Dr. Haider Shah

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


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Behaving badly on all fronts , Daily Times, 22/6/13

OVER A COFFEE : Behaving badly on all fronts — Dr Haider Shah

Certain behaviour patterns make our social norms iconic, which in turn define the state of affairs we are in today 

Problems do not go away by sleeping over them. Especially when the problem is deep rooted militant extremism. Political restraint on dealing with it head on has resulted in its spread all over the country. But behaving badly and imposing our will on others is not exclusive to militant terrorists alone. To varying degrees, most of us use our powers in a very distasteful manner. Certain behaviour patterns make our social norms iconic, which in turn define the state of affairs we are in today.

A few days ago a news story was aired by the electronic media according to which a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz MPA, Nighat Shiekh, travelling in an air-conditioned bus, felt so offended by a delay in getting a glass of water that she went berserk and physically assaulted one of the bus hostesses, Iqra Batool, for not taking good care of her royal majesty. Incidents like slapping a working class person in public by a displeased member of the ruling elite take us back to the times when society was neatly divided into masters and slaves. Waheeda Shah’s slap last year became an instant media hit and is still fresh in our memory. This kind of behaviour, therefore, must not be leniently viewed and the culprit must be duly reminded that we no longer live in old times. What the working class hapless girl making two ends meet for her family must have gone through after police arrested her instead of her tormentor, it is not too hard to imagine.

It is heartening to know that Mian Shahbaz Sharif took notice of the incident and as a result, the party membership of the concerned MPA has been suspended. But this is not merely a matter of party discipline. A citizen of Pakistan has been assaulted with the intention of humiliation in public. This is a criminal offence and a case should be registered against the suspended MPA under assault related provisions such as Sections 350, 351 and 355 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Past experience tells us that often in these media focused cases, action is taken to defuse the situation and when the case loses its headline value, the powerful become active to deal with the situation in their own way. It is important to ensure that Ms Batool remains safe and secure in her present job and no behind-the-scenes detrimental action is taken against her through her employers. It is the job of our media not to sleep over this story and ensure that those who stand up for their just cause should not suffer in any way in the long run. When the have-nots feel insulted and humiliated and the powerful rule with impunity, a social vacuum is created, which is then exploited by extremists of all sorts to legitimise their militant movement.

The Supreme Court has, appreciably, exercised its suo motu powers in some human rights violation cases such as the Shahzeb Khan murder case, and the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl whose body was found in Islamabad a few months ago. If the suo motu power of the higher judiciary needs to be exercised, it should be solely for these kinds of human rights related stories. However, the power has increasingly been exercised in matters that fall in the domain of executive authority. For instance, soon after the budgetary measures announcement by the new government, the registrar of the SC wrote a note about imposition of new taxes to the Chief Justice, and consequently, a suo motu notice was taken by the Supreme Court. Here I am not discussing the merits of the case, as it is for the honourable judiciary to decide on that. I am more concerned at the growing tendency of the judiciary to play to the gallery and keep prowling for any newsworthy item to take the credit for being very people-friendly. In executive matters, direct interference by the judiciary is not a healthy sign. The new government has just got the mandate of the electorate and should be allowed to exercise its authority without the long shadows of any other institution. The courts have the power of judicial review of any administrative decision. If a taxpayer had moved the court against the tax imposition then it could have looked into the vires of the executive decision. But this trend of the Supreme Court registrar becoming a complainant in suo motu cases must be discouraged as it does not augur well for institutional development based on the separation of powers doctrine. Besides restraining the temptation of direct interference in executive decision making, the judiciary also needs to check its growing interest in assuming a ‘defender of the faith’ role. Societies evolve and faith-related positions undergo transformations through discussions and other socio-economic changes that happen over a period of time. The judiciary should play the role of defending the rights of freedom of expression and equal protection of law rather than issuing orders that have the effect of imposing censorship and institutionalising discrimination in society.

In my previous writings I have been mentioning energy, the economy, Balochistan and extremism as four open wounds that require intensive care as a priority by the government. While the first three appear to be earnestly discussed, unfortunately, the issue of extremism has so far failed to gain urgency in the discourse of the architects of ‘Roshan’ (bright), as well as Naya (new) Pakistan. By burying its head in the sand, neither an ostrich deals successfully with a predator or an impending storm and nor do our policymakers make things better by leaving the source of the problem untreated for long.

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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OVER A COFFEE : Budget 2013: saving a house on fire — Daily Times, 15 June 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Budget 2013: saving a house on fire — Dr Haider Shah

The budget this year was precooked for the new government. We can, therefore, take a lenient view of the fact that it did not have revolutionary paradigm shift messages

When a plan is quantified it is known as a budget. The federal budget is out now and a careful reading of the budgetary documents can reveal what the real priorities of the new government are. If some categorisation is done, I can identify four main signals emerging out of the budget. One, it has targeted the energy issue by retiring circular debt, which is one of the causes of load shedding. Second, it has not attempted major taxation overhaul. When economic revival is important, squeezing the hen that lays golden eggs in order to get all the eggs in one go is a dangerous policy prescription. However, a gradual and steady increase in the tax-to-GDP ratio is also important as a medium- to long-term policy target. Third, many symbolic steps have been taken to generate the right kind of messages. For instance, discretionary and secret funds have been abolished and austerity measures introduced. Fourth, faced with a credit crunch situation, the government seems unable to implement its election pledges that require heavy investments and has, therefore, resorted to only a few symbolic steps like ‘Qarz-e-Hasna’ and laptop schemes. In short, the budget seems to be a desperate attempt at saving the existing abode from a fire rather than building a new palatial house.

Certain personalities in the media come up with strange stories. One particular story that has been churned out incessantly over the last few years is about the cost of the war on terror. A figure, depending on the wild imagination of certain babus (officials) in ministries, ranging from $ 80 to 125 billion is quoted to quantify the cost of the war of terror to Pakistan. This reminds me of a personal experience of how these figures are generated. In the heyday of General Pervez Musharraf’s ‘revolution’, a very pious chief secretary held a meeting about eradication of smuggled goods markets outside Peshawar. I was also present in the meeting and felt amused at the sweeping generalisations of a bureaucrat who had spent most of his time teaching Holy Scriptures in a government training institute. I was entrusted with the task of reporting the total worth of smuggled goods in all Bara markets of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I, in turn, handed over the task to a few customs inspectors. Using their poetic imagination they came up with some figures, which were all added up and the final figure was communicated to the pious chief secretary. I could not help smiling when in the evening PTV news I heard the newscaster referring to the same figure that he claimed to have worked out after robust research conducted by the government.

How the anti-smuggling operation was later conducted is a separate story that I might share over a coffee some other time. But this anecdotal story should help us understand how this imaginary figure of the cost of the war on terror must have been worked out. Apart from the authenticity of these figures there is one more problem that plagues the whole conversation about this topic. When a media personality quotes the imaginary figure of the cost of the war on terror, there is an underlying assumption that we enjoy full liberty to make any choice about our involvement in the war on terror. The assumption is that we could have easily turned our eyes away and as a result we would have saved $ 125 billion. The anchors and naïve commentators need to learn about the concept of ‘opportunity cost’ as nothing comes for free in this world. In 2001 Pakistan was faced with two choices. Either join the international community in a war that had been sanctioned by the UN or say no to offering any support. If instead of cooperating with the international community Pakistan had said no, there would have been far deadlier consequences. As Pakistan’s territory was used by the insurgents to stage attacks on UN-mandated forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan would have been declared a pariah state and the NATO planes and drones would have attacked the country. Apart from physical destruction, Pakistan would have seen its economy collapsing completely due to international sanctions imposed by the major economies of the world. Eighty-five percent of our exports are made to the US, EU and Gulf countries. Our economy cannot, therefore, afford a serious jolt from these countries. Apart from these purely financial losses, the social losses would have been even more pronounced. Power would have passed on to militant groups as we faced the NATO forces head on. The price of not cooperating with the NATO forces would have been, in short, much higher than the cost of becoming a part of the international community.

The budget this year was precooked for the new government. We can, therefore, take a lenient view of the fact that it did not have revolutionary paradigm shift messages. There is a pressing need to rationalise our defence spending, which has remained about 25 percent of total expenditure. This in turn is only possible if we live in peace with our neighbours and hence minimise threat perceptions from imagined enemies. Education and health can only get significantly higher shares if we make worthwhile savings in military spending. There is a historic opportunity to realise the dream of a paradigm shift. Nawaz Sharif, enjoying the trust of the Pakistani electorate and of the governments of neighbouring countries, is best positioned to play this historic role.

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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OVER A COFFEE : Roshan Pakistan: the good, the bad, the ugly , The Daily Times, 8/6/13

OVER A COFFEE : Roshan Pakistan: the good, the bad, the ugly — Dr Haider Shah

Perhaps now we can hope with some degree of conviction that Pakistan 
can enjoy uninterrupted democratic order and stability 

The roads from Islamabad now lead us to ‘Roshan’ (Bright) Pakistan while from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa we are destined for ‘Naya’ (New) Pakistan. Personally, I cannot complain much against the new government as whatever I had been repeatedly pleading for in my earlier pieces has appeared prominently in the declared priorities of the government. Energy, Balochistan, the economy and extremism were identified as open wounds that need immediate and sustained attention of the new administration. Balochistan is bleeding due to militancy with three separate components of Baloch nationalism, sectarianism and Taliban activity. The gesture of allowing Baloch and Pashtun nationalists to run the government with the support of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is a positive one and has been applauded by friends and foes alike. Old wounds take time to heal but despondency has certainly given way to new born optimism. To what extent the new government in Islamabad and Quetta will be able to call the shots and enforce their will upon the law enforcement agencies operating in Balochistan is yet to be seen.

The sight of a civilian leader entering the National Assembly triumphantly to take oath as the new prime minister while the dictator that had arrogantly deposed him is holed up in a nearby farm house is itself enthralling for any democrat. A few years ago, the deposed Chief justice was brought back to his office. Now a deposed prime minister has returned. People’s power has done it again. Ascendency of democracy and rule of law seems complete. Perhaps now we can hope with some degree of conviction that Pakistan can enjoy uninterrupted democratic order and stability. 

The good omens in the new political order have received the attention of almost all opinion makers. But some worrying aspects should not be completely ignored. For instance, just look at all main positions of power in the new set up. Prime Minister, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, governors of four provinces, key cabinet posts, expected nominee for the post of president, chief ministers. It is a government of men, by men and for men. The prominence that Maryam Nawaz and Marvi Memon received in the last few months through to the elections not only added some youthful colour to the party but also raised hopes that in the Roshan Pakistan women would be seen playing an important role as representatives of half of the population. If they can hoist the Pakistani flag over Mount Everest, why can’t they occupy important slots in any government? 

Though the prime minister’s speech was a sensible one, he came close to droning his economic revival agenda by flagging up drone attacks as a sovereignty issue without mentioning the need for reclaiming the ungoverned areas of Pakistan from the militants. By losing his pragmatic balance, Mr Sharif seemed to be slipping into the hands of parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). One sincerely wished that the prime minister had also given some indication about his plans to deal with the issue of militant extremism. He could have declared that all extremists would be given one or two months time to make up their minds for negotiations. In case negotiations failed to establish peace within the constraints of the constitution, militancy of all types would be eradicated from Karachi to Khyber. Mr Sharif could have shared this resolve. No doubt, the energy crisis merits the most immediate attention but there is no harm in arriving at a nationally agreed action plan on terrorism within a month’s time as a matter of pressing urgency.

Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP’s) Makhdoom Amin Fahim’s speech after Mr Sharif’s election as prime minster was tasteless as he tried to make an innuendo about the agencies’ role in helping the former return to power. Of late the PPP leaders have assumed an even more jingoistic role than parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami in condemning foreign powers and harping on national mythology around Thar coal, the Iran gas pipeline and Gwadar port. It had left Balochistan uncontested in the hands of the military establishment and seemed a willing follower in foreign policy matters. Why would then the agencies prefer a leader that proved hard to be controlled in the past? PPP will do itself no service if it fails to learn from the horrible five years of bad governance. A spree of visits of the chief minister of Sindh, Qaim Ali Shah, to police stations suggests that public statements notwithstanding, there is a genuine sense of emergency in the rank and file of the PPP. The party that once took pride in declaring itself ‘charon subon ki zanjeer’ (the chain that binds all four provinces) has shrunk to regional level in the 2013 election. The party has realised that if the PPP government fails to perform this time, the party risks losing ground in its stronghold of Sindh as well.

The PTI seems to have made a bumpy start. On women’s reserved seats, three out of four nominees happened to be close relatives of Chief Minster Pervez Khattak. This story was making the rounds in the social networking sites when Fauzia Kasuri provided further embarrassment to the party leadership. For a party that was marketed as a platform for justice and fair treatment, such episodes may have far reaching consequences. The murder of its MPA and bomb blasts have further put the party in the spotlight as it was the most vocal party supporting negotiations with the Taliban. 

At the moment, for the PML-N the good overshadows the bad and the ugly. But in less than six months we would be in a better position to judge which political party has strengthened its position and which one has lost the momentum.

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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OVER A COFFEE : Drones of different types — Daily Times, 1/6/13

The constitution is also like a confused Hamlet, trying to please the clerics as well as advocates of human rights and democratic ideals 

The new governments in Islamabad and Peshawar have not yet fully set their feet in the saddles and both have received warning shots from all around. The bomb blasts in mosques of Peshawar and Swat are a rude reminder to the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) that lofty wishes are not horses. Polio vaccination workers have been killed, with a stark realisation that the exit of a perceived enemy of extremism from the political scene of KP has not made any sobering effect upon preachers and promoters of hate and violence.

The debate on drone attacks also started casting its shadows on the new governments. While the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has historically preferred strategic silence over the issue, the PTI leadership remained vocal about downing drones. The drone attack that allegedly killed Tehreek-e-Taliban’s number two, Wali ur Rehman, brought a clear message to the new political masters that the recent Barack Obama speech on drone policy notwithstanding, drones were still in business as far as the safe havens of Pakistan were concerned. Arguably this puts the new Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif in a very awkward situation. He has expressed his eagerness to take up energy crisis as the top priority for his administration. But without availability of huge funds this would remain mere wishful thinking. Not only new projects for power generation need huge foreign investments but even maintaining the existing infrastructure is in a dire need of a significant cash injunction to plug the gaping hole of circular debt that keeps piling up and might reach one trillion rupees by 2014. As Mr Sharif wants to address the energy problem on a war footing the drone attack at this juncture might prove ominous for his new government. From the Jamaat-e-Islami to the PTI, almost all opposition parties would attack the PML-N government if more drone attacks happen.

Of late, the biggest drone attack, however, came from the clerical establishment. Heading a constitutional body, the Council of Islamic Ideology, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, recommended to the legislature that DNA tests cannot become primary evidence in rape cases. The learned maulana sahib declared that only four witnesses can be the primary evidence as laid down in the Quran. It is interesting to see that when women rights are involved our religious establishment is only interested in the literal interpretation of the scripture without considering context of the verses. Where monetary matters are involved the clerics, however, resort to all kinds of ifs and buts to accommodate their mundane needs. For instance, in the case of riba (interest) there are clear admonitions to the extent of calling interest taker and giver an enemy of Allah and his Prophet (PBUH). We have not seen any extremist bombing banks and related monetary institutions though. In the Quran there is no mention of TV, mobile phone or motor vehicles but our maulvis have no hesitation in embracing these gifts of modern civilisation. But they are not ready to allow the consequential advancements made in the realm of human rights and jurisprudence benefit the disadvantaged sections of our society. Historically, all societies have suffered from racism, gender discrimination and class divisions. At times, religions have tried to introduce reforms but they have also institutionalised many injustices as well. Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and all faith systems can be charged of male chauvinism towards females. But by separating legislation from religious scriptures all modern human societies have minimised pernicious effects of old times when man did not know that the earth was round and collective knowledge about human body was less than that of a normal primary school student today. 

In Pakistan the situation is entirely different. As intoxicating emotionalism keeps us agitated round the clock, we are unable to separate law-making from our religious faith. The constitution is also like a confused Hamlet, trying to please the clerics as well as advocates of human rights and democratic ideals. Islamic Ideological council is a spanner in the works of modern democratic country. Sovereignty cannot be shared or divided. Even if the preamble of the constitution declares that sovereignty belongs to Allah, it is parliament alone that executes that sovereignty. In this 21st century we do not need any cleric telling us how a crime be investigated and culprits brought to book.

The religious lobby ignores three key facts when it discusses the rape issue. First, law is an organic institution. As societies evolve the notions of rights and responsibilities also change and, consequently, laws also undergo changes. As it is known, 100 years ago women could not vote in the UK. Today it is unimaginable to stop any woman from exercising this right in any democratic country. Second, the four witnesses’ requirement in the Quranic verse 24: 2-5 was in relation to the adultery accusation levelled against Hazrat Ayesha and aimed at providing legal protection to women who were customarily charged of adultery in the then Arab society. Third, our clerics do not take cognizance of the fact that the notion of rape as a crime was not developed in the then Arab society. Unlike Greek mythology or Roman law, we do not find rape mentioned as a crime in the Quran even though adultery is mentioned many times. Clerics, therefore, make a great mistake when they apply adultery provisions to cases of ‘rape’, a notion that like smart phones and a four-wheel vehicle is an invention of modern times.

If clerics find it hard to understand this, why should we give them any importance in our scheme of things? If the government genuinely wants to bring down one, the drone fired by the maulvis establishment should be the clear choice.

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