Calling Cyanide Honey.

We start with a simple question. Cyanide is known to be one of the deadliest poisons, where a small amount is enough to change a living organism into a dead body. We assume that someone deliberately puts a label on the cyanide’s bottle, which reads as honey. The first question is that if we call cyanide honey, so does this name change affect the chemical composition and its lethal effects?

The answer to this question will be unanimous and undisputed. Even Imran Khan and Asif Zardari would agree that whether we call it honey or sugar, cyanide will continue to be cyanide and will kill anyone who dares to consume it. Unlike our democratic leaders and political zombies, it offers the same treatment to the rich and poor, industrialists and workers. Just like calling Nawaz Sharif Asif Zardari will neither change him as a person nor will it affect his hard learnt lessons in the sacred environment of Saudi Arabia, calling the poison a sweet name does not change its chemical composition and effects. It will play exactly the same role nature has assigned to it.

Now we come to the deliberate act of labelling the cyanide bottle as honey; either the doer of this act is psychologically sick, and in this case psychologists may add up a long list of technical terms. Or, in the other case, if he was well aware of the lethal properties of the compound, the doer must have some wicked designs, behind such a brutal act, which may vary from a poor housewife to our richest leaders, who represent the masses of poor and hungry.

Labelling the bottle, in simplest terms, is an act of communication, imparting of information. With the divine duty of guardianship, our democratic leaders communicate non-stop. What do we call them if they claim the existence of A, while actually it does not exist? What if they tell us that the substance in the bottle is honey, while actually it is cyanide?

Our respected and learned senators recently expressed their concerns about the democratic system and announced that conspiracies are being hatched against democracy. To understand the exact nature of democracy’s vulnerability, first of all, one needs to know the exact coordinates and physical features of our beloved democracy. Putting aside the state of democracy, I will appreciate if someone can confirm its existence in the land of the pure.

Long ago, as a student in junior grades, it was quite easy to learn its world famous definition: government of the people, by the people and for the people. This may be the case in other democracies but not in Pakistan. As an adult and having observed the state of affairs, the Pakistani version of democracy seems to be the government of the family, by the family and for the family. Before the government was the Zardari family and now it is the Sharifs’ turn.

Analyse the affairs of the state; Pakistan today will look like the ‘Islami Jamhuria Sharifia’. Nawaz Sharif serves his premiership for the third time, though he still needs to believe that he runs the show. Pray for his long life and he will never find anyone else to whom he may entrust the future of the nation. We still do not have a proper foreign minister because there is no family member available to fill the post. The people of Punjab have the honour to see Shahbaz Sharif as a chief minister, for a third time as well, and listen to his decade-old rhetoric day and night. Even if health does not allow, he is determined to continue issuing random and on the spot orders only to forget the previous ones. For the rest of Pakistan, since the supply of family members is limited, it could be left on its own. It is such a democracy for which the dictionary is of no help to understand the meanings of autocracy.

Four mainstream political parties run around one personality or family. The ruling party, the PML-N prides itself as the housemaid of Raiwind palace. The PPP, Bhuttos’ legacy, now resides in Zardari’s harem. The PTI is nothing but the shadow of cricket legend Imran Khan. And the Pakistani passport of Altaf Hussain is the top priority of the MQM. With such firm belief in the one man show, one wonders why we do not move towards the presidential system of government.

The journey of a democratic government starts from fair and free elections. The Pakistan Election Commission, in its nature and composition, can do anything except that. The funny thing about the general elections 2013 is that every political party complains of rigging. On May 11, Imran Khan lashed out at the government for its alleged role in rigging the 2013 parliamentary elections. He demanded the formation of a new and fully independent election Commission and vote verification in four constituencies. As believed by some, even if democracy is the name of impartial elections, what if the votes of citizens are hijacked? After all, no one can deny that political parties have developed hijacking people's opinion into a black art.

However, a democratic form of government is far more than this. Democracies prosper on some well understood and practiced values, attitudes, practices and principles. Adult citizens of a democratic government exercise power and civic responsibility directly or indirectly. Citizens are encouraged to shape their own future by the local government system. However, what an irony that the last time the elections for local government were held under the auspices of a military dictator. Consecutive democratic governments only found excuses to postpone having iron control on the usage of development funds. Thus, it does not matter if the citizens of Rawalpindi hate the so-called ‘jangla bus’; they have to suffer it as the Punjab CM needs a political show to prove him as a good administrator. It is nice to talk about the benefits of democracy on television shows and in the drawing rooms of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Democracy is the government of a majority but in our country it has become the constant and putrid tyranny of minority.

We may call cyanide honey but we cannot ignore the pungent fact that the government and state have become a courtesan to one family. We all know the political credentials and statesmanship of our respected incumbent president. All key ministries are filled not by the virtue of merit, rather on personal relation and loyalty basis. The democratic system of government is best as it allows the collective wisdom of society to come into action for the common good. But, what we see is that family decisions trickle down to the masses. Lack of vision and randomness is the law of the day. In a democracy, one is free to call a terrorist a martyr and civil dictatorship democracy. But, we must not forget that by changing labels, cyanide does not become honey.

Published at Daily Times on May 24, 2014

Why Youtube Is Actually Banned in Pakistan? The Real Reasons

There are two sides to every picture: the sentence is simple, declarative and apparently does not seem to have hidden meanings. The problem is that the devil is in the details. An examination of the affairs of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan leads us to two possibilities: either we have started believing that the practice of using religion for personal, financial and political gains is in fact the most sacred religious duty conferred upon us, or we believe that we are the only Islamic state in the world. People living in other Islamic states are just pretending. Though the government of Turkey, our brother Islamic country, seems to follow in our footsteps, it is miles away from being a ‘pure’ Islamic nation, like us. 

Since 2012, the government of a nuclear Islamic nation is afraid of a website. Official reasons in Pakistan, we all know, are never the actual reasons. Our previous government told the nation that Youtube hosts blasphemous videos and proudly announced that the site is restricted in our pure country. Indeed, the government thought it was not the video rather Youtube itself that hurt the sacred feelings of pure Muslims. So it kicked the hornet’s nest and the PPP government became certain of its place in the VIP quarters of paradise. Once in opposition, however, it found another way to serve the nation as a humble student of reality. Shazia Marri, PPP parliamentarian, submitted a resolution to lift the ban on Youtube immediately saying that since the people were using the website through proxies there is no point in a ban. Here we see that her demand to remove the ban on Youtube was not based on principle, rather on the absurdity of the ban itself. Proxy websites are not an invention of today and information technology is developing at a faster rate than that of our politicians’ capacity to process the ongoing changes in internet life.

Had the PPP government realised this fact, it would not have banned the video sharing website but would have tried to find another solution to block access to the blasphemous video. Even if a ban was necessary, it should have been temporary, to cool down flared sentiments. The current government indeed could find other solutions to block access to the allegedly ‘blasphemous’ movie, but since taking power it has been operating on punishment mode. To make people believe that the government exists, something needed to be done, so it decided to continue the ban and establish its writ. The Taliban might issue a certificate saying that the PML-N leadership shall get the same VIP treatment in paradise as the PPP. Maybe the Sharif-led government thought that lifting the ban would make religious extremists furious and bring them out on the streets. They may have forgotten that once our pure Muslims brothers are on the roads and streets, they consider it their religious duty to loot shops. Any property that cannot be looted, they set on fire. It should have refused to be blackmailed and talked directly to their mysterious masters.

Banning Youtube in the name of Islam is no different from the practices of the Taliban, who mask their criminal activities with sharia. The ban on Youtube is, in fact, only to deprive people of their constitutional right to access information and express their opinion freely and independently. Mr Sharif has a proven tendency towards civil dictatorship and wishes to keep media and state institutions under his thumb. In his last tenure he unsuccessfully tried to crush a media group and the Supreme Court (SC) was attacked by his party’s hoodlums. After passing the so-called Protection of Pakistan bill in the National Assembly, he once again proves that everything changes except the nature of man. To keep the media on his side, he continues to reward journalists with offices and ambassadorships. 

YouTube, on the other hand, is difficult to control but easy to block. Even if we believe just for a moment that the site is restricted due to a specific blasphemous video, if it was not in the interest of the government to chain Youtube, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) could block the video links. Now, assume again that the PTA technicians were not able to block the links and to completely chain the site was the only option. Even in this case, the government should have lifted the ban when Google removed the video under the orders of a US court. Or, at least when Shazia Marri submitted the resolution to lift the ban, the matter should not have been delayed. So we are left with nothing else to believe except that for some unknown reason our democratic governments feel threatened by the exercise of free expression in the country, as it is by the establishment of local government institutions. 

The local government system plays a vital role in strengthening democratic norms among people. It allows people to set their agenda and decide how to distribute economic resources. It empowers the masses. However, it also means that in the presence of local government institutions, politicians in Lahore and Islamabad will not receive development funds and new leadership will emerge from these institutions. Hence there are unlimited hurdles in the way of local government. 

The internet has given people a new level of freedom and a higher degree of access to information. YouTube is not just a video sharing website, it is a platform. In addition to entertainment, it also offers a great deal of knowledge. If you wish to enhance your computer knowledge, it is there to help. If you wish to listen to Islamic scholars, you can do so. It is not just a website but a multimedia library. It has a great number of videos about computer programming, software development, current affairs, technology and other topics. Therefore, the ban is as illogical as Ishaq Dar’s statement that the mysterious arrival of $ 1.5 billion in the national treasury was a gift with no strings attached. 

Realistically speaking, it is nonsense to ban any website. There are proxy websites that are specially developed for people living in countries where the internet is censored. Smartphones are full of free applications that help unblock sites. Some are specially programmed for YouTube. Our government can learn from the example of Turkey where the government blocked Twitter and by the evening of the same day people found ways to continue tweeting. If a government cannot implement a decision, there is no point issuing the orders and becoming a laughing stock. However, even if our politicians and religious scholars are really concerned about the presence of blasphemous material in cyberspace, banning the sites and chaining the internet is illogical. Instead, with logic and argument, our scholars should talk and convince the global community, representatives of our government should raise the issue at the international forums like the United Nations and work with the world to discourage and control blasphemous material. However, since that requires lots of hard work and does not offer material gain neither our government nor our scholars will do anything in this regard. Let us hope that soon the day will come when the internet will truly be free and YouTube unchained.

( This column is published in Daily Times on April 13, 2014 )

The Death of Dialogue in Pakistan

( This article, published at Daily Times Pakistan on April 6, 2014, examines the state of freedom of expression and speech in Pakistan. )

The Death of Dialogue in Pakistan
Written by Qasir M. Chaudhry

Freedom of expression is as central to a democratic society as the Sharif family is to the PML-N. It is the essence of any democratic system and thus enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. Practically, it seems to be the last thing our governments and leaders care about. This is the only item of the agenda where major political parties find themselves on the same page; the less the people have the opportunity to express their thoughts freely, the better.

But, the problem with the democratic system of the government is that it needs certain ingredients to prosper. It is the dialogue among horizontal and vertical layers of the society which brings different groups and classes in harmony to achieve common objectives. An effective dialogue can not occur if the participants do not have a chance to share views without any fear.

For an effective dialogue among various layers of the society, freedom of speech and expression is a primary requirement, among others. If we take into account continuous and repetitive attacks on media personalities and opinion makers, it is no secret that speaking the truth and expressing an opinion is becoming more and more difficult. During the PPP government, under the visionary leadership of Mr. Zardari, the fundamental human right of expression and speech was badly exposed to the Talibanized justice.

During the tenure of the last government, standards of cowardice reached new and record heights. Unlike the current government , it was very focused and clear headed. It had one point agenda, to complete its tenure for five years. The rest, country included, could go to hell. And it did.
Salman Taseer, former Governor of Punjab, had a personality quite opposite to most of his fellow politicians. He was bold, outspoken, visionary and brave. He had his own opinion and was never shy to share it. Like the majority of educated Pakistanis his understanding of Zia’s introduced laws, under Islamic labels, was different from those of extremist outfits. But, unlike most of the Pakistani intelligentsia, he said it loud and clear. In addition he went out of the way to support a Christian lady, who was charged with blasphemy, but in fact seemed innocent to him. When his own bodyguard showered bullets on him and took his life, the PPP leadership was completely lost. His killing in January 2011 was followed by the murder of Shehbaz Masih, Minister for Minority Affairs. Both these people could have been heroes for the party which would have steered the course of events in the right direction, but the party leadership threw these high profile sacrifices in the dust bin, completely surrendered before extremists and became focused on its single point agenda. Thus, at the end of the five year term, freedom of expression and speech was already in a critical stage and on a ventilator.

In the general election of 2013 the soul of the PPP took the body of the PML-N, which emerged as victorious. The first thing the Nawaz led government did was to renounce all promises made during the election campaign. Then, it shook hands with enemies of any sort of freedom and removed freedom of speech from the ventilator. The patient succumbed to death immediately. The authorities might have recorded the time of death, but it was not communicated to the general public which still believes it to be alive. This corpse now lies in some unknown morgue in Lahore. In the darkness of an unmarked night the coffin of freedom of speech will be interred deep in the soil. The nation is proud to be blessed with a free and awake media, but still no one knows who gave 1.5 billion dollars to Pakistan and why. Thus, in all likelihood, the nation will never know when the death of freedom of speech occurred, the time it was buried and where.

The incumbent family dictatorship, which insists on being considered a legitimate democratic government, came into power facing major challenges such as terrorism, religious extremism, power shortage, rising inflation and unemployment, all requiring immediate measures. To curb terrorism and improve the law and order situation in Karachi the government came up with its best policy of action, do nothing at all. Then, it started operations in Karachi. To this day, both the operations and killing of innocents is going hand in hand. To tackle extremism and the Talibans, it came up with another excellent policy; beg terrorists for talks. Now both sides are playing at negotiations to arrive at already obvious results. If the government does not want to live with such paradoxes, then the question it is facing is quite simple. Can we allow any person or group to use force to impose their so called Islam on a population of 180 million?

However, like its predecessors, either our political leadership lacks the guts to address ruthless challenges or it is pondering on how to benefit from a Talibanized state. Our religious leadership, on the other hand, is doing even worse. The nation is facing a direct threat to its existence of integrity, while our scholars of the Islamic Ideological Council are telling husbands that they do not need to seek permission from the first wife to re-marry. In addition, IIC also says that Islam does not put an age limit for the marriage of a girl. And, in the name of Islam, we are being forced to accept such interpretations as they are. Any question or difference of opinion can put us on the wrong side.

If our leadership is in a confused state then the Taliban and their sympathizers, quite clear about their objectives, are constantly moving forward to materialize the differences between civil and military relationships and to divide the nation further. Those scholars who differ with the Taliban’s interpretations of Islam and whose opinion mattered have either left the country or been killed. Those who still live in Pakistan are under threat, like writers, media and politicians. At this moment only those who express the same values and ideas as the Talibans remain safe.

At the start of this year, in January, the famous columnist and playwright Asghar Nadeem Syed was attacked. He received two wounds, but survived. Some days ago, unknowns fired on the car of a famous TV anchorman and senior analyst, Raza Rumi. His driver succumbed to injuries and his bodyguard, although injured, survived the attack. Very "active after incident" chief minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif asked for the report of the event, but it is an open secret that the report will be lost under an unattended pile of waiting reports, and the murderers will never be caught. However, the message for other writers is loud and clear; if they revisit their views they could be the next target.

To ensure the free expression of opinion is a sacred duty of every democratic government. While interring the coffin of dialogue and freedom of speech deep in the ground our rulers today must not forget that sooner or later the fire will reach their bodies too. The government of the PPP refused to learn this. If they had then today the son of Yousuf Raza Gilani, former PM of Pakistan, would not be under arrest by extremists, and Bilawal Bhutto, chairperson of PPP, would not have had to cancel his visit to Lahore. Benazir Bhutto used to say that democracy is the best revenge. Our current rulers have the chance to learn from other's mistakes and respect the democratic norms. If they refuse, democracy will take its revenge.