Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: Voting in the UK elections, The Daily Times, May 16, 2015

The issue of extremism needed tougher policy initiatives, which one could expect more from a firm leader like David Cameron rather than a lacklustre Ed Miliband
On election day, when I collected my 14-year-old son from his secondary school he asked me about my choice of candidate. I asked for his preference as I had not yet gone to the polling station. He recommended voting for the Conservatives. I enquired about the reason for his opinion and he said, “Labour has wrecked the economy while Conservatives are more prudent.” Despite my left leaning past, I also had similar views about the handling of the economy by Labour and the Conservatives. The Labour government, starting with a surplus budget of £ 0.7 billion in 1998, ended up with £ 156.3 billion when it was ousted by the David Cameron-led coalition in 2010. The deficit has been brought under manageable control with spending cuts to £ 91 billion with a surplus target by 2018-2019. In desperate economic circumstances, difficult decisions have to be taken. To me, the Labour party lacked the capacity to make such decisions as it aims at making everyone happy with ever-increasing spending. Similarly, the issue of extremism also needed tougher policy initiatives, which one could expect more from a firm leader like David Cameron rather than a lacklustre Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who resigned after election defeat.
After dropping my son home, I drove to the railway station at 5 pm to collect my wife who had gone to London to attend a dentistry course. The polling time was till 10 pm so we both decided to drive straight to the polling station. The election office of the local authority sends a polling card to all registered voters, which informs them about the polling station where they can cast their votes. We had also received the letters but had misplaced them so were not sure about our polling station. As I had seen a polling station notice outside a nearby local community hall I drove straight there. There were a few cars parked outside and some men and women could be seen taking the polling card inside. We were greeted at the door by a lady who directed us to go inside the hall. In the centre of the hall there were two tables on which the election staff, comprising two men and two women, was seated. We told them that we did not have the polling card so they enquired about our address. We were told that we had come to the wrong polling station. One of the people from the polling staff happily helped us find the right polling station after consulting a list of address-wise polling stations.
The correct polling station was at a walking distance from our residence. When we reached there, the situation was not much different. In a very quiet environment, one presiding officer sat with a lady clerk. We were asked about our names and address. The presiding officer checked his voters’ list and, after finding our names, put a tick against them and asked the clerk to give us the ballot papers. The lady wrote down the serial numbers of our ballot papers on a list with a pencil and gave us three ballot papers of three different colours. We took the ballot papers to a nearby table where a notice advised us to put a cross against the name of the candidate that we wanted to vote for. When I opened the three ballot papers it transpired that the white one was for parliamentary elections while the other two were for local authority elections. I must confess that I had no idea I would be voting for local authority elections as well. I put a cross first for the parliamentary candidates’ ballot paper and then put crosses on the other two ballot papers as well. After marking the ballot papers I put them inside the ballot box that was lying in front of the presiding officer. The whole process took about five minutes and, interestingly, no one asked us for proof of identity of any kind.
While walking back home my wife told me that she had also voted for the Conservative candidate as she thought that a Conservative government would be better for hard working professionals. Election time ended at 10 pm and within minutes television channels declared Conservatives to be the winner with a clear majority. I could not help but think that just as Imran Khan had accused a private television network of rigging the elections, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, could have staged a dharna (sit-in) in London accusing Sky channel of rigging as it had declared the result even before a single constituency result had been officially compiled. The social media hype made many believe that Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) would lay the foundation of a naya (new) UK. In the end, his party only got one seat while he lost to a Conservative candidate. Nigel too could stage a dharna in London.


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OVER A COFFEE: Intelligentsia before the firing squad, The Daily Times,May 02, 2015

Perhaps murders of human rights activists also serve the far more important purpose of sending out a threatening message to the intelligentsia as a whole: you will be killed without a trace if you do not keep your mouth shut

Death is the only certainty in life and reminds us all that we all are just specks that go back to nature without fail. “I think therefore, I am” but when, in a country where the people that constitute its intelligentsia become a victim of systematic target killing, we might be nearing collective national suicide. Socrates knew who sentenced him to death. Bhagat Singh embraced death fully knowing who signed his death warrants. The Jews who were gassed during the Nazi regime knew who their killers were. Julius Fucik kissed death but he had no doubts about the identity of his killers. What is deplorable in Pakistan’s case is that while a large number of the brightest men and women of the country are being killed the identities of their killers remain largely unknown.

Such is the phenomenal growth of intolerance that everyone with a gun is ready to silence anyone who does not sound pleasant to one’s ears. The nuclear power status and Rs 700 billion expenditure on military were not enough to provide security to Sabeen who was promoting a culture of rational narrative on the issues confronting Pakistan. Soon after her murder certain sections of our media became active in promoting confusion by launching many conspiracy theories about her murder. The security establishment’s categorical denial about its alleged involvement cannot be outrightly dismissed. Their statement of dissociation would have carried greater weight, however, if the killers of Saleem Shahzad had been brought to justice. They would have sounded more plausible if the saga of Hamir Mir was not still fresh. I would have been more receptive to conspiracy theories if sometime back the young journalist Umer Cheema had not penned his story of kidnapping and torture. Perhaps murders of human rights activists also serve the far more important purpose of sending out a threatening message to the intelligentsia as a whole: you will be killed without a trace if you do not keep your mouth shut. Such ‘teach a lesson’ messages introduce a culture of self-censorship and force public figures to be economical with the truth.

While members of the intelligentsia are getting killed we hear of the Chinese economic corridor as a harbinger of infrastructure development. No doubt, economic development is closely linked with good quality infrastructure but the state seems to be less attentive to the need of intellectual infrastructure development. Almost all independent analysts and human rights groups are unanimous over the potential threat that certain sections of the proposed cyber-crime law pose to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Section 34 that appeared in the bill caused much alarm as it sought sweeping powers for the cyber policing authority to deal with the content appearing on the internet. Organisations like Human Rights Watch and Privacy International have condemned the bill for writing a blank cheque for abuse and overreach of blocking powers.

Today, at the time of writing of these lines, when I checked the bill that has been officially posted on the National Assembly website, its section 34 was about bailability of the offences and not about gagging the internet in the name of the glory of Islam. If the impugned section has been removed, as was suggested by me in my previous writing, I would say that some sanity has prevailed. Assuming it is still there I would like to respond to the official defence taken by the IT minister, Anusha Rehman, in a television talk show. Referring to the power of banning websites under Section 34 of the bill she relied upon Article 19 of the Constitution and contended that the said article authorised the draconian powers sought under Section 34.

No minister sahiba, you are over reading the exclusion clause of Article 19. Freedoms are protected by various laws in a country. In the UK there is no written constitution but still freedom of expression is protected by ordinary laws and conventions. Article 19 only excludes certain instances e.g. cases relating to religion or the security of Pakistan from the fundamental right protection guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it does not mean that ordinary laws and conventions cannot provide this protection. If the honourable minister is so keen on implementing constitutional provisions then more mandatory provisions of Article 62 should be first imposed on MNAs before trying to impose vague concepts like the “glory of Islam” upon ordinary writers and analysts. She should instead be protecting freedom of expression with ordinary laws to keep up with the evolving social consensus.

It is hoped that the present government’s commitment to physical infrastructure development will be replicated in the case of intellectual infrastructure development as well. It needs to dispel the widely held perception that the government has no strategic oversight of the secret agencies by bringing the killers of Sabeen to justice. It also needs to be more proactive in defending civil liberties and freedom of expression by ordinary laws rather than empowering government officials to become custodians of the internet.