Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: Modi is in, where is Nawaz Sharif?, The Daily Times, 24 May, 2014

Modi is in, where is Nawaz Sharif?

There are enough provisions of criminal law that were ostensibly breached but one felt that, instead of the prime minister, someone else was acting as the big boss

If the pundits overestimated the electoral performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its ‘India Shining’ campaign in 2004, this time they underestimated the strength of “ab ki baar Modi Sarkar” campaign. The Indian electorate has reposed resounding confidence in Narender Modi as the leader of a new India. Like every new mega event, the emphatic victory of Modi ushers in a variety of enabling and disabling forces. Because of Modi’s association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), many fear that, in the garb of populist nationalism, India may actually be entering a new era of an Indian version of Nazism. If Modi was a tea-seller, Hitler served as a lance corporal during World War I. Both rose to prominence due to their fiery nationalist speeches after joining political parties. Like Modi, Hitler also promised the electorate a developed and grander Germany. Like Hitler, Modi has also galvanised support around his personal appeal. He is burdened with the negative perception of being an anti-Muslim communalist. For these parallels with Hitler, many analysts are fearful that his victory may prove a fatal blow to the secular credentials of the biggest democracy in the world.

Optimists on the other hand draw attention to the positive forces that Modi’s era might generate. They remind us that Obama was also very belligerent during his election campaign but once in power he has been pursuing a more pragmatic and pacifist foreign policy. Modi used nationalistic rhetoric to appeal to the right-wing masses of India but, as the prime minister of India, the statesman in him will be more prominent. He knows that not only a sceptical intelligentsia in India but concerned international analysts will also be watching his first moves and policy pronouncements with bated breath. Communal politics and a good corporate style election campaign could only bring him to the highest office. For playing a long innings he needs to do a lot more. For good perception management he has to dispel the impression of being a right-wing extremist. Can he be the Indian Nelson Mandela? We have to wait and see.

While India appears strong and united under Modi, we see a gradual disintegration of writ of the state in Pakistan. Over many years we have seen anarchy in the tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Karachi. However, ever since Hamid Mir was attacked, we are realising a bitter reality. After the transfer of power to a civilian government through elections we had presumed that democracy had finally matured in Pakistan and rule of law would define our national conduct in all spheres of life. What we have witnessed in the last couple of weeks makes this assumption a self-deceiving farce. In the past, individual journalists have been attacked and killed but this time conspirators were seen repeatedly stabbing the biggest channel of the country in broad daylight. Be it an investigative journalist like Saleeem Shahzad or an assertive media group, if the red line is crossed, no one is spared. Whether it is democracy or dictatorship, the rule remains exquisitely simple.

Who is the executive head of Pakistan? Not Nawaz Sharif as one feels Mubashir Luqman is the one who has been calling the shots. In the past, Lucman remained tirelessly busy in running programmes against the PML-N government ever since he started his electronic media career. I have no problem with that as not all journalists are objectively neutral and they tend to develop a soft corner for one and dislike for others. Even in the western media many journalists can be identified for their political leanings. So Lucman’s right to attack the government is not disputable. But when he proactively began promoting hatred between the army and government as a full blown campaign, I feel he started breaching the law. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the police should have geared into prompt action. The abuse of freedom of opinion touched new levels when he unleashed a blasphemy charge campaign by inciting hatred and violence, and thus putting thousands of working journalists in a life threatening situation. Again there are enough provisions of criminal law that were ostensibly breached but one felt that, instead of the prime minister, someone else was acting as the big boss.

Modi will be a strong prime minister for India. In Afghanistan, new leadership is also soon going to emerge. Both Modi and Sharif have reciprocated messages of goodwill but the friendly relations initiative is tender and brittle. Non-state actors can easily upset the apple cart. If the Pakistani security establishment wants to embarrass the prime minister again, all that is needed is to fire a shot at the Line of Control and the nationalist media will quickly toe the line. In the case of the private media group therefore, what is more at stake here is the victory of a hatemongering mindset. If, for running the ‘Aman ki Aasha’ campaign the media group can be accused of anti-state activities, how will this mindset approve of Modi and Nawaz Sharif creating history by burying the hatchet and redefining Pak-India relations in terms of regional development and cooperation? If Nawaz Sharif fails to reassert his authority he will find himself cornered when he negotiates peace with India. The government must show that it still reigns supreme and is the actual boss. Only a strong and independent media can ensure continuity of the democratic order.


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OVER A COFFEE: Terror and mischief, The Daily Times, May 17, 2014

Terror and mischief

Given the sensitivity of the issue, we should not only stay away from wilful commitment of blasphemy but, at the same time, should not fan any issue that is even remotely connected with such allegations

Farzana is not the first woman to be killed by her own family members. Worryingly enough, she is not going to be the last either. This violence is also not just restricted to a certain section or ethnic group. A few years ago, Samia Sarwar, belonging to a wealthy merchant family of Peshawar, was killed in similar fashion by a hired assassin who accompanied the mother of the hapless girl. Cultural norms and the clergy happily joined hands to ensure that the murderers walked out of the court scoffing at our legal system. No one killed Samia. No one burnt Fakhira. No one murdered Farzana. Ignorance is bliss. 

And now, look at the kind of discourse our media is most concerned about. A month ago, Mr Mubashir Luqman, a self-appointed guardian of the faith and ideology of Pakistan (if there is any such thing) tried to poison civil-military relations by claiming that the army chief did not salute the prime minister when he received the latter in Gwadar. The mischievous motive of Mr Luqman was evident from the fact that he did not deem it fit to show and comment upon footage from a week later of a visit by the army chief to the office of the PM where he could be seen saluting the PM like a professional soldier. Section 131 of Pakistan’s Penal Code deals with the offence of mutiny and provides that whoever “attempts to seduce any such officer, soldier, sailor, or airman from his allegiance of his duty, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine”. Mr Luqman is proactively encouraging mutiny among professional soldiers. The state however seems to be numb and helpless against this one-man demolition squad. 

A few days ago, a human rights activist, Advocate Rashid Rehman, was killed in his chambers. It is alleged that he had been receiving threats over appearing on behalf of a young man wrongly accused of blasphemy charges. In the recent past we have seen many unfortunate victims of blasphemy at the hands of the inflammable masses. Given the sensitivity of the issue, we should not only stay away from wilful commitment of blasphemy but, at the same time, should not fan any issue that is even remotely connected with such allegations. However, some television anchors and media personalities have found ‘blasphemy charges’ to be a useful weapon of offence against rival channels. This new trend not only amounts to hitting below the belt but is also extremely ominous for our future. The electronic media is supposed to educate the viewers and work for social harmony. When mainstream television channels become harbingers of hate and doom and fan religious extremism, we should genuinely be concerned about the future of the country as a whole. 
The South Asian region is undergoing a tremendous transformation. Two important elections in our neighbouring countries are going to redefine geostrategic forces. India is tipped to have a strong Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under its charismatic leader. The Afghanistan presidential elections are going to establish a new phase in the life of ever-troubled Afghanistan. It is not difficult to predict that India and Afghanistan are going to enjoy stronger relations in the future. Is Pakistan going to play the role of a spoiler or is it going to become a partner in the new push for regional trade and development? What we need at this juncture of time is a strong government, which can make important strategic decisions in the right direction. Our security institutions should have been seen as the muscles of the government and the intelligence agencies as its eyes and ears. It is a deplorable state of affairs that our energies are being spent in useless domestic pursuits. It is high time that the government is seen firmly governing and calling the shots. There are many laws which, if enforced, can silence some guns that are wasting our ammunition and glamourising mischief and schisms. The writ of the state needs to be established in Islamabad and Lahore before we march towards the tribal territories. 


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OVER A COFFEE: Mirroring the past, The Daily Times, May 10, 2014

Mirroring the past

Even when the evidence that the photos were a hoax became overwhelming, the then prime minister refused to comment on the issue and stated that it was a matter for the management of the newspaper to decide

In 2003, the British media was bursting at the seams with stories on the Iraq war. The Iraq invasion was not popular with the liberal media in the UK and many left leaning journalists became radical opponents of the war. One such passionate journalist was Piers Morgan who was then the editor of a tabloid called the Daily Mirror. While British soldiers were risking their lives in Iraq, the paper kept publishing scathingly critical stories relating to the war. The overzealous paper published shocking photos relating to British soldiers in Iraq, which were purportedly acquired for $ 40,000. Of many offensive photos, in one a British soldier was shown urinating on a hooded Iraqi prisoner. The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (QLR), which was sent to Iraq, condemned the publication of the photos complaining that the photos had endangered British troops.  Despite the fact that such pictures were used by al Qaeda strategists for recruitment purposes, the British army and intelligence agencies did not go berserk. The security establishment instead collected credible evidence and proved the pictures to be fake at a news conference.  The regiment’s brigadier, Geoff Sheldon, asked the newspaper to apologise for damaging the QLR’s reputation. Even when the evidence that the photos were a hoax became overwhelming, the then prime minister refused to comment on the issue and stated that it was a matter for the management of the newspaper to decide. On May 14 that year, the Mirror admitted its fault but, as the editor was still not ready to apologise, he was fired and an apology was published by the paper in which it admitted that it had been the victim of a “calculated and malicious hoax”. 

Despite the fact that showing respect to the US army is an important element of patriotic feeling in the US, newspapers often publish stories and photographs that expose malpractices of serving army personnel. Journalists, however, cannot always be on the spot. For instance, The Boston Globe, a subsidiary of The New York Times, published photos that had been provided by a Boston city councillor in a press conference. The pictures had been taken by Arab propagandists from a pornographic website and faked as US soldiers raping Iraqi women. A simple internet search would have established this fraud to the newspaper but arrogance and overconfidence did not let the paper do that. Finally, when the evidence became overriding, the editor had to admit that the photo was a fake and apologised for a “lapse in judgment”.  

When the scandalous fake photos were published, both the US and UK armies were actively engaged in a war and the pictures greatly enhanced the dangers to the lives of the soldiers on the warfront. No public campaign was launched and the armies continued to stay focused on their professional duties. However, in Pakistan, the scene is entirely different. After unleashing staged demonstrations by phony leaders belonging to fabricated organisations, now two heavyweight performers are being set free to galvanise public support in favour of our oversensitive security establishment. While Dr Tahirul Qadri can be excused as he has no stake in the present parliamentary system, one is less forgiving in the case of Imran Khan.

Mr Khan has been clamouring for four constituencies for long but accusing a television channel of election rigging sounds like a forced insertion in the script. If the leaders of the PPP had complained that the media and former chief justice were responsible for their poor election performance, one could appreciate their concern, but media in general and this television channel in particular had projected Mr Khan as the messiah. How so suddenly has this fact dawned upon the architect of ‘naya (new) Pakistan’ that a news channel was instrumental in his defeat and hence he is now boycotting it? Mr Khan must make a more persuasive case. Politics is the art of perception management. Already critics have accused him of being promoted by the agencies as, allegedly, they wanted a Trojan horse to make inroads inside the political landscape of Pakistan. By making wild accusations against the former chief justice and the media group, Mr Khan is not dispelling the impression about his role as a national leader. If he wants to be the prime minister he should focus on his government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After two or three years people are going to ask what mega projects he initiated there. By what percentage did tax revenue and literacy increase in the province? What contribution did he make as a parliamentarian in good law making? Just gimmicks are not going to help. “Mubarik ho, mubarik ho” (congratulations) was the call of the Canadian sermoniser from inside a container last time. What are the two leaders promising the nation this time? Let us wait and see. 


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OVER A COFFEE: Army chief and the historic speech, The Daily Times, May 03, 2014

Army chief and the historic speech

A clear statement of intent like this must have gone down very well with those cynics who accuse our military establishment of nurturing jihadi elements and claim that proxy wars are waged in our neighbourhood through such outfits

There were many pronouncements that would sound reassuring to those who want a clearer resolve on the anti-terrorism issue. The army chief was in sync with national opinion when he said, “We wish that all anti-state elements shun violence and join the national mainstream.” A clear statement of intent like this must have gone down very well with those cynics who accuse our military establishment of nurturing jihadi elements and claim that proxy wars are waged in our neighbourhood through such outfits. Speeches are an important part of perception management. If I were the speech writer I would have the General add this as well: “We have no business with the banned outfits and other jihadi elements, and I am greatly perturbed over reports that some questionable characters are staging rallies in support of the army and ISI. I have ordered a thorough inquiry to fix responsibility for such incidents as they tarnish our sincere efforts at projecting the army as a modern and progressive institution. We consider any association with radical groups detrimental to the army and Pakistan.” These lines would have been reassuring to all sceptics who, at the moment, see a widening gulf between words and deeds. 

The army chief also stated that, “The army will continue to play its role for national security, development and prosperity of the country.” This is an ambition that every Pakistani holds in high esteem. However, I feel the sequence is wrong in terms of result and determinants. ‘Development and prosperity’ are the ideals of the country and ‘national security’ is one of the determinants. Not the other way around. This is not just a matter of phraseology but more a case of institutional thinking, which suffers from the bounded rationality of viewing public policy as an extension of security policy. Many states with much bigger military might and security concerns have opted for ‘development and prosperity’ in modern times. Japan and Germany are prime examples if anyone is in doubt.
General Sharif very rightly reaffirmed his belief in democracy, supremacy of the constitution and rule of law in the country. He would have made greater impact if he had added: “Therefore we support the government’s case against Musharraf who had subverted the constitution. However, we hope that justice will be done after due process of law.” The army chief also stressed upon following Quaid-e-Azam’s golden principles of unity, faith and discipline. Perhaps the army chief might have used the occasion to remind his addressees of what the Quaid had advised the forces when he addressed the officers of the Staff College, Quetta on June 14, 1948: “I want you to remember and if you have time enough you should study the Government of India Act, as adapted for use in Pakistan, which is our present constitution, that the executive authority flows from the head of the government of Pakistan, who is the governor general and, therefore, any command or orders that may come to you cannot come without the sanction of the executive head. This is the legal position.”

One particularly welcoming statement in General Sharif’s speech was his appreciation for the role of civil society and the media when he said, “We believe in press freedom and responsible journalism, and appreciate their sacrifices.” Oil would have been poured over the troubled waters if he had further stated, “I am greatly perturbed over the perception of one of our most celebrated journalists that he was attacked by some members of the security agencies. Let me assure you all that we are not in the business of harming our own citizens. I have issued directives that investigations should be carried out to the satisfaction of our honourable journalist so that justice is not only done but should also be seen to be done. I take the news of the shutting down of the most popular channel in the country very seriously and have directed immediate resumption of services so that the perception that security agencies are responsible is dispelled. We only protect the freedoms of our people and any perception other than that is highly deplorable and a cause of concern for us all.” The army chief referred to the issue of Kashmir in his speech as well. He would have further strengthened the positively evolving thinking in the top ranks of the security establishment by adding: “It is the job of the government of Pakistan to resolve any issues with the neighbouring countries and we will always support our government in a peaceful resolution of all pending issues.”

Of late, political leaders have not missed any opportunity of public appearance to defuse the alarming situation with a conciliatory tone. The army chief also did some fire extinguishing with his speech but the water used proved insufficient given the spread and intensity of the flames. One hopes that we will see the historic speech very soon as the fire needs to be extinguished and not turned into an inferno.