Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE : Dealing with extremist thugs — Dr Haider Shah

The carnage in Quetta is the deadly outcome of our glorification of violent extremism as an instrument of internal and external policies

As the election days are 
drawing closer, the national scene is getting murkier and bloodier. Without mincing any words, the ‘prophet of doom’ Mr Rehman Malik has issued a warning of more mayhem. Whether the sudden surge in violent attacks along sectarian lines is a string of unrelated incidents or part of well-planned conspiracy to derail the upcoming elections is anybody’s guess. The water tanker-led explosion is reverberating in the national discourse, rendering our social psyche extremely bruised. Last time the provincial government of Balochistan was sent packing in order to appease the grief-stricken and wailing relatives of the victims of a genocidal bomb attack on the Hazara community. I had then termed the move a Paracetamol tablet to soothe the pain on a very temporary basis. The demon of religious hatred has struck again with deadlier consequences. Now the leaders of the Hazara community have gone a step further, asking the army to take charge and provide them with security. It is a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The carnage in Quetta is the deadly outcome of our glorification of violent extremism as an instrument of internal and external policies. What we see today has not happened overnight. It is the result of our gradual drift towards religious extremism. When heroin is puffed on for the first time, it brings ecstatic delight. The long-term consequences, however, soon come home to roost. 

In the wake of unrest and uproar over rising extremist attacks, there are three worrying strands of thinking that need to be addressed. First, the conspiracy theory lovers are again ducking the real problem and are laying the blame at the doorstep of international conspirators. Second, some commentators are treating the Hazara problem as a mere security lapse and are therefore looking for easy, surface level remedial measures. Third, there appears to be a complete lack of will on the part of various organs of the state on the question of developing a strategic response to the existentialist threat posed by extremist outfits. Let us consider these interrelated concerns one by one.

The condemnation of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) by Imran Khan after it accepted responsibility for the latest attack on the Shia community in Quetta came to me as a pleasant surprise. One however wishes he finds time to read Saleem Shahzad’s book, which details how extremist groups have developed a well-knit network through al Qaeda strategists. Condemning LeJ while refusing to acknowledge the dangers that the Taliban-led network poses to our internal security can at best be expressed as the state of confusion that characterises certain sections of our political leadership. The pleasant surprise over the naming of the LeJ also proved short-lived, as the very next day the ‘messiah’ of Pakistan was again blaming international players for the Quetta situation without naming any of these players.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that foreign powers are remote-controlling the extremist incidents. Why is that they are so successful in making us slit each other’s throats while they themselves live in peace and harmony? Why cannot we do the same in their countries and egg them on to have sectarian wars among various Christian groups? Perhaps we are an easy prey because we already have accumulated heaps of the ammunition of hate and animosity all around us. While stocking our houses with inflammable powder, we keep meddling in the affairs of other countries and then expect no reprisals at the same time. In our case it is known to all that merely a matchstick is required to set an Ojhri camp-style violence in motion. Violence is like a demon that resides inside our brains. It gets nourished and grows in size and power when we hate fellow countrymen on the basis of personal faith. Very early on in Pakistan’s history we began a violent hate-ridden campaign against one community on the basis of faith and took great happiness in vilifying it through our constitution and then sanctioning physical attacks on them. Encouraged by that success and glamorisation of violence, now the demon is stronger and attacking another faith community. As we remain silent, the demon will continue growing in size and vigour and in the end devour us all.

For considering the remaining two points, I would recall how the government of the East India Company (EIC) in the early 19th century dealt with a troubling source of the law and order problem in the then Indian society. The source of trouble was traced to the wandering groups known as ‘Thugs’ who operated as gangs of professional assassins. Disguised as travellers, these Thugs would befriend other travellers and after gaining confidence would strangle their hapless victims by tossing a handkerchief or noose around their necks. Like their Taliban counterparts, these Thugs also performed the killings for religious devotion, in honour of the Hindu goddess Kali. They worked so discreetly that the British rulers only became aware when some of their own men started disappearing without a trace. In those times, when no modern facilities of intelligence were available, the EIC administrators launched a successful operation with the help of specific Anti-Thuggery and Dacoity Laws and strict enforcement. William Bentinck is credited with eradicating the menace of the Thugs by relentless effort.

If the government and its intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are determined, I do not see any reason why we cannot eradicate the thugs of 21st century Pakistan.


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Sociology of violence, Daily Times, 16/2/13

OVER A COFFEE : Sociology of violence — Dr Haider Shah

Is violence a legitimate arbiter of justice? Young and juvenile minds find answer to this question in various stages

With a remote control in hand, we often keep changing TV channels in quick succession. Moving through numerous Pakistani channels to Indian and European channels, we come across a flurry of images and news items of the day. One theme is very conspicuously noticeable. On Pakistani channels, you see almost all possible shades of violence. From domestic violence-led injuries to incessant target killings, and from genocidal murders of various sectarian communities to the mayhem caused by bomb blasts, there seems to be no dearth of blood and tears. This stands in stark contrast to what we see on the channels of other countries where we get entertained by display of festive celebrations amid music and dance. I have long been discussing the sociological sources of violence on our forum, and I was thus delighted to see one famous Pakistani pop singer raising similar questions in his recent programme on education. 

Is violence a legitimate arbiter of justice? Young and juvenile minds find answer to this question in various stages. The first impression of legitimacy of violence is cast when we teach them morality with the help of a concept of God who uses the threat of violence to force humans to worship him. The clerics enjoy propagating this central notion of religious dogma while underplaying the mercifulness attribute of God, as the concept of a revengeful deity serves their own purpose of social control much better. A lesson in legitimacy is again learnt when young children see their mothers and other vulnerable members of the family physically thrashed by the muscular men of the house. After seeing fathers using violence at home, they then see their ‘spiritual’ fathers at schools using violence as a necessary tool of pedagogy. As they reach adulthood, they find violence being used as a pervasive tool of getting desired results everywhere — from settling business disputes to extracting information from the accused in police stations.

We generally associate violence with physical attacks resulting in noticeable harm to the body of the victim. We need to expand our notion of violence by viewing its manifestation at three levels. In its most brutal and shocking form it causes severe harm to those who are attacked. We see this form of violence on account of various motivations. One major promoter of this violence is militant religious extremism, which has used suicide bomb attacks and daredevil well-planned ambushes to demoralise and dent the law enforcement apparatus of the state. Violence has also become more visible due to some gory attacks on sectarian grounds. The deadly attacks on Hazara Shia community in Balochistan demonstrated the ugly side of religious extremism. Religious dogma, however, is not the only cause of this form of violence. Ethnic tensions in Balochistan and Karachi have also stoked the fires of violence.

Second form of violence is shown by society in general towards its minorities or less privileged sections. In Nazi era, the German society as a whole was complicit in the commission of crimes against vulnerable groups as it turned a blind eye when such programmes were being officially implemented. Similarly, the ruling elite class of Europe actively promoted violence against black slaves when with shiploads of slaves it did brisk transatlantic business and benefitted from the abominable trade. In Pakistan, we have seen in certain incidents houses of Christians were burnt by enraged Muslim sections of population. Muslim clerics and scholars are often heard issuing death verdicts against members of the Ahmedi faith community. The internet is full of video lectures of clerics who declare the use of violence in matters of faith a religious duty. The impact of such hate literature upon impressionist minds of our youth is not hard to imagine.

Third form of violence is inflicted in a society through its social norms or formal laws. In the Marxist literature, the powerful class of a society is said to use social structure for justifying its exploitation of the ruled classes. This kind of violence continues over many generations because the victims are encouraged to extend voluntary compliance to the violence perpetrated by the powerful social groups. For instance, the American black slaves were taught that obeying the master was essential for being a good Christian. Similarly, women in Pakistan are taught that God has ordained them to accept their secondary position and never question their unequal position in matters of substantive rights like inheritance and crimes such as rape. Popes used their power of excommunication to punish non-conformists. Our clerics are also quick in issuing verdicts of apostasy against anyone that takes a rationalist view of the state of affairs.

The three forms of violence interbreed. By putting up with discriminatory laws and social norms of a bygone tribal era that place one social group in a disadvantageous position, we create an environment in which more visible forms of violence also grow exponentially. If we are keen on tackling the problem of ever-growing violence, we need to address the underlying determinants first. The first change must happen in the initial teaching of our infants and toddlers. Our religious teachings should not contain any traces of violence and instead should promote more mystical and humanitarian virtues. Then we must review our laws and bring them in conformity with the morality of the 21st century world today. We should also begin discouraging communal level atrocities against any smaller community. Without tackling violence emanating from these two sources, our chances of eradicating violence caused by militant extremists will remain slim.

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


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Who killed Kamran Faisal? , Daily Times, 9/2/13

OVER A COFFEE : Who killed Kamran Faisal? — Dr Haider Shah

If the forensic investigation proves that Kamran had in fact taken his own life then we, as a society, stand convicted of his murder

He was young and was associated 
with a newsworthy high profile case of the rental power project. The discovery of his body hanging by the ceiling fan of his room thus had all the essential elements of an Agatha Christie story. The honourable Supreme Court is hearing the case of his alleged suicide and is the competent forum to discuss the question ‘who killed Kamran Faisal’? The body of the deceased has recently been exhumed for forensic analysis to ascertain the cause of death. In these lines, I wish to use some of the medical reports made available to media to underscore an important issue that remains scantly discussed in the national discourse. According to some reports, the deceased had been taking medicines for psychiatric disorders related to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. While the pursuit of an imagined or real killer is underway, perhaps we can use this opportunity to give our attention to the problem of work related stress (WRS), an issue that despite its pervasiveness hardly gets noticed and discussed.

A well-designed, organised and adequately resourced work is a positive motivator for a worker but a poorly designed work environment can be a big de-motivator, and hence a generator of WRS. HSE, the UK watchdog on Health and Safety issues, reports that WRS can be a significant cause of illness and is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and exacerbates an individual’s propensity to make errors. Its research shows that WRS is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries, and hence, a population-wide approach is necessary to tackle the silent assailant that keeps stabbing employees in broad daylight.

Sometime ago, I carried out an empirical survey on stress levels of officials working in the Customs House Karachi. Not surprisingly, very high stress levels were reported along with physical manifestations like hypertension, anxiety and heart ailments. A high mortality rate at a relatively young age is also noticeable amongst them. Similarly, those who are posted in the head office of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) are often demoralised and stressed out officials who work under a late-sitting culture. The officers in the FBR remain in their offices until late evening on a regular basis. They are entrusted with assignments for which they never have had any training or acquired special expertise. Terms like ‘aqoobut khana’ (torture cell) and ‘pagal khana’ (mental asylum) are often used by the employees to describe the working environment of the building where important public policy decisions are made daily.

While in advanced countries, work-related stress is often attributed to the lack of harmony with the work environment or unfriendly relations with the bosses, in our case there are multiple sources of WRS. If a government official indulges in monetary bungling, the first stressor is the fear of getting caught. He is always apprehensive of being nabbed by the law-enforcement agencies and is forced to lead a double life so that attention to ‘living beyond means’ is not drawn. If he is a conscientious type and refrains from indulging in any malpractices, he finds himself exposed to the stresses of being a misfit in a hostile environment. While at work he is bullied, he is also not at peace even when at home. He is treated as an outcast as he is unable to keep up appearances in a society where the notion of individual space is still underdeveloped. The opposing forces of his own self-esteem and the demands of his wife and children keep crushing him incessantly.

Our organisations have embraced ‘management by results’ to grotesquely unimaginable extremes. No one cares about providing the right resources for a particular job or designing an adequate organisational structure. Suddenly, a decision is made and demands are raised for quick results. ‘We want recovery of arrears in two days’, ‘we want zero crime rate within one week’. When the operational staff members are recruited on a political basis, the clerk does not know simple typing or using a computer, the investigator has no knowledge of investigation techniques; the prosecutor does not know the ABC of the law, and it is down to the officer to produce results; if anxiety levels would not skyrocket what else would we expect? The gap between resourcefulness and expectations is often so wide that the situation of a government officer is best described by Mohsin Ahsan’s following verse: Ameer-e-sheher ne kaghaz ki kashtiyan de ker/Samandron ke safar per kiya rawaana humain! (After giving us paper boats, the sovereign made us go on a sea voyage).

Based on a longitudinal study of 10,000 British civil servants, a research study establishes a clear link between psychosocial risk factors and subsequent ill health. WRS is, therefore, considered an important issue and Management Standards have been developed for identifying the mechanisms by which workplace factors lead to stress. In the case of Pakistan, at the national level, we hardly harbour any ambitions such as ‘the first to land on Mars’, or ‘to become the fastest growing economy’. At a personal level, however, each individual is ambitious to overrun his neighbour. To be ambitious is not necessarily undesirable. Ambition has helped humans march from the cave life towards modern civilisation. However, just as an excess of food proves detrimental for our body, over-ambition also removes peace from our lives. Especially when success in life is measured only in monetary terms, it becomes extremely stressful to stay afloat.

If the forensic investigation proves that Kamran had in fact taken his own life then we, as a society, stand convicted of his murder. And we are serial killers. Now we are after our next young target.

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


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The missing E in PML-N’s manifesto , Daily Times, 2/2/13

OVER A COFFEE : The missing E in PML-N’s manifesto — Dr Haider Shah

In the midst of so many Es, one important E is conspicuous by its absence in these mnemonics. How will the next government deal with the menace of extremism?

On the website of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party manifesto dates back to 2007. Work on a new manifesto began in earnest in the first quarter of last year in view of the forthcoming elections. A manifesto committee under the chairmanship of Sartaj Aziz was entrusted with the task of finalising the policy document, which was widely expected to be released to media in December 2012. So far not much has been heard about the manifesto after the expected January launch was deferred. With only a few months remaining to general elections, any further delay will hardly be seen positively by the watchful segments of our electorate.

The main opposition party in a democracy is seen as a government in waiting. A week ago, Bruce Reidel, the strategy advisor to President Obama on Afghanistan, wrote a newspaper article in which he analysed the importance of 2013 for Pakistan and mildly suggested that Mian Nawaz Sharif might create history by returning to power. A somewhat similar opinion was expressed in a recently published analysis in The Economist weekly. Some more recent surveys are also in agreement with the perception that the PML-N might be a major stakeholder in the next government. In this backdrop, it is important to examine the political programme of the PML-N, as it aspires to head a coalition government and take the country out of the existing multi-dimensional mess.

A political manifesto is a blend of aspirations and major policy pronouncements of a political party. A manifesto that only contains generic aspirations with no clear public policy choices is more a work of fiction rather than a political programme. In a culture of personal point scoring and constituency based on ‘thana-katcheri’ (police station-court) politics, the need for a visionary but realistic and pragmatic manifesto has been less pressing upon mainstream political parties. Long on words and short on SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals, one hardly finds any clarity on policy choices in these manifestos. 

Last year in summer, the PML-N announced that its new manifesto would be based on ‘three Es’. Addressing a public meeting, Sharif elucidated the three Es as ‘Energy, Economy and Education’. The concept of ‘3Es’ is already a popular mnemonic in the public sector financial management for Value for Money based performance management model where the three Es stand for ‘Economy, Efficiency and Effectiveness’. Earlier, Benazir Bhutto had issued five Es programme (employment, education, energy, environment, equality). In the midst of so many Es, one important E is conspicuous by its absence in these mnemonics. How will the next government deal with the menace of extremism, which is taking a heavy toll on the economy? No doubt, recent surveys have shown that economic problems and energy crisis are the most important issues for a common man, but no programme of economic recovery can succeed if extremists roam freely in the country. Improvements in three Es will need megaprojects, which in turn will need massive investments. Extremism is therefore a bottleneck in the system, and without elevating this constraint, all other plans of economic development will only prove to be wishful aspirations. To be fair to the policy think-tank of the party the last manifesto had a dedicated section on extremism and terrorism. The old manifesto contains a five-point strategic plan that suggests strengthening the capacity of law enforcing agencies, influencing and educating sympathisers of terrorism, promoting rule of law, mainstreaming tribal areas with socio-economic and political reforms and working for peaceful resolution of some underlying motivational causes like Kashmir and Palestine. Resolving terrorism problem by addressing drivers of extremism is a sound approach but given the magnitude of the problem, a more comprehensive strategy based on multiple scenario planning is direly needed today.

For an investment-friendly Pakistan where tourism is booming, it is necessary that peace and tranquillity reign supreme. Using a scenario-planning approach, we can predict two possible situations when thinking about the future. First, negotiations are held with the representatives of various terrorist groups and agreement is reached on an end to the use of militant methods and all parties vow to work under the constitutional system of Pakistan. This is of course the best-case scenario and must be pursued as a first priority. Second, these groups either do not respond positively to the offer of negotiations or refuse to stop using militant activities or make unacceptable demands that amount to the subversion of the constitution. What will be the policy of the state in this scenario? When a state opens negotiations with a warring group, while it earnestly pursues the first scenario, it also remains fully attentive to the possibility of the second scenario. Without gunboats in the back, diplomacy alone hardly solves any dispute with a determined enemy.

An all-parties conference announced by the Awami National Party is a step in the right direction, which I had also been advocating in some of my past writings. If the PML-N is genuinely serious about its three Es, it must show its commitment to the cause of eradicating extremism and militancy by extending unequivocal support to the proposed conference. The participants should discuss all possible scenarios in the wake of the offer of negotiations to militant organisations and develop a strategic consensus over response of the state in the case of each scenario. The conference should work towards charting out an action plan so that the new government after the forthcoming elections is then able to implement a policy that enjoys support of all stakeholders. It is hoped that the new manifesto of all parties, including the PML-N, will not surprise analysts by not flagging up eradication of extremism as a necessary determinant of economic development of Pakistan.

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