What is Pakistan’s most novel cultural tradition?

Pakistan is home to a rich variety of cultures and a multitude of social traditions. People in different parts of the country have their own peculiar rituals, festivals and customs, some of which have existed for centuries but have been unknown to outsiders. Those unfamiliar with the presence of such diversity sometimes find it strange, even surprising or exotic, when they first discover how people in different parts of the country live. To highlight and celebrate Pakistan’s variegated traditions and customs, the Herald invited writers and cultural commentators to share their views on the matter.

The shrine of Hinglaj Devi

A Hindu devotee at the shrine of Hinglaj Devi — Arif Mahmood/White Star

A Hindu devotee at the shrine of Hinglaj Devi — Arif Mahmood/White Star

The shrine of Hinglaj Devi – or Bibi Nani as she is also called – is one of the most striking examples of a culture unseen elsewhere in today’s Pakistan. Located in the Hingol National Park in south-east Balochistan, the shrine is some 250 kilometres away from the city of Karachi. Its main festival in April attracts thousands of national and international visitors, who gather inside a small valley in the desert.

The pilgrimage to the desert goddess has been documented since at least the 14th century. Hinglaj’s location in the arid wasteland of Balochistan, far away from any urban settlements, makes the journey exceptionally demanding — but, it is said, also extremely beneficial for her devotees. Many followers claim that a journey to the isolated spot has the power to rid one of all sins committed. Many Pakistani Hindus proudly call it “hamara Hajj” (our Hajj).

While today mainly Hindus frequent the place, not long ago local Zikri Muslim baradaris used to be in charge of the shrine and honoured Bibi Nani as their pir. Many Zikris believe that the bones of Hazrat Ali’s grandmother are actually buried at Hinglaj, which bestows the site with the power to fulfil wishes. Even though there is a steady decrease in Zikri visitors today, a few still undertake the journey into the desert to offer the roat, a sweet cake, in exchange for some of the goddess’s favours.

Over the last three decades, much has changed for the lonesome shrine. The institutionalisation of the pilgrimage in 1986, together with the construction of the Makran Coastal Highway (finished up to the Hingol River in 2001) forced the aloof dame into modernity. Where it used to take her followers around 20 days to reach Hinglaj from Karachi, today the shrine is comfortably accessible within three or four hours by car. As a result, the site has quickly developed into a stage for one of the biggest annual Hindu festivals celebrated in the Islamic Republic, at times attracting over 40,000 visitors on merely one weekend.

— Jürgen Schaflechner is an assistant professor at the Department of Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Heidelberg

The self-assured Kalasha woman

An elderly Kalasha woman sports Kalash’s traditional colourful garb — Manal Ahmad Khan

An elderly Kalasha woman sports Kalash’s traditional colourful garb — Manal Ahmad Khan

I was struck by the scene that unfolded in front of me as I travelled with colleagues on the road from Chitral to the Kalash valley of Bumburet in the summer of 2009. This was my first visit to the area, about which I had heard a lot and had looked forward to seeing for myself.

As we were rounding a bend and nearing the first settlement, cultivated fields came into view. At first glance it appeared to be the set of a movie; Kalasha women of different ages tending to their crops, wearing traditional dresses with various accoutrements and magnificent headgear. And it appeared that as soon as the director would say cut, the women would resume their normal lives. However, this is indeed an integral part of their daily life, confident women carrying themselves with natural dignity and poise. This is what has stuck with me.

Kalasha women at the Kalash Valley in Bumburet — Manal Ahmad Khan

Kalasha women at the Kalash Valley in Bumburet — Manal Ahmad Khan

I have reflected on this many times and have been left with the enduring impression of a culture that is at ease with itself. There are also other such places, particularly in remote and marginalised areas where women, in their many roles, continue to provide stability and a continuity of traditions. I would like to point out that this visibly active role of women used to be the general norm in Pakistan.

Over the years, a continuous narrowing of space has left the self-assured Kalasha woman as a unique cultural symbol. My sincere hope is that not only will such traditions continue in Kalash, but will reclaim lost space all over the country.

— Salman Beg works on cultural development with the Aga Khan Cultural Services,Pakistan


Caretakers of the earth

In my home there once lived a Hindu woman who went by the name of Sunny and belonged to a village near Tando Jam in Sindh. She helped me take care of my mother, who suffers from a chronic condition of physical disability and pain. Every morning at around 4am, Sunny woke up with my mother and after a cup of tea, each prayed their own way. Eyes closed, concentrating, reciting — mother on the chair, caretaker on the floor.
Amidst this air of sacred reverence, I started noticing that Sunny would sometimes walk out of the house. Once I was up at that hour and noticed her coming back in. Where did you go, I asked. To feed the ants, she replied.

To feed the ants? “In ka bhi to haq hai na [They too have a right],” she said. They too are our responsibility, and heirs of this earth.

I understood later that feeding animals is a part of dharma for her, a devotional act of virtue and piety. Passed down over centuries, this beautiful connection between spiritual and ecological practice moved me deeply. It symbolised the primal recognition that all living beings are interconnected and worthy of care. The act of feeding ants in particular spoke of the humility and service of the human in the cosmic story of creation. For me then, this is the most unique and poetic cultural tradition in Pakistan.

— Nosheen Ali is a social anthropologist, poetry curator and programme director of Social Development and Policy at Habib University

The barter of Kyrgyz nomads

Kyrgyz nomads sit in front of their temporary yurts — Danial Shah

Kyrgyz nomads sit in front of their temporary yurts — Danial Shah

Kyrgyz nomads travel in caravans every summer from the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan over Irshad Pass to Chapursan Valley in Pakistan for a rendezvous at one of the world’s most secluded locations. For them, it is an ancient route for their barter trade and a fight for their survival. The Kyrgyz are one of the most isolated nomadic communities in Afghanistan, with their movement depending on the sun, wind and pastures. These tribesmen live in yurts at an altitude above 4000 metres and survive entirely on livestock. This trade route is the most accessible for them as compared to any other, even in their own country.

Chapursan Valley lies 60 kilometres west of the border town of Sost, and is one of the last valleys alongside the Wakhan Corridor, a 350-kilometre-wide strip of land lodged between Pakistan and Tajikistan. After a trek of three to four days, the Kyrgyz camp at Baba Ghundi Ziarat in Chapursan, famous for the shrine of a Sufi saint from Wakhan. The shrine holds great significance in the area and receives pilgrims throughout the year. According to folklore, Baba Ghundi had miraculous powers, using which he once flooded the entire valley to kill an evil man-eating dragon. For the Kyrgyz traders, the place is important both as a pilgrimage site and for taking home supplies.

There is no money involved in the trade. With the Kyrgyz are butter and yaks to trade, which they barter to get supplies for the year. They mostly exchange their goods for food, shelter and clothing that include tea, flour, sugar, spices, shoes, jackets, tents and anything else they might need to survive the harsh winter before the border reopens. Subject to the weather, the treacherous mountain passes remain open from around June to October.

This long-forgotten trading custom continues without any tax or customs clearance and is definitely a contender for the most distinct tradition in Pakistan.

— Danial Shah is a travel journalist and photographer

The multi-faceted festival of Sibi

I had been told that the Sibi Mela started several hundred years ago. Personally, I had been hearing about it for years. The festival brings together people from faraway places who bring their skills and crafts to share with people in the region. There are shows featuring horses and other animals and shops for buying pets. The market is filled with collectors, traders and artisans who still work in the old crafts of the region. It is one of the few places in Pakistan that brings them all together, where race and creed take the back seat.

As one of the few positive things coming out of Balochistan, this is a tradition that needs to be kept alive and encouraged by as many people as possible. A festival as unique as this should be promoted around the world so that the locals can generate more income. This will also encourage artisans to continue their crafts instead of shifting to cheaper mass-market alternatives, something which they have started doing as of late. With a rich history, the Sibi Mela is fast fading into obscurity because of a lack of interest and support. Our artists, writers and anyone curious enough to venture into such an isolated area should fully take in the experience while they still can. That is what will help this unique cultural festival to continue and hopefully grow for future generations to witness.

— Kohi Marri is an architect, photographer and documentary film-maker


Building trust is indispensable

I have one thing in common with Dr T C A Raghavan, Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad — we both are students of great Indian historian Romila Thapar. Dr Raghavan has attended Thapar’s history classes at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Although, I have not been privileged enough to attend the lectures of Thapar, but have spent years trying to imbibe insight that comes with from her works on ancient Indian history. Thapar is a classical Indian secularist but her secularism doesn’t come from believe in some idealist and abstract philosophy. Rather it is part and parcel of a rich Indian historical and cultural tradition that becomes obvious to anyone reading Indian history through the perceptive eyes of great historians like Thapar.


Following an attack at the Wagah border on November 2, 2014, a large crowd turns up at the ceremony the next day. Azhar Jafri/White Star

Following an attack at the Wagah border on November 2, 2014, a large crowd turns up at the ceremony the next day. Azhar Jafri/White Star


I had my first meeting with Dr Raghavan at a diplomatic function of the Indian High Commission. Dr Raghavan who did his doctorate in Modern Indian History from JNU, never brings his knowledge of history into discussion on contemporary politics. In discussion on politics he talks straight — no history, no philosophy and no propagandist diatribes, just to the point presentation of facts and perspectives.  At the diplomatic function held last week the conversation turned to military courts in Pakistan. I tried to put forward the argument that the government would be facing problems at international level especially from European countries when the military courts would start handing down death sentences. Dr Raghavan just brushed aside this argument noting, “In the real world this (how the European Union will react to establishment of military courts) will hardly matter…at the end of the day what will matter is how you will manage it domestically.”

The military courts are being established in Pakistan in the wake Peshawar School attack that qualifies to be characterised as a mass-casualty attack — an attack in which terrorists kill a large number of people in one go. And as we have seen during the last decade this type of similar attacks not only have domestic repercussions, but also affect interstate relations; more specifically in South Asia or Pakistan-India relations.  We have seen two dangerous military tensions between Pakistan and India (first in 2002 and then in 2008) in the wake of a mass-casualty attack on Indian parliament and attacks and killings of ordinary citizens in Mumbai in 2008. Both these attacks brought Pakistan and India to the brink of military confrontation. On both sides of the border militaries were mobilised on a large scale. Jingoism defined attitudes of military and political leadership on both sides of the border. On the Indian side, we heard people saying that they have the capacity to force Pakistan into a situation where it would cease to function as a functioning state. In Pakistan some lunatic even suggested that Pakistan has the capacity to obliterate Indian civilisation, as the world has known it since the time of antiquity.

Military confrontations were eventually prevented when cooler heads prevailed in New Delhi and Islamabad after the diplomats, military officials and spymasters from Washington started to shuttle between two capitals. But the mass-casualty attacks left a deep scar on interstate relations in South Asia and there are no signs that they can be healed any sooner. Worst still are the apprehension that another attack on any Indian city could provoke another military face off, which even an otherwise influential Washington would not be able to control. For instance, American nuclear and security expert Michael Krepon has suggested in one of his recent works that Washington’s ability to prevent a military confrontation between Pakistan and India as a result of any future mass-casualty attack has dwindled drastically.

Indian policemen stand guard outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, one of the sites of the 2008 terror attack, in Mumbai on November 26, 2014. —AP/File

Indian policemen stand guard outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, one of the sites of the 2008 terror attack, in Mumbai on November 26, 2014. —AP/File

This leads to a highly sensitive question as to whether Pakistani state has the capacity to prevent mass-casualty attack from taking place in an Indian city. This question stems from the situation that emerged after previous such attacks on Indian cities, when Indian government and media accused Pakistan based militant groups, allegedly backed by rogue elements in the Pakistani intelligence, of masterminding and executing the attacks. Some of these attacks like the Mumbai attacks were in fact traced back to Pakistan.

In a lively and candid conversation with Dr Raghavan I suggested to him that the Indians’ demand that Pakistan should make sure no more mass murder attacks on Indian cities are launched from Pakistani soil is unrealistic. I mean, I told him, that for the past ten years the Pakistani state machinery has been unable to even stop attacks in their own cities. In this situation to expect that they would or could prevent attacks from taking place in Indian cities would be extremely unrealistic. The India High Commissioner agreed, but he added that in this situation Pakistan would have to build trust with the Indian leadership. He didn’t say this, but probably by trust he meant that Pakistan should build trust with Indian political leadership that no part of Pakistani state machinery is involved in any way in these mass attacks. “From Pakistan’s side who will build this trust, political leadership, military or intelligence agencies?” I asked him and his reply was simple, “As far as India is concerned, I think political leadership in Pakistan should build this trust”.

Interestingly, as a continuity of this discussion, he said that the Pakistan-India relations are on a tipping point and a little push would result in massive improvement in our relations. He made a very interesting revelation that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Narandera Modi know each other intuitively and very soon this good rapport will result in tremendous improvement in our relations.


Newly sworn in Indian Prime Minister Narendar Modi shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the swearing in ceremony in New Delhi on May 26, 2014. – AFP

Newly sworn in Indian Prime Minister Narendar Modi shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the swearing in ceremony in New Delhi on May 26, 2014. – AFP

But there are problems in this regard: There was a time when the Pakistani public opinion was highly anti-India and this greatly strengthened the hands of any Pakistani leader who tried to pursue anti-India policy from Islamabad. “There has been a dramatic change in trends in public opinion in Pakistan, people are now either mildly anti-India or completely indifferent towards Pakistan-India relations”, I argued, “On the other hand Indian public opinion has turned against Pakistan in the wake of Mumbai attack and Kargil conflict”.  Dr Raghavan responded that it was true to some extent.

Pakistani public opinion is troubled more by the deteriorating economic conditions back home and renewed wave of violence and terrorism that is making the lives of ordinary people in the country unbearable. They don’t have much time to concentrate on the direction Pakistan-India relations are taking. Resultantly, any Pakistani leader pursuing path of normalising relations with India would not be faced with insurmountable obstacles. Contrary to this Indian leadership appears more jingoistic in following the anti-Pakistan impulse that prevails in Indian society at this point of time.

But at a more strategic level, building trust between New Delhi and Islamabad does make sense as preventing a military confrontation is in everybody’s interests. We should thank the providence that for quite some time no mass-casualty attack has taken place on Indian soil that can be traced back to Pakistan.  But God forbid if it does happen, how would the two capitals respond to it? Will Washington’s shuttle diplomacy be as effective as it was in the past? Or would the jingoism that prevails in the Indian capital transform itself into a policy of confrontation? Answering these questions in accordance with our wish peace may not be within out power. But certainly brighter minds in New Delhi and Islamabad could compel their respective governments to start working on building trust between two South Asian states.

For this we will have to move away from jingoism that threatens to finish off Pakistan as a functioning state and that threatens to obliterate great Indian civilisation. Primarily because preserving the integrity of the Pakistani state is as important to the continuity of Indian civilisation as the rich heritage of the Indian civilisation is important to preserving the cultural identity of the Pakistani state and people. This is the lesson I have learnt from Thapar:  Pakistan’s cultural and religious identity is inseparable from the great Indian civilisation.

In bad faith

The relationship between state and religion in Pakistan has always been an uneasy one. From the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949 to General Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation drive – even after his military rule – religion has consistently been brought in to run the affairs of the state. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the treatment of those accused of committing blasphemy.

Christians chant slogans against the murder of a Christian couple during a protest in Lahore on November 9, 2014 - Photo by AFP

Christians chant slogans against the murder of a Christian couple during a protest in Lahore on November 9, 2014 – Photo by AFP

In 2014 there has been an unprecedented spike in the accusations of blasphemy and the lethal violence caused by them, with November being the cruelest month. It began with the gruesome, brutal lynching of a Christian couple, Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama, in Kot Radha Kishan near Lahore. They were burnt alive by a mob for alleged desecration of the Quran. A few days later, a man was arrested in Gujrat for allegedly blaspheming against holy personages of Islam. Upon being brought to a police station, he was axed to death by an officer.

In another incident, a professor in Attock fled to save his life after his students accused him of committing blasphemy. On November 25, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Gilgit sentenced media mogul Mir Shakilur Rehman, morning show host Shaista Lodhi, actress Veena Malik and her husband Asad Bashir Khan to 26 years in prison on blasphemy charges.

During previous months, there were similarly troubling developments. In October, the Lahore High Court (LHC) upheld the 2010 death sentence awarded by a trial court to Aasia Bibi, a blasphemy-accused Christian woman from a village in Sheikhupura. In September, two people accused of blasphemy and imprisoned in Adiala jail, Rawalpindi, were shot by the police officers guarding them. One of them received serious injuries while the other died on the spot. Earlier in the year, human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead in Multan for representing Junaid Hafeez, a teacher being tried under the blasphemy laws.

In light of the growing number of such incidents, the Herald takes a look at the history of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and their impact on state and society.

Blasphemy laws are a product of Zia’s era.
No, but he made them stringent.

During their rule over the subcontinent, the British included laws in the Indian Penal Code to deal with blasphemy. The reason is easy to ascertain: home to diverse religious communities, each with different, often conflicting, beliefs and traditions, British India often suffered violence in the name of religion. Sometimes this violence resulted from real or imagined insults to the holy personages of one community by another. In 1860, therefore, the British government of India introduced three laws and inserted them as sections 295, 296 and 298 in the Indian Penal Code. These laws respectively dealt with the desecration of places of worship, causing disturbance in a religious assembly and deliberately hurting religious sentiments.

As skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims continued on such issues, the British later added section 295-A to punish those who insulted a religion or its followers using verbal, written or visible representative means. None of these laws were specific to any religion, nor were they biased for or against any religious community. Blasphemy also did not incur capital punishment under these laws. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an independent think tank based in Islamabad, only five prominent blasphemy cases were reported in British India between 1860 and 1947.

In a sign of what was to come decades later, the promulgation of these laws did not stop the first recorded murder of a blasphemy accused. Rajpal, a Hindu publisher in Lahore, was assassinated by Ilm Din in 1929 for publishing a book which the Muslims deemed blasphemous. Rajpal was tried under the blasphemy laws but the LHC found him not guilty.

When Zia carried out his coup in 1977, he used religion as a tool to legitimise his rule. In one of the most significant, and far-reaching, steps that he took to Islamise the state and society, he added many subsections to the blasphemy laws. These include sections 295-B and 295-C, which designate desecration of the Quran and blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam as serious crimes. Initially, life imprisonment was the maximum punishment under 295-B and those found guilty under 295-C would either get life imprisonment or the death sentence.

In 1990, however, the Federal Shariat Court, another creation of Zia, declared that the death sentence was the only punishment that could be awarded to those found guilty of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam.  The Zia regime also introduced section 298-A which declared blasphemous any insulting comments against the companions of the Prophet of Islam. In 1984, two more sections (298-B and 298-C), were added, which specifically concerned the Ahmadi community.

Contrary to the British blasphemy laws, additions made during Zia regime were Islam-specific — they were meant to prosecute only those who blasphemed against holy Islamic personages and desecrated the Quran. Another major feature of these changes was the omission of ‘deliberate or malicious intent’ from the allegations of blasphemy — even those who commit blasphemy inadvertently, including those who are “unsound of mind”, can now be tried under the blasphemy laws.

Since the Zia years, the registration of blasphemy cases in Pakistan has skyrocketed, with most of the accused facing allegations of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam or desecrating the Quran. This is in sharp contrast to the pre-Zia era. Between August 1947 and 1980 only eight blasphemy cases were reported in Pakistan and none of them were for blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam or desecrating the Quran.

Have blasphemy laws helped in curbing incidents of blasphemy?
The evidence points otherwise.

Ideally, laws are made to deter people from committing crimes, so as to maintain a peaceful society. When introduced by the British, blasphemy laws were meant to uphold civil order among different religious communities. Evidence, however, suggests that blasphemy laws in Pakistan are far from being a deterrent. If anything, they have massively increased the number of blasphemy cases even when most of these cases are initially filed on trumped-up charges.

Lahore's Joseph Colony burns after one of  its residents was charged with blasphemy in March 2013 - Photo by AFP

Lahore’s Joseph Colony burns after one of its residents was charged with blasphemy in March 2013 – Photo by AFP

Statistics compiled from various sources such as CRSS, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a non-governmental organisation based in Lahore that mainly works for the rights of the Christian community, reveal that the intensification of blasphemy laws by Zia significantly increased the number of alleged incidents of blasphemy. The CRSS report states that 328 people were tried under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2012. According to HRCP, blasphemy cases were registered against 19 Muslims and 14 Christians in 2013 alone. This year, the number of such cases has been at a record high. According to the statistics put together by the NCJP, 94 blasphemy cases have been registered between January and September 2014.

In a research paper, titled Unholy Speech and Holy Laws, Dr Osama Siddique, a legal expert, cites figures compiled in 2007 to show that, by then, 104 blasphemy cases had passed through various stages of trial in Pakistan. A vast majority of these cases were registered under sections 295-C and 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Other figures cited by Sahar Khan, a PhD student at the University of California Irvine, in her research paper, titled The Blasphemy Laws: A Pakistani Contradiction, show the number of blasphemy cases brought to a court for trial has increased in every decade since 1980. According to her findings, the courts heard 12 blasphemy cases between 1980 and 1989 but this number rose to 37 in the next ten years and to 56 between 2000 and 2009.

Some of the increase in blasphemy cases, however, can be attributed to non-religious reasons. Because of the way the blasphemy laws are phrased, they provide a lot of space for anyone to use them for settling personal scores, even for securing financial benefits. Unsurprisingly, many blasphemy cases have been dismissed by appeal courts b

ecause they were motivated by ‘mischief and mala fide intent’. As Siddique highlights in his research, “… appellate courts have almost always struck down or caused to be struck down (by remanding these cases after pointing out flaws of evidence and procedure) convictions at the trial court level.”

Other Islamic countries also have blasphemy laws.
Yes, but laws are not the same everywhere.

According to a 2012 research conducted by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, nearly 22 per cent of the world’s countries and territories have blasphemy laws or blasphemy policies — and almost 70 per cent of those are Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

While almost none of the Muslim-majority countries have blasphemy laws that can be termed compatible with international human rights laws and global judicial and legal conventions, only Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia provide for capital punishment in blasphemy cases. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, a constitutional petition was filed in 2010, seeking the repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws, but the petition failed. Indonesia is also one of those countries that have passed a law to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Malaysia, Bangladesh and India have the colonial-era blasphemy laws on their statute books, with the maximum punishment not exceeding three years.

Reforming the blasphemy laws is possible.
No, as some recent attempts testify. 

Is there any possibility of repealing, or at least modifying, the blasphemy law to prevent their misuse? Unfortunately, the evidence says no. The last time a serious effort was made to reform the blasphemy laws was in 2010 by Sherry Rehman, then a member of the National Assembly. Immediately after presenting a bill in parliament suggesting reforms, she began receiving threats and was even booked for committing blasphemy. She withdrew the bill.

Asia Bibi (left) the Christian woman who has been given the death sentence and Salmaan Raseer (right), former governor of Punjab who was shot in January 2011 by his own guard for supporting Asia BiBi - Photo by AFP

Asia Bibi (left) the Christian woman who has been awarded death sentence, upheld by Lahore High Court and Salmaan Taseer (right), former governor of Punjab who was shot in January 2011 by his own guard for supporting Asia Bibi – Photo by AFP


The biggest blow to the cause of reforming the laws came when Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was shot dead in January 2011 by his official security guard in Islamabad for speaking in favour of Aasia Bibi and calling the blasphemy laws “man-made”. Only two months later, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in Islamabad — he was also one of the proponents of reforming the blasphemy laws.

While the European Union has once again demanded that Pakistan consider repealing the blasphemy laws after Aasia Bibi’s death sentence was upheld, there is no political will, clout or incentive for that. A legal expert with experience of working on blasphemy-related issues tells the Herald that following Taseer’s murder “the road to reforming the law has ended”.

There, however, could still be some way of reforming the laws. As Siddique points out, more than looking for a political and legal solution, it is imperative to elicit social, cultural and religious narratives, allowing a healthy discussion about blasphemy laws. One way to generate such a narrative is to utilise Islamic jurisprudence in favour of legal and judicial reforms on the subject of blasphemy, he says.

Morocco may teach Pakistan a thing or two in this regard. The country managed to introduce wholesale reforms in its laws pertaining to women’s rights even though the subject was very sensitive, both religiously and culturally. What the government there did was successfully employ Islamic jurisprudence and precedents in the reforms’ favour.
While there are many similarities between Pakistan and Morocco, suggesting that we can also do what the Moroccans could, there is one crucial difference between the two countries. Morocco is a monarchy whereas Pakistan is a majoritarian democracy where the majority seems dead set against any reform in the blasphemy laws — at least so far.

A house divided

It was an unusual development. Two leaders of the Baloch separatist movement not only differed vehemently with each other, they also made their disagreement known to all and sundry through press statements. On October 9, 2014, Mir Suleman Daud, the exiled heir to the Khan of Kalat, strongly criticised Dr Allah Nazar, the leader of the militant group Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), in a statement published in newspapers in Balochistan. London-based Daud was unhappy that Nazar had a meeting with Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan whose Balochistan National Party (BNP) is active in electoral politics, something that Baloch separatists and militants disapprove of.

“A pro-independence guerrilla leader should have never met Akhtar Mengal,” said Daud, as reported by the trilingual daily newspaper Tawar. He also accused the Mengals of duplicity. “On one hand, Javaid Mengal [who leads a separatist group, Lashkar-e-Balochistan, from London] prides himself on waging an armed struggle [for the] independence of Balochistan … and on the other, he sends his brother (Akhtar Mengal) to Pakistan to contest parliamentary elections,” the statement read.

An undated photograph shows Baloch rebels holding their weapons

An undated photograph shows Baloch rebels holding their weapons

The very next day, Nazar denied meeting Akhtar Mengal. “Even if [the meeting] had taken place, there would be nothing wrong with it,” he said in a statement also published in Tawar. Nazar claimed that his critics too had contacted Akhtar Mengal in the past. “The heavens did not fall when my honourable friend Hyrbyair Marri sent the Liberation Charter to Akhtar Mengal via his friends,” he added. This was a direct response to Daud’s description of Hyrbyair as the “only true leader of the Baloch freedom struggle”.

A senior Baloch political activist, who has worked as an office-bearer of the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) in the first half of the 1990s, explains that the two statements, in fact, are the first public display of tensions long simmering among the separatist militant leaders. These tensions originally resulted from differences among the two sons of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri — the doyen of Baloch separatism and one of the three Baloch leaders who spearheaded a revolt against the Pakistan Army during the 1970s.

Soon after Khair Bakhsh Marri’s son Balach was killed in Afghanistan in 2007, his other son, Hyrbyair – who was then believed to be leading a militant organisation, Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – was arrested in London. This made the senior Marri pass on control of the BLA to his third son Mehran, who is alleged to have grossly mismanaged the affairs of the organisation. “Most BLA commanders believe that Mehran embezzled the BLA funds and weapons,” says the activist, wishing to remain unnamed due to the sensitive nature of the subject. Mehran is also said to have used the embezzled funds and weapons to set up his own militant organisation, United Baloch Army (UBA).

A pro-militant web portal, Bramsh News Media, has recently published some details of the allegations against Mehran. On November 1, 2014, the portal carried a report authored by its spokesperson, Beuragh Baloch, claiming that Mehran had stolen three million dollars from the BLA funds and two of his confidants, Qadir Marri and Murad Naadi, took away 50 per cent of the organisation’s weapon stash, worth around 800 million rupees. “When Hyrbyair took back control of the BLA after his release [from arrest in London], Qadir and Murad escaped … with a stockpile of weapons and launched the UBA,” the report read. Khair Bakhsh Marri intervened in the dispute and asked Hyrbyair to pardon his brother but this ended up creating differences between Hyrbyair and his father, claimed the report.

Bashir Zeb Baloch, a former chairman of the BSO, has also written, since August 2014, a series of articles in daily Tawar about these circumstances. He wrote that he held several meetings with the BLF head Nazar and senior guerrilla commander Wahid Qambar before and after the emergence of the UBA. The purpose of these meetings was to get the BLA’s weapons back from Qadir Marri. “Instead of helping [in returning the weapons], it appeared from their attitude that they wanted us to recognise the UBA and forget all differences,” he wrote in one of the articles. Later, he said, it was proven that the BLF was getting weapons from Qadir Marri, who had a good working relationship with Nazar.

Bashir Zeb Baloch then also wrote about contacting BSO chairman Zahid Baloch (who later went missing), urging him to extend political support equally to all separatist organisations — as an effort to remove the impression that the student wing of the Baloch separatism was supporting a specific organisation or a particular leader.

Analysts keenly following the activities of Baloch militants tell the Herald that two distinct groups have emerged among the Baloch separatist movement. “Dr Allah Nazar and his BLF have good ties with the UBA and Brahumdagh Bugti’s Baloch Republican Army,” says one of them on the condition of anonymity. The other group consists of the BLA and the BLF’s breakaway faction Balochistan National Liberation Front (BNLF). This second group has the political support of Daud, he adds.

The BNLF was formed a couple of years ago by BLF commanders Salim Baloch and Allah Bakhsh Jago. The latter was a drug smuggler before he became a militant. Jago and Salim Baloch had cited the killing of innocent people, both Baloch and settlers, as their reason for parting ways with the BLF. In reality, says the analyst, it was a BLA-backed move aimed at settling scores with Nazar. The split among the separatists, however, does not augur well for the BLA and its allies in the long run, the analyst adds. Since the June 2014 death of Khair Bakhsh Marri, it has become difficult for the BLA to maintain its support among the Baloch who support secession from Pakistan. On the other hand, the BLF still boasts that one of its main leaders – Wahid Qambar – is a veteran of the insurgency of the 1970s, which has by now achieved a legendary status in Baloch history

An undated photograph showing Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, leader of the Balochistan Liberation Front — Reuters photo

An undated photograph showing Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, leader of the Balochistan Liberation Front — Reuters photo











Secondly, Nazar operates from within Balochistan whereas Hyrbyair Marri is living in England. The supporters of the former say he continues to face the security forces directly, while the latter is seen as being based in his relatively safe British shelter.

A recent incident explains what directly facing the security forces can entail. Nazar had a very narrow escape in a September 2014 encounter with security forces in Gomazi, an area of Kech district, according to a Balochistan government official. “Along with some of his men, he was trapped by security forces in a small village but escaped using underground irrigation tunnels, locally known as karezes,” the official says.

Insiders claim that such a close call for Nazar could have been a consequence of the split among militant groups, who seem as intent on fighting among themselves as they are on countering security forces. This, analysts say, may provide the security forces a rare opportunity to strike at the militants at a time when they are not at their united best. “The army is likely to launch a security operation against Baloch militants,” says one analyst, “provided its operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan is successful.”

The funny side of…driving


Illustration by Fahad Naveed

Most semi-educated blockheads believe Darwin said we have evolved from monkeys. He didn’t. What he said was that we evolved from a lower form of life and going by the behaviour of our civil, military and mullah politicians, it can safely be deduced that monkeys can only be a higher form of life.

However, looking at Pakistani male drivers you know that they very likely come from a long, lowly line of rats and mice. Not even monkeys would drive like them!
This is especially true if you are either a motorcyclist or a paid or underage driver (whose father is either a powerful politico or a bureaucrat). By the way, underage here means any man less than 70 years old, because here men never grow up — they just grow old.
If you’ve looked inside dark places infested by rats, you know how those creatures fidget and jostle, weaving around each other as they go about their business. And they can get into the tiniest of holes. Ditto for our drivers. Watch them trying to get ahead: their faces twitch, shoulders alternately hunch up and slump, head spins in every direction as they try to edge past every other road user. They can get into spaces you would not believe were big enough for a large tin trunk. And they fit a 4×4 SUV in such holes.

The feverish agitation has only one answer: Drivers have their pants full of fleas. I believe every driver has an old shoebox at home and one at his work place filled with those tiny black critters that you simply cannot crush with your fingers. When they are ready to go, drivers take a handful of the jumping meanies and stick them into their pants or shalwars. Then, they set off at breakneck speed holding a phone to their ear with one hand and with the other scrabbling away in their nether parts as the fleas bite them to death.

Since, by some unwritten law, the fleas must remain in the pants as long as the man is behind the wheel, drivers are forever in unholy haste to get wherever they have to get. No surprise then that every three-lane road has nine cars abreast, the drivers in a hurry to get out of their cars to remove their pet pests. The endless scratching and fidgeting leaves drivers so listless that they have no energy for work. This is particularly true for government employees.

And then there are moped riders and rickshaw drivers. As descendents of tiny, mouse-like beings, they can get their vehicles into spaces as narrow as a few inches and can even go under your car and come out on the other side none the worse for wear. Stop the one who scratches your bodywork and the standard response will be: “Tay ki hoya. Ik leek ee luggi a na.” (No big deal. It’s just a scratch.) Unsurprisingly, anyone answering your ‘car for sale’ ad will ask a standard first question: How many times has the car been repainted?

PS. My chum ZAN (name withheld to protect the guilty — he being guilty of passing on so many departmental howlers to me) is inspector with the traffic police of Lahore. He says no one, and that is no one, without exception pays heed to traffic rules. Upon being pulled over the standard procedure is to whip out their cell phones and call someone they had met at their local barbershop. ZAN says most of the time, it is only some police constable or peon from the police chief’s office.

On one occasion, with cell phone services cut to prevent crime, the offending driver attempted to call his constable friend. Failing, he turned to ZAN, ‘Aj jay service bund na hondi, tenu pata lug jana cee main kon aan!’ (If services were not out, you would have known who I am!)

Needless to say ZAN slapped him with the heaviest fine he could.

What if democracy does not bring stability?



Democracy always creates a lot of tumult. Silence is the characteristic of a graveyard. A vibrant society is always full of noise. In a developing country like Pakistan, this noise is usually coming from traditional class of politicians, who are seemingly good at politicking, but are hardly apt to fulfill the needs and aspirations of emerging middle classes.

The emerging middle classes in South Asia have generally shown deep aversion to traditional politicking. This trend is conspicuously most visible in neighboring India where numerous non-traditional type of political leaders, who have demonstrated managerial skills while in power, have won the elections and have come to power. The latest example is Narandera Modi, the incumbent prime minister of India, who rose to prominence as a result of achievement in transforming India’s western state of Gujrat into a hub of business activity. This trend of rise of managerial class of politician in Indian politics started in 1990s when another Indian politician, Chandra Babu Naidu became the chief minister of Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and ‘In just five years, he turned an impoverished, rural backwater place into India’s new information-technology hub’.  Thus now growing middle classes in Indian society, which gained strength from the business friendly policies of Indian politicians, are instrumental in bringing politicians with managerial skills to power and are gradually pushing traditional politicians out of business.

In Pakistan, unfortunately, we have failed to develop what in the western terminology is described as the ‘virtuous cycle’ of economic development. Economic hardships for middle classes are increasing and the size of the middle class is shrinking. Traditional politicians are presiding over huge patronage networks and ferociously acrimonious environment of country’s politics is sucking everyone into vicious cycle of traditional politicking. Economic development is merely used as a slogan to be show cased by politicians like Shahbaz Sharif and Mustafa Kamal, who have well-financed and well-equipped advertising machinery to back them. As the size of middle classes is shrinking with each passing day, political process is not about broadening the social base of political system, but rather it is a perverted form of patronage based politics and clientelism that helps create vote banks for traditional politicians. One has to be linked to traditional political groups (in one or the other way) to entitle oneself for the delivery of services that is considered the basis of legitimacy for any state. This surely gives rise to one or the other form of politics of exclusion. For instance, if you roam the streets of Lahore, you definitely feel like travelling on the roads of city of First World. Since Lahore is strongly linked with ruling party or ruling family, but you just have to travel 200 kilometre South to find out what prize one will have to pay if one is not strongly linked with the ruling party or ruling elite. This creates a tinderbox situation and stability is the last thing you should think about in this environment.



Social and political stability takes another hit on account of the centrifugal forces that are operating on the periphery. The situations in Balochistan and in North Western part of the country are only two clear examples of what damage the centrifugal forces are doing to country’s stability. The problem with our democracy is that it has demonstrated as little capacity as any other political system that was functioning in the country in over 60 years of its existence, in resolving the conflicts which are causing instability. In fact primary blame for this kind of situation cannot be laid on the door of democratic system. Over the years both Pakistani state and society have lost the capacity to resolve the conflicts through peaceful means. I think it would not be incorrect to say that Pakistani state has on numerous occasions become party to the conflicts that afflict Pakistani society. Two prime examples of Pakistani state becoming party to social and religious conflicts in our society are: a) when Pakistani parliament declared Ahmedis non-Muslims in elder Bhutto era, b) and when Pakistani state machinery helped fund and train Sunni extremists groups in anti-Shia rioting during the last years of Zia regime. The capacity of the society to play a role in resolving conflicts and thus bringing stability has also dwindled.  The military regime of Zia-ul-Haq played a central role in transforming Pakistan into s low- trust society, where people’s primary loyalty is with their family and clan, and thus creation and functioning of modern organizations and institutions, which can help resolve the conflicts, is an impossibility.

Leaving aside the theoretical part of it, let’s get down to the practical part of this problem of democracy and stability. The central question facing Pakistani society at present is what if democracy fails to bring stability to the society? Even a cursory look at country’s situation will lead one to the conclusion that democracy is not leading us towards social, political and economic stability. The traditional political forces have so far failed to resolve their mutual differences. In fact it would not be wrong to say that they have failed to agree to rules of the game that are acceptable to everybody.  Democracy and democratic institutions have remained marginal to the efforts to resolve conflicts and to resolve the problem of centrifugal forces.  Pakistani politics have so far failed to evolve out of the environment of traditional politicking. Resolving conflicts and bringing stability to the society is last thing on the agenda of our traditional politicians.

The rise of politicians with managerial skills in India could be attributed to emergence of big multinationals that are operating out of India. Indian middle classes, who are employed with these big Indian companies, see skillful managers managing the functioning of big companies, which employ hundreds of thousand people and which have emerged as profitable business concerns not only in India, but also abroad. India experts say that the growing middle classes in Indian society started to incline towards politicians with managerial skills in the late 1990s — the time which coincide with the rise of big business companies in Indian society.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz activists beat a poster of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf at a protest in Lahore on November 3, 2008.  -- AFP

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz activists beat a poster of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf at a protest in Lahore on November 3, 2008. — AFP

Unfortunately, in Pakistan’s case the alternative to traditional politicians and traditional politicking is not the rise of politicians with managerial skills. Pakistani middle classes are not familiar with the model of successful managers managing big multinationals. To the contrary they have a long time romance with the military and the men in uniform, because that is the only institution that they think is being run on successful basis in Pakistani society. ‘Only disciple organization in our society is army’ is a common refrain in drawing chats in Pakistani society. So when Pakistani middle classes get completely disenchanted with political system and traditional politicians they start eyeing military as an alternative. In the current situation, this is all the more true when they see army, whose profile has risen sharply after the start of military operation in North Waziristan, as the only institution that is doing something to tackle the problem of centrifugal forces, which are not only causing instability but threatening the very survival of the state.

The situation becomes all the more grim for democracy when we listen to the voices coming from outside the country. Now when the world leaders talk about Pakistan, they often follow it by mentioning the word stability, rather than democracy.  Let’s not speculate on the intentions of foreign leaders as to why they use the word stability more often than democracy in making statements about Pakistan. Leaving aside these statements, it is hardly difficult to conclude that the precarious situation of Pakistan will compel anyone watching the situation from outside to pray for country’s stability. Democracy in this situation becomes a privilege for the few.

Are we looking at a convergence of views ? International community wants a stable Pakistan, the vocal and visible middle classes of Pakistan want stability in the country, and most importantly, Pakistani military leadership mostly talk about stability. At this stage I will definitely desist from making any negative speculation. But surely the tide is turning against traditional politicking and traditional politicians. And it is high time that they start focusing on the core issue. From my side the advice for traditional politicians is — wake up, wake up, time is running out.


The failure of Islamist parties

Inability to achieve electoral success is often cited as the biggest failure of Pakistani Islamist political parties. But I think they have much bigger failure to their credit — the failure to propose viable political institutions for a conflict-ridden society. The ideology they claim to represent has an answer, according to them, to every problem. Yet the solutions they proposed for myriad and complex problems of Pakistani society were nothing more than abstractions and rhetoric. Over the years they played no small part in aggravating and sharpening the political and religious conflicts that existed in a very mild form at the time of creation of Pakistan. And now when the political and religious conflicts have assumed the form of uncontrolled specters, all they have to say about resolving these problems is nothing more than religious rhetoric.

Sirajul Haq addressing a JI rally in Dir

Sirajul Haq addressing a JI rally in Dir

For instance, they will say, “All Muslims are brothers”; “We have to follow the Amir (Religious leader) and take decisions according to mutual consultations”; “The best political system is Islamic political system (without pausing for a minute to explain what that system is) and it will resolve all our problems”.  When you take a look on the ground realities it becomes clear that their “Golden principles” don’t even succeed in resolving their mutual conflicts. Every other day we see reports about killings on the basis of religious conflicts.

By viable political institutions, I mean institutions which can facilitate the peaceful resolution of conflicts in our society, whatever may be the cause or basis of these conflicts. Whether these conflicts are political, religious, sectarian or ethnic, the political institutions should have flexibility and adaptability to accommodate the interests and concerns of all the myriad groups that exists in our society and without any of the group facing any compulsion to resort to violence to achieve its objectives and in the process becoming a centrifugal force.

The existing political institutions and the nature of the state are another problem that needs to be considered with reference to Islamists’ revivalist thought. At the start of 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire breathed its last, Islamic revivalists around the world embraced nation-state as the ideal form of political organisation. With it they came to terms with the parliamentary form of government in most of the newly created states.  Pakistani Islamists responded no differently to the emerging situation. Before the enactment of 1956 constitution, some of the groups of Islamists such as Jamaat-e-Islamic were not ready to swear allegiance to the state, calling it a force that has not come from divine sources. But everything changed after the religiously inclined prime minister Chaudhry Muhammad Ali convinced his personal friend and JI ideologue, Maulana Maudoodi to campaign in support of the 1956 constitution among the religious lobby of that time. Other groups didn’t take long for coming under the umbrella of Pakistani state. This alliance and this sense of belonging to each other has continued every since in different forms. This mutuality was reinforced when Islam was adopted as a state religion.

JI founder Maulana Maudoodi

JI founder Maulana Maudoodi

The way Islamists related themselves to Pakistani state cannot simply be attributed to naivety or altruism.  Their belief (which they displayed through their politics and rhetoric in 1950 and 60s) that the institution of the state could be Islamised in the same way as an individual can embrace Islam, was not only frivolous but could be termed out rightly obtuse.  This frivolity stemmed from the fact that the Islamists not even once made an attempt to understand the institution of State. They picked up political and ideological fights with the forces, which could have helped them understand the problems and dynamics of the institution of the state. The intellectual left made some rudimentary attempts to understand the institution of the state from a Marxist perspective in the formative years of Pakistani state but the Islamists just ignored this literature as well as post-colonial nature of the state in favour of some individuals who were at the helms of affairs at different points of time during the last sixty years and who displayed one or the other strand of religiosity in public life. For instance, Bhutto was a good man as far as he declared “Ahmadis” non-Muslims. Zia-ul-Haq was a perfect Muslim because he said his prayers five times a day and because he started the project to Islamise law in the country. All of these favorite personalities of the religious right, with a tinge of religiosity, made the Islamists oblivious of the fact that all of them either presided over or were part of the state structure that was inherently exploitative, internally, and was geared towards serving the interests of the western powers, externally.

The tradition of militarisation and rule through bureaucracy continued in the post-independence period, when the nascent tradition of parliamentary democracy was disrupted as part of a plan which the military-bureaucratic elite hatched with the help of their international connections to consolidate their grip on power structure. International forces, especially Americans were supporting this ascendency of military-bureaucratic elite for achieving their geo-political interests against an expansionist Soviet Union, and Pakistani Islamists were a small tool in this grand alliance. To give an idea of how it all worked, let me give a small but pertinent example. In 1970s and 1980s, American CIA translated (into local Central Asian languages) and supplied the books of Jamaat-e-Islami founder, Maulana Maudoodi into Soviet Central Asia as part of propaganda campaign against communists and royalty was paid back to the publisher. Some of the Americans journalists have mentioned this fact in their writings on the basis of recently declassified documents.

So the Islamists primarily served as an appendage of the post-colonial state, rather than fulfilling any intellectual purpose of proposing viable political institutions, which can help resolve the existing conflicts in the society. I would even go a step further and say that the Pakistani Islamists don’t have any real political thought to their credit. Their literature is simply devoid of any serious political thought. It’s full of rhetoric, abstractions and is focused more on some kind of moral and social reformism. In contrast are the Islamists in Iran. The clergy in Iran at the time of 1979 revolution was as much devoid of any serious political thought as the Islamists in Pakistan. But the Islamists in Iran had among their ranks people such as Ali Shariati, who made an attempt to understand the existing political and social realities from a sociological perspective.

This created a paradoxical situation in Pakistan. On the one hand, Islamists groups like Jamaat-e-Islami were on the forefront of politicising religion (or giving primacy to politics over salvation of individual as the ultimate aim of religious observance) while on the other hand intellectually they were completely bereft of any serious political thought. It didn’t take long for more radical groups (especially the militant groups), who were advocating complete de-politicization and taking up of arms, from filling the void and pushing Islamists groups off the center-stage.

Learning to cope

How violence has failed to stop girls from attending school in Panjgur


The burnt window of a private school that came under an arson attack in Panjgur, Balochistan.

The burnt window of a private school that came under an arson attack in Panjgur, Balochistan. — Photographs by Fahad Naveed

When 14-year-old Rehana Imam discovered that her school would reopen in August after a two-month break, her joy knew no bounds. Unusual, one may think. Children usually don’t like returning to school after vacations. But Imam’s case is extraordinary for two other reasons: her school is not a fancy facility with beautiful and well-equipped classrooms to lure in children and the break she was having was not due to summer vacations.

She is a 10th grade student at the Ideal Academy, a modest educational institute in the nondescript rock-and-sand area of Chitkan in Panjgur, one of the three districts in Balochistan’s southern Makran division. Her school was shut down because its administrators had received letters accusing them of committing the “crime” of teaching English language to local girls in an “infidel fashion”.

The threatening tone of the letters was reason enough for the administrators to be worried about their own safety as well as of their students. If, however, Imam was to decide whether to close down the school in the face of threats, she would have preferred to keep it open. “Why should I not go to school? Nobody has the right to tell me to stop studying,” she says.

It was such defiance that helped her return to school the day it reopened, even when many other girls chose to stay back at home. “There are 14 girls in my class but on the first day after school reopened, only three showed up,” she tells the Herald. “Yet, my teacher vowed she would continue her lectures even if there was only a single student attending classes.”

 Oasis AcademyIn the vast but sparsely populated Panjgur – less than 400,000 people live here over 16,891 square kilometers – such passion for education is self-evident. The area has 23 private English-medium schools besides 50 government-run Urdu-medium ones. A large part of this educational system is now facing threats. Before the start of the summer, a previously unknown Islamic militant organisation, Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan, sent out threatening messages to all private schools as well as to 30 private English-language teaching centres across Panjgur. The messages first came as mobile phone texts sent to the owners of the schools, as well as their principals and teachers, telling them to stop spreading “obscenity in society” and to put an end to educating girls.

On April 22, Avira Academy, a private school in Washbud area, was attacked, teachers there were beaten up and threats renewed. A week later, four unidentified people targeted the principal of another private school, Maymar-e-Nau Academy in Khudabadan area, as he was supervising morning classes at his institution. The attackers warned him of dire consequences if he continued teaching girls. They also left behind a pamphlet. Preaching against ‘western culture’, the pamphlet named people who were responsible for its spread in Panjgur and who, therefore, were the targets of Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan. On May 13, five masked men intercepted a van carrying eight girls to a school in Sarawan area. The men told the van driver to stop driving girls to school or else face dire consequences.

The same day Hussain Ali, a former major in the Bahraini army whose name was mentioned in the pamphlet and who is a leading member of the private schools association in Panjgur, came under attack while he was on his way to the school he runs. He was lucky to survive.

The attack on Ali had an unintended result: it triggered a wave of protests both in Panjgur and Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, with massive turnouts. Local residents claim that a rally in Panjgur outside Deputy Commissioner’s office on May 20 was perhaps the biggest protest gathering in the district in recent memory. Not just men but women and children also attended in large numbers.

As part of its efforts to ward off future attacks, the All Balochistan Progressive Private School Association also formally informed the district administration about the threats received by the schools. It was on the administration’s advice that the association decided to close down the schools in Panjgur for at least two months while the police carried out its investigation. (In this part of Balochistan, unlike most other areas in Pakistan, schools remain open in summers and have vacations in winters.)

Panjgur is located in the south-west of Balochistan. It borders Iran — most of the local economy is dependent on trade with Iranian areas across the border, much of it illegal. Believed to be on the route of Muhammad bin Qasim’s 8th century invasion of Sindh, the district derives its name from panj (five) guur (graves) scattered across the area.

Depending on whom you ask, those buried in these graves could be either the companions of the Prophet of Islam or Sufi saints who travelled along with Muhammad bin Qasim’s troops but chose to stay in this part of the world rather than moving on to Sindh. Unlike many other parts of Balochistan, Panjgur is not a tribal society lorded over by a chieftain — although, like many other regions in the province where grievances against Islamabad run deep, awareness about, and adherence to, Baloch cultural identity is quite high here.

Given this background, people in the district are expected to be both religious and steeped in their indigenous cultural traditions, the combination of which has an unfavourable bias against women in general and the education of girls in particular. It is unusual, therefore, that over the last two decades or so the district has come to possess what is the best private schooling system – with a sizeable presence of female students – in the entire province outside of Quetta.

Zaahir Hussain, a native of the area, is the pioneer of private education in Panjgur. In the early 1990s, he returned to his homeland after acquiring a degree from the United States and set up an English-language teaching centre which has evolved into a school with several hundred students — boys and girls both. The allegations of spreading western culture through educating girls are, indeed, as old as his language teaching centre. “People said I was an American spy who was bringing American culture to the area to destroy local traditions,” says 48-year-old Hussain.

Clearly, his detractors were outnumbered by those keen on educating girls. Within months, 400 students had enrolled in his language centre and by 1995 he had opened a separate branch solely for girls. “Women in my own family showed interest in learning English,” Hussain says, adding that it was their help that allowed him to enroll other girl students.

The earlier apprehensions about Hussain’s initiative seem to have their origin in Baloch culture. The latest threats, however, appear to be religiously motivated. “First they only demanded that there be separate classes for boys and girls, which most of the schools do in any case,” says a school owner of the warnings received from Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan. “Then came threats that girls should not study at private schools at all and they should only be allowed to go to government schools.” This was followed by the last and final warning: “No education for girls.”

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Panjgur native who now works in the United States where he sought asylum after fearing persecution in Pakistan due to his Baloch secessionist views, says Baloch society is a patriarchal one which does not allow women to be seen in the public. “Women in Panjgur never go to local markets,” he says in an email exchange with the Herald. “Ghairat (honour) and nang (respect) are central components of the Baloch code of conduct called riwaj. In Balochi riwaj, women are treated as the [repositories of the] honour of [a] family; if someone else sees someone else’s woman, it is considered absolutely unacceptable,” he says.

This riwaj, however, is not as immune to change as it once was. In recent times, women have traversed a fair distance in their struggle against such misogynist traditions. Many of them have become teachers as well as ardent supporters of girls’ education regardless of whether it is against local traditions. “My father sent me to Quetta so that I could acquire higher education,” says a female lecturer at Government Degree College Panjgur. Awareness about educating girls has gradually increased among people in Panjgur over the last couple of decades, she tells the Herald, without wanting to be named. “People are willing to bend traditions and send their daughters to study” given the obvious economic and social benefits.

“When Malala [Yousafzai] is attacked and raises her voice for education, she is covered by the national, and then international, media repeatedly. Yet there is no media interest in Panjgur where an entire community is being prevented from receiving education.”

Having successfully skirted tradition, she is now worried about the next hurdle — religion. As the mother of a girl who is studying at a private school which has been targeted by Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan, she sounds harried. “An air of fear hangs around us.”
Rehana Imam’s father, Imam Bakhsh, a frail-looking man with a shivering voice, is equally scared. “You just can’t leave your children alone anymore,” he says as he talks about the mental stress of coping with the situation, and the sleepless nights that have ensued.
Yet, educators, students and parents are all resolute that they are not going to give up. “Death is inevitable so why fear it?” says Imam with a determined voice. During her forced break from school, she also learnt what her options were if she did not get education: staying at home and doing the same domestic chores day in and day out. “I want to go to school so that I don’t have to do boring household chores that my mother makes me do.” Like her elder sister, she wants to study medicine to become a doctor.

The owners and administrators of private schools are making a serious effort to promote change through any means possible. “Speak English only”, reads one inscription inside a private school in large letters. “Give us an educated mother; we will give you an educated nation,” says another. They have backed this up with courageous defiance of any attempts to keep girls out of schools. One private school that came under an arson attack on August 26th ensured that it reopened only a week later, determined to demonstrate that its teachers and students could not be cowed down. The attendance was back to more than 90 percent within a week of reopening.

Some parents and schools have adopted other, less combative, measures to stave off the attacks. Ali, one of the private school administrators, says more than 100 children have left his school to continue their studies elsewhere in the province. Some schools have built walls within their premises to separate girl students from boys. “There may be forces trying to stop us but we are going to push these students towards acquiring a better future,” says a teacher at a private school.

P1010165The lack of media coverage of developments in Panjgur is partially due to the official insistence that local reporters limit their reports to government-sponsored events. Journalists coming in from the outside, which is rare, do not automatically get unfettered access to local residents. The Assistant Deputy Commissioner, for instance, was extremely upset when he discovered that the Herald team had not obtained a No-Objection Certificate before landing in the district.

Complaints about the media’s indifference towards local issues are rife in the district though the residents of Panjgur are unable to specify reasons for that. “When Malala [Yousafzai] is attacked and raises her voice for education, she is covered by the national and then international media repeatedly. Yet there is no media interest in Panjgur, where an entire community is being prevented from receiving education and when people are holding public protests for their right to education,” a member of the private schools association observes.

On the other hand, there is intermittent acknowledgement that media coverage of local issues may be harmful to people whose faces are seen on television and whose names appear in newspapers due to the precarious security situation in the district which has been the scene of many pitched battles between the security forces and the militants. The threats being issued by Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan have added yet another disincentive for the locals to stay away from the media as it strengthens uncertain security situation in the district. “It is one thing when you know who your enemy is. But the fear of an unknown foe does something unexplainable to a society,” is how a school administrator explains the fears and insecurities of the residents of Panjgur.

P1010128Learning English seems to be a big priority for students and their parents. The faculty and administrators at private schools take great pride in how well their students can converse in English. Average enrollment at a private school is 600-800 students but a few large ones have more than 1200 students each, depending on their reputation to produce good results.

Parallel to these private schools are madrassas. Miftahul Uloom, the first madrassa in Panjgur, started enrolling students as far back as 1947. About a decade and a half ago, the total number of madrassas in the district was 12 to 15. It has now grown to 42, according to Maulana Muhammad Azam, president of the Panjgur chapter of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl. “Our party runs 31 of these madrassas,” he says. The number of students studying at these madrassas, however, remains small – 3,000 compared to more than 15,000 in private schools.

Azam firmly believes that girls and boys should not study together but he vehemently argues that segregation in schools should not be enforced “by guns and violence”. He says members of the private schools association recently visited local madrasas where they were assured that students, teachers and administrators of madrasas did not know or support those who were attacking private schools. “In fact, I took part in protest rallies every time there was one,” Azam tells the Herald.

Oasis Academy - a painting showing the Oasis Academy at Panjgur with Pakistan's flag hoisted the flag polls no longer have any flagsWhile members of the private schools association do not know who is attacking them, Dr Samiullah Soomro, the District Police Officer, says the local administration has already identified the attackers who belong to a small group of men just returned from Afghanistan after fighting there alongside the Taliban. “The group was led by two men, Niaz and Naveed. We managed to round up their relatives who told us that the two have escaped to [nearby] Turbat [district],” he says.

Another government official, who is a native of Panjgur, acknowledges that the two men responsible for the attacks represent a new development in the area. “There is a definite presence of elements who are trying to create a space for themselves. Most of them are outsiders. Even if they are locals, they were radicalised in seminaries elsewhere in the country,” he says.

There are also whispers about the role of the security forces and their failure to thwart attacks on schools. The FC headquarters, says a school administrator, is only a kilometre away from one of the schools that was targeted. A security checkpoint is less than 300 metres away from that school. “Yet the FC soldiers were unable to capture a single attacker.”

Monsoon mayhem

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For the Mughal Emperor Babar, one of the strangest characteristics of his newly acquired kingdom in Hindustan was its hydrology. “Autumn crops grow by the downpour of the rains themselves,” he wrote in his memoirs, where he devoted a short section to the description of the strange new land he had entered in the second decade of the 16th century. “[A]nd strange it is that spring crops grow even when no rain falls.” Used to the streams and lakes of the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, where he was raised, he noted the absence of running water, except in the rivers — “so much so that towns and countries subsist on the water of wells or on such collects in tanks during the rains”.

The young conqueror could only glimpse early in his career how hydrology was central to the organisation of life in the land he had just captured. “In Hindustan hamlets and villages, towns indeed, are depopulated and set up in a moment! If they fix their eyes on a place in which to settle, they need not dig watercourses or construct dams because their crops are all rain grown,” he wrote.

Of course none of this was such a big mystery. In fact, the answer to what puzzled Babar was right in front of his eyes. The presence of wells, for example, was the clearest proof that only 30 feet or 40 feet beneath the ground he was standing on, there was water. If the young invader’s mind had not been so preoccupied with war, he might have realised that there was a connection between rains and wells. After all, it did not take a lot to realise that water from rains recharged the underground aquifers and these were the reason why plants could grow in the spring “even when no rain falls”.

But Babar was a newcomer to India and his views about local hydrology were naïve — at least by Indian standards. The great monsoon rains have been showering their bounties on this land since time immemorial, perhaps even before life emerged in this part of the world. A rich tradition of folklore and religious symbolism has built up around the rains and their arrival. In Gujarat, for instance, since the eighth century at least, the flowering of the Cassia fistula tree has been said to mean that monsoon rains are 45 days away. In parts of Tamil Nadu, a westerly wind in June and July meant rains were expected in the next two months, and farmers procured their seeds and planted their crops accordingly. The manner of flight of a particular bird, the flowering pattern of certain plants or the direction of the wind on important religious occasions like Holi were all used to forecast the arrival of monsoon rains, in times when measurements of sea surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure was unimaginable.

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Scientific observation of monsoon only began in the late 19th century, following the failure of rains in 1877 and 1878. Those consecutive years of monsoon failure created the worst ever recorded natural disaster in the world at the time, causing widespread famine and death across India and China. By the time the climatic perturbations behind the failure of the rains ended in 1879, more than 5.5 million people had died due to starvation in India alone. Such was the scale of dependence that life here had developed to the timely arrival of monsoon rains.

Following this disaster, the government of British India set up an observatory to study the Indian monsoon and devise a methodology for predicting its arrival. In his book, The Dance of Air and Sea, Arnold Taylor writes how the first director general of the Indian Meteorology Department, Henry Blanford, “turned to a study of conditions beyond India’s shores,” in his search for the drivers of the great rains, and began compiling data from other territories of the empire. During this exercise, he received a letter from the government astronomer in Australia which contained “the first definitive recognition of an international climatic connection” for monsoon. “Comparing our records with those of India,” the letter read, “I find a close correspondence or similarity of seasons with regard to the prevalence of drought [between India and Australia], and there can be little or no doubt that severe droughts occur as a rule simultaneously over the two countries”.

Blanford himself never made much out of this observation, preferring, instead, to focus his mind on the varying thickness of the Himalayan snows as a predictor of the monsoon rains. In 1904, Gilbert Walker, a 36-year-old statistician from Cambridge, replaced Blanford at the Indian Meteorology Department as director general. He quickly immersed himself in a 15-year study of climate data from around the world. In 1923, he published his findings in which he revealed the operation of a giant “see-saw in atmospheric pressure and rainfall”; he observed a “swaying of pressure on a big scale … between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean” — when pressure in one place is elevated, it is depressed in the other.

When there was a low pressure system in the Indian Ocean, there would be a dry period on the Pacific side and a wet season on the Indian Ocean and vice versa. Gilbert studied data for the drought of 1877 and 1878 and found “there was a strong pressure reversal over the equatorial Pacific” in those years. Forty-five years after the event, the observatory set up by the colonial authorities had finally explained the devastating drought of those two years.

ISLAMAABD: Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

Gilbert Walker’s study was the first glimpse of the connections that tie the Indian monsoon to climatic phenomena occurring, with a cyclical regularity, on a planetary scale. Walker called it the great Southern Oscillation, and it forms the bedrock of all studies of monsoon rains to this day. Whenever Southern Oscillation reverses, monsoons are affected. For the first time, an answer appeared to be emerging to the question that had hung over the Indian subcontinent ever since life emerged on its grassy plains: How can you tell when monsoon rains are going to come?

But the discovery of Southern Oscillation was not sufficient to answer this question. We knew that a connection existed but to be able to use that knowledge for forecasting purposes, it was necessary to know what drove the oscillation in the first place. In short, it wasn’t enough to know that it existed, we needed to know why it existed. And that discovery was another half century away.

It was in 1957 that the phenomenon known as El Nino was discovered. Taylor writes of how Peruvian fishermen knew, for centuries, of a warm water current that sweeps down along the Pacific coast, each year. The current had been studied in the 19th century, and its effects on marine life described in an article in 1892, by the captain of a boat. His fellow fishermen on those waters “name this countercurrent the current of El Niño (the Child Jesus) because it has been observed to appear after Christmas,” writes the captain.
In 1957, the first observation was made that confirmed El Niño’s effects on the Indian monsoon. The interaction between the ocean currents and the climate was shown to have global ramifications. Whenever an El Niño event appeared off the coast of South America, the monsoons across Asia suffered or failed completely.

But, even as more details started appearing about mechanisms driving monsoon, forecasting its arrival and failure with any meaningful accuracy still remained a distant dream. The main reason for this was logistical. In order to fully observe the El Niño event, it was necessary to take extensive measurements of sea surface temperatures across a large swathe of the Pacific Ocean as well as the Indian Ocean. What is more, this data was required on a regular basis, the more measurements per day, the better. Given that sea surface temperatures were taken using ships, data requirements for forecasting the monsoon were far beyond what the state of technology could deliver at that time.

That began to change in the 1960s. By the middle of that decade, computing models were beginning to be used to process enormous quantities of data that meteorological observations were generating. In 1970, the first satellites equipped with thermal imaging cameras were put into orbit. They were capable of providing high resolution sea surface temperature readings for huge swathes of the world’s oceans.

By the 1990s, advances in computing made possible extremely large and complex models to quickly process enormous volumes of meteorological data. The technique was called ensemble modelling, and saw large numbers of machines working in parallel to do repeated runs on a live stream of meteorological data coming in from a vast network of satellites, weather radars and floating buoys on the ocean surface. Global circulation models were born during this time and a picture of the earth’s climate emerged that was updated on a daily basis.

But technology had only just begun to make climatic phenomena intelligible on a meaningful scale and a picture was slowly emerging of the global circulations of air and water that governed the earth’s climate. At that time, the climate itself began to change, driven by man-made forces that were causing it to morph precisely when it began to yield up its secrets.

In the monsoon-fed regions of the northern subcontinent, a new priority began to compete with the age-old quest to forecast the arrival of rains — flood forecasting. Pakistan had its first three consecutive years of flooding between 1992 and 1995. Bangladesh experienced a flood in 1998 that submerged more than 60 per cent of the country for three months. Both were unusual events. The latter event prompted a search for answers to new questions that the changing monsoon pattern had thrown up: Can the weather system driving the monsoon be predictable on a timescale of months and years in advance? How far can we discern mechanisms that underlie this predictability? Can these mechanisms be modelled? What sort of data observations and transmission systems will be required for “operational prediction” of monsoon-related flooding?

ISLAMAABD: Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

The search for answers to these questions led to the creation of the Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program in 1998. Meteorological scientists, led by Dr Peter Webster, at Georgia Institute of Technology teamed up with people in other research centres to search for mechanisms which linked sea surface temperatures connected with El Niño in the Pacific and unusual monsoon rains in the northern subcontinent. The programme put together the most detailed data on Pacific sea surface temperatures gathered until then, and came to the conclusion that the effects of El Niño, which had guided thinking on monsoon until then, were perhaps overstated. “The picture that has emerged,” wrote the scientists who worked on the programme, “is a system that is global and interactive”. If we are to understand the behaviour of monsoons, particularly for flood forecasting purposes, they said it would be necessary to “extend climate prediction from the Pacific basin to the global domain”.

Starting out as a purely localised phenomenon, by the middle of the 20th century, monsoon came to be understood as part of a large, planetary oscillation linked to the Pacific Ocean. In the opening years of the 21st century, the cutting edge of scientific work discovered that the linkages go beyond that to larger climatic circulations. The data and modelling requirements for flood forecasting, therefore, have become truly stupendous.
It is in this context that a model was developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the opening decade of the 21st century. It was capable of ingesting mind-boggling volumes of data from global meteorological databases, and processing them to yield startlingly accurate forecasts of streamflow in the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, with a lead time of up to 10 days. The model was deployed in Bangladesh in 2003, and provided accurate forecasts of floods in 2004 and 2007. In 2009, the model was handed over to the Bangladesh government. The creators of the model now turned their attention to Pakistan.
In 2010, Pakistan was struck by the worst floods in its history that displaced close to 20 million people. There have been four monsoon seasons since then, and each one has seen a catastrophic flood caused by unusual rains. The creators of the model arrived just in time.

Five floods in five years is evidence enough that something big is happening around us. So far, Pakistan is lucky that no major breach of a hydrological structure has occurred during any of these floods, but how long will this luck last? Understanding the science behind the torrential rains that fall upon us with biblical ferocity, every year, is critical if we are not to head into a disaster of historic proportions. Developing an action plan to mitigate the impact of floods is now mission critical for Pakistan. We cannot afford to be like the young invader any longer, head addled on war, who could only scratch his head at the hydrological mysteries of India, even as the answers to his questions were right there in front of his eyes.

Part I of Herald’s cover story on floods can be read here. 

A disaster foretold


- Photo by Arif Ali

– Photo by Arif Ali

It was August 6, 2013, and the data had just been processed.

Dr Kristofer Shrestha, a research scientist, sat in his third-floor office in the environmental sciences and technology building at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, and opened the Indus river basin dashboard on his terminal. Two maps sprang up on the screen, both of them showing Pakistan along with some parts of its neighbouring countries.

The map on the left showed the country covered in a blue-and-green blot — evidence of a rainy weather system moving in from the east. The map on the right showed the Indus river system and its tributaries, with small blue dots to mark the location of each barrage and dam. The first map told Shrestha about the expected rainfall for that day and the second told him how much water was expected to flow through each blue dot on the same day.

Underneath the maps was a forecast slider, marked Day 1 to Day 10. As his cursor hovered over each forecast day on the slider, the maps changed colour, corresponding to the amount of rainfall expected on each day. On Day 8 and Day 9, the model he was operating showed heavy rainfall over the northern parts of the Indus. He quickly clicked on the link marked “Accumulated Precipitation”. The map changed colour showing how much water was expected to accumulate in different parts of Pakistan during those days. As he moved from Day 1 to Day 10, the map turned red, showing sharply rising levels of water accumulation across many parts of Punjab and Balochistan.

Shrestha might have been the first person in the world to see that Pakistan was just about to face a flood. After studying other data related to water flow forecasts in the rivers and water inflows at major dams, he wrote a short email to the principal investigator of the Indus river basin flood forecast project, alerting him that the model was showing “a high likelihood of elevated streamflows” 10 days down the road.

The principal investigator, Dr Peter Webster, has a quarter century of experience of working on predicting monsoonal floods in northern parts of the subcontinent. His office was down the hall from Shrestha’s. Webster opened the dashboard on his computer and, after a brief discussion with Shrestha, made a call to his contact in the World Bank to ask them to alert the Pakistani authorities that heavy rains and floods may be coming their way in 10 days’ time.

Here in Pakistan, his alert fell on deaf ears. “There is complete disinterest in our work in Pakistan,” he says in a telephone interview. The floods came as predicted. The Pakistan Meteorological Department described the August rains in 2013 as “exceptionally on higher than normal side” and the “ninth highest monthly rainfall since 1961”. Statements issued by Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), as reported in the press at the time, said more than 1.5 million people were affected by the resultant floods.

Five floods in five seasons

With flood waters having caused large-scale destruction in the first two weeks of September this year, Pakistan has just had its fifth consecutive year of monsoon-related floods. Each of the five floods was predictable with a ten-day lead time. In the case of the ones in 2012 and 2013, the forecast was actually made and an alert sent to the authorities in Pakistan by Webster’s team.

Why have there been five consecutive years of heavy rainfall followed by flooding in Pakistan? This year, Webster and his colleagues have published a large, analytical paper in which they take a close look at the storm structures that produced three consecutive years of flooding in Pakistan between 2010 and 2012.

“Striking similarities between all three floods exist,” they write, adding that the “flood-producing storms exhibited climatologically unusual structures” in all three cases. So, we had three consecutive years of highly unusual storms, each of which bore striking resemblance to each other. This suggests that the monsoon systems that have governed rainfall in northern India for millennia might be undergoing a structural change. “If these were natural phenomena, you would have seen this sort of thing occur in the past,” says Webster. “Clearly the climate has changed.”

What was so unusual about these storms? And what were the similarities between them?
Under normal conditions, weather patterns that produce rainfall in northern parts of the subcontinent differ between the eastern and western ends of the monsoon system. Over the Bay of Bengal, where the monsoon system originates, a depression sucks in high levels of moisture from the ocean air, and creates layered clouds, one on top of another, known as “stratiform clouds”, spread over a large area. The resultant storm system is “less intense, but much more widespread and productive of precipitation”. Hence, the rains in the east are gentler than they are in the west, but in both regions they cover a large area and last quite long.

In each of the three years the authors of the paper studied, large stratiform clouds “embedded with wide convective cores, rarely seen in this region” somehow travelled from the Bay of Bengal, where they are normal, across the subcontinent and unloaded their enormous cargo of moisture in a short, intense burst over Pakistan. In 2010, this system was pushed northwards, into the indentation formed by the meeting of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Once the storm system collided with the mountains, it was pushed upwards, causing it to cool rapidly and thereby offloading its moisture in a short burst over northern Pakistan, causing flash floods.

The dashboard for the Indus river basin flood forecast model, developed at Georgia Institute of Technology, shows the forecast created on August 6, 2013. Note the forecast slider below the map, where Day 10 is highlighted. The red areas on the map show the extent of flooding forecasted in 10 days.

The dashboard for the Indus river basin flood forecast model, developed at Georgia Institute of Technology, shows the forecast created on August 6, 2013. Note the forecast slider below the map, where Day 10 is highlighted. The red areas on the map show the extent of flooding forecasted in 10 days.

But, in the subsequent two years, the same storm systems veered southwards instead, due to an absence of a south-to-north wind, appearing over Punjab and Sindh. The intensity of the rains was lower in those two years and much of the rains fell outside the Indus basin. As a result, the swelling of the rivers was also not as intense as it was in 2010.

The shifting of these Bay of Bengal storm systems towards the west is one common anomaly in each of the three flood years. Another puzzling anomaly in these three years is a link between the storms in Pakistan and an intense heat wave in eastern Europe which created a high pressure trough above the Himalayas. This high pressure system, rarely seen before, served as a natural barrier, a massive atmospheric wall running from Tibet to the northern reaches of Afghanistan, that apparently deflected an otherwise important wind that always blows over Pakistan from the Afghan plateau. That wind is dry and warm, and usually caps the moist winds coming from the Arabian Sea where the western fringe of the subcontinent’s monsoon system primarily draws its moisture from. Because this moist air is capped on top by the dry and warm air from the Afghan plateau, the moisture does not coalesce into large storm structures. But in each of the three flood years between 2010 and 2012, “[w]arm air from the Afghan plateau did not flow out over Pakistan”, reads the latest paper by Webster and his team. “Rather, a deep layer of moist air flowed into the region from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The high pressure trough above the Himalayas, therefore, played a crucial role in the storms of all three years,” it says — first by creating the wind patterns that caused the Bay of Bengal storm system to travel westward, then by blocking the warm dry air from the western Afghan plateau which caps the moisture the seas blow into our weather. Large moisture-laden clouds, therefore, arrived over Pakistan during each year from across the Gangetic plains and freely joined with those coming from the Arabian Sea to form gigantic storm systems over the Indus basin.

The volume of rains that fell over Pakistan in a short period of time was staggering in 2010. Cumulatively, up to 6,000 millimetres of rain fell over much of northern Pakistan that year. In the next two years, this amount declined somewhat — exceeding 2,000 millimetres in some areas in 2011 and just touching 1,000 millimetres in 2012.
In their papers, dating from one written in February 2011, Webster and his colleagues have pointed out another common theme between the three flood years: The storm systems that resulted in the floods may be highly anomalous but they were all predictable with high levels of confidence up to ten days in advance, in some cases even more. In the February 2011 paper, titled Were the 2010 Pakistan Floods Predictable?, they find that “the July 28 [2010] event was predicted almost eight days in advance with a probability larger than 60 per cent”.

Their latest paper extends the scope of the analysis further. The storm systems, that produced the floods in each of the three years studied, arose from a combination of global and regional weather patterns. The global climatic patterns can be very accurately modelled because the data required for that exercise is readily available in databases like the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), an intergovernmental organisation supported by 34 countries, and located in the UK. Forecasting specific regional storms “is not possible at this time”, although “the large-scale environments conducive to the development of [regionally directed] storm systems that produce flooding in South Asia” can be forecast with “considerable accuracy”.

To underline this point, Webster built a model for the Indus river basin. The model draws more than 40 million meteorological readings from the ECMWF database every day and runs them through a series of computational processes so complex that they require a computer server with 64 cores and a processing speed of 2.3 gigahertz to operate. The model couples these computations with river flow data from Pakistan – or whatever of it is available – and computes water flows into the Indus river as well as its tributaries that will result from the rainfall being forecast, the absorptive capacity of the terrain, the spread of vegetation, the solar energy signature over the entire Indus basin and more. It takes the system four to five hours, every day, to ingest the data and process it, before yielding a detailed forecast for the next 10 days.

The model then tells you how much rain to expect where, how much accumulation of water will occur in what region and what river flow will be at each hydrological station on each forecast day. The model began providing its first operational forecasts in August 2012. In the first few weeks of its operation, it forecast large floods in Sindh. Daily forecasts made from August 31 [2012] onwards “consistently predicted main-stem flows in the Indus to peak between September 11 and 13”, says Shrestha. They alerted the authorities in Pakistan.

As if on cue, the rains began on September 8, 2012, and turned into a deluge in a matter of days. The hardest hit part of the country was Sindh, as shown by the model 10 days earlier, where up to three million people were affected, according to the NDMA. By the end of the month, Pakistan was asking for international assistance to fight the floods.

The model can predict rain very accurately, even when it is dealing with anomalous storm patterns. But, in order to predict streamflows at precise locations, it needs river flow data from each of the hydrological structures on the Indus river system. The creators of the model, however, have found that the government of Pakistan is not willing to share this data with them. They, therefore, have developed a system to download daily reports from the Pakistan Meteorological Department website which contains some of this information.
In 2013, they updated the model further by including river flow data in it, and this is when it yielded the flood forecast in August that year, giving detailed streamflow figures as well. As a rule, the more data you can feed into the model, the more precise the results it will give. “It needs to be upgraded every year,” says Webster. As data from an outgoing year is fed into it, the model better understands the relationship between atmospheric events and the hydrology on the ground.

So how does advance alert help? The model can tell you the likelihood of a flood, its location and intensity and effects on each individual river of the Indus river system. The real game actually begins after an alert has been issued. With advance warning, embankments can be strengthened, dams can be emptied out, barrages can be reinforced, breaching priorities for embankments that lie along the path of the flood can be drawn up in time and residents can be alerted so that perishables and livestock can be moved to higher ground.

Pakistan is blessed with a highly developed river management system which can be effectively used to mitigate the full impact of a flood. For a clearer idea on how this would work, consider the floods of this year, which began due to unusually high rains over the catchment areas of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers. The first flood alert was issued by the Pakistan Meteorological Department on September 3, 2014, just over 48 hours before the flood peak arrived in Pakistan from India. When the alert was issued, water level at Mangla Dam reservoir stood at 1,227 feet (this same level had been obtaining since mid-August, at least). The Indus River System Authority (IRSA), responsible for overseeing the distribution of river water among different parts of Pakistan, had been releasing water from the dam very slowly since July 28, anticipating rains. Inflows at the dam were around 20,000 cusec during those days. Then, suddenly, on September 4, the first surge arrived, with inflows jumping to 95,000 cusec. The IRSA responded to the flood alert issued a day earlier by raising outflows only slightly — to 30,000 cusec.

The flood peak arrived on September 5, when inflows jumped to 310,000 cusec but outflows on that day were brought down to 15,000 cusec — presumably, in an attempt to arrest the floodwaters. In a single day, water level in the dam rose by eight feet – a staggering increase for a reservoir of Mangla’s size – and the water level in it touched 1,236 feet. On September 6, 2014, the inflow of water rose to 413,000 cusec and water level in the dam rose to almost 1,240 feet. Since top water level that Mangla Dam’s reservoir can reach is 1,242 feet, further increases in the water level could not be accommodated, so the dam’s spillways were opened. Outflows jumped from 15,000 cusec to 282,000 cusec on September 6, 2014.

The resultant surge in the Jhelum river combined a few days later with a similar surge travelling down the Chenab, at the confluence of these two rivers just upstream from Trimmu headworks [see diagram on pg. 57]. Trimmu is where the majority of the breaches had to be made to prevent the headworks from getting washed away. Three breaches were made, including at least one in the embankments around the barrage itself. This is where most of the flooding occurred.

With advance warning, Mangla could have been emptied out much sooner, making it possible to absorb the floodwaters surging down the Jhelum river. With no additional water flowing in from the Jhelum, the peak flood in the Chenab could have been relatively better managed at Trimmu, possibly without significant breaching of dykes. All downstream structures – Panjnad, Guddu and Sukkur – could also have easily handled the floodwaters. The flooding would not have been nearly as damaging as it has turned out to be.

Pakistan’s water managers frequently ask for more infrastructure – dams and barrages – as a flood control measure. But how will they operate this infrastructure in the absence of lead time in flood alerts, given the current state of flood forecasting in Pakistan? Without advance warning of a major flood event, along with attendant streamflow forecasts, hydrological infrastructure will only be a silent spectator to any flood, at best, and a liability to be protected by breaching embankments, at worst.

Part II of this story can be read here.