Wrong number

On the irksome SIM verification and its suspect efficacy

In the first week of December 2014, two men knocked on Shazia Bibi’s door and asked her to step outside. Wary and vigilant, as most are these days, she remained inside. “What do you want?” she asked from behind the door. The men, who introduced themselves as officials from the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), said there were problems with her computerised national identity card (CNIC) and they were here to take her thumb impression. Still reluctant, she made another attempt to deflect them, requesting that they come back when a man was present in the house. But the men insisted, so she stepped out, pressed her thumb on a hand-held machine and answered some questions relating to her CNIC. The men thanked her and left.

Illustration by Fahad Naveed

Illustration by Fahad Naveed

A day after Taliban militants attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, law-enforcement officers stormed into Shazia Bibi’s house and took her and her entire family into custody. Five mobile phone SIMs – subscriber identification modules, in technical jargon – all biometrically verified, used by the school attackers to communicate with the mastermind of the massacre had been issued in Shazia Bibi’s name, an unsuspecting housewife living hundreds of miles away in  Gharibabad area of Hasilpur town in Bahawalpur district.

On a cold January morning in Lahore, Wasim Ahmed – a teacher by profession – waits for his turn in a queue at a telecom customer service centre in Gulberg area. He has been waiting for an hour.

“Just a couple of days ago, I received a message from the telecom operator asking me to verify my SIM through the biometric verification system, otherwise it will be blocked [by February 26],” he says, with apparent displeasure. “I wonder what companies will get from this sort of exercise.”

In the wake of the Peshawar school massacre, telecom operators have been tasked with a massive job: to verify 103 million pre-paid cell phone connections in the country — within 91 days, starting from January 13, 2015. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan maintains that “unauthorised and illegal” SIMs remain a major obstacle in tackling terror, a stance reminiscent of that of his predecessor, Rehman Malik – who towards the end of his tenure in ministry – had become increasingly fond of trying to thwart terror attacks by suspending mobile phone services. It was largely on Malik’s insistence that telecom operators were persuaded to launch a biometric verification system for issuing new SIMs.

A consumer using biometric verification to purchase a Ufone sim — Ufone

A consumer using biometric verification to purchase a Ufone sim — Ufone

The system, however, was formally introduced in August 2014, more than 15 months after his departure from the government.

People remain sceptical about the effectiveness of the verification process. “I don’t think terrorism will stop through this exercise,” says Ahmed, gloomily.

The number of mobile phone subscribers in Pakistan has reached 140 million. Roughly 10 per cent of these are post-paid connections. Some 30 million pre-paid connections have been verified since the launch of the biometric system last year; the remaining must be verified by April 13, 2015. Initially, the interior minister attempted to have the process completed within 28 days but operators balked at the deadline. Retail points, in the meanwhile, have been barred from issuing new SIMs until biometric verification of the old ones is complete.

This is how the verification process works: collectively, the five mobile phone operators in the country have 59,000 retail centres and 1,500 customer service centres or franchises. Reportedly, all these are now equipped with biometric machines. A customer will have to visit an outlet run by his or her operator and provide CNIC details along with the mobile station integrated services digital network (MSISDN) number — essentially, the phone number. The staff at the outlet will enter these details, along with the requisite biometric credentials, into a system which will verify the ownership of the MSISDN against that particular CNIC. It will also confirm whether the number has been previously verified. If it hasn’t, the system will then send the thumb impressions of the customer to Nadra for verification. If the CNIC associated with the thumb impression doesn’t match the CNIC associated with the MSISDN, the customer will have to either provide the correct CNIC number or change ownership of the SIM. Once these new details have been verified, a message will be sent to the phone number – in English and Urdu – confirming biometric re-verification. In case, the new details can’t be verified, a text message will inform the customer to contact the nearest Nadra centre.

A  Sikh shopkeeper bargains with clients in a mobile market in Peshawar — AFP

A shopkeeper bargains with clients in a mobile market in Peshawar — AFP

 Standing in a queue on College Road, in the Township neighbourhood of Lahore, trader Agha Irfan Khan is of the opinion that such verification procedures should have been adopted much earlier by mobile phone companies to check potential malpractices. He also complains about the inconvenience caused by the hasty verification. “People have now panicked and are rushing to their nearest centres,” he notes.
Many people may still take the matter lightly, predicts an official of the Pakistan

Telecommunication Authority (PTA) that regulates the telecom sector in Pakistan. They do not realise that in a matter of weeks they will lose the ability to use their cell phone numbers. “It is possible that once the unverified SIMs are blocked, millions will rush to get new cell phone numbers,” he says while speaking to the Herald on the condition of anonymity.

The previous system of verification – known as Automated SIM Registration 789 – was introduced four years ago, after which the PTA blocked some 4.7 million “unverified and unauthorised” SIMs. At that time, in order to purchase a new SIM, customers merely had to present their original CNIC at a registered outlet. The SIM would be activated after the customer dialled 789, responded to some personal questions – mother’s name, date of birth etc – agreed to the stated terms and conditions and declared that the SIM would not be misused.

“It is expected that an even larger number [of SIMs] may be blocked once the re-verification of SIMs through the biometric system is completed by April 13, [2015],” says the PTA official.

But here is the problem: strictly speaking, in the case of the Peshawar school attack, the SIMs used were neither illegal nor unauthorised — they were purchased by stealing Shazia Bibi’s identity. Telecom officials, and indeed even the interior minister, still do not seem to have an answer to the question: How will a biometric verification system prevent this from happening again?

An advert put out by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — PTA

An advert put out by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — PTA

According to a survey carried out in 15 countries by the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, an alliance of more than 800 mobile operators from across the world, “making SIM verification mandatory does not help in reduction of crime or terror activities.”
Even with a strict verification process in place, the PTA official concedes, the possibility of misuse remains high. Terrorists can buy SIMs from verified subscribers by paying them large amounts of money. They can snatch SIMs or cell phone handsets. SIMs purchased from, and registered in, other countries can also be used. And identity theft, as in Shazia Bibi’s case, can continue unabated.

Sohaib Sheikh, a telecom analyst and a former official in the telecom industry, points out that mandatory SIM registration was introduced in Mexico in 2009 but was abolished three years later, after a policy assessment showed that it had not helped in the prevention, investigation or prosecution of crimes. “This is not just the case of a single country,” he argues. “Dozens of other countries have implemented a forced SIM registration regime but nowhere has it been witnessed that it was helpful in reducing the crime rate,” he says.

“Whenever a terrorist act takes place in Pakistan, instead of tightening the noose around militants and addressing the root cause of terrorism, authorities start tightening the space around telecom operators,” says Sheikh. “Every time, the lifeless mobile SIM turns out to be the main culprit and foreign investors are summoned to implement another plan by the government.”

Telecom companies in Pakistan have, in the past, advanced similar arguments to avoid implementing SIM verfication mechanisms which they see as leading to unnecessary additional costs for them. “Unverified or illegal SIMs were used in past incidents of crime or terrorism but that doesn’t mean they are the sole reason behind such occurrences,” says an official of a leading telecom company. “Solely putting the blame on the telecom sector is not fair,” he says. He also argues that in the investigation of incidents of terrorism, a verified SIM is as helpful as an unverified one. “Even unregistered SIMs can help law-enforcement agencies through call records.”

Pedestrians walk past a mobile phones promotion banner — AFP

Pedestrians walk past a mobile phones promotion banner — AFP

Telecom operators are, therefore, visibly disgruntled by the mandatory verification. “The cellular mobile industry has spent 22 billion rupees so far on regulatory compliance with the mandatory SIM registration process introduced by the government,” reads a joint statement issued by the five operators. Given that the biometric verification regime has been implemented for the purpose of national security, the operators requested the government to share the cost of installing biometric machines. They also asked the government to direct Nadra to waive its verification fee of 10 rupees per cell phone number. Both these requests were declined.

Telecom operators point out that they make a significant contribution to the national economy and, therefore, deserved the concessions they are asking for. “During 2014, the telecom sector contributed an all-time high of 243.8 billion rupees [to the national exchequer], registering a growth of 95.8 per cent over the corresponding period [previous year]. This is in addition to the billions paid as other fees and levies to the federal and provincial governments and their concerned authorities,” the statement continues.

After failing to convince the government to provide financial assistance for the SIM verification process, operators have transferred at least one part of the cost to consumers. Each cell phone user required to verify his or her number will now pay 10 rupees for each verification.

Once the verification is completed, the PTA, along with the Intelligence Bureau and the Federal Investigation Agency, will carry out a joint technical audit of the process and submit a report to the interior ministry. The government has warned that “after the expiry of the deadline, any biometrically unverified SIM will be the responsibility of the respective mobile phone operator.” The PTA is supposed to swing into action against the errant operator.

Many, however, cast doubts on the PTA’s ability to enforce its writ, arguing that its performance as a regulator has been “weak and dubious” for quite some time: Despite the introduction of 789 automated system, it failed to penalise operators selling SIMs on roadsides, claiming that these were allowed for “sponsored foreign tours”. Moreover, until recently, it turned a blind eye to the sale of bulk SIMs at the retail level, despite having reports that those using these SIMs for grey traffic (international calls made through illegal gateway exchanges)  were willing to pay very high prices — up to 5,000 rupees per SIM.
As millions of Pakistanis rush to the service centres to prevent their numbers from being blocked, Sheikh puts forwards a pertinent concern: “If terror activities do not end after this exercise, what will the next counterterrorism policy be? Will the government ban 3G or 4G Internet? Will they stop the import of smartphone handsets?”

Deradicalising education: Can tolerance be forcefully taught?


Left to right: Syed Nomanul Haq, Faisal Bari connected via Skype and Sami Mustafa — Anis Hamdani/White Star

In a recent Herald forum on madrasa reform, Humeira Iqtidar, a lecturer of South Asian politics at King’s College, London, remarked that “to try to forcefully teach tolerance is oxymoronic.” In the light of recent terror attacks in Pakistan and Paris, this comment simultaneously highlights the need for tolerance and alerts against the dangers inherent in enforcing it from above.

Given the country’s current condition, it is worth asking what leads to building or promoting a militant mindset and the extent to which education is responsible for this transformation. What must we do to create a tolerant society which accepts and respects differences — of opinion, ideology and religion? Can state-backed initiatives such as reforming educational curriculum and regulating madrasas lead to a Pakistan at ease within and with the rest of the world? Most importantly, can we forcefully teach people to be tolerant?

To discuss these questions, the Herald invited Faisal Bari, an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) who has worked extensively on educational reforms, and Sami Mustafa, an education reformer and the founder of the CAS school in Karachi.

Syed Nomanul Haq, adviser at the department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, moderated the discussion. The forum took place at the Greenwich University in Karachi.

Nomanul Haq. In Pakistan, I see four educational universes where the idioms are mutually incommensurable and the aspirations, hopes and visions are different. There is the English-medium crowd and there is the Urdu-medium crowd. Then there are those who are neither here nor there. And, of course, we have the madrasas.

There is a tendency to see madrasas as essentially problematic. They have played a monumental role even in the development of science. Copernicus used some mathematical principles devised by someone who was a timekeeper at a mosque in Damascus. The condition of madrasas these days, which is pathetic, is not a matter of the essence of the institution; it is a matter of historical contingencies and we have to examine what those contingencies are.

A madrassa in Islamabad — AP photo

A madrassa in Islamabad — AP photo

The purpose of madrasas, particularly in South Asia, has been to create an alternative intellectual class, not to create a service industry for people to lead prayers, perform nikah ceremonies and funeral prayers or teach the Quran. People such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad studied in madrasas. Dr Fazlur Rahman, one of the best scholars of religion we have had in Pakistan, came through the madrasa system.

Let me say a few words about the panellists. These are people who may not be well known themselves but their work is well known and Sami Mustafa is one of them. [Besides running a private school system and fixing government schools in areas such as Khairpur in Sindh and Lodhran in Punjab], he has played a valuable role in the education sector in an advisory capacity with the federal and provincial governments. My old friend Faisal Bari and I were together at LUMS. I have always been impressed by his intellect, integrity and boldness. He is an economist and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives. It is a delight to have both of you here.

Sami Mustafa. If we look at history, we see civilisations such as the Greek one, which was the fountainhead of education and intellectual methodologies. This society had people such as Plato and Aristotle yet it was an intolerant society where slavery was prevalent and there was a poor underclass. Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard have been around for hundreds of years but the things we take for granted today when we talk about Western societies – such as the right to vote – are a very recent phenomenon. In England, you could not vote unless you had property, and that has changed very recently.

Although I would like to think that education alone can bring about tolerance in society, the truth is that it is not likely to do so. Not to say that education is not important. There are, however, a number of things that must go hand in hand with it. I see many problems with the narrative that education can achieve everything. While education was spreading in the West, it was not solely responsible for bringing about tolerance. Laws were-enacted to achieve that. It wasn’t education that decided that capital punishment was bad; it wasn’t education that said slavery should be abolished — laws were enacted to achieve these things. As recently as 1965, [President Lyndon] Johnson introduced the equal opportunities programme in the United States [to end racial discrimination against the Blacks]. If the Western countries had not enforced these laws, education alone would not have made them the democratic, tolerant societies that they have become. So, in some ways, tolerance has to be enforced on society — though I am using the word ‘enforced’ for lack of a better term.

A class in session at a school in Peshawar on International Student Day, November 2014 — EPA

A class in session at a school in Peshawar on International Student Day, November 2014 — EPA

After the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, questions are being asked whether our madrasas are responsible for terrorism. I think the question is not complete until we ask if terrorists are working on someone’s behest or if they are working on their own. If they are working on their own then such fringe elements have existed all over the world. There was the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.

In Pakistan’s case, something else is happening but we are using madrasas as scapegoats. I am not saying they are not pulling the trigger but the gun is being supplied from somewhere else and the funds are coming from another place. There are probably madrasas where violence is being taught but there are a large number of madrasas where it is not being taught. I am not sure why even a group of people heavily prejudiced against the other just picks up guns and kills [the other]. Somebody has to fund them, organise them and provide them with political and legal support.

To put everything into the basket of madrasas and clerics is wrong. Yes, they are the ones who are at the forefront [of sectarian and militant terrorism] but they are also the ones who are marginalised and marginalisation has its own fallout. If you speak of bringing about tolerance in Pakistan, you need to look at other forces as well.

I think the educational system has just become extremely incompetent. Government schools are bad; private schools are there to serve as models but they are also bordering on incompetence. Whether education is leading to radicalisation is not the question. The fundamental problem is that the critical faculties that quality education is supposed to develop in children are missing.

Clerics engaged in discussion at the madrasa in Lal Masjid, Islamabad — AFP

Clerics engaged in discussion at the madrasa in Lal Masjid, Islamabad — AFP

The development of justice, democracy and liberty did not happen in an intellectual vacuum. [Education] must promote a thought process and analytical thinking; otherwise you are creating people who just want to find a job and make a career. This kind of vocational training is the death of intellectual thinking.

As a society, we are not in touch with our legacy at all. Even Shia-Sunni history is not remembered here. People don’t know that the Zaakirs take their lead from historical figures who are not Shia. They don’t know what Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai says about Imam Hussain. They don’t know that Allama Iqbal’s entire philosophy of khudi is based on the personality of Hazrat Ali. Who will teach them these things?

Faisal Bari. The problem is not that madrasas exist. They have been around for a very long time. The question is that if the state is saying under Article 25-A of the Constitution that it will provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16 then why should these children be allowed to go to madrasas? If someone wants to attend a madrasa anyway, why shouldn’t they do so after the age of 16 — after completing their basic mandatory education?

Many people also feel that madrasas function as orphanages and sanctuaries for the poor, but that is a very sad excuse for madrasas to exist. The state and society are then shedding their responsibility of looking after these children.

I, however, agree that the issue [of creating a tolerant Pakistan] is much broader than reforming madrasas and getting rid of terrorism. If some parts of the syllabus taught in government schools – and private schools as well – are analysed, that throws up a lot of questions concerning how we have interpreted history, how we teach Islam and what values we transfer to the children about what is right and what is wrong.

If you look at low-cost private schools, these respond to perceived parental demands. If the perceived demand is for turning children into better Muslims, schools respond to that by increasing education on certain aspects of Islam. Whether schools should go down that road or not is a question that our state and society need to think long and hard over. How far should schools be allowed to shape the personality of our children? This has been discussed in many societies, secular or otherwise, and it is worth pondering over here.
If we are going to teach children by rote, if we are not going to allow them to develop their critical thinking and the ability to learn how to learn, the problem of being close-minded will become much worse. If we look at different generations of Pakistanis from the 1960s till now, we will witness a tremendous closing of the Pakistani mind; our perceptions have become a lot narrower than they used to be. Opening minds does not mean enforcing a curriculum that forces tolerance upon everyone but it does include the opening of the debate — including on what madrasas are for and what they should be for.

Girls recite verses from the Quran at a madrasa (religious school) in Islamabad — Reuters

Girls recite verses from the Quran at a madrasa (religious school) in Islamabad — Reuters

Sibtain Naqvi. A recent study mentions that close to half of all madrasas in Pakistan operate illegally. What do we do about them? What do we do about the Salafi thought – being taught at many registered and unregistered madrasas – which advocates violence and hatred against certain sections of society?

Haq. Illegal institutions are also prevalent outside the religious spheres. There are so many educational institutions which promise you a degree in computer programming and business administration, for example, but then they turn out to be fake.

Bari. What is true of a madrasa is true of a private school as well. Most of the places where our children go for tuitions are unregistered. We do not know what is being taught there. How can the society and state allow these places to remain completely unregulated? We have to regulate them anyway. Many madrasas essentially came about by taking over land from the state and building an illegal institution upon it. The state, since General (retd) Ziaul Haq’s regime, never had the strength to either close them down or bring them under some form of a legal structure.

From whatever I have read on madrasas in British-ruled India, it appears to me that those madrasas were created in the 1860s and 1870s as a defence mechanism against the British hegemony over the subcontinent. They were meant to be spaces in which Muslim culture, heritage and knowledge could be preserved. One of the questions that came about after 1947 was how to bring madrasas into the educational mainstream in the newly-created Muslim-majority Pakistan. Should they not be turned into institutions where mainstream education was imparted along with Islamic education? There were many attempts to formulate policies for that. In East Pakistan, about 11,000 madrasas were, indeed, brought into the mainstream education system. The scheme was not so successful in West Pakistan, and that had a lot to do with the power of the religious parties.


Ambassadors of nine countries inquire about the health of students who were injured in the terrorist attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar — APP

Ryenaz Jehangir Khan. My question is directed towards Sami Mustafa. Can our children have a good future? Will they not be shot at?

Mustafa. If you look at the Red Brigade in Germany, it was not the product of madrasas. It was very violently protesting against something. It took England many years to sort out the Irish troubles. The Irish were not products of madrasas either. Then you had the Tamil Tigers. They fought for about 20 years in Sri Lanka and ravaged the economy completely. Terrorism and intolerance are not simply the products of educational institutions, whether these institutions are madrasas or something else. We need to look elsewhere to understand terrorism and intolerance.

Intolerance in our society is not coming from a system of education hijacked [by madrasas], though this seems to be the general impression. I think we have not yet established what the correct narrative is. You can speak to anybody you want: educationists, civil society, educated people and lawyers and the like and, the first problem in the education sector that they will highlight is that of low budget. The general narrative is that we need more funds. Or do we? If you have a failing system, you can keep putting in money but it does not create any benefits.

The other impression is that there are different educational systems in our country. In the United States, there are wide varieties even within public sector schools as they are run on property tax. You could go to a very good public sector school if you live in an affluent area and you may go to an average public sector school if you are living in another area. Then there are also denominational schools in the United States run by religious organisations.

Haq. We are all deeply grieved about the Peshawar school attack but we must not use this tragedy to unleash our prejudices – whether liberal or conservative – and rejoice over deaths [of terrorists being hanged by the government]. The taking of a life, whether it is that of a criminal or of an innocent person, is a sobering moment. We need to look into why the death happened and use it as a moment of reflection. We need to search our souls and ask, what is going on. Rejoicing over dead bodies is not the answer to death. Ultimately, there has to be a more comprehensive and sober solution to the problem.

I don’t think the problem of violence can ever be solved through the use of armies or law enforcement. When young people are oppressed like they are in our society, they become violent. We need a comprehensive solution and killing [and hanging] is not that solution. Artists, philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists have to sit together and think about it. We have to have a national urge to solve these issues, otherwise things are likely to get worse.

As the Army Public School in Peshawar reopens post a terrorist attack,  Pakistani Army chief Raheel Sharif speaks with a student — AFP

As the Army Public School in Peshawar reopens post a terrorist attack,
Pakistani Army chief Raheel Sharif speaks with a student — AFP

Bari. The Peshawar attack is a tremendous tragedy which has shaken us in many ways, but do we have the organisational and institutional structures which will allow us to channel our thinking about what has been going wrong into something positive? Reaction against madrasas or private schools or public schools is not going to work. We are talking about millions of children in any which way we look at: There are 25 million children out of schools, for instance. The total population of Canada is 30-35 million. We need a national action plan for re-evaluating at our educational structure, the curricula and the way to teach, across all types of institutions. We need a national action plan to provide education and basic amenities to every single person in Pakistan. If you do not have safety nets, if you do not provide a minimum educational standard to children across Pakistan, how do you expect any large-scale social engineering to happen?

Taking care of the weaker segments of the society has to be the starting point. These are the people we have been cheating for a very long time. Since the 1980s, the middle and upper classes, the bureaucrats, the army men, the business class, anyone who has money, have pulled out their children from public schools. We have pulled ourselves out of public health. Our water comes to us in bottles, our security is private, our garbage collection is private; we don’t live in the same society [where the less privileged sections of the populace live]. We live in a completely divided society where a child going to private school will never meet a child going to madrasa or a child who does not go to school at all. How can this be one society?

Either we decide that there is a very strong reason to rethink the distribution of wealth to empower people by providing basic services to them or we just get ready for raising the walls around our schools and houses and keeping snipers on our rooftops. The middle class and upper class need to agree on this large-scale rethinking. Otherwise, this rethinking will not happen. Politicians will not have the incentive to do this unless the people who support them make them do it. The bureaucracy will not do this because it only carries out the orders given to it. It all comes down to people, especially those with a voice. People who have a voice in Pakistan are those who are from the middle and upper classes.

Fayyaz Ahmed/Dawn.com

Fayyaz Ahmed/Dawn.com


Anything short of total reform is not going to work. If you shut down a madrasa, something with a slightly different name will come about; you shut that down and another thing will come about. We have seen that many times with the banning of religious, sectarian and militant organisations. We need a much more basic reform in our society. If the upper classes have the gumption and strength to do that, we will see something happening in the next year or two.

The debate on education is much larger than just the conversation about deradicalisation. It is about creating a better society. Education is a social good in the sense that a child will eventually be a part of society. The real question is what kind of society do you want to create — will it be a society divided between the haves and have-nots?

Most of the people concerned about the quality of schooling don’t send their children to public schools. This ‘exit’ from public schools has weakened the ‘voice’ to reform public schools. Why would anyone reform a public school where only those children go who cannot afford to go to a private school? How do you change that? Only in half-jest, I suggest a law that makes it mandatory for all public sector employees, bureaucrats, and army personnel to send their children to public schools. If Sharifs in uniform and Sharifs without uniform have to send their children to a public school, do you think that public schools will look like they do today? I think we will have a very different equilibrium then. Of course, doing that is not easy. The equilibrium in education cannot be changed at all with anything short of a drastic and significant reform in education. If we cannot change that, it is hard to see how the results that come out of the education system will change.

Student. Mr Haq, you said death is not the answer to death. What is the alternative?

You have to create conditions that reduce the production of criminals. We nurture criminality. When the former Soviet Union was in Afghanistan [and Pakistan sent militants to fight the Soviet forces there], people said this would radicalise our youth. And see what has happened? We have radicalised our youth.

When you have high temperature, the first thing a doctor will do is bring the temperature down but that is not the solution. The doctor has to diagnose the problem. I am talking about doing the diagnosis. I am not saying that you have to let people off the hook but taking the lives of those who have committed terrorism is not the final solution; it is only a first step. If we don’t take other necessary steps, hanging terrorists will produce other criminals.


File photo


Student. Is modernising madrasas a possibility?

Mustafa. I think modernising madrasas is a bit of a misnomer because, by definition, the two things may have difficulty coexisting. I also don’t think that many people who are in madrasas are there by choice. If they have the option to go to a private school, they would probably want to go there.

Haq. Let us discuss what modernising means. Does modernising mean creating pluralism and openness? Is modernism about developing a habit of inquiry? Is modernism about not forcing your position onto others by violence? If this is modernity, it can happen anywhere — even in a madrasa.

In South Asia, the struggle for modern secular education was led by madrasa-educated people. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan never went to an English medium school; he didn’t know English. Altaf Hussain Hali and Abul Kalam Azad did not know English. It is not a question of what constitutes a syllabus. I could be teaching you Aristotle or Bertrand Russell, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the attitude of inquiry and that attitude could be nurtured in a classical environment – characterised by madrasas – or a postmodern environment.

There are Christian seminaries which teach Latin classics and they exist even today and they have never been a problem. They also undertake moral training as madrasas do. Similarly, in Israel, there are many classical educational institutions which are very similar to our madrasas. My argument is that the problem lies outside – in the wider society – and we have to look beyond just textbooks to find the answer.

Children play in the playground of a private school in Panjgur, Balochistan — Fahad Naveed

Children play in the playground of a private school in Panjgur, Balochistan — Fahad Naveed

Ghazanfar. Don’t you think that tolerance being forcefully taught is a contradiction within itself?

Mustafa. I don’t think this is a contradiction at all. For example, we have a problem of honour killing which we are not going to overcome through education alone. We need to enact laws to change what is considered as an honourable act into a criminal act. Yes, tolerance cannot be forced on anyone but we always need to enact laws to put our conduct in perspective.

Haq. Enactment of laws is a symbol of social consciousness and that consciousness has to be nourished by some sort of education. Laws don’t operate in intellectual isolation. This is where education is crucial.

Bari. Has making Islamiat and Pakistan Studies compulsory subjects achieved the objectives that the policymakers had in mind when they made these subjects compulsory? Have students become better Muslims and better Pakistanis by virtue of studying these subjects? No, they haven’t. We, indeed, have seen more disruption in our society in the last 20 to 30 years than ever before. I am not saying that this increased disruption is caused by making these subjects compulsory but I always feel that if you want to turn people away from something, especially children, then enforce it on them. The best way to engage children in any area is to make it interesting for them, to make it relevant to their concerns about life. This failure to teach things in an interesting manner is where we are failing across the education systems.

Haq. I think we have abandoned madrasas to those who have nothing better to do. Our best minds should be teaching religious studies. We should not surrender Arabic and Persian studies to incompetent minds. Religion is an area which will never be left unsubscribed. If you abandon it, somebody else will pick it up.
In the end, I thank you all for attending this forum.

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.”