Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: Incomplete paradigm shift, The Daily Times, November 29, 2014

The deep-rooted military establishment has shown its muscle by not only cutting the biggest media house to size but also unleashing political opponents like Imran Khan and his associates to keep Nawaz Sharif under constant pressure

Dr Haider Shah

November handed out a mix of happy and woeful developments in terms of regional peace and development. On the Afghanistan side we have witnessed some very positive breakthroughs in Pak-Afghan relations. The Nawaz Sharif government and the army establishment seem to have found a common cause in rebuilding relations with the new government in Afghanistan. Arguably, President Ashraf Ghani is the ideal person to carry out the challenging task of building a state structure in Afghanistan, a task that has eluded many reformers in the past. He is a respected academic in anthropology and statecraft and has an association with many world class renowned universities. He is a reformer with high ideals but not a daydreamer who lives in a fool’s paradise. His experience at the World Bank and finance ministry of war-torn Afghanistan will prove very helpful in rebuilding the country. Unlike the bipolar Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani is a cool headed and progressive leader who represents a broad based unity government in Afghanistan. In regional disputes, while the inertia of the past is the most potent determinant, the significance of personalities and their temperament can also not be underemphasised. Perhaps Ashraf Ghani is the right person for the right job at the right time.

Fortunately, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have finally realised that their economic development is dependent upon regional peace and mutual cooperation. A very high level exchange of visits has infused new life into their strategic relations. Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz, Army chief Raheel Sharif and the newly appointed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar met their counterparts in Afghanistan in the recent past and discussed issues of mutual interest. Afghanistan reciprocated these peace overtures with the goodwill visit of President Ashraf Ghani. The narrative of military level cooperation and increasing Pak-Afghan trade is nothing short of a paradigm shift. I, along with many other well wishers of Pakistan, have been advocating this for a long time.

If on the western border Pakistan has broken new ground, the developments on the eastern border leave much to be desired. The initial optimism for significant improvement in Pak-India relations after the swearing in of Modi has given way to a belligerent exchange of accusations on both sides. Artillery also keeps roaring frequently on the Line of Control (LoC) to frustrate any trust building moves. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads of state moot in Nepal was overshadowed by lack of warmth in the relations between the two nuclear South Asian states. The last minute handshake between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi and the inking of a regional electric grid agreement salvaged some pride for the South Asian regional forum for economic development and gives some reason for optimism to the doves on both sides.

Narendra Modi appears to be in full control of his office as a democratically elected chief executive of India. There is no doubt the input of his military advisers and public opinion play an important part in his policies but there is no perception that he is not calling all the shots. Temperamentally, Nawaz Sharif is not much different. He likes to think out of the box and make big strides. But the events of the recent past have put a big question mark on the ability of the Pakistani premier to act as an epoch making leader. The deep-rooted military establishment has shown its muscle by not only cutting the biggest media house to size but also unleashing political opponents like Imran Khan and his associates to keep Nawaz Sharif under constant pressure. In a recently published story in Foreign Policy magazine, Neha Ansari, a former staffer of a major news channel, reveals that the schemers have even enlisted a number of media houses to promote criticism of Nawaz Sharif. If Nawaz Sharif had enjoyed the same level of freedom as Modi enjoys as a chief executive, I might have seen his present jingoistic discourse towards India entirely differently. However, the national narrative is being carefully engineered by a coterie of retired military personnel turned defence analysts and has been forcibly put in Nawaz Sharif’s mouth: Mein khayal hoon kisi aur ka, mujhey sochta koee aur hai (I am someone else’s idea, someone else thinks on my behalf).

I have regularly been writing about instances of paradigm shifts in modern history. Nations are often faced with the difficult choice of making a disconnect with their past policies in order to survive in a new environment. Japan and Germany had to change their policies in the changed post-World War II environment. Russia, once the bastion of communism, is now an emerging capitalist power. Serbia has been historically known for jingoist policies towards non-Serbian people in the region. It traded a general, once a national hero, to secure the economic wellbeing of its nationals. We have been pursuing a jingoistic national security policy where we have used religious fanatics as an instrument of our foreign policy manoeuvres. This policy has failed to work and, instead, has backfired by exposing the population to the extremism of homegrown terrorists. Therefore, one can contend that, unlike the timid Serbians, we have shown no qualms in trading economic prosperity for the wishful geostrategic plans of a few generals.

The paradigm shift can only bear fruit if relations are redefined on both the western and eastern borders of Pakistan. There are greater chances of success if we do not weaken the office of our elected prime minister.


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OVER A COFFEE: We were all there, The Daily Times, November 15, 2014

When the state has itself declared in its laws that even in the 21st century its citizens can be arrested and given the death penalty if they do not subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, then in what way can we expect illiterate folk to desist from honour killing in the name of religion?

Dr Haider Shah

A handful of burnt bones were all that was left to establish the identity of a woman who was, until a while before, carrying a baby in her poverty-stung body. Her husband had vowed at the time of their wedding to “take her as his lawful wife to have and to hold, from that day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do them part.” And, remaining true to his vow, his body’s ashes also lay now beside hers. What happened at Kot Radha Kishan is a sad story of various shades of human emotions: love, hatred, vanity, frenzy, hope, fear, tragedy. We can see it all there.

I am not in a rush to issue a self-comforting statement of condemnation against the perpetrators and then resume enjoying the usual perks of my life. If Ghalib’s soul had been watching the media coverage of the incident he would have summed it up all in one verse: “Jala hei jism jahan dil bhi jal gaya hoga, khuredte ho jo ab raakh justujoo kia hey?” (with the body consigned to flames the heart too would have burnt, so for what are you raking the ashes now?).

In the past one month, many incidents involving loss of life have occurred in Pakistan. On sectarian grounds, the Shia community was again targeted and on Wagah border a suicide bomber killed a large number of innocent commoners. However, the lynching of a Christian couple by a violent mob in rural Punjab tops the list for many reasons. In sectarian violence or terrorism, the deadly fallout is the outcome of one crazy individual who, in the process, also blasts himself. However, in blasphemy-ignited communal violence, the whole of Pakistani society lends its hand in the commission of the gory offence. When the state has itself declared in its laws that even in the 21st century its citizens can be arrested and given the death penalty if they do not subscribe to a particular set of beliefs, then in what way can we expect illiterate rural folk to desist from honour killing in the name of religion?

Laws represent the social consensus of a society at a given period in time. Jesus was charged with blasphemy and given the death penalty when he failed to satisfy the alarmed clergy of the Jerusalem temple. Sir Thomas Moore was beheaded for not following the new Church of England. In 1656, James Naylor was tried for blasphemy and then sentenced to flogging, branding and the piercing of the tongue by a red-hot poker. However, societies gradually improve their social consensus and sensitivities towards the idea of ‘holiness’ also keep changing. The debate on blasphemy continued in the UK and social consensus kept gravitating towards the side of freedom of expression. Blasphemy was restricted to only contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to Christian figures as the law made a clear exclusion that “it is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language.” The common law offence was, however, formally abolished through the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

In UK society we saw a gradual evolution towards the repeal of the centuries old law of blasphemy. However, ironically, in Pakistan we find the opposite trend. Jinnah had assumed — arguably wishful thinking — that if Muslims lived in an independent state, the communal extremism trend that he had observed in the wake of the Ilm Uddin fiasco in the 1920s would vanish and all energies would be focused upon building a progressive and enabling state. In the Ilm Uddin case, Jinnah had pleaded for mercy on account of the accused’s young age and the fact that he was illiterate. The British Indian government then decided to insert section 295 A in the Indian Penal Code to discourage communal riots by making blasphemy against holy figures of any religious community an offence. Fully cognisant of communal tensions, Jinnah still was not happy with this new insertion and expressed his fears in the select committee that the new law might stifle the genuine questioning of certain faith-related idiocies. The government, however, was harder pressed with maintaining law and order, and passed the new law. After Pakistan came into being Jinnah made his intentions for a progressive country very clear with his first speech to the Constituent Assembly. However, instead of gravitating towards an open and secular Pakistan, we registered the gradual slide towards an intolerant theocratic society. Zia introduced new blasphemy insertions into the old law, thus subverting the constitutionally guaranteed right of equality of all faiths in criminal law. Since then, our legislators are unable to change the law nor can our judges declare the law unconstitutional.

When a judge awards the death penalty to an accused, not for murdering another human being but just because the accused uttered some words that the hearer or reader found offensive, or when a member of one sectarian group sprays bullets on a congregation of another sectarian community, or when a mob accuses a man and then lynches him to a gory death, we can find the same sense of dehumanisation running through all these cases. The blood of all those killed on the charge of blasphemy is on our sleeves as we remained silent all these years while the demon kept growing in all directions.


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OVER A COFFEE: Of courts and miscarriage of justice, The Daily Times, November 01, 2014

In Ziaul Haq’s era, insertions were made in chapter 15 of the penal code, categorising offences relating to religion. The non-discriminatory nature of the chapter was changed as the sensitivities of one religious community were valued much more than those of all other minorities

Dr Haider Shah

Recently, the issue of fresh elections came up before the Supreme Court (SC). Proving the pundits of doom wrong, the court trashed all petitions against the election results of 2013 and has hence shut the door for those who wanted to use the judiciary to engineer fresh elections. As the mightiest of Pakistan had a stake in this case, it attracted massive attention. There is another case that no one cares to talk much about as it does not concern any important player in the power game. It, however, threatens the life of an insignificant citizen of the country, a poor illiterate rural woman, Aasia Bibi. She is condemned to death as she was accused of blasphemy by a local maulvi after she picked a fight with bigoted women in her village over some petty water fetching issue. The Lahore High Court (LHC) recently confirmed her death penalty that had been awarded by the trial court on the basis of hearsay evidence. Her appeal now will be considered by the judges of the SC.

Miscarriage of justice is a major concern in societies where the rule of law is considered to be the foundation of their criminal justice system. Bias or fear in the minds of judges are the two main reasons that contribute towards miscarriage of justice. For instance, when the US was suffering from the slavery issue, racism was often cited by independent analysts as a cause behind biased judgements. Pakistan’s judiciary is tainted with judgments passed under the doctrine of necessity. After the restoration of Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Chaudhry, we saw that the superior judiciary began rewriting its role in the public affairs of the country with many bold judgments. However, bias does not enter the judicial system through a single door. Religious faith can undermine the impartiality of a judge and fear of militants can also have a devastating effect.

There are videos available on YouTube where lawyers can be seen garlanding the killer of Salmaan Taseer. Included among those was a lawyer who was later made a judge of the High Court. In a civilised country this would have been unthinkable. How can a person accused of blasphemy ever get justice if presented before judges with such credentials? Browsing the internet once I accidentally stumbled upon a video where Justice (retd) Wajihuddin was addressing a seminar and accusing a fellow judge of being an Ahmedi. If judges carry such strong religious biases, the chances of miscarriage of justice become stronger. It is hoped that the judges in the SC will prove their independence and fearlessness beyond any doubt in cases where the defendant is powerless and a child of lesser gods.

Cases go to the SC on points of law. The Aasia Bibi case raises many such questions and the lawyers must use this opportunity to establish that the blasphemy law in its present shape contravenes our constitution. The Constitution of Pakistan, in its Article 8, declares all laws and usages in Pakistan void if they violate the fundamental rights spelt out by Articles 9-28 of the Constitution. Sometime back I had written a detailed piece on this issue. I will summarise some of the points I had earlier raised in my analysis. Our constitution derives its inspiration from the internationally recognised notion of equality of all citizens before the law. Besides guaranteeing fundamental rights like fair trial, freedom of speech and due process of law, Articles 20-22 guarantee all religious minorities of Pakistan equal rights of professing religion, running religious institutions and no discrimination in taxation matters. The upshot of specific fundamental rights is in Article 25 where all citizens have been declared equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law. It is therefore not difficult to conclude that our fundamental rights are based on the principal notion of equality of all citizens and even a hint of discrimination in valuing the life, liberty and dignity of any citizen would make any law, custom or usage void as per our constitution.

After the partition of India in 1947, both India and Pakistan adopted the same criminal code as one of the primary pillars of their legal systems. The chapter on religion-related offences was in line with the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitutions of both countries. Sections 295-298 of the penal codes made no distinction on the basis of religious faith and applied equally to all religious communities. They, therefore, reflected the spirit of non-discrimination guaranteed by the constitutions of the two countries. When Bangladesh came into being it also adopted this penal code and retained the same non-discriminatory provisions about religion-related offences. In Ziaul Haq’s era, insertions were made in chapter 15 of the penal code, categorising offences relating to religion. The non-discriminatory nature of the chapter was changed as the sensitivities of one religious community were valued much more than those of all other minorities. The rational scheme of one to three years of imprisonment also got lost by introduction of harsh punishments like death and life imprisonment.

Aasia’s lawyers’ prayer should ask for a declaration that the blasphemy law in its current shape is discriminatory and hence unconstitutional. The law should revert to its original shape.