Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: Political pandemonium: who are the winners and losers?, The Daily Times, August 30, 2014

We had wrongly assumed that after the disgraceful exit of Musharraf a democratic order had finally come to stay in Pakistan in which the prime minister would be the sole architect of public policy

Dr Haider Shah

In the last few days, the honourable Supreme Court (SC), led by the Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan,twice ordered the clearance of Constitution Avenue. These orders went unnoticed as far as the two leaders of the revolutions were concerned. And not a minute was wasted in hurrying to the office of the army chief after Imran Khan and TahirulQadriwere summoned through a messenger.As this painful melodrama is taking an inauspicious turn,I am not sure what will form the political landscape by Saturday. Instead of predicting the future, I would like to share my opinion on the events of the last two weeks and their fallout.

Like a flood, political movements, despite causing a short-term upheaval, can bring fertility if they remain within the constraints of the legal order. If the political movement engineered by Imran Khan and TahirulQadriis examined dispassionately, we can find a mix of positive and negative effects. First, let us examine the social impact of the political mobilisation. We have seen a large number of young girls in a lively and festive mood while becoming a part of this political activity. As we have long been under the spell of a Taliban-related discourse on the electronic media, scenes of middle class females becoming the public face of a political movement can be seen as a happy break from the norm. It seems that Pakistani society has not only become more receptive to the proactive role of females but has also become more gender neutral towards the right of people having fun in public. They are, however, sceptics contend, being used as a marketing banner only as their significance in decision-making is still minimal.

The political fallouts of this agitation are quite dangerous because a very risky precedent has been established. Imran Khan quite confidently mentioned the intervention of an umpirethat finally raised its finger, as predicted by Khan and Qadri.For all democrats, the events of the last two weeks are quite disconcerting. We had wrongly assumed that after the disgraceful exit of Musharraf a democratic order had finally come to stay in Pakistan in which the prime minister would be the sole architect of public policy. Ever since Hamid Mir was shot in Karachi we had, however, been gradually witnessing thebrittle nature of the democratic order in our country. Through a section of the media, the judiciary as an institution was systematically maligned and its primal role questioned. Imran Khan took this hype to a new climax by pointing fingers at the judiciary and slandering parliament.

While the terrorists, including Punjabi Taliban, appear to be on an extraordinary long leave, the capital was made hostage by the activists of Imran Khan and TahirulQadri. Islamabad flashed back memories of Malakand and Waziristan. Just as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) established their own security check posts there, the private militia of Qadri was seen checking the cars of even judges. In speeches, people were asked to rise in mutiny against the state. Some demands were more radical evenby the standardsset by the TTP leaders. Some media channels have been playing the role of ShahidullahShahid. Many anchors speak like the judges of martial law courts where they try and summarily execute all those they dislike. Speeches asking children as little as a few months to spill their blood were relayed live day and night with no respite. The last time, when the ISI chief was accused of a murder attack, we saw how the biggest channel was punished. Now the prime minister is being accused day and night but no one is bothered.

The economy is one of the major casualties. The stock market alone has registered a loss of Rs 350 billion. International investors are very risk averse to political uncertainties. The positive impact that some recent reports by credit rating agencies had made seems to have been erased by the negative sentiment created by unruly scenes in Islamabad.

Politically, who come out as the winners and losers?In my last piece, ‘Insanity, thy name is inqilabin Pakistan’ (Daily Times, Aug 16, 2014), I had already predicted that whatever the final outcome, the prime minister as the civilian head of the country would be weakened. Both international and domestic analysts believe that the new lease of life for the prime minster will be given in exchange for Musharraf’s release and, like Asif Ali Zardari, giving the army its traditional overseeing role in matters of foreign policy, especially India, Afghanistan and the US.

While I see TahirulQadri as a major winner, I find Imran Khan to be the loser after a very tiring show. His underdeveloped oratory skills have exposed all the rough edges of his personality. Movements gain momentum as the popularity of their charismatic leaders soars. However, we saw a downward slide as Imran Khan painfully pleaded for better attendance during his evening shows. The latest polls by Gallup and Pew also reflect the downward trend in his appeal as a leader. Some mainstream media anchors, who I have always identified as the greatest heroes of PTI supporters, have also turned into outright critics of Imran Khan. Nonsensical advice given to the public regarding civil disobedience and commission of criminal offences did not help in boosting Khan’s public image as a national leader. Interestingly,SirajulHaq,the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, emerged as a very respectable and eloquent political leader.As the melodrama is still unfolding, it is therefore a bit early to be definite as to who will have the last laugh.


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OVER A COFFEE: Insanity, thy name is inqilab in Pakistan, The Daily Times, August 16, 2014

Long marches create a political environment where the civilian government loses its strength and can no longer perform its constitutionally sanctioned assertive role in public policy making

Dr Haider Shah

I am writing these lines on August 14, our Independence Day. Like many other disgruntled patriots, every year on this day Faiz’s poem, with the opening line of “Ye daagh daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda sahar” (This blemished light, this night stung dawn), reverberates in my ears. This time it was a little different. For the first time in the chequered history of Pakistan the government changed hands through constitutional means. But, alas, some ‘revolutionaries’ decided to rob us of all optimism even this time. Senator Rubina Khalid very aptly said on a talk show that now, after Eid, even Independence Day has been made controversial and divisive by Pakistani ‘Che Guevaras’.

Who says that the present government is doing a perfect job? However, where in the world can one find a political government that, according to its opponents, is without any blemish? Ask a Republican supporter and you will be told that Obama is destroying the US while a Labour supporter in the UK will denounce the Conservative-led government as corrupt and inefficient. Condemning the performance of any government is the legitimate right of every opposition party. However, just as one dead bird contaminates the whole well, a single unconstitutional demand renders the whole discourse of genuine agitation poisonous.

Despite many well-intentioned criticisms made against the government, it would be unfair not to recognise that it has taken a few much needed initiatives in the right direction. I had long been complaining that an important “e”, i.e. extremism, is missing from Nawaz Sharif’s agenda that was centred on the energy and economy. Now with military action against the militants, we see a national consensus on the need for curbing militancy in the country. The actions taken by the government towards restoring regional peace with our neighbours are also appreciable. The mandate of provincial governments has also been respected as we have not seen the recurrence of ugly scenes of horse-trading to destabilise provincial governments. So, our optimism would have not been totally misplaced.

Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan, with revolutionaries like Sheikh Rashid and Mustafa Khar, acting like bulls in a china shop, turned August 14 into a day of anarchy and despondency. How much damage they have done to the country depends on the nature of their enterprise. If, as many analysts suspect, it is a franchised activity to pave the way for the deep state to stage a comeback with a vengeance, then it amounts to beheading the toddler of democracy. After the restoration of the judiciary as a result of a popular movement led by lawyers and the media, we hoped that the military establishment would adapt to the new realities and make room for a constitutionally run order in the country. However, it seems that some sections in the establishment have gone for a Trojan horse strategy. Not only have sectarian groups been groomed but some political parties have also been launched to serve as the political face of the establishment. The job of these groups is to keep the ruling civilian governments under pressure and, when needed, dislodge them altogether. At the extreme end of the damage is the removal of a democratically elected government or its prime minister.

If the fears of the analysts prove unjustified in the end, even then these marches have caused damage to the country in multiple ways. First, we come to civil-military relations. The power of a civilian government is essentially moral and depends on perceptions of its performance. On the other hand, the military establishment relies wholly on the power of the barrel of a gun. Long marches create a political environment where the civilian government loses its strength and can no longer perform its constitutionally sanctioned assertive role in public policy making. It is not a happy sight to see on the eve of the official ceremony of Independence Day the prime minister of the country flanked by two generals and their wives instead of his cabinet colleagues. Pakistan is not the only country in the world where its army is fighting a war. The bodies of the fallen heroes of the UK and US armies regularly come back to their countries but it is the defence secretary in both countries that speaks on behalf of the armed forces. As the civilian governments come under pressure, the power of the generals rises exponentially and the establishment consequently starts calling the shots.

Next is the economic damage done to the country. Billions have been spent by the organisers on advertisement campaigns in the media and upon planning and then executing the planned march. Security costs money. Millions have been spent by the state on the security of the marchers and their containment. Incredible damage has been done to the investment-friendly image of the country. Prior to the hullaballoo of the march, the stock market was in a bullish mood but suffered a crash as investors never like chaotic scenes.

And, finally, the unwarranted dissipation of the time and energies of our youth in fruitless and clueless pursuits is the biggest damage. If the march was for the protection of minorities’ rights, lifting of the YouTube ban or the end of the Hudood laws, perhaps I might have joined the march. But the marchers were after the Pakistani version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I hope that next year I write my column with no blotting of my optimism over the direction of the country.


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OVER A COFFEE: Learning from the story of zero, The Daily Times, August 02, 2014

The human race is lucky in the way that when one civilisation suffers from intellectual dementia, another human group somewhere in the world works tirelessly for the advancement of human knowledge

Dr Haider Shah

In small things we can discover endless wonders we are told by many sages. Just take the example of a water droplet. Urdu and Persian poets have used it as a metaphor for the transient nature of life. Ghalib urges us to see the whole in the constituents by discovering the River Dajla (Tigris) in a drop of water. Similarly, Iqbal asks us to see the vicissitudes of life in a droplet as it is soft when it appears as morning dew but, at other times, becomes as hard as a gem and sometimes turns into a tear. If we employ this way of dispassionate thinking we can easily discover the fact that every single object around us is the story of how various civilisations have collaborated to produce the modern world where the miracles of yesterday are taken for granted facts of life today.

Just look at the number zero. Like the world it is not only round but also contains an abridged history of human endeavour and collective wisdom. As a notation there are two distinct uses of zero. One is as an empty place indicator in our place-value number system. We see this use in the Babylonian civilisation of Mesopotamia as far back as 700 BC. The Greeks began showing interest in mathematics around 400 BC but they focused more on geometry and did not care much about the notations of numbers. Some Greek astronomers began using a circular symbol to indicate an empty place.

The second use of zero as a whole number lying exactly between +1 and -1 is traced back to ancient India. The rules regarding zero in addition, subtraction and multiplication, that we take for granted today, can be found in the work of Brahmagupta in the seventh century AD. This Indian work was transmitted to China in the east and the Muslim mathematicians who, in turn, transferred the knowledge to the west. Al-Khwarizmi, a renowned Muslim scientist, recognised indebtedness to the Indian work by calling it the Hindu art of reckoning. An Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, became the bridge between Indian, Arab and European mathematics by writing his voluminous book Liber Abaci. He had referred to the numerals as Hindu but later writers began using Hindu-Arabic numerals as the name zero itself comes from the Arabic word sifr. In Europe, however, adoption of zero was extremely slow as it began getting widespread acceptance only in the 17th century.

In the story of zero we therefore find that no single race or civilisation can claim exclusive monopoly over the corpus of knowledge we identify as the basis of the modern world today. Humans from various lands and cultures have collaborated to produce it. When a society is gripped with intolerance and discourages free opinions, long-term stagnation results. The human race is lucky in the way that when one civilisation suffers from intellectual dementia, another human group somewhere in the world works tirelessly for the advancement of human knowledge. New ideas challenging accepted solutions can only grow in societies where there is a culture of sharing opinions and listening to others. It took many centuries of hard campaigning before freedom of opinion was acknowledged as a basic norm of society and a necessary determinant of progress in the European countries. Long before, in the golden era of Muslim Spain, we observe that the period was very productive and splendid as Muslim rulers patronised art and science, and employed scholars from all faiths including Jews to establish a knowledge economy of those days. The golden period came to an end when puritans began attacking the liberal foundations of the state.

Men that create new knowledge need an extra allowance to share their scepticism over commonly held beliefs or holy ideas. For instance, the Persian Abu Bakr Razi is considered to be the main source of therapeutic medical knowledge until after the Renaissance and is sometimes called the greatest clinician of all times and father of paediatrics. His massive book on medicine compiles theories on diseases from various civilisations. He challenged the many medical beliefs of his time using his scientific approach. Such a spirited scholar of his times found well-entrenched religious beliefs open to question as well. He refused to accept any authority of religious writers and campaigned vigorously for a renaissance in the Muslim world. But, unlike European writers, he was not very successful in generating a rational and scientific movement in Muslim society.

From Ibn-e-Sina to Sir Syed, Muslim scholars in the past tried in vain to reverse the trend of fundamentalism in Muslim society. They did not succeed. Unfortunately, both electronic and social media today are further solidifying streaks of intolerance and blind faith among Muslims. We need to be humble when we assess our role in the development of human civilisation. While the Arabs and Persians played an important role when they patronised the arts and science, they were not the only ones who were the original contributors. As shown in the case of zero, we see different cultures coming together and benefiting from each other’s contribution. “You created Night. I (man) created Light.” When humans have faith in themselves they can change the world.