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 law teacher at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, 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.

The funny side of…driving


Illustration by Fahad Naveed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if democracy does not bring stability?



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The failure of Islamist parties

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

Sirajul Haq addressing a JI rally in Dir

Sirajul Haq addressing a JI rally in Dir

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

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

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

JI founder Maulana Maudoodi

JI founder Maulana Maudoodi

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

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

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

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

Learning to cope

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsoon mayhem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISLAMAABD: Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISLAMAABD: Photo by Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

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

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

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

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

A disaster foretold


- Photo by Arif Ali

– Photo by Arif Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five floods in five seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II of this story can be read here. 


dukhtar 1

Publicity Photo

At the outset, it appears that the title Dukhtar (meaning daughter) refers to the mother-daughter relationship between the film’s protagonists, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz) and Zainab (Saleha Aref). The film, indeed, follows their story as they flee their house in northern Pakistan to stop Zainab’s father from marrying her off to an elderly tribal leader, Tor Gul (Abdullah Jaan). But director and writer Afia Nathaniel’s debut film uses the word to explore the mother-daughter relationship on multiple levels.

Right at the beginning of the film, Zainab and a friend have a secretive discussion about where babies come from. “When a woman looks at a man and the man looks back at her, she gets a child in her belly,” Zainab’s friend discretely informs her. It is insightful in the way these characters – very young girls — discuss their own future role as mothers and how a woman becomes a mother.

dukhtar 2


From the get go, Nathaniel’s film is sensitive, yet unafraid of saying things not openly discussed in Pakistan. As a bride-to-be, Zainab admires her mother’s wedding dress but she also inquires why there is blood on it. Allah Rakhi then says she will tell Zainab some ‘grown up’ things she wishes her own mother had told her before her marriage. Zainab coyly replies she already knows those things, whispering in her mother’s ear her recent discovery about where babies come from. This triggers something off in Allah Rakhi, and it is apparent that she will not let her daughter face the things she herself faced.

Dukhtar’s story is simple. There are no major plot twists and surprisingly – considering the subject matter – no melodrama. Even the problems presented by the tribal chief’s men following Zainab and her mother get resolved organically as the film progresses.

Dukhtar’s strength is how Nathaniel tells the story and the devices she uses for storytelling. Cinematography of some dream sequences, for instance, helps the audience look at the character’s subconscious and experience a dreamlike state of mind. Nathaniel is also helped by the fact that the film is set against the picturesque landscape of northern Pakistan.

dukhtar 3
Cinematography, however, is not always perfect. Many shots which could have been beautiful are out of focus. The mountainous landscape makes for demanding shooting conditions, which sometimes shows in the camera work. This is especially apparent in scenes within a moving truck. As Allah Rakhi and Zainab take refuge with a truck driver Sohail (Mohib Mirza) and the truck moves through mountainous terrain, sometimes the camera shakes so much that it is disorienting, even possibly off-putting for some in the audience, to watch.

These technical issues are more than compensated by the way actors assume their roles within the story. Aref and Mumtaz offer honest portrayals of a daughter and a mother respectively. During the course of the film, Allah Rakhi also meets her own mother (Samina Ahmad) who she wasn’t allowed to meet since her marriage at the age of fifteen. These small encounters add layers to her character both as a daughter and a mother. As the film closes, Nathaniel’s dedication note adds yet another dimension to it. The screen at the end reads: “For my mother”, which then changes to “For my motherland.”

This review is part of the Herald’s October 2014 issue.

Showcasing Pakistan


In 2001, a few months after 9/11, I was in Washington DC with some teenagers who asked me if Pakistan was a country in Eastern Europe. Within a year, however, Pakistan would forever lose that sense of anonymity and, rather than being ignored, it would be covered endlessly by hordes of foreign correspondents.

book coverCordoned in expensive hotels, limited largely to Islamabad and meeting only taxi drivers and super-elite hosts, these correspondents produced pieces (and later books) on Pakistan which were relentlessly critiqued and satirised for how clueless they were.
Yet recently when I was asked to mention my favourite books on the country, my two choices were both written by foreigners. Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan and Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus are based on very disparate topics – one is about a historical cricket tour and the other a history of a grand river – yet their outsider status allows both authors to see coherence to Pakistan that we often fail to see ourselves. What they also seem to have in common is a genuine love for the country, which doesn’t seem to dull their objectivity as serious authors. The books have lovely anecdotes such as Bhattacharya telling former Pakistani cricketers about their own records and legends, and Albinia explaining to tribesmen how Alexander the Great  travelled down the same valleys they are traversing. In effect, they display the ability to show Pakistan to itself.
Peter Oborne, the author of Wounded Tiger — A History of Cricket in Pakistan, is certainly similar in having crafted a wonderfully original narrative of the history of Pakistan, one underpinned by a meticulous approach to research but motivated by a passionate desire to reframe how the cricketing world looks at the country. A small, and immensely satisfying, glimpse of this approach can immediately be seen in the preface, where Oborne tackles the rather Orientalist views espoused by Indian diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor in an earlier book, Shadows Across the Playing Field. Oborne’s deconstruction of Tharoor’s claims is done using facts rather than opinions, and his detailed rebuttal feels definitive, and long overdue.
The book is divided into four separate parts. The first two, The Age of Kardar and The Age of Khan, follow events in a chronological manner. The latter two, The Age of Expansion and The Age of Isolation, are organised thematically, with essays on topics such as Reverse Swing and Match Fixing which go back and forth across time to tell the story.
I found the part covering the period from Independence to 1975 most enjoyable and revelatory. At first I thought this was a consequence of the fact that I knew little of that era before this book, but this is also the longest part (more than a third of the book’s 624 pages) and the one where Oborne spends considerable time in developing the socio-political context of cricket in Pakistan.

Mohammad Ali/White Star

Mohammad Ali/White Star

Famous stories from partition, like Fazal Mahmood’s near escape or the Mohammad family’s travails, are important ones that needed repeating. But it is tales such as the intrigue which led to Pakistan’s first captain getting replaced before the country played its first official Test (Mian Mohammad Saeed replaced by A H Kardar) which are both wonderfully recounted and furnished with exhaustive research. It is also a very enlightening section, since there are some stunning similarities between the chutzpah and daring of Pakistan’s early successes and their latter moments of glory. From inspired spells and match-winning centuries to dropped catches and humiliating collapses, Oborne works hard to establish the genesis of the legend of Pakistan cricket as a whole. He shows how the ‘mercurial’ tag that came to define Pakistan is a result of luck, difficult political conditions and a ferocious desire to prove doubters wrong.
Interestingly, for an author who contributes to some of the UK’s most conservative newspapers, Oborne’s other theme in this section, and for much of the rest of the book, is an evisceration of British condescension towards Pakistani cricket. His recollections of the shameful ‘ragging’ of a Pakistani umpire by a touring Marylebone Cricket Club side in the 1950s ends up taking more space than later discussions on match-fixing and the 2009 terrorist attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. While some international reviewers have seen this as proof of Oborne’s bias, it is also indicative of the shameful way Pakistan was and is treated and written about on the world stage.
The remainder of the book unfolds at a more hurried pace, as there are a huge number of matches and events to cover and the author cedes the control of the narrative to these. The quality of research remains just as exemplary, but the narrative becomes drier. The switch over to the theme based essays helps address some of these problems, but it doesn’t quite reach the reading pleasure of the first part, where Oborne takes more time to draw out characters and establish subtexts.
And that perhaps is one thing I would critique about the book. After having established the early history so wonderfully, the reader is left asking for more in the latter pages. Events such as the 1992 World Cup are not quite done justice to and often seem to rush past without being fully appreciated. Yet that could be a conscious decision, since so much literature already exists on these subjects. The same logic could be extended to issues such as fixing and terrorism, which (thankfully for me but perhaps disappointingly for others) he gets through quickly, even if assiduously.
Ultimately, Oborne’s triumph, and strength, is to shed light on the lesser known areas. The essay on Women’s Cricket in Pakistan – to give one example – is not only revelatory, but dramatic and disillusioning in equal measures.
In the end, perhaps the greatest testament to Pakistani cricket is Oborne himself. Reading the book and his impassioned appeals for the country to be viewed differently and more sympathetically, you come to realise that he made all this effort to understand our society purely because of the love and excitement Pakistani cricket generated within him. It is a noble and romantic effort, and makes you wonder why more of us can’t do the same.
cricket furtherreading

The politics of Anti-politics


PTI supporters at the protest sit-in in Islamabad - Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

PTI supporters at the protest sit-in in Islamabad – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

Perhaps, it is true that Pakistani population is fed up with country’s political system or democracy, the word we use to describe our political structures. The disenchantment is rampant. Everyone is talking about corruption prevalent in the system and cronyism that political class promotes after coming to power. The word “democracy” is losing its allure and gloss. Drawing room chats start with the theme of failure of democracy to solve basic problems and end at the conclusion that old guard such as Zardaris and Sharifs have again joined hands not to protect the system but to start looting and plundering country’s wealth anew.

Social media is full of discussions that label democracy as a system of the corrupt and for the corrupt.  Watching the video of a new song (that one friend has posted on his Facebook page) that blames every ill in the society on democracy left bitter taste. The video shows singers singing a song that is punctuated by a refrain, “And democracy goes on”, after the lyrics describe with relish the rampant corruption in government’s ranks, killings in Karachi and terrorism and militancy in North Western part of the country, as if directly accusing political system – that was revived only six years back after a military rule of nine years – for all these problems.

I have tried many times to convince the people holding such views that had there been a continuous political process after the enactment of 1973 constitution, our society would not have been afflicted with these problems. My main line of argument in these discussions have been to advocate that Zia’s martial law was directly responsible for corrupting the political class, and it was during his reign that the war in Afghanistan introduced Kalashnikov culture in Pakistani society.

But at the end of every such discussion, I came back home with the realisation that perhaps I am not a very good orator, or perhaps my sense of recent Pakistani history is flawed as every time I have failed miserably to impress my companions, who are otherwise fairly educated people. Or perhaps a more plausible explanation for this indifference could be that these people are focusing on the present condition of the country (which is undoubtedly miserable) while remaining totally detached from history and its impact on the present situation.

Supporters advocating this view are quite vocal on mainstream media while social media sees them opining in shape of blogs, facebook statuses and tweets, bulldozing the views of those defending democracy. Their slogans and mottos are blunt: democracy is corrupt, political system is flawed (because it brings Maryam and Bilawal into power) and political class is both inept and corrupt. This “anti-politics” position now has two fine gentlemen – Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri – as their chief spokesmen.  In the initial two and a half weeks of their sit-in, both Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan adopted a highly anti-politics position in their rhetoric.

Both of them were not simply attacking the Sharif government, but were critical of the whole political system and the way politics was being carried out in the country.  Tahir-ul-Qadri was more aggressive in this. He wanted all the representative institutions to be dissolved immediately and not even once took the pain to explain what would replace these institutions in case his demands are met. Imran Khan was more circumspect, but, nonetheless, he was no less anti-politics in his rhetoric.

PTI leader Imran Khan

PTI leader Imran Khan waving to his supporters at his Azadi march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

For them, politics is simply unimportant. Goals are important. They want corruption free Pakistan. They want to put an end to hereditary politics. They want that no one should be allowed to be disrespectful towards the army and its leadership, all commendable objectives, no doubt. But the problem is how to achieve these goals? Sometimes, while listening to anti-politics views in mainstream media, one gets the feeling that these are completely apolitical people and groups, who want to achieve high goals, but are not interested in the processes, legal, constitutional and political processes.

To demand the end of hereditary politics is fairly modern and liberal ideal. One way of achieving this objective is to engineer an army intervention (I am making purely hypothetical argument) and get an ordinance promulgated that Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are barred from holding public office for the rest of their lives. But will this solve the problem? No, it will not.

For instance, let’s assume that everyone in Islamabad’s power corridor agree that the popularity of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistani society are evils. Even then there is no way these “evils” could be removed with the power of an executive order. Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf issued thousands of executive orders to remove the “evils” of
PPP’s popularity and Nawaz Sharif popularity in their respective eras, but failed miserably.

After Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, the military and its intelligence agencies tried their best to prevent Benazir Bhutto from coming to power, but she emerged triumphant in 1988 elections, in the face of opposition from Pakistan’s state machinery. Similarly, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) emerged as the second largest party in the parliament in 2008, despite the fact that Musharraf’s intelligence forcibly hijacked his party in the wake of October 1999 coup.

This is the lesson of politics. PPP has deep roots in Pakistani society (if somebody has any doubt, he should take a cab and travel through Punjab and Sindh). If somebody or some groups dislike this reality of Pakistani politics, they should jump into the arena, and try to convince the people that PPP is “corrupt”, that it is a party of a family, that you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the third generation of Bhuttos. Nawaz Sharif has a popular vote bank in urban areas of Central Punjab. If somebody dislikes this reality, they should go out and te1ll the people that if you vote for Nawaz Sharif you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the second generation of Sharif.

I am not sure, but it can be a very powerful message. But all this has to be done while remaining within the ambit of existing rules of the game. The problem with this “anti-politics” group is that after coming face to face with this juggernaut of Pakistani politics, they still try to look for short cuts. The short cut is simple: Assemble a few thousand people in D-chowk of Islamabad and wait for Army intervention (then army comes into power, waste nine to eleven years of nation’s precious time and then either Maryam Nawaz or Bilawal Bhutto would come to power, riding a sympathy wave).

The reality of army’s dominant role in country’s power structure provides fuel to the politics of anti-politics groups. The hope of army intervention is always at the back of their minds, when these people with anti-political views come on the streets. Army’s more than conspicuous capacity to dislodge any representative government give a push to the anti-politics groups in Pakistani society to keep degrading the political system in public discourse.

The argument that army could put the things right gets oxygen from the flawed understanding of history of military rules in Pakistan. I still remember the first speech of General Musharraf on the night of October 1999 coup in which he vowed that he would promote inter-provincial harmony, and when he resigned from his office in 2008, there was full scale insurgency raging on in Balochistan and the Baloch rebels were killing Punjabi settlers even in Quetta.

“Anti-politics” views are surely the invention of Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, who, throughout his tenure went out of the way to curb usual political activities in the country. Newspaper censorship was imposed, political parties were banned and right to assemble for political activities was prohibited. The only general elections that were held in his tenure were on non-party basis. He held a local body election to raise a political class, imbued with anti-politics thinking and immersed in patriotic feelings that see army as the center of gravity in Pakistani society that would rival the traditional political forces in the country.

When he came face to face with the political reality that PPP was still the most popular party in Pakistani society, he invented the theory that the society has a ‘silent majority’ which is fed up with the traditional politicking and this ‘silent majority’ is solidly behind his military rule. This theory of ‘silent majority’ was continuously put to use in the intervening period between two martial laws. The file titled ‘Silent majority’ was still lying in GHQ gathering dust, when Pakistan’s fourth military ruler, General Musharraf picked it up and started harping along the similar themes.

General Musharraf and his cronies were as eloquent as their predecessors in convincing the world that there is a mysterious ‘silent majority’, which is not only “anti-politics” but is fed up with the antics of traditional politicians. This silent majority, however, did nothing when Pakistani voters sent PPP back into power corridors in 2008, which, in turn, forced Musharraf to resign from the office of President.

Since the ouster of Musharraf, there is, however, a qualitative change in the way politics of “anti-politics” is being conducted in Pakistani society. In the past the political forces which acted as military’s proxies were, however, not wholly anti-politics in their attitudes. The religious right, which Zia co-opted into his regime, may be an exception to this rule. Jamaat-e-Islami’s religious ideology and the way it wholly supported Zia regime in the process of Islamisation of Law could be described as anti-politics. However, rest of the political forces, which allied themselves with military governments in the past 30 years, remained committed to their political constituencies, while serving the interests of military governments.

Tahir-ul-Qadri at his Inquilab march in Islamabad last month - Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

Tahir-ul-Qadri at his Inquilab march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad

The advent of religious maverick like Tahir-ul-Qadri and his relatively more secular partner Imran Khan has introduced the qualitative change in the system. Qadri is staunchly anti-politics. He attacks the very basis of this system which provides legitimacy to the state and the governments. Ironically, Imran Khan is not lagging far behind as his frustrations reaches saturation point. In the initial period of his political career, Imran Khan did support military government, but most of the serious political analysts agreed that he showed strong signs of transforming into a traditional political party with stakes in the system over the years.

What compelled Imran to change his natural trajectory of political development is not very difficult to discern. He was frustrated with the system that provided him no remedy against the alleged ‘election fraud’, which, he honestly believes, led to his defeat in the last parliamentary elections. So the people witnessed Imran Khan attacking the very legitimacy of political institutions. The main reason the ten political parties represented in the parliament so easily reached a consensus to support Nawaz Sharif and oppose Imran Khan’s sit-in was that the tone and tenor of his (Imran Khan) speeches was so familiar to what they have been hearing about politicians from Musharraf’s military regime in its nine years tenure.

Is there an alternative to politics? The question will appear frivolous to any one belonging to a society which have vibrant political institutions. To Pakistanis this question appears as natural, primarily because they have been led to believe that the military governments are an alternative to “filth” of politics in the society. They believe that when military ousts a civilian government it puts an end to politics. Generally, people believe inter-party rivalries, electioneering, holding of rallies and protest marches are all that they need to know about politics. To them, politics is optional and any society could opt out of it, if it wants to.

This is not surprising as famous historian of political ideas, Francis Fukuyama in his recent book the Origins of Political Order narrate the brief history of how people around world fantasise about a situation where they will be no state and no politics. Pakistani version of this fantasy is military government. Like so many other political thinker, Fukuyama so aptly describes in his book that absence of politics is always chaos and anarchy, and not utopia of any kind.  So the question before us is not whether to have politics in our society or not? Because politics is not optional, instead the question is how to organise politics in our society?

In our context, two available options for organising politics in our society are, a) Through constitutional means: in which power is vested in a person or a group of persons who contest elections and legitimately assume power, b) Through barrel of the gun: in which two or three generals take control of the army and the country in the dark of the night. It’s not that army generals don’t indulge in politics after staging coups. Politics is primarily about distribution of resources in the society and this is what every government (whether military or civilian) has to decide after coming to power.

In the past, economic policies of Ayub Khan’s military government led to regional imbalance in economic development between East and West Pakistan, which eventually resulted in the secession of the former. Military takes decisions in a non-transparent manner behind closed doors and for social stability they co-opt part of traditional and corrupt political elite.

Ironically, army, this time, did not have to put together an “Anti-politics” coalition, as they have always done in the past. This time they had ready-made options available to them. The latest assertion of “anti-politics” attitudes in country’s politics has been a forceful one. There is every chance that the politics of “anti-politics” will become a permanent feature of Pakistani political scene. After all, popular figure like Imran Khan and a powerful orator like Tahir-ul-Qadri are now two of its most vocal spokesmen.

I think the government should not misjudge their strength by the small number of people they have been able to attract to their sit-ins, in front of the parliament house. Their strength should be judged by the nature of the discourse that it taking place in the streets and private drawing rooms. Economic hardships, which are increasing by every passing day, will increase the disenchantment with the political system, thus swelling the ranks of anti-politics groups. If democracy does nothing to solve people’s economic problems, there is not even slim chance that they will turn pro-politics.