of the Prevention of Domestic Violence bill that aimed at minimising domestic violence after members opposed the bill on religious grounds. What perceptions such events shape about our religion and Pakistan is not hard to imagine.
Social justice and equity can be defined as the removal of all obstacles in the progress of all sections of a society. The obstacles can be physical, social or legal. A progressive society is one that uses legal reforms to remove social obstacles and help the less privileged sections overcome their handicaps. Only a draconian society deems it appropriate to use laws and social taboos to further exacerbate the pre-existing handicaps of a deprived section of society. J S Mill once observed, “Among a rude people, the women are generally degraded, among a civilized people they are exalted.” Unfortunately, inheriting this rude social behaviour, we take it for granted that all vulnerable humans can be dealt with with violence. What Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) leaders said about the bill was not surprising; however, after listening to the comments made by Khwaja Saad Rafique of PML-N in a TV talk show, I was extremely disappointed.
No piece of legislation has ever revolutionised any society. Real change only happens when social norms change and reform is internalised by society. A new law, however, serves a more important purpose. It is a solemn declaration by the state that it is no more a party to any inhuman custom. The law declares the intent of the state that it is not happy with the status quo and would use all its resources to engineer the desired change. For instance, 15th-17th century Europe was gripped with hysteria about witchcraft as thousands of women were burnt at the stake or subjected to the ordeal of drowning in water to prove their innocence. In 1735, the Witchcraft Act formally abolished witch-hunts and associated trials but public persecution continued as it took some time before people realised that the offence was an imaginary one.
Saad Rafique spoke on behalf of those who have inherited the mindset of Indian sepoys of 19th century British India. A book detailing the apprehensions of Indian sepoys regarding some changes in laws in the early 19th century mentions that Hindu sepoys agitated the withdrawal of the right of refusing foreign service and feared that they would be polluted if they crossed the sea. They whispered to each other that the Lord Sahib (Viceroy) had given orders to all commanding officers to destroy the religion of the country as a law had been passed to allow Hindu widows to remarry. Similarly, in 1890 the government introduced a law to raise the age of consent from ten to twelve, after the death from haemorrhage of a very young Hindu bride when her husband consummated the marriage. The majority of the then Indian intelligentsia strongly criticised the new law as an intrusion into family life and interference with religion. It is interesting to note that both Hindu and Muslim clerics showed uncanny solidarity in opposing the new law as they argued that their scriptures fully endorsed child marriages.
There is no better alternative to a happy family living peacefully. Our religious sermonisers believe in seeing no evil and hearing no evil by shutting their eyes and waxing their ears. But utopias do not exist and all families do not experience ideal situations and the law has to take care of all possible adverse situations. The bill tries to address this wilful gap in our laws and envisages the mechanism of a conciliatory committee and protection team to ensure the welfare of the victims of domestic violence. If the conciliation efforts fail to bear fruit, it is the prime responsibility of the protection team to not only ensure the safety of the victim but prosecute the perpetrator of violence as well. The opponents are fidgety about including ‘verbal and psychological abuse’ in the definition of domestic violence. The offence has been clearly defined in the bill. Statutory law only provides the main skeleton while courts flesh it out with their interpretations. It is unfair to assume that while applying this provision of the law, courts would not be attentive to the cultural context. Laws are organic in nature and if after implementation any imperfections are observed in the proposed law, the legislature can always modify or reform the law. The opponents of the bill have used a very generic language rather than pinpointing which provision of the bill violated Islamic principles. They must be reminded that we need to benchmark our laws against the rest of the world and bring them at par with the needs of the modern world in which we live today.
If the PML-N is genuinely imbued with religious fervour, it has ample opportunity to exhibit it in Punjab by shutting down all banks as the holy scripture clearly provides that those who deal in an interest-based business are fighting a war against Allah and his Prophet (PBUH). If it is looking for a point-scoring game against the federal government, it should avoid playing it on such a sensitive issue. With Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and the golf playing Marvi Memon coming to the centre-stage of the party, one hoped that the party would be more sensitive to the feminist cause. But some dinosaurs in the party still seem to be calling the shots. Natural selection laws, however, do not favour those who fail to evolve.

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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With friends like these! Daily Times, 7/4/12

OVER A COFFEE: With friends like these! —Dr Haider Shah

We can sever our relations with one big country on account of national ego but it is tantamount to economic suicide to turn our back on the whole world

He did make a fair point when he said he was not a fugitive from a court of law nor was he hiding in a cave. Making a mockery of the bounty announced by the US, Hafiz Saeed looked very relaxed and complacent and sounded persuasive in his flashy press conference at a Rawalpindi hotel. Who will not be persuaded by the argument that due process of law is the constitutional right of all citizens of Pakistan. The healthy and thriving leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JUD)/Laskhar-e-Tayyaba (LET) is, however, in sharp contrast to the starved to death, skeletal missing persons who could barely stand on their feet when produced by the incarcerators after the judiciary remained relentless in having them produced. The lawyer of the detainers had claimed before the media that the missing persons were not innocent as they were a security threat and could not be punished through the normal course of justice. If the contrast was not so startling, perhaps I would have also raised my voice in support of the bulging Hafiz Sahib.

But Hafiz Sahib and company are not the only thrill-making actors on the stage of Pakistani media. While Hafiz Sahib’s followers are active on the ground, there is another category of e-Taliban who are brimming with a spirit of jihad in the virtual world and electronic media. The Robespierre of the Pakistani French Revolution, Zaid Hamid, has demanded of the Supreme Court to declare all sehooni (Christian), yahoodi (Jewish) and RAW’s paid journalists traitors and then summarily guillotined. Like many others, I must confess that I also take Zaid Sahib as comic relief during talk shows and will not miss any programme where he is one of the participants. If Marvi Sirmed is also there, it would be as good as the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks. What Zaid Sahib says does not alarm me at all but what is rather distressing is the fact that as of today there are 118,245 educated young people who ‘like’ his official page. It has taken more than two years for our Rationalist Society to have 1,600 members. These figures in their own right speak volumes about the mental health of our society.

Countries pass through various tribulations before they set themselves on a steady course of economic progress. Until yesterday, Vietnam was known because of Marxist guerrilla warfare and Hollywood movies. Today Vietnam is noted as a country that is making smooth and steady progress with sensible turbulence-free economic policies and prudent foreign relations. Sometime ago, I wrote a two-piece analysis of paradigm change as exemplified by Serbia. The flashpoint nation of yesteryear made a conscious disconnect with its racist extremist past and handed over its extremist heroes to the War Crimes Court so that it could gain membership of the European Union. In the recent past, Eastern European countries also made such paradigm shifts. Poland, the bastion of the Warsaw Pact, has emerged as one of the fastest growing capitalist economies with other former communist countries also following suit. Earlier Japan and Germany had also changed their outlook and became the biggest allies of the US, hence reemerging as the major economic powers of the post-WWII era.

Pakistan has been experiencing a bumpy ride on the economic rollercoaster. Despite our persistent ‘anti-Americanism’, our economic growth was robust in periods when we enjoyed warm relations with the US and experienced a shrinking economy when the relationship soured. In a unipolar world, strained relations with the US mean weakened ties with the international community as well. From France to the US, Indonesia to India and Russia to China, all big members of the international community are apprehensive of our cosy relations with extremist characters that are hardwired with the international jihadist movement. We can sever our relations with one big country on account of national ego but it is tantamount to economic suicide to turn our back on the whole world.

Having established discrimination-free trade relations (known as MFN in international trade parlance) with the rising economic giant India, Pakistan is making a determined effort to put the economy back on track. All aspiring economies like Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are trying to attract foreign direct investment and making themselves the most hospitable place for potential investors. Our extremism-ridden image does not help us at all in this neck-to-neck competition. We happen to be the sixth largest country in terms of population and one of the members of the nuclear club. Our size and geographic location entitle us to dream big for the future. Hafiz Sahib may be a very sincere man and all the supporters of Zaid Hamid may be very genuine patriots, but sincerity without sanity is often more dangerous than not.

When the whole world was heaving a sigh of relief over the successful operation of the US Seal team in Abbottabad, Hafiz Sahib was leading the funeral prayers of Osama bin Laden. When the whole world is advising Pakistan to normalise its relations with its neighbours India and Afghanistan and promote regional trade, Zaid Hamid is busy stoking the fires of hatred in young impressionable minds. Our sports loving Pakistanis want to see the end of the painful isolation of the country end and our peaceful inhabitants of Northern Areas want to see tourists flocking to their picturesque spots. We want neither our Switzerland in Malakand to become a hotbed of fanatics nor the valleys of Gilgit reddened with sectarian strife. Just as Serbia disowned their heroes of the bloodstained past, perhaps we also need to make a major disconnect with our gloomy past. In terms of our new march to long term growth by better integration with the international community, all icons of our deadly embrace of militant extremism are a liability. Whether it is the exit of Baitullah Mehsud or of Ilyas Kashmiri, we undoubtedly believe that the less the better.

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