Dr. Haider Shah

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

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After ‘Gangnam style’ revolution ends! , Daily Times, 19/1/2013

OVER A COFFEE : After ‘Gangnam style’ revolution ends! — Dr Haider Shah

Now as the marchers have decamped and the dust has settled, we can heave some sigh of relief that the infant democracy has finally learnt how to stand on its own feet

Addressing the ‘inqilab’ (revolution) chanting crowd upon reaching Islamabad, Dr Tahirul Qadri sounded like Maximilien Robespierre of the French Revolution. It seemed that soon after the fall of the Bastille (Islamabad), ‘guillotines’ would be erected in the streets of all major cities of Pakistan, as the leader of the revolution announced the dissolution of the Assemblies. Gradually, the dharna (sit-in) turned into a camping site of holidaying families and, by the third day one could easily feel Dr Qadri pleading desperately, ‘I am a celebrity, get me out of here.’

Just as Altaf Hussain’s ‘drone’ proved to be a damp squib, Dr Qadri’s march fizzled out without achieving anything. Social media sites, including our rationalist society group, began making fun of the accord reached inside a dabba (box), so phrases like ‘dabba revolution’ and many cartoons pooh-poohed the revolutionary leader. The three days might not have shaken the world but it would also be unfair not to appreciate some positive outcomes that intentionally or unintentionally were achieved by a very unique experiment carried out by a very controversial personality of our public life. The peaceful manner in which the protest took place is a pleasant break from our past experiences. Never before did we see a crowd of this size behaving in so orderly and decent a manner. Even if religious devotion is cited as the organising force, the crowd at no moment looked outlandishly parochial. They were mostly lower middle class families and did not behave or sound like the activists of sectarian outfits or the Taliban. They seemed to be enjoying themselves while facing bravely the hardships thrown at them by the inclement weather. The active participation of women in the protest should inspire those women who always moan about gender discrimination but never leave the comfort of their living rooms to organise a suffragist movement. Towards the end, in an ironic twist, I began to like Dr Qadri. With the massive weight of Canadian nationality tied around his neck, and despite a hostile media after him constantly, he remained steadfast and singlehandedly held the whole country to ransom for so many days. Not everyone can do this.

At no moment was anyone under any illusion that Dr Qadri could pose any serious challenge to the government. On his own, Dr Qadri was more of comic relief. He, however, generated concerns and fears on two accounts. Our political history created a perception that he might be acting as a Trojan horse and would soon be followed by the real demolition squad. Both Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan kept lurking in the background as if getting ready to begin phase two of the plan. When the arrest order of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was splashed as breaking news by the national media, my first thought was, “Et tu, Chief Justice!” The second concern was on account of the prevailing security situation of the country. A gathering of thousands in the capital is a very attractive target for any terrorist, as it would provide maximum publicity and cause serious damage to the writ of the state. Thankfully, neither fear turned into a reality in the end. Now as the marchers have decamped and the dust has settled, we can heave some sigh of relief that the infant democracy has finally learnt how to stand on its own feet and not become a bespoke suit that is regularly altered to fit the music director.

Despite the media hype created by the march and the dharna, the activity was insignificant in terms of its stated objectives. The year 2013 is very different from the earlier shameful periods of the history of Pakistan. In almost all military takeovers in the past, two favourable conditions were in operation. First, Punjab would generally remain pro-establishment and take no time in embracing the coup. Second, the opposition leaders would become willing collaborators. This time the situation is entirely different. Not only is Punjab not pro-establishment, the opposition leaders are even more united in their condemnation of any unconstitutional move. All provincial governments also remain pro-democracy and, barring a few shady personalities, the media has thrown its weight behind the democratic forces as well. In this environment, the courts will also find it extremely difficult to legitimise any extra-constitutional move by any adventurist. It, therefore, is heartening to see that Pakistan, despite all its problems, is developing democratic institutions. The stronger these institutions become, the more difficult it would be for any adventurist to derail the system.

The demands made by Dr Qadri already enjoyed national consensus. However, it was generally perceived that he wanted some unelected people to use disqualification powers under Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution as a Damocles’ sword to ensure ‘controlled democracy’ in Pakistan. It is worth noting that ‘qualifications’ and ‘disqualifications’ are essentially of two types. The first are verifiable, for example, age, nationality, and bank default as through documentary evidence these can be ascertained by any impartial forum such as the Election Commission or the courts. But the subjective ones, like ‘sagacious’, ‘patriotic’, ‘righteous’, ‘good Muslim’, etc, are non-verifiable and therefore it is better we let the collective wisdom of the electorate decide on these.

When the ‘Gangnam style’ revolution reached its conclusion and the negotiators were exchanging pleasantries, two demons were again raising their heads. In Karachi, an MQM member of parliament was gunned down by the Lashker-e-Jhangvi/Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan target killers. And a Supreme Court bench issued an order for the registration of a blasphemy case against Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman for opposing the blasphemy law. When a police commando becomes Mumtaz Qadri, we are rightly worried. And we get more worried when we see lawyers garlanding Mumtaz Qadri. But we would be most worried when Mumtaz Qadri begins wearing the robe as well.

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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Between the devil and the deep blue sea , Daily Times, 5 /1/13

OVER A COFFEE : Between the devil and the deep blue sea — Dr Haider Shah

Whether the organisers of the Qadri-Altaf circus are our own spymasters or international string pullers, Pakistan finds itself in the midst of two crushing jaws

In London, hundreds of 
thousands of people lined the banks of the River Thames for a spectacular New Year ’s Eve fireworks display. A similar outpouring of enthusiasm was seen all over the world. In Pakistan, the year 2012 was bid farewell amid the explosion of bombs and the New Year was welcomed by bloodstained bullets. And as if that was not enough, yet another set of messiahs has been unleashed on us from nowhere.

This is not to say that the countries where New Year was celebrated with traditional festivity have nothing to worry about. The US Senate resorted to desperate fire fighting to deal with the ticking bomb of the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, as tax rises and huge spending cuts would have come into force on January 1, 2013 if no agreement had been reached between Democrat and Republican Senators, which would have triggered another period of recession. In Europe, the alarm bells keep ringing as Europe grapples with the deepening debt crisis. In her New Year message, the German chancellor cautions that the economic situation will not improve in 2013, and forecasters in the UK predict that the economy in 2013 will show little or no growth, amounting to a rerun of last year’s dismal performance.

Faced with the existentialist threat, we are not debating what 2013 has in store for us in terms of economic difficulties. When a man is drowning, he has no concern what his hair looks like or how much will be the next month’s electricity bill. Like many other writers, I have been consistently advocating that every era is shaped by peculiar geopolitical concerns and security doctrines are not cast in stone but change when a new era begins. From Pearl Harbour to the Dutch Indies, in the 1930-40s Japan was bombing every major military installation in the Pacific to pursue its doctrine of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. At the end of World War II when, militarily and financially, Japan found itself devastated, it very honourably swallowed its pride and embarked upon a new era of a closer relationship with the US-led democracies. Doctrines are for countries and countries are not for doctrines. It gives us some reason to be hopeful that Pakistan’s security establishment has now acknowledged homegrown militancy as the number one security threat. After the birth of two antagonistic states in 1947, outmanoeuvring each other in getting more territory and natural resources, the resulting environment of mutual suspicion and enmity between India and Pakistan is understandable. But 2013 has little resemblance with that era and we live in a totally different world today. Facing similar issues, the South Asian countries need to have a combined voice in international bodies like the World Trade Organisation. Our long-term developmental ambitions are best served by greater regional cooperation. Militant extremism is a shared threat and the security establishments of India and Pakistan need redefinition of security doctrines to deal with this destabilising spectre.

Dr Tahirul Qadri had marketed his credentials well in the western world as an enlightened cleric who stood for interfaith harmony. Similarly, Altaf Hussain has also been quite vocal against the Taliban and had been publicly demanding action against the extremist outfits. In this background, if Dr Qadri had spearheaded a campaign for national consensus on an anti-terrorism strategy and the MQM had extended its support, no one would have doubted the urgency of their calls. But confounding everyone, instead of mentioning the central issue of an existential threat, they are making very amorphous and frivolous demands. If a Canadian citizen suddenly returns to Pakistan and embarks on a one-man-demolition-squad mission threatening the state of Pakistan, one can dismiss this as comic relief in the tense environment of Pakistan. But when the MQM, a well organised political party that enjoys the lion’s share in the coalition government, announces its support and makes available its well-trained cadre of agitators, the development cannot be dismissed as trivial as one can easily smell a rat.

All mainstream parties deserve appreciation that despite many failures they have kept the system in place. We deride militants because they do not accept our legal system and want to impose their will on 180 million people by brandishing their guns. The MQM, despite being an urban-based political party, is not acting much differently. Instead of following the process provided by the constitution, it wants to use extra-constitutional methods to make demands that are as absurd as the demands made by the TTP. To make matters worse, Altaf Hussain, in his telephonic address, threatened journalists of dire consequences if they did not toe his line. From Musa Khan Khel to Saleem Shahzad to Wali Khan Babur, journalists have been falling victim to the guns of those who roam the streets of Pakistan like gods of life and death. The journalist community has therefore rightly taken a serious view of foul mouthing by a political leader.

The year 2013 could be the best of times and it could be the worst of times. Many crucial changes, including the retirement of the Chief Justice and the Chief of Army Staff and drawdown of NATO forces with complete withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan are scheduled during this year. Whether the organisers of the Qadri-Altaf circus are our own spymasters or international string pullers, Pakistan finds itself in the midst of two crushing jaws. One is moving from the northwestern tribal belt while the other is emerging from the port city of the deep blue sea in the south. We need a strong collective will to survive and decimate all monsters that want to devour the democratic setup. Successful transition of power from one civilian government to another will go a long way in solving our problems through collective action, and not through the magical cures of messiahs.



Migratory birds and elections, Daily Times, 29/12/12

OVER A COFFEE: Migratory birds and elections —Dr Haider Shah

While it has stressed upon timely elections, the ANP has called for a comprehensive national strategy on dealing with the spectre of ever-growing militant extremism

Nature scientists tell us that migrating birds are excellent forecasters of changing weather. Using their sensitivity to air pressure, they can time their migratory flights to favourable weather conditions. In Pakistan, certain writers in the popular media, a few political, non-political groups and characters also help us in predicting what the ‘gods’ of political weathers want. 
In Pakistan, the gods of political weather choose influential people that have some nuisance value for the prophetic role. Lesser ambitious men do not fit the bill though. For instance, when Maulana Edhi was approached for this purpose, he preferred leaving the country instead of becoming someone’s henchman. As per Maulana Edhi’s public statement, Imran Khan had already been tasked to do the role. Now just as a wizard brings out a rabbit from his black hat, Dr Tahir ul Qadri has suddenly appeared on the national scene threatening to upset the applecart if not taken seriously.
Professional orators, like Sophists of the ancient Greece, make a living out of windy speeches. It was not, however, difficult to decipher the main import of the harangue delivered amid great fanfare by Dr Qadri. Stating that the state should be preferred over politics rings a familiar bell, as this has remained one of the most frequently recurring lines in the speeches of military dictators. A very meaningful reference was also made to the Italian model. In fact, in one of my earlier articles, I had also referred to the Italian government’s replacement by a technocrat, Mario Monti, 13 months ago. The underlying intent is however important when an example is quoted. When I referred to the example, I was underlying the importance of fiscal management as even a European country like Italy could not prevent interference of external donor agencies when its finances were in a state of mess, but the change in government was effected within the constitutional framework. I have no problem if Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party jointly support any gatecrasher to be the next prime minister but no solution other than democratic continuity can guarantee our deliverance.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is a very special political institution, which can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Perpetually remaining in government, it does not feel tired of raising revolutionary slogans as well. While it seeks sympathy by presenting itself as the victim of establishment, it is also one of the first parties to follow any pied piper wearing military boots. The duet sung by Dr Qadri and MQM is therefore not without some coded messages. It seems that iron is being made red hot by the discourse of these programmed facilitators before the real hit is launched by those who have the big hammer.
Of all political parties, the Awami National Party (ANP) has the strongest case for postponement of elections, if any. One of its senior ministers, Bashir Ahmed Bilour has been martyred besides a number of other killings of its leaders and workers in the past. The party, however, has categorically dismissed any suggestions of delay in the forthcoming elections. While it has stressed upon timely elections, the ANP has also rightly called for a comprehensive national strategy on dealing with the spectre of ever-growing militant extremism. We need to take a break from our self-comforting idealism. We must realise that the tribal belt of our country is occupied by some groups that do not accept our state’s authority. From history, we learn that whenever a militant group becomes rebellious, there are three options left to the state. One, it crushes the militant groups and establishes its writ in the troubled area, just as Abraham Lincoln did in the Southern States or China did in its Muslim region or Sri Lanka did with Tamil Tigers. Second, it accepts the inevitable and hands over sovereignty of the troubled region to the militant groups, just as Britain accepted the Republic of Ireland or Pakistan accepted the emergence of Bangladesh. Third, it negotiates peace by giving more autonomy to the warring groups and in return those groups accept living within the constitutional framework peacefully, just as Britain and the warring groups did in Northern Ireland through the Good Friday agreement. Pakistan’s FATA is a unique case. On one hand, we are not ready to accept our defeat and hence, withdraw our claim to the troubled region so that those who are occupying the region have an opportunity to establish a social structure that they deem fit. On the other hand, we are also not doing anything to reclaim the areas lost to the militants so that they do not have sanctuaries where they can plan deadly attacks on innocent civilians of Pakistan and our neighbours. Those who call for the third option of negotiating peace may better listen to Ghalib’s line, “Hum hain mushtaaq aur woh bazaar” (We are keen and he/she is repulsively indifferent). Perhaps it makes sense to pay heed to the ANP’s advice that the negotiations must take place at the highest level but with a defined purpose. I believe timely elections and a clear strategy on militants are both equally important. It is, therefore, proposed that an all party conference be convened, which should form a committee to offer peace to militants on a single condition that they acknowledge Pakistan’s sovereignty and after renouncing militancy seek approval from the electorate for any kind of legal reforms they want. The deadline of the offer period should run up to the elections. After elections, whoever forms the government will have the backing of all stakeholders to consider either regaining control from militant groups or accepting their demands as doing nothing will no longer be a policy option.

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