Growing up in Pakistan with a hunger for books I found one Pakistani title rather alluring. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s The Myth of Independence has the kind of ring to it that instinctively gets what generations of Pakistani policy pundits have been failing to underscore so succinctly. But […]Farrukh writes
On January 12, 2018, only four days after his 76th and last birthday, British tabloid Daily Mail carried a remarkable headline about renowned physicist and pop-science legend Dr Stephen Hawking. “Has Stephen Hawking Been Replaced with a ‘Puppet’?” it asked. As if it was not enough, it went […]Farrukh writes
On January 12, 2018, only four days after his 76th and last birthday, British tabloid Daily Mail carried a remarkable headline about renowned physicist and pop-science legend Dr Stephen Hawking. “Has Stephen Hawking Been Replaced with a ‘Puppet’?” it asked. As if it was not enough, it went on: “Conspiracy theorists claim the REAL professor is DEAD and a ‘puppet’ has taken his place — and reveal the SIX clues that support the idea”. The story is just as intriguing. It claimed that the said conspiracy theorists believed that Dr Hawking had actually died in 1985, three years before his rise to prominence. The geniuses who came up with the story left no attribute of the man’s appearance from his teeth to his blond hair to build the case. The good doctor died in just about two months of this story. If I were a scientist whose life’s mission was to make humanity smarter and I saw such overwhelming evidence of my target audience getting dumber with every passing day perhaps I would request my medic to unplug me from life support. Please make nothing of my sentiment. I do not want to imply either that his demise was a deliberate decision or that this story had anything to do with the story. I just wanted to juxtapose the amount of crazy we witness around us with one of the finest minds known to us. No genius deserves such a dumb audience. The story is still available on the middle market newspaper’s website.
The idea that a celebrity was replaced with his/her lookalike is not new. People have a hard time dealing with the mortality of such icons. To some John F Kennedy Jr did not die in the 1999 plane crash and is in hiding. That his grandfather Joseph Kennedy was a known anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser and his father President JFK when young called Hitler ‘stuff of legends’ in his diary seem to have contributed to QAnon’s appropriation of the lore. Now this man in hiding is a willing accomplice of Trump and will reveal himself and replace Mike Pence as the Vice President when he takes his rightful place to drain the swamp. The story about Hawking is reminiscent of another such myth. That the Beatles star Paul McCartney died in a traffic accident in 1966 and was replaced by a copy. Why this courtesy was not extended to John Lennon is anybody’s guess. You can learn more about this myth by searching ‘Paul is dead’ on the internet.
Fake news, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience have all darkened our memory throughout history. But in this day and age, it has taken a stranger, more bizarre turn. In 2016, Oxford dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the international word of the year which encapsulates “the passing year in language”. There is debate about the origin of the word itself and it is apparently traced back to 1992 but it may owe a lot to the works of Nietzsche, particularly his 1873 essay Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, “If someone hides an object behind a bush, then seeks and finds it there, that seeking and finding is not very laudable: but that is the way it is with the seeking and finding of “truth” within the rational sphere. If I define the mammal and then after examining a camel declare, “See, a mammal”, a truth is brought to light, but it is of limited value. I mean it is anthropomorphic through and through and contains not a single point that would be “true and universally valid, apart from man. The investigator into such truths is basically seeking just the metamorphosis of the world into man; he is struggling to understand the world as a human-like thing and acquires at best a feeling of assimilation.” In our own time, post-truth epitomises a lament about the vanishing objective standards meant to discern the truth.
How fitting that Nietzsche would figure into this debate because a recent book flags his work for its contribution to more than just the term. Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right by Ronald Beiner does a great service to its readers by warning them about the perils of reading his and Heidegger’s works uncritically. Nietzsche’s critique of modern society, his desire to see a revival of slavery, his contempt for Christianity, longing for pre-Christian Europe all fit nicely into that which is going on in the west’s alt-right and neo-Nazi circles. I think I have tried to tackle this issue whenever I have discussed the works of Savitri Devi and her efforts to blend Nazism with Hinduism. It is all a desire to go back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe by reviving the Aryan myth. This should worry you because it cements my thesis that the source of all Islamophobia, all anti-Christian sentiment and all antisemitism are the same. If truth be told all of it qualifies as antisemitism. Why? Because neo-Nazis have a problem with Jesus, who despite being Jewish in their eyes is common to Christianity and Islam. All Abrahamic faiths are the enemy here and they can be taken out one by one.
The recently concluded US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the re-centring of the terror group IS in the public discourse seems to further bolster my fears about the approaching days. ‘IS’ is the abbreviation of the Islamic State — a name the terror group seems to have chosen with a lot of deliberation as the best gift to Islam’s detractors. It will be used to revive Huntington’s propaganda against Muslims in the world.
Meanwhile, two trends from our Eastern neighbours are instructive. India seems to be trying really hard to link IS Khorasan Province with Pakistan. Sadly, its own documented links with the group and the attacks by the said body against Pakistan are making this job difficult.
Second trend. You must have seen a viral video claiming that the Taliban hanged a man to death from the US abandoned Black Hawk helicopter. In a tweet, CNN’s fact-checker Daniel Dale then shared a story by Alt-News, to its credit an Indian online fact-checker, which showed that this was not just a patent lie but was initially promoted by Indian editors and senior journalists like Sudhir Chaudhary. Hatred, intolerance and total abdication of professionalism and objectivity are making India, once a trusted voice on democracy, a laughing stock of the world. With India’s mighty troll army and its journalists also assuming the role of trolls the threat of fake news and its damage to civilisation is only likely to grow exponentially.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2021.
The collapse of reality is an atrocious experience. An ordinary person treats at least a few things in life as fixed, immutable anchors to reality. Until the fall of the Twin Towers, to an average New Yorker, and perhaps even to an average American, they […]Farrukh writes
The collapse of reality is an atrocious experience. An ordinary person treats at least a few things in life as fixed, immutable anchors to reality. Until the fall of the Twin Towers, to an average New Yorker, and perhaps even to an average American, they must have served just as the very anchor. Symbols of national pride, power and influence. To a Cold War Berliner, the Berlin Wall must have appeared as a tangible certain reality despite being a symbol of defeat and division. To an average Briton and many Europeans, a united EU must have felt like a foregone conclusion. But what happens when these anchors collapse? Are you disoriented momentarily or displaced permanently? This is a huge public concern today as our reality seems to be collapsing in on itself.
If you begin looking at the ever-accelerating shocks to the system with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War you may see a remarkable pattern of acceleration. Consider this order. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait and the first gulf war. Nine-eleven and the invasion of Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis. Modi’s surprising ascent to power, Brexit, Trump’s shock victory, the sudden return of Nazi-inspired racism, Covid-19 and Trump’s complicated defeat. The attack on the US Capitol, accelerating far-right domestic terrorism in America, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the ensuing chaos. The pace of disruption is increasing. If we didn’t know better and were not aware of the dangerous QAnon like path it can lead us to, one would have conjectured that a bunch of aliens was playing mind games on us, shocking our reality with increasing rapidity, to study our responses. But sadly, there is no way to blame a hidden force because this world, this pain and this suffering, all are too real.
It, however, doesn’t mean that an explanation has not been attempted. Naomi Klein’s 2008 bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism took the explanation in an oblique direction. The book, of course, is seriously sourced and cogently argued. If you are acquainted with the works of Dr Milton Friedman, the economist who is solely responsible for my conversion to libertarianism, you will find the book’s assertions quite fascinating. Banking on CIA sponsored scientist Dr Ewen Cameron’s technique of shock therapy, Friedman and his cohorts called Chicago Boys used its economic version in pursuit of open market capitalism. While Dr Cameron’s attempts to erase the memory of his victims and create new ones employed tactics that would easily qualify as torture today like sensory deprivation, electroshocks, isolation, confusion, drug abuse and were later recorded in a document titled Kubark Manual giving birth to advance interrogation techniques, Friedman was Marx to Cameron’s Hegel. He and his Chicago Boys used moments of crises to push for free-market policies which profited the ultra-rich at the cost of these economies. And the result was achieved by muting dissent and often withholding debt to force countries to capitulate. Sounds a lot like Confessions of an Economic Hitman, doesn’t it? Could an elite group of businessmen be using and perhaps even manufacturing these shocks we endure for own profit? Before I could contemplate this question the deal was broken for me by the mention of MKUltra, which threatened to take me down the same rabbit hole as Alex Jones and Joe Rogan, and what I call the victimhood capitalism of the leftists. This book after all was sold in shops, not handed out free of cost. Not all profit-making is bad then.
The other explanation comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black swans are events thought impossible but still, they materialise out of blue. He asserts that the way our brains are structured, we do not foresee these earth-shattering events. Our minds are bombarded with a lot of information every day. To simplify our thought process we pick and choose only those variables which make sense to us or seem important. The ones that we ignore can often explain what then becomes a shock or a black swan. Could you not see Trump winning? You deliberately ignored his mammoth-sized rallies. Or the factors that caused it. Did you never think that al-Qaeda was capable of attacking the WTC? Or the fall of the Berlin Wall? You had all the information to reach these conclusions but your minds chose to ignore them. He calls it a narrative fallacy. But his neat theory does not explain the frequency of these events and the acceleration.
To understand the rapid pace of change you will have to go back to the best prophet of futurology. Alvin Toffler died only months before Trump’s shocking victory. But if he were alive on that day perhaps he would not have been surprised. In a raw form, all these shocks were predicted in his 1970 bestseller Future Shock which sold 6 million copies in 5 years. Future shock is the anxiety and fear of the future. There are many things he gets wrong. Mankind still hasn’t established subterranean or underwater cities. But that is only a matter of detail. The rise of disposable culture, the emergence of transient jobs where people frequently change jobs, professions, even their countries and become cultural nomads, kinetic organisations, technological competition, home becoming anchors and less reliance on outside markets and finally the death of permanence all resonate with our changing reality. He goes on to say that due to all these factors religious, economic, cultural and family structures will be disrupted with increasing frequency. In the end, he recommends embracing what he calls stability zones. If such change is inevitable find things that keep you tethered to the reality of your being, like monogamous relationships, exercise, diet and leisure routines. So to summarise this summary he believes that technological progress, population growth and lack of reliance on permanence will ensure the pace of disruptions of all kinds and shocks will accelerate. His book deserves to be read more than once. You have to read it to believe. Also his two other remarkable books. The Third Wave and Powershift.
While wholeheartedly endorsing Toffler’s works as plausible explanations let me invoke an interesting metaphor from scriptures that speaks volumes of human nature and why it takes a man on the path of ever-increasing disruptions. The story of man’s fall from heaven. Adam was in heaven, a perfect place to live, but even there he could not endure monotony and consequently fell. Curiosity and unhappiness towards the lack of change ensure that we never settle down. Stability is an illusion now that there are more of us. Expect more disruptions.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2021.
As the American media continued its unrelenting coverage of the fifth day of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Floyd Ray Roseberry, a 49 years’ old North Carolinian, pulled up his muddy Dodge Ram on the sidewalk of the Library of Congress, live-streaming on social media […]Farrukh writes
As the American media continued its unrelenting coverage of the fifth day of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban, Floyd Ray Roseberry, a 49 years’ old North Carolinian, pulled up his muddy Dodge Ram on the sidewalk of the Library of Congress, live-streaming on social media with a detonator in hand and told authorities that in his pickup truck he was carrying a bomb. Roseberry, allegedly a Trump supporter, had driven from Grover, North Carolina. In his live streams which have now have been taken down, he can be seen ranting and spouting right-wing anti-government talking points. One complaint he mouthed was that he and his wife did not have healthcare but the Afghan immigrants being evacuated from Kabul would get a comprehensive health cover. After a 5-hour standoff, he surrendered and while his truck had potential bomb-making materials no bomb was found in it.
This episode and the US media’s insistence on punishing the Biden administration for a ‘premature and sloppy’ withdrawal from Afghanistan deserve your attention. Roseberry’s standoff because it very effectively epitomises the challenges America and its citizens face today. Existential angst among and radicalisation of its white population, crumbling infrastructure and social safety net, Trump supported conspiracy theories and growing xenophobia. Media’s priorities because at a time when an average American is having a hard time adjusting to the post-Covid, post-Trump world and needs media’s full attention, the media elites refuse to give up on a war that produces no immediate benefits for the country or its population. This existential angst amongst the white folk harvests a crop of radicalism that is ready for the picking by the white nationalists and other subversive groups.
Why would media and Washington elites react so brashly to a policy change whose time had come? Two reasons. One, because it is not a great situation on the ground in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Consider this. According to recent estimates, 45 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is 15 years’ old or below. In urban parts where this population growth has taken place, the Taliban were viewed as a violent bunch of incubi. So, the fear is bound to be immense. Two, it feels like a betrayal. But no country can indefinitely occupy another, run its business and become a permanent part of its civil war. The real betrayal was America’s overstay in Afghanistan. Betrayal of Afghans because they presumed that this could go on forever and of its own, because precious resources were diverted to what one SIGAR report after another and The Washington Post’s ‘Afghanistan Papers’ were constantly warning us had become a black hole of corruption. This could probably go on for a long time but the longer the stay, the bigger betrayal a withdrawal would have looked like. In twenty years more children were born who are now adults and have to contend with an alien world that has just descended upon them. I have a lot more to say about Afghanistan, the Taliban (you know I am not a fan), Afghan women (being a father of girls I have barely slept thinking of what girls there are going through) but I will wait until evacuations are complete and a new government is formed in Kabul.
Meanwhile, it is important to underscore how wars change us all. What if you were told that the global war on terror as it was fought and Trumpism had a direct connection. That in the way one leads to another there are countless lessons for every country that allows wars and conflicts to seduce it. For the past five years, many of us have held breath as the rhetoric against terrorism emanating from Muslim territories metastasised and metamorphosed into the invective against domestic dissent and minorities in America. But it was hard to connect the dots. Now thanks to a flurry of brilliantly researched and well-written books it is demonstrably easy to present this case.
The first in this long line of works is Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by Spencer Ackerman. Meticulously tracing how each exception to America’s principles made to combat terrorism was later commandeered, weaponised and applied by the Trump administration against his fellow Americans. The most stunning proof of this pudding lies in the team Trump gathered around him. It is veritable who’s who of Bush-era battle-hardened individuals who rebelled against the Obama administration’s attempts to put a civil face to the war on terror. John Kelly, the handsome four-star marine general, a gold star parent and the adult in the Trump White House, was chosen for his pushback against the idea of shutting down Gitmo. Kelly who headed Guantanamo Bay detention camp and then the Southern Command wasn’t really a big believer in human rights perhaps because of his personal loss. Likewise, Gina Haspel was chosen to head the CIA but she had already made mark due to her association with a CIA black site called ‘Cat’s Eye’ in Thailand. In their defence, when many of these team members saw what Trump was ready to do to placate his base they pushed back as any true professional would. But by then the cat was out of the bag. And yet many like Pompeo and Stephen Miller would not change their spots.
The second book is by Talia Lavin titled Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. In this heartfelt and brave book, she takes us to the dark recesses of the internet where the sausage of hate is being manufactured. The book covers all negative elements from white nationalists to Incels (involuntary celibates) and Boogaloo Bois.
To comprehend the broader context, two more books help us a great deal. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America by Kathleen Belew traces the evolution of the White Power movement since the end of the Vietnam war. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Anderson casts an even wider net and dives deep into American history to bring to our attention how various elements of American exceptionalism are negatively affecting the behaviour of an average American today.
This war in Afghanistan will be over with the evacuation of the last foreigner in the country. It will try to find its way. At home, American leadership will have to work hard to fix things. But the fact that so many intelligent individuals are busy taking stock of what went wrong tells you that all this talk of the damage to America’s prestige as a superpower is nothing but hyperbole.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2021.
How does one even begin to express one’s love for a homeland that is everything? Alpha and omega. Home, journey and destination. A sandbox where you make all mistakes and in a heartbeat, everything is forgiven and forgotten. Motherland and fatherland. And must one express […]Farrukh writes
How does one even begin to express one’s love for a homeland that is everything? Alpha and omega. Home, journey and destination. A sandbox where you make all mistakes and in a heartbeat, everything is forgiven and forgotten. Motherland and fatherland. And must one express this love? Or is it communicated and understood without saying anything like a son’s is towards a parent. But then again this is the age of expression and children today remind you of their infinite love every five minutes. This is where the poverty of one’s abilities holds one’s tongue. I, for one, am no Tagore whose alchemy of words would create pure gold, or who had the company and help of titans like Yeats. I can only try to talk of the visceral nature of affection that powers my heart and preoccupies every waking hour of my modest existence.
Perhaps Tagore’s these words would come close to what I want to say: “I am here to sing thee songs. In this hall of thine I have a corner seat. In thy world I have no work to do; my useless life can only break out in tunes without a purpose. When the hour strikes for thy silent worship at the dark temple of midnight, command me, my master, to stand before thee to sing. When in the morning air the golden harp is tuned, honour me, commanding my presence.”
74 is an interesting number. Just one year shy of platinum jubilee. An age quite mature in human years but rather young in the comity of nations. One number further than 73, that Dr Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory fame calls the best number. “Why? 73 is the 21st prime number. Its mirror, 37, is the 12th and its mirror, 21, is the product of multiplying 7 and 3…. In binary 73 is a palindrome, 1001001, which backwards is 1001001.” But it is neither 73, not 75. Almost there but not quite. Stuck between being and becoming. But let us not forget that it is the mirror of 47, the year of the country’s birth.
When you look at the nature of the 74 years of our collective cognitive experience, the first word that comes to mind is survivalism. Seriously. I have not seen another country that burns so much midnight oil mulling over existential threats, both real and imagined. This could be because of the spontaneous nature of Pakistan’s birth, the trauma left behind by the violence that accompanied freedom, India’s constant predictions about its failure, the fall of East Pakistan or a million more trials that it has gone through. While others sing of their country’s greatness, we pray for its long life. Humility is good, and prayers useful. But when you have lived long enough you do not need to revisit and re-litigate the causational factors of your country’s birth. It is there, we inherited it and it is the only place we have ever called home. Instead of justifying it every 10 minutes, we need to concern ourselves with the task of making it better. Dreams and visions matter here. Today’s aspirations for tomorrow. And actions affirming those visions.
Reflecting on the independence day and journey so far proves to be a bittersweet experience for my generation. Sweet because it is the independence day. Bitter not because of the day or the country, but for who we (my generation) are. I call us the lost generation. Not the one that was led astray, but the kind that falls through the cracks when you are not looking. Heavy traffic on streets forces cars to switch to the slower lanes, where once boxed in, it may take hours to cover a journey of minutes. This is the story of my generation’s life. As Faiz put it, ‘Kahaan se aa’ii nigaar-e-sabaa, kidhar ko ga’ii, abhii charaagh-e-sar-e-rah ko kuchh khabar hii nahin’, (Whence came that darling of a morning breeze, whither has it gone? The lamp beside the road has still come no lessening.)
For a lifetime how many crises have we seen? The worst earthquake of the country’s history (2005), the worst floods (2010), the worst existential challenge since 1971 (the war on terror which left around eighty thousand dead including women and innocent children), perhaps the worst climate change challenge, economic hard times, belligerent neighbours and constant erosion of opportunities. The first Afghan war, refugee crisis, Afghan civil war, Taliban, the second Afghan war, now Taliban again. Modi, Doval and their defensive offence. Only God knows how many more upheavals we have to see before we meet our maker. And what leadership did we provide? All our national leaders are in their advanced sixties. My generation has never led the country. Perhaps the next generation will. We, my dear sirs, are truly a lost generation.
Then there is the matter of memory and introduction. The country’s memory is not what it once was. In the American romantic comedy 50 first dates, when Adam Sandler learns after falling for Drew Barrymore that she suffers from anterograde amnesia and he will have to re-introduce himself to her every single day, he does not baulk. But that’s why stories are just stories. It is one tough job. And it must be a South Asian thing because recently an Indian poetess Rehna Sultana wrote: Ma, ami tumar kachchey aamar porisoi diti diti biakul oya dzai (Mother, I’m so tired, tired of introducing myself to you.) I know it was said in a different context. But it fits this context too. Like a glove. Doesn’t it?
So, you get it. Bittersweet. But here is the thing. This country’s most emancipating gift and one can die because of the intensity of love due to this, is that it is almost a blank slate. Too much can be written. And perhaps the best that has ever been written, anywhere. A paradise on earth, a city of love, a dreamer’s best dream come true. We owe it to our next generation to leave a better Pakistan than the one we inherited. No political pipe dreams or delusions of grandeur. Just a beautiful, peaceful, pluralistic place one feels proud to call home. From our eastern neighbour, we are getting too much hate these days. We have seen enough hate to last a lifetime. We will only deal in love and humanity now. As the prime minister so aptly put it, we will be partners in peace, not in war.
Great nations are built on the backs of many generations that die unrecognised. It seems my country needs only one. Perhaps, that is the only way for my lost generation to be found.
Happy 75th Independence Day everyone.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2021.
Virgil’s Aeneid tells the tale of an ingenious plan the Greeks came up with. After 10 years of unsuccessful siege of Troy, they built a massive wooden horse hollowed out from within, burned their camps to indicate they had left and hid inside the horse. […]Farrukh writes
Virgil’s Aeneid tells the tale of an ingenious plan the Greeks came up with. After 10 years of unsuccessful siege of Troy, they built a massive wooden horse hollowed out from within, burned their camps to indicate they had left and hid inside the horse. A volunteer, Sinon, was left outside to convince the victims that the Greeks had gone and left the horse as a tribute to goddess Athena. He managed to convince them. The King’s daughter and official soothsayer Cassandra predicted doom due to this. But she was ignored with prejudice. Hence the origin of the rhetorical device — Cassandras. In the end, ecstatic Trojans pulled the horse into their city and after much merriment, they slept. In the dark of night, an elite group of fighters hiding inside fell on the unsuspecting Trojans and dispatched them. Ergo the metaphor — the Trojan Horse.
In February 2001, Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, the then interior minister of Pakistan, made an unusual visit to Kabul. There he presented a list of sixty Lashkar-e-Jhangvi absconders, including Riaz Basra, the notorious founder of the group. Intelligence reports had indicated, and Islamabad was convinced, that these absconders had taken refuge in the country. Their presence was denied by the Taliban but as there was an ideological convergence between the two, the Taliban would not have handed them over in any case. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this became abundantly clear as the Taliban refused to surrender Osama citing faith and customs.
Everyone who maintains that the ragtag group of self-appointed holy warriors is a friend of Pakistan needs to answer a simple question. What interests did the Taliban purportedly serve Pakistan, apart from being a massive drain on resources, an international liability and radicalising influence at home? It refused to resolve the Durand line issue. It regularly disregarded Islamabad’s pleas to show respect for human rights or to moderate its ways, resulting in the constant international marginalisation of Pakistan. But at home, its benefactors like Colonel Imam were adamant that it was the best friend the country ever had. The situation would change shortly, the Taliban government would fall and due to its cooperation with the US, Pakistan would come under attack from a newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A leader of the TTP would one day execute Col Imam in front of cameras.
In the past twenty years, Pakistan has been to hell and back. Before 2014, the state had to face the fact that its war on domestic TTP terrorists was not owned by its citizens. The new narrative was failing in face of the old narrative of the 90s. In 2014, the inhumanity and brazenness of the APS Peshawar attack would change that. But as a tiny cog in the vast machine that worked tirelessly to build consensus against terrorism, I can attest to the fact that even after APS it was not a cakewalk. Even when the consensus emerged it was fleeting and ephemeral. The TTP apologists never went away. If you are trying to find them among the political class you are forgetting that politics in Pakistan is driven by self-interest and not by ideology. Look for them among public influencers. Dime a dozen and ready trigger.
Recently, as the Taliban expanded their sway, reports have emerged of the TTP terrorists living in territories controlled by their ideological Afghan twins. This has given birth to a host of questions. Why have the Taliban not taken any action against them? Why have Pakistan’s ‘brethren’ not expelled or handed them over? Could they do that if their control over Afghanistan is complete? The relationship between the TTP and the TTA (Afghan Taliban) has been a source of the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban binary for long. But the truth is that the TTA has never publicly disavowed the TTP. They say nothing and leave it to the obscurity and confusion artists to sow doubts in the minds of the public about the evidence before them. Today the TTA is not in power and even then, it is not ready to help in bringing Pakistan’s public enemy number one to justice. What is the chance that it would once it came to power? None at all, if the Riaz Basra and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi episode cited above is any proof. They are ideological twins and this time the TTA promises to return to power emboldened by the ‘defeated a superpower’ lore. This time it will be far more stubborn in its conduct.
In their recent push to capture Spin Boldak’s main market area, the Taliban fighters killed an embedded Reuters photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui. Initially, it was thought that Siddiqui was caught and killed in crossfire in the fog of war. But gradually gory details started emerging. The fighters had desecrated his dead body. It became clear that he was killed not despite who he was but because of it. Siddiqui, an Indian Muslim, gained prominence during the recent Indian Covid-oxygen crisis when his photographs of burning pyres denied by the government won him plaudits. When he was killed by the Taliban, some Hindutva fanatics in New Delhi distributed sweets.
This took me to the 2014 Sastra University speech by Ajit Doval, now India’s NSA. He said, “Don’t buy their argument that if Taliban are not stopped at Pakistan border then India will be threatened. Firstly India will not be threatened; secondly, Pakistan is not our well-wisher. We will tackle the Taliban in a way we want… Today India is the most popular country in Afghanistan. Funding is denied to terrorists by countering it with more than one and a half times the funds available to them. Then they are on our side. They are mercenaries.”
If the Taliban take over Afghanistan, apart from the usual wages of war next door, Pakistan will be subjected to a double whammy. It will be blamed for their human rights violations and other bad practices. Despite what you are told the Taliban have not changed their spots. And their victory narrative will export this destabilising ideology to Pakistan through the TTP and other aligned groups. Even if they don’t let their land being used against any other country, this ideological osmosis will embolden their twins in Pakistan. What a curious coincidence that this is happening in a month when India has assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” The wooden horse is at the door. Be careful what you wish for.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2021.
The Pegasus Project, as it is being called now, has blown the lid off of the Pandora’s box of fears and doubts. Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the predatory nature of the alleged surveillance capacities and practices of the American and the British […]Farrukh writes
The Pegasus Project, as it is being called now, has blown the lid off of the Pandora’s box of fears and doubts. Since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the predatory nature of the alleged surveillance capacities and practices of the American and the British intelligence agencies in 2013, we have seen truckloads of new literature (both fiction and non-fiction) on cybersecurity and espionage. Hollywood has also let its imagination and paranoia run wild. And since 2013, technology has grown more powerful, internet speeds much faster, the storage capacity of each device and batteries attached much bigger. Cameras on each device alone have grown much wilder. And then there is the issue of cloud services. Unless you change the settings on your smartphones and other smart devices their data is automatically backed up on cloud servers. Once this information is imprinted on internet servers despite all assurances from the vendors this data for all practical purposes becomes non-fungible. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
Let us first take a look at the scandal so far. NSO Group, an Israeli software company, sells snooping software to several governments in the world. These governments then deploy it to spy on groups and countries they have an adversarial relation with. Given that the software is military-grade the Israeli government strictly controls who gets access to it and who doesn’t. Except this responsibility until a few months ago was shouldered by none other than Bibi Netanyahu’s government. This may explain why he was so adamant about not leaving power or even the prime minister’s residence once out of power.
This software infects the target phones through phishing scams that get to you through SMS, WhatsApp messages, iMessage or an unknown vulnerability in certain phones. Once it infects the phone it can harvest your text, WhatsApp and email messages, access your photos and videos, your phone book, your GPS data, your calendar, passwords, record your calls, activate your camera and microphone at will. As its technology has improved the NSO Group can now install the said software even without you clicking a link.
In 2020, Forbidden Stories, a non-profit project primarily focusing on publishing stories which the traditional media for some reason does not carry, got ahold of a target list of 50 thousand phone numbers. Amnesty International’s cybersecurity team examined some of the target phones and found out that half of them had traces of the Pegasus Trojan software. As many as 17 media outlets, including Washington Post, then came together to further probe the matter. And the revelations since then have been startling. The list included 3 presidents, 10 prime ministers and one king apart from various individuals in the public eye like journalists, civil society activists, dissidents and government officials. Of these 10 prime ministers, one is Imran Khan. Without forensic analysis, it is hard to say if all these numbers were effectively hacked. But it is clear that at some point these were considered potential targets. France’s President Macron, for instance, made it to the list and since then has reportedly changed his phone but apparently was not spied on.
Perhaps the most interesting case is of India. Of all the client countries it is perhaps the only one with well-established democratic credentials. Democracies as a matter of principle do not spy on their citizens. Snowden’s revelations might have shaken faith in this precept a bit but since then the democratic institutions have visibly reasserted themselves ensuring that intelligence agencies do not spy on their citizens. But not in India. The Pegasus Project revelations show that India’s current government spied on opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, hacked into the phone of election strategist Prashant Kishor as he was advising West Bengal’s leading party during recent state election, in addition to many other civil society and media functionaries. It did not even spare its own cabinet ministers and office-bearers. Presently the Indian government is pretending that it did nothing wrong and hopes that like the dead bodies in water during the Covid crisis media will soon get over it. It may have to reconsider this position for three reasons. One, like the Covid crisis this scandal has already done considerable damage to its international image. Two, this is the kind of scandal that tends to grow because of the sheer number of high-profile victims. Three, there might be more whence all this came.
Prime Minister Khan’s phone was also on India’s target list along with a host of other high-profile officials. Pakistan government says it will litigate the matter. This will be an interesting development and many like me will watch it closely. But as a rule of thumb, unless the domestic technology has grown sufficiently to ensure total security for the use of such high placed officials, it is strongly advised that they do not use smartphones at all. There are many reasons for it. But this time they might have been lucky and this scandal was caught quite early. Who knows how many other software and companies are out there doing exactly that or even a better job of not getting caught? And don’t forget each smartphone’s own firmware and the apps you use in such phones. Despite their bonafides, these companies also routinely harvest your data.
On books at least the software is only meant to target terrorists and criminals. This obviously wasn’t the case and therefore the incumbent Israeli government claims to be conducting a thorough investigation into the matter. The NSO Group also claims that the software cannot be traced back to the spying government. This obviously proved wrong and with every passing day, more damning evidence is surfacing. Even if an inquiry doesn’t close this company, this scandal will ensure that it soon goes out of business.
But for an ordinary smartphone user here is the bottom line. Kiss your privacy goodbye. It is funny how so many people refuse Covid vaccines after listening to baseless conspiracy theories about privacy but happily buy expensive smartphones with open mics and two opposite high-powered cameras, if not more, always connected to the network.
Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace by Ronald J Deibert does a great job of summarising how privacy in this age is a myth. The number of internet chokepoints like the physical locations called IXPs (internet exchange points) alone provides an infinite number of opportunities to snoop on your data. Until better devices come, cover the cameras and pretend you are not being watched. Or convince yourself that you are not important enough.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2021.
After remaining rather uneventful for decades, outer space is again seeing a lot of action and interest. There are many reasons for it. NASA is under presidential orders to land humans on Mars by 2033. In December 2019, Donald Trump inaugurated the US Space Force […]Farrukh writes
After remaining rather uneventful for decades, outer space is again seeing a lot of action and interest. There are many reasons for it. NASA is under presidential orders to land humans on Mars by 2033. In December 2019, Donald Trump inaugurated the US Space Force with the broader assumption being that the world powers would once again take their competition to space. This is among a few initiatives of the Trump era that are unlikely to be reversed.
The renewed interest in space stems from two contingent factors. Widespread speculations about UFOs and aliens. And the interest shown by tech billionaires to colonise space. Let us address them one at a time.
Man’s fascination with celestial objects and outer space has gone on since the dawn of civilisation. And when the realisation about the true depth of outer space grew so did the idea that we are not alone in the universe. But for those who are committed to this wild goose chase, the Fermi paradox defines the odds. It states that in an infinite universe the probability of the rise of a spacefaring civilisation is huge but this high probability is undermined by a total lack of evidence to support any alien ever visiting Earth. This could not dampen the enthusiasm of the UFO enthusiasts. On July 5 this year, the Pentagon released an unclassified report regarding whatever it knows about the phenomenon. Unfortunately, it does not reveal any startling new evidence. If this was not enough there is plenty of sense in what theoretical physicist and pop-scientist Michio Kaku says about alleged UFO sightings. He believes that if a space-faring civilisation had arisen before us it would be far ahead of us in technology and perhaps not even dependent on corporeal form. Why would such a bunch of aliens use technologies which can be sighted and even identified by human minds and why would they have even a remote interest in us?
But then there are other scientists like Harvard professor Avi Loeb who believe that celestial objects visiting our solar system like ‘Oumuamua (kindly look him up), may contain evidence or relics of ancient aliens and therefore must be studied carefully. Humanity is still not ready for a massive investment of time and money for the exploration of such distant and fleeting objects. Money is handy for other projects as we shall see a bit later. But given that we are on the cusp of a technological revolution and this rapid growth coincides with Covid lockdowns where a huge population was forced to live indoors with a truckload of online conspiracy literature meant that the obsession with aliens would spread rapidly. A desperate person will clutch at straws to make a point. Consequently, old speculations about redoubtable claims on UFO/alien sightings like the one from Bob Lazar (again look him up) have gained considerable traction. Even conspiracy communities like QAnon have witnessed a race to incorporate pseudoscience related to aliens and outer space into their narrative. I can only assume that you have come across US Congresswoman Marjorie Greene’s views about California wildfires being caused by what she calls “Jewish space lasers”. This claim is just as divorced from reality as the rest of QAnon fantasy fiction.
But the QAnon interest is useful to highlight another broader point. It is true that many UFO geeks are driven by the fascination borne out of an inability to distinguish well-written science fiction or well-made sci-fi movies from reality and therefore their intentions might be innocent. But there are many among the prejudiced who would want you to believe there are aliens among us disguised as humans. Why? Because if there are aliens here in human garb, the good old pitch for an egalitarian society, all humans are created equal, holds no water. These aliens might even be malevolent and harbour malice against the human race. From this, one small jump will take you to the views of Nazis and the KKK that the othered community is subhuman if not totally inhuman. I want to keep an open mind for real first contact with an alien species but what passes for evidence in this regard is not much.
Now, to the meaty part. The space competition among billionaires. When news broke of Jeff Bezos’ retirement as the CEO of Amazon, we also learned that the world’s richest man was planning to visit space on a craft made by his space company Blue Origin. It was meant to be a moment steeped in symbolism. A send-off of sorts even if the one being sent off was to stay in space only for minutes. Also, it signalled to many that Bezos had milked the earthly business opportunities to capacity and now space was the new frontier. Ever the showman, billionaire Sir Richard Branson could not pass on the opportunity to steal his thunder. His flight on July 11 could not reach the internationally accepted definition of space but garnered a lot of media attention. Bezos’ recently concluded flight was more successful even though it stayed up there only for 10 minutes. Elon Musk has not disclosed his immediate plans to travel to space even though his company SpaceX possesses a reliable history of space travel. Branson has announced that Musk has booked a seat on Virgin Galactic flight and even made a cash deposit. SpaceX plans to send up a civilian only spaceflight before the end of the year but Musk is not on the passenger list.
While this may sound like a testosterone-driven race between billionaires who have a lot of money to burn and to others it may look like another billionaire grift or scam, the instincts of all three are not misplaced. Sir Branson is interested in space tourism. Bezos and Musk believe in the colonisation of space for the benefit of humanity. Where Musk differs from Bezos is that he wants to colonise Mars. The red planet is the closest and perhaps most reliable of all our planetary neighbours. But colonising a celestial object like Mars may not be easy because of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the logistic problems posed by its orbit, distance and terraforming it. Bezos on the other hand believes in building space colonies from scratch, a costlier but much more reliable option. Space might not be the final frontier in view of many new theories about parallel worlds and other fascinating avenues but once colonised it can offer a fetching end to the Malthusian dilemma.
Let me draw your attention to four of my pieces that appeared in this space in the past two years. On June 1, 2019, in my piece titled “The Huawei Inflection Point”, I pointed out the perils of the Trump administration’s dangerous campaign against Huawei. […]Farrukh writes
Let me draw your attention to four of my pieces that appeared in this space in the past two years. On June 1, 2019, in my piece titled “The Huawei Inflection Point”, I pointed out the perils of the Trump administration’s dangerous campaign against Huawei. As we examined in this space the reasons given behind the ban were full of platitudes and contained a laundry list of complaints. From national security to Donald Trump’s trade war with China this mixed bag of objections was a serious threat to the industry. Apart from the major disruption it could cause to the burgeoning tech industry, I pointed out that there were three possible outcomes if the ban was taken to its logical conclusion. 1) That the company’s international business dies and is replaced by other Chinese companies. 2) That Trump eventually concludes a trade deal with China and even the company’s real offences are whitewashed. 3) There is no resolution and the world is split into two irreconcilable software spheres, one led by Chinese companies, the other dominated by American tech giants.
If Trump had won in 2020 the second outcome was the most probable one because the two sides were very close to concluding the second round of a trade deal. He did not. And his short-term pressure tactics had long-term consequences.
On June 29, 2019, I wrote another piece titled “How Not to Train a Dragon”, in which I pointed out that China was indicating that it was ready to have a dialogue and open up as a consequence. That to do that the United States and its key partners needed to win its trust. Without trust good luck having any progress in talks with Beijing. Trump knew this instinctively and was able to engage effectively. This would have produced some lasting results had it not been for two developments.
As the election season set in and Covid-19 exploded on the world stage, China became an easy target of partisan point-scoring. Trump would go on to refer to the coronavirus as the China virus. This had a seriously negative consequence for the Asian American or the AAPI community. But at that time China knew and indeed was privately assured that all this rhetoric was meant to win the next election and once elected the incumbent would pick up the thread of negotiations where it was left.
But an issue with an open society is that lobbyists of all sorts take full advantage of every momentary fissure that opens up in any affair. Consequently, while Trump is gone, the toxic rhetoric he helped spread continues unabated. Hate crimes against the AAPI community continue despite timely legislative action by the Biden administration. So, do the calls to decouple the US and the Chinese economies.
On March 14, 2020, I wrote “Covid-19 and Collective Security”, where the core argument was that the new lethal disease needed cooperation between all nations of the world and the old patterns of the balance of power or containment could have lethal consequences. Another piece titled “Failure, Paranoia and Decoupling”, on March 21, 2020, reminded readers of how interconnected and interdependent the world economy was and the idea of decoupling was highly counterintuitive and counterproductive. And if this transparent truth was discernible to this humble mind, I am sure it must be to the policymakers and lobbyists of the world. But given that we knew of the source of these calls for decoupling and that they only grew in time, you could notice how benighted, selfish and short-sighted some powers can be that they do not care what happens to the world with them in it as long as their short-term goals are met. Bureaucracy and populism make a lethal mix.
Look at the consequences. In a brilliant article titled “The Missing Chips”, which appeared in Foreign Affairs, Chad P Bown laid bare the impact of Trump’s trade war and the Covid-19 fallout on the tech industry and the semiconductor chips. While Trump’s measures were meant to isolate China for a short period, they ended up punishing the American and western tech companies which use these semiconductor chips in a wide range of products that they produce from smartphones and household appliances to electric cars and even bigger products. Instead of correcting the trade balance between the US and China, it has only worked to wipe out many opportunities for wealth creation for all in trade. There are enough unmeasured and untabulated variables out there in this post-Covid world which can easily take us to an unprecedented global economic meltdown. No country can or should risk triggering such an outcome.
And it doesn’t end here. To borrow Michele Gelfand’s term, the comity of nations will always be a loose society and culture. This means that if enough paranoia exists between two or more members it can wreak havoc in every society. And that is precisely what we have witnessed. In every country, the government’s response to Covid-19 has actively been undermined by its own citizens. And this sad story continues even as the world has lost over four million lives. The propaganda against vaccines, measures to contain the virus and each government’s intentions has made the world a sad and ugly place. If the virus survives as a lingering concern for long it can permanently reverse the progress the world has made in fighting poverty and suffering in the past many decades. It can further destroy the chances of a timely global economic revival.
Vaccine nationalism is becoming another serious challenge. The way different regions of the world are refusing to accept vaccines produced by a potential rival as a legitimate cure will only compound and exacerbate our collective suffering. The West seems reluctant to accept vaccines produced by China and Russia. The eastern parts see a propaganda campaign against the western vaccines which due to the interconnectivity of the world swiftly reaches the western societies and destroys serious efforts to combat the virus. This sorry state of affairs cannot go on forever or it will destroy the world in ways we have not even imagined. In the 1920s and 30s, when the world had so much paranoia, some of the worst political elements emerged on the stage and destroyed millions of lives and scarred countless generations. In this age, even a remote semblance of the emergence of such a phenomenon will have a disproportionately bleaker impact owing to the presence of far superior technology. Unaffordable.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2021.
“The common law of the Asiatic dynasties,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was “the unceasing round of valour, greatness, discord, degeneracy, and decay”. Very cyclical, correct? If you manage to read this six-volume work […]Farrukh writes
“The common law of the Asiatic dynasties,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was “the unceasing round of valour, greatness, discord, degeneracy, and decay”. Very cyclical, correct?
If you manage to read this six-volume work which certainly requires a copious amount of time (readinglength.com claims that at a rate of 250 words per minute you will need 73 hours and 23 minutes of unblinking reading but my own experience attests to a struggle that goes way beyond this timeframe), you will have nothing but admiration for the exceptionally nuanced narrative. So, Gibbon can be forgiven for falling prey to the occasional bouts of historicism, that annoying habit of a few to insist that history is subject to certain laws which predetermine its outcome. Make no mistake. There is a lot of evidence to support his statement about oriental dynasties but it has less to do with any form of fatalism and more with the inability of these dynasties to evolve a stable and peaceful mechanism of succession. That is why democracy is such an enduring system.
No one has done more justice to the vagaries of historical causation and in identifying how dangerous a political construct historicism is than Karl Popper. He calls it pseudoscience and blows it out of water. To know more please consult his, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
But then every once in a while, you walk into an epiphany that compels you to think. Mine, a rather mundane one, came while reading William Dalrymple’s brilliant book, Anarchy. Since the anecdote I am referring to is of a base nature which when taken out of context will do grave injury to the wholly remarkable work, let me first address the book itself. You have to read it more than once to admire two different aspects. One, the labour, the information and the research that have gone into it. It meticulously deconstructs every myth about the rise and the total control of the East India Company in South Asia and leaves you pondering over the counterfactuals of this region’s history. Two, sheer craftsmanship. The second aspect is so enjoyable that I keep a copy handy for leisurely reading when I am short on reading material. I have read his other works but this one by far is the best. I can only hope that one day he finds time to trace the roots of religious radicalism (both of Hindu and Muslim faiths) in South Asia. The world’s future may depend on it.
Now the small anecdote. It was about the advent of the Company’s experiments in India and its first factory at Surat. Since the early batches of workforce dispatched were dominated by ruffians, the settlement was highly unpopular among the local populace. Here the author quotes contemporary accounts which cite two swear words that have survived in common conversations today. I will not reproduce them here save for a hint that they target the families of those on the receiving end. Bear in mind the time and the place under discussion here. The time period is between 1615 and 1669 AD. And the place, Surat, is in Gujarat. We take these words to be of the Urdu/Hindi origin. But given the evolution of these languages, nothing seems to add up and one has to find refuge in the old aphorism: some things never change.
This oddity aside, should South Asians blame the EIC and the British for all their ills today? If you listen to Shashi Tharoor and many other influential thinkers you may get that impression. But the story cannot be that simple. The above-mentioned anecdote at least highlights the intellectual lethargy in the Subcontinent, apart from other ills like misogyny. But here and there in this book, you find small nuggets that unravel the predominant psychology in a second. The English, for instance, are often referred to by the local narrators as the nation of hat weavers. Even if this assertion is accepted at face value, the use of a craft as a slur should tell you of the mindset on display. This ossification of collective consciousness about jobs deemed menial would go a long way in explaining many problems the region faces. But today we have bigger fish to fry.
Do you know why foreigners had so much luck invading the region? Because of the lack of unity here. On every single turn, they would find a bunch of locals ready to betray their people. Why? Well, tyrannical rulers offer one explanation. There is one better. Racism.
If you think South Asians are not racist here is a simple test. No, it is not about skin whitening creams. Here is the test. Do you have servants? Alright. Go to the kitchen and see if you have a separate set of utensils for the servants’ use. Yeah, I know just a matter of convenience. So, have you ever eaten in any of them? Why not? They are all washed up and clean. You do not because you think that they are still dirty. Dirty despite being washed and cleaned. I wonder, why?
Fundamental to the racist mindset is the belief that all humans are not equal. That some are low-born, some high-born and they should stay in their respective lanes. If they mingle perchance, they should keep their effects separate. Now factor in marriages. And casteism. Biradarism. Feudalism. Classism. Tribalism. Ethnocentrism. Communalism. Or whatever name you give to these prejudices. You should know they come from the same wellspring of racism.
Anyone can conquer such a divided house. All you have to do is to identify the correct fault lines. But then there is the problem of the one-track mind. If you want to blame the British you will choose to forget that Aurangzeb Alamgir’s imperial overreach in the Deccan and Nadir Shah’s raid had already emptied the coffers and left the region an impractical mess. I don’t hear anyone asking the Afghans and the Iranians for reparations. Because it is neither convenient nor realistic. Another century, another millennium. Blaming others for what you have done to yourself will only make you more miserable, not better.
See how the South Asian nations lobby against each other. Despite so much shared history. Can there be a more pathetic display? And then you say their lot will improve one day. Yeah, and I shall be richer than Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates all put together. A likely story.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2021.
For the third time in two years the short-form video sharing portal, TikTok, finds itself banned in Pakistan. The ban came as a result of a case that is being heard in the Sindh High Court. The next hearing is on July 8, and I […]Farrukh writes
For the third time in two years the short-form video sharing portal, TikTok, finds itself banned in Pakistan. The ban came as a result of a case that is being heard in the Sindh High Court. The next hearing is on July 8, and I have no intention of discussing a sub-judice matter in this space. But this provides me with a segue into a bigger, broader debate on culture, technology, the relationship of the citizen and the state with them, our perceived moral code, the inflexible positions we take and our future generations. We procrastinate sheepishly when this debate is imminent for the sheer want of courage and I believe deferring it will result in the next grand radicalisation of the society. I write these lines not as a journalist or an analyst but as a father, a citizen and a member of the mainstream religious community.
Before we start here is another caveat for you. The infusion of politics in religion has convinced many in this society that there is more than one team and the other team is an enemy. This has led to unnecessary culture wars and the shaping and reshaping of public sensibilities. If you are a religious political party with a declining vote share like the Jamaat-e-Islami, the JUI-F or many others it is useful to otherise all interpretational differences and declare the othered community as the enemy. It has nothing to do with the religion and much to do with politics. In the four decades of my consciousness, I have travelled far and wide in this society and found sentiments on major religious issues to be the same. There is no conspiracy against the main religion and Islam is definitely not under threat in a country of 96% Muslim population.
The politics on religion only fosters a culture of insecurity and creates an environment of fear which makes the job of societal evolution nearly impossible. Look around. There is no grand secret plan to socially engineer this country, transform it into something alien. The cluelessness of the moderate and liberal political parties, when they come to power, is a dead giveaway. And since with every passing day our religious outlook is being shaped by religious politicians or political ambition among the dominant clerical class, we are doing incredible injustice to the free spirit of Islam which as a system of evolving jurisprudence had so openly embraced change and transformation through the institution of ijtihad. As someone who has read many tafasir (Quranic commentaries) and the Sihah Sittah (the authentic six of hadith) along with countless other original texts cover to cover, unprompted at an early age, I can tell you that you are being misled by a misinterpretation of faith by a politically charged community. Of course, the journey did not end there and since then I have read foundational texts of almost all major religions, works of some leading atheists, agnostics and self-proclaimed heretics. Reading always comes handy and if someone wants you to be so emotionally charged all the time that you stay away from your own faith’s main texts, they obviously do not have the interest of your faith at heart.
In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal identifies three sources of knowledge that the Quran promotes: the divine inspiration (wahi), history (examples of many past civilisations) and science (references to the celestial bodies, flora and fauna and nature). One of the most fascinating insights Iqbal derives is from the instance of the bee which carries in its nature the blueprint to grow and behave in accordance with a pre-programmed pattern which the Quran calls wahi. Decades later, Steve Jobs would have a similar epiphany when he witnessed the birth of a calf and was seized by wonder when he noticed how the newly born calf found his legs and source of food without any guidance. When you look at this remarkable scope of your faith and the range of politically charged religious elite available in the society you get the distinct feeling of someone trying to solve complex calculus equations with an outdated and underpowered calculator if not abacus.
Perhaps the clerics do not want you to know your faith in depth because then they would be the first to lose power. How so? Well, there is no concept of priests in Islam. In Christianity and many other faiths when you commit a sin you go to the priest, confess and get the directions for penance. In Islam, there is only one stop solution, a direct window to God. Unfurl your prayer mat, repent before Him and seek guidance. That’s it. Originally the prayer leaders were supposed to be the community leaders with good repute, not a permanent religious class. So, you get the simple economy of obstruction at play in our society.
Why is this important? Because of the times we live in. Technology is redefining the contours of society. Social media, the internet and globalising economy have made the world consciousness an indivisible whole. Anyone who tells you that this trend can be reversed is lying to you. Many give you the example of the great internet wall of China. They neither understand technology nor the shape of things to come. And that’s not all. With an ever-growing population, technology has already usurped many traditional roles. Parenting is one of them. Wrap your head around the emotional consequences of that statement.
The state has many responsibilities. But its first responsibility along with self-preservation is to stamp out poverty, ensure that the citizens stay safe, sheltered, healthy and always have an opportunity to excel. Don’t get me started on how badly broken this society still is. If you want to talk about the decaying edifices of shame, honour and family values we will need to have another long conversation. But given that states have limited resources they cannot be asked to squander them on moral policing. Islam says that God is the ultimate judge of everyone’s character. Who are we to interfere then?
Whenever Islam rose as a cultural force, in say Cordoba, Baghdad, Constantinople, Cairo, Delhi, elsewhere, it did so by embracing pluralism and creating a safe space for every citizen regardless of their individual choices. If Pakistan wants to grow, it will have to do the same.
Consider the first of the three Delphic maxims: know thyself. The other two are also worth mentioning. Nothing to excess. And surety brings ruin. Together these three have served humanity well for millennia.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2021.
The phoenix, as an idea, has a recorded history of seven to eight thousand years. Yes, roughly seven to eight thousand years. The earliest designs were found at an archaeological site in Hongjiang, Hunan Province. The idea has mutated over time but as a final […]Farrukh writes
The phoenix, as an idea, has a recorded history of seven to eight thousand years. Yes, roughly seven to eight thousand years. The earliest designs were found at an archaeological site in Hongjiang, Hunan Province. The idea has mutated over time but as a final cultural product, it is invariably known for one very specific characteristic. The ability to rise from the dead. More specifically to rise from the ashes.
The phoenix as a symbol quite aptly epitomises the endurance and resilience of the far eastern nations. But the nation we are to discuss today reminds me of another mythological character: Icarus. The son of the Greek master craftsman Daedalus who flew too close to the sun. Some story. But like a phoenix, this country has never truly learned to give up.
There will be plenty of examples to prove this point. But even though I have a suspicion that you have already identified the country, I will let the suspense build up a little. While this country is so important that no history is complete without its mention, we have trained our minds to ignore it so often that when just before writing this piece I told my wife that I was about to write about another country and asked if she would care to guess which one was it, she named a dozen other ones and then all Asian Tigers before finally mentioning the one nation that has immensely contributed to their rise.
I think you have guessed it right. This piece is about the land of the rising sun. Be honest about it. Japan’s name seldom comes to mind when we are discussing contemporary international politics. Even though it is a member of the G-7; has a per capita income of over 40,000 PPP dollars; and as will be shown in this piece soon, an enduring cultural and economic influence on the world. So much lobbying goes on our everyday news screens that our short-term memories and narrow attention spans can seldom do justice to the individual cases that deserve our profound attention. Then decades of political and often economic stagnation have also done a disservice to this country’s robust spirit. The problem is we are still accustomed to judging countries by their political postures and not their intellectual or cultural depth.
I have had only a nodding acquaintance with the country as it is today. Had it not been for a chance encounter with a beautiful book I don’t think I would have even brought up the subject. A few but really remarkably good-natured friends from the country, loads of history books that usually give up the struggle to cover it beyond WWII, literary portrayal from Clavell’s Shogun to the Amazon Prime series, The Man in the High Castle. Some residual memory of the gadgets we once used to enjoy in the 1980s and 1990s. Cultural products like Anime and Manga never grew immensely on me. Nothing personal. It might be a very unpopular opinion in this age but I find comics and sometimes even poetry gigantic waste of the trees we kill to print them. Paper for me is meant to be packed with as much information and ergo words as possible. What? I said I know it is an unpopular opinion. Then the pictures and reports that come from the world’s most populous city, Tokyo, do not inspire confidence. Even flying visits will not do justice to the country.
The chance encounter with a beautiful book that I mentioned went like this. For a few years, I’ve been gobsmacked by the rise of conspiracy culture in the West and most of it being linked to two imageboard sites: 4chan and 8chan. These sites primarily and ostensibly came into existence to feature anime and meme images. So, I had to get to the bottom of the whole thing. In one famous podcast, QAnonAnonymous, its hosts one day decided to do a whole episode on this. The man who commented on the Japanese origins of these sites, Matt Alt, had also written a book that had just come out. His grip on the subject led me to this book titled, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. And what a remarkable book it is. Its paperback was released this week and if you read one book this month make it this one.
Let’s face it. We live in the age of manufactured rage. Nations dig deep into the distant past to find something to be outraged about. America is worried about white rage. In India when the current situation does not seem to comport with the aspirations of the people, pundits reach back into the trash heap of the pre-independence history to blame someone else and get outraged. In Pakistan sometimes the outrage is about the end of Muslim rule in India and at times about the fall of East Pakistan. China that has precious little to complain about today is outraged by the century of humiliation. But none of them had to go through the trauma of being nuked twice. To know that two of your sprawling metropolises were wiped off of the face of the planet in living memory and yet keep battling on has a name: Japan.
Imagine how many cultural products has the country given us in the past few decades apart from their cars. Toys, headphones, the Walkman, VHS tapes, Karaoke, videogames, Hello Kitty, Pokemon and what the author of the book disparagingly calls the antisocial network. The book is so lovingly written, without any qualms about both the best and the worst that you cannot but help fall in love with the country and its cultural resilience. Perhaps, the nations that have not known pain and loss to this degree only to rise from the ashes like Japan need to heed its example. Not everything has to be political. Politics has always been Japan’s undoing. Intellect, culture, temperance and resilience are its saving grace.
Socio-economic and cultural angst is justified in Japan more than in any nation. But it is a different element altogether. Kintsugi is the Japanese art mending broken pottery with gold, a metaphor for the very resilience we have discussed. Such nations do not bemoan the past. They overcome insurmountable challenges despite all odds. This piece is not a book review but read the book and like me, you will be rooting for the Tokyo Olympics to succeed next month despite all challenges.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2021.
When was the last time you saw a science show or documentary on a Pakistani television channel? It is a serious question. There was a time when an effort was made to popularise science in Pakistan. In General Zia’s time when Pakistan Television was the […]Farrukh writes
When was the last time you saw a science show or documentary on a Pakistani television channel? It is a serious question. There was a time when an effort was made to popularise science in Pakistan. In General Zia’s time when Pakistan Television was the only network catering to the viewers’ needs, I recall that documentaries translated into Urdu were aired every weekend. This is how I first came across Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – which would lead me to his books and leave me with a lifelong enthusiasm for science and science fiction.
Make no mistakes. There always were compromises. I remember in a documentary about the origin of the universe when it came to the big bang theory a voiceover artist hastened to slip in that this for us was Kun Fayakun (God’s command for the universe to come into being). You know my views on mixing religion with science. It invariably harms religion in the long run. It is in the nature of science to challenge what it believes today which leads it to abandon old positions by the speed of light. It may sound convenient to you today but tomorrow you will not want your religion to be associated with outdated or redundant scientific assumptions.
But the broader point here is that an effort was made to draw attention to science. That does not seem to be the case anymore. Five years ago, a Pakistani scientist working abroad approached me with a proposal for a pop-science show. I took it to my boss who had the powers to greenlight such projects. I vividly remember the extreme prejudice with which this project was rejected. Science apparently was not for the Pakistani television audience.
I bring up the matter because we badly need critical thought in our society today. While no nation can expect to progress without a significant investment in STEM education and that cannot happen without students who enjoy these subjects, the story does not end here. In the past two decades, you must have noticed that our society is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. This must have gone on for time immemorial but recently given the onslaught of the new media and theatre of the absurd that accompanies it, we have witnessed a spike in misinformation. In the age of Covid and other superbugs, this becomes an existential threat. Ignoring cautionary tales from the US to India will only come at a grave cost. And to be honest we have been lucky. India, the US, and many other parts have far better knowledge infrastructures. In these emotionally intense times if pseudoscience, paranoia, and superstition can wreak havoc on them think what kind of tragedy would have befallen us had the virus spread exponentially in this society.
Back to pop science. Growing up I recall many science magazines in Urdu that were available at the newspaper stalls. Nothing extraordinary. Stuff mostly lifted and translated from a number of western scientific magazines but still something to feed the curious minds who did not have access to English content. Now even when I look, I don’t find such accessible content. I am not claiming that no such magazine exists. But I have not come across any and if there is one it certainly is not that widely available.
Let me now remind you of the times we live in. We have around 50 news channels in this country. A host of FM radio stations. Countless newspapers and magazines. This piece is being written on a handheld mobile device that would have looked like magic or unrealistic science fiction in my childhood. As per a statement by the PTA in April this year, a hundred million Pakistanis now use broadband internet. Then look at the websites hosting free content online. There are boundless platforms online to host free video, audio, text, and image content. Then each smartphone houses several free apps that can provide you live streaming content from cloud services. Think how many resources are we squandering away. Now think what a revolution we could cause in the educational sector if we were to make optimum use of these gifts.
Then you will come across the lamest of all lame excuses. There is no market for such content. That people do not read anymore. They don’t have the patience to sit through a long documentary. Forgive me for asking when was the last time you tried. TV series take time to garner attention and gain traction and momentum. Even if an executive allows you to air such content it is to make the above-mentioned point rather than to create appetite and consequently, such pilots are killed in infancy. Also, why haven’t we come across one-minute TikTok videos to popularise science?
Then there is the matter of approach. If you think people are not watching your content, have you checked if you are doing it right? If you subscribe to a cable service, I am sure you must have come across the channels operated by Virtual University. In their admirable haste to make the content remind of the classroom lectures the creators forget that television is a visual medium and if you look at one face, no matter how attractive, for an extended period you are unlikely to escape the soporific effects of the said programme. If a lecturer insists that his voice be accompanied by his image on the screen then at the very least you can use the picture-in-picture functionality to shrink the talking head to a corner and use the remaining screen real estate to air eye-catching and corresponding visuals.
Likewise, the books. In my travels to the rural and underdeveloped parts across the country, I haven’t come across a single town or moderately sized village where I have failed to find a bookstall or two that are still happily selling or renting out books. People still read them. We have just used it as an excuse to abandon printing quality content. And junk literature is replacing it.
Here is another book test. Even those who cannot read or will not read can use the audio versions. Go to any of the online app stores. Just search and see how many Indian/Hindi audiobook apps you find there. Now try finding one with Urdu content. You are unlikely to find a single one. Why? Because we just don’t want to do it.
And this one breaks my heart. Science fiction. We have many entertainment channels. Have you come across a single decent attempt to create a science fiction show? Or even a translated one? Why not?
If this is simply about market economics then there shouldn’t be a big problem for the state to incentivise the sector. At all three tiers of government endowment funds and awards can be created to support the creation of quality scientific content. Subsidies, tax breaks, even emoluments can be instituted to inspire people. There is a perfectly beautiful and effective message of critical thinking out there. We are just failing to convey it to our people. This sorry state of affairs cannot go on for long.
India’s Narendra Modi is in a pickle. When he declared victory against the coronavirus this January, he wasn’t just tempting fate but revealing the largest chinks in his armour — ignorance, and hubris. And along came the double mutant Indian variant which has now been […]Farrukh writes
India’s Narendra Modi is in a pickle. When he declared victory against the coronavirus this January, he wasn’t just tempting fate but revealing the largest chinks in his armour — ignorance, and hubris. And along came the double mutant Indian variant which has now been named the delta variant by the World Health Organization (WHO). His ardent supporters would learn about his biggest failure (the inability to book enough vaccines for the population) much later. First, they would go through a harrowing nightmare of watching their loved ones die waiting for oxygen cylinders. If that was not enough, they would then suffer the gut-wrenching ordeal of finding ways to carry out the last rites of their flesh and blood. Sitting far away when I came across some of these stories on social media features like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, I must say I felt crippled by shock, the intensity of grief on display, horror, and human limitations to console someone who lives out of physical reach. No human being should have to endure such a tragedy. And how do you diminish someone’s pain and survivor’s guilt when they thought they could arrange life support within minutes of the death of their beloveds?
In the past seven years, I have never been accused of being kind to Modi. And at such moments I do not feel vindicated, I only encounter a deep state of loss in the pit of my stomach. Our cousins next door did not know that the thing they were bringing in with such fanfare was a deadly Trojan horse. And now it has deprived them permanently of happiness. How do you tell them that this tragedy could be avoided?
The effectiveness of spin is inversely proportional to the number of times it is used. As Abraham Lincoln, so articulated, stated: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Many Indians were shocked to see that instead of helping them out their government was occupied with blocking their voices on social media. When your ruler thinks that the image is more important than the reality the loss of a few hundred thousand lives looks like just another flat number.
Actions have consequences. Failures, doubly so. It feels like the lid of Pandora’s box has been lifted and even the most ardent supporters of Modi and his party are seeing him for who he is. Popularity numbers have dipped to an unprecedented low. And because the images are being constantly policed pollsters are compelled to prepare two lists, one, with a minor decline, for the government and the media. The other, with devastating numbers, for the consumption of the powers that be in the deep state and within the RSS.
This has led to three distinct chains of events. Four if you factor in the still raw sense of shock among the big-ticket business sponsors of the Hindutva regime. Let us look at them one at a time.
The first chain of events is institutional. India’s democratic institutions, which had gone to sleep for seven long years, are waking up. Nothing dramatic but you can still feel that the old checks and balances are being restored. This means that the wiggle room for the saffron government is shrinking. The media, the judiciary, and very slowly the parliament and the bureaucracy are getting wary of the Modi government’s cluelessness.
The second sequence of events is taking place within the ruling party. Modi is being taken less seriously. His party has now witnessed two serious setbacks in populous states. The debacle in West Bengal and local elections in UP may have less to do with Covid and more to do with the Modi and Yogi governance models. Amid infighting, as I write these lines, Yogi Aditiyanath is meeting Modi to reconcile differences. But even if this patchwork quilt works for the time being no one is hopeful for its longevity.
The third and the most serious one is taking place within the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP. The RSS, which prides itself on its ability to play the long game, is not just wary of Modi and Yogi, the latter not even its member. It feels deeply wounded because of the illiterate and clueless brand image the association with this lot is projecting to the world. The group has big plans for the future and it feels that it cannot influence the world with an ignorant or miseducated workforce. The word has it that it is seriously considering ways to cut the losses by sidelining Modi and his entire cabinet, replacing them with backbenchers until the election, and then withdrawing from the political space for two decades, the time needed to prepare a new and better-educated workforce. The push is apparently coming from the HSS, other foreign wings of the RSS, which includes some of the most diehard supporters of Modi. Way to embarrass your most aggressive fans. This may take time but is the most probable course of action.
Finally, the billionaires like Ambanis and Adanis who bankrolled Modi’s campaign and stints in power for personal reasons. They too are shocked by the sheer incompetence on display. Modi’s regional policies are now negatively affecting their business concerns. The regional opposition to the Saudi investment in Ambani’s refinery project has caused undesirable delays. And now the Modi government is attacking his key partners in the Jio project like Facebook. If benefactors like him decide to ditch support for Modi, then hardly anyone will save his hide. The global trends are also dismantling the international ideological ecosystem that bolstered Modi’s brand at home.
Now, the question is whether he can survive all this. Well, miracles do happen. But the only miracle that can save him comes at a heavy cost. Swift peace with Pakistan can create just the kind of disruption that may keep him at least a little longer in power. The Pakistani ruling elite is not oblivious to the usefulness of a diminished populist leader. But to make genuine peace, for mere optics will not cut it any longer, he will have to act first and dismantle the network installed to control Pakistan from within and stifle its economy from without. Despite this cost dispute resolution with Pakistan can turn the tide of public opinion, replenish his image as a statesman, and perhaps along with the Pakistani leadership win him a Nobel prize. But since time is of the essence, I don’t think he has more than a month to act. Can he do it? Of course. But will he? I have my doubts, beside a strong feeling that he doesn’t deserve it.
Disambiguation first. This piece has nothing to do with Elon Musk’s The Boring Company. Despite its ingenious name the company remains known for tunnelling and digging holes in the earth. This article, on the contrary, argues for healing the world. Rebuilding trust, patience, doing what […]Farrukh writes
Disambiguation first. This piece has nothing to do with Elon Musk’s The Boring Company. Despite its ingenious name the company remains known for tunnelling and digging holes in the earth.
This article, on the contrary, argues for healing the world. Rebuilding trust, patience, doing what is right, and bringing principles of collective security back to the centre stage are the key arguments here. And during the pandemic lockdowns, Mr Musk’s outbursts have damaged the environment of trust to such an extent that it can only be repaired by time and not by his interesting performance on Saturday Night Live. But before we move further let me properly introduce the subject matter and the title of this piece with an anecdote.
It was a week before the 2020 United States presidential election. I was moderating a televised discussion on the merits and demerits of the two candidates. The gentleman representing the Democratic Party pointed out that president Trump’s emotional outbursts on Twitter and in public had severely harmed America’s brand and the international order with it. He then went on to promise that if his party got elected in November the new administration would go back to the old normal and that we would only witness temperance and professionalism through the new president’s Twitter handle and his public statements. Nothing incendiary, nothing impulsive. Seized by an impulse I asked him if his party’s new slogan was: “Vote for us, we are the boring ones”? My guest smiled and his answer, in so many words, was a yes.
In the last column, I had pointed out how the greed and selfishness of America’s closest allies, and not major rivals, had elevated Trumpism (let us leave Trump out of it for now) to a major ideology in the country. While Trumpism had its external advantages in a madman doctrine sort of way and perhaps in terms of the economy too, it seriously jeopardised the domestic evolution of the past two centuries, damaged the social fabric and the cause of democracy around the world. In short, it had undermined whatever made America unique. In the meantime, as I am never tired of reminding you, America’s key allies, mostly institutional democracies, were getting more authoritarian and fascistic by the day. But wait a minute. Was democracy not the defining factor in the American-led world order? If you could not tell countries apart by their democratic values how could you distinguish allies from rivals? If, for instance, India and China could be accused of the same repressive methods to curtail dissent how could you decide that India was your ally and China an adversary? If Israel’s prime minister was continuously dividing his country, weaponising every possible fault line in there and introducing apartheid laws to stay in power despite serious corruption charges and ebbing public support, how could you call it the only democracy in the Middle East and a true ally? If anything, Trumpism has taught us never to take democracy for granted and that even in the best of societies the forces of retrogression can work fast to usurp you of all progress. You will notice I consider Trump and Trumpism two different elements. Despite his forbidding character flaws, Trump was not a bad candidate. If we were to judge politicians by their character, a significant number of former US presidents could never win even a mayoral election. No, the problem with Trump was his weapon-grade regressive ideology which emboldened the worst elements in the society.
Then came the elections and President Biden triumphed. We knew that Trumpism wouldn’t give up without a fight. And then we witnessed the attack on the US capitol. American democracy survived the attack. But Trumpism has refused to go away. You ask why? Because its shareholders are still in power elsewhere. One shareholder showed his true colours recently when to sabotage the democratic transition, which would have removed him from power and probably sent him to prison, he orchestrated the war in Gaza. Another shareholder had used this formula in 2019 to return to power in India. Many stockbrokers out there too. Steve Bannon, Alexander Dugin, Olavo de Carvalho, David Horowitz, and on.
On June 2, and two developments promised to change Israel’s political fortune. In its bones, the Israeli state knows that Netanyahu’s 12 years in power have incredibly weakened its international image and internal cohesion. So, a correction was bound to come. The first development and more exciting one was the formal consensus among Netanyahu’s disparate rivals to form a unity government for change. The second one, however, is more indicative of the country’s desire to change. Isaac Herzog, a former chief of the Labor party, won the election for president with a resounding majority. Often presented by the Israeli media as a boring man and nicknamed Bougie (pronounced Bouji), he is the son of a former president, a career politician, and a believer in the two-state solution. He is said to be capable of winning back the bipartisan support in Washington and wooing the estranged diaspora.
The word boring may also remind you of a similar charge against another leader. The detractors of Dr Manmohan Singh used to complain that he was boring and seldom spoke in public. In the end, India managed to replace him with someone who never shuts up. But the problem is all he knows is to talk. And punish people for speaking out. And get people killed.
Professionals often seem boring to people because they understand their work and do not need oratory or theatrics to distract or deflect from their ignorance or failures. Exactly the kind of people who build democracies, maintain institutions, and uphold freedoms. Your textbook ants and the grasshopper story.
The boring world order then is the principle-centred, rule-based one. Where multilateralism, the universality of humanitarian ethics, regard for international law, and individual nation’s obligation to commitments pave the way forward.
I am cognizant of the fact that today I have all but exhausted the allotted space. So, I will attempt to discuss these principles in another piece. But let me tell you how I think this project progresses. First, the democratic world puts its house in order and exorcises the fascistic impulses within. The country that embraces these reforms, wins all sympathies. The one that doesn’t gets some tough love. Once this phase is over you can attend to the undemocratic world and ways to help it reform. Since the undemocratic nations will not stand still, time is of the essence and the first phase will have to be completed swiftly. Otherwise, what is the point of confronting those who don’t have democracy?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2021.
Not a day passes by without a new set of totally crazy conspiracy theories reaching us. Now that Pakistan is making strides in vaccinating its citizens, you might have come across a video clip where someone is attaching a light bulb to various parts of […]Farrukh writes
Not a day passes by without a new set of totally crazy conspiracy theories reaching us. Now that Pakistan is making strides in vaccinating its citizens, you might have come across a video clip where someone is attaching a light bulb to various parts of his body and claiming that the microchips in the vaccine are responsible for that electricity. This one is easy. Microchips do not produce electricity. They consume them. And if for some reason nanotechnology and power generation had conspired to create automatically rechargeable batteries that could enter your body through a needle, I assure you, you wouldn’t need the heavy bricks you call smartphones with big batteries. Most of this propaganda can be dismantled through simple observation and deduction.
Similarly, at the height of the Covid-related oxygen crisis in India news broke that the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Rishikesh, was conducting a clinical trial to study the impact of chanting the Gayatri Mantra on critical Covid patients since February. The Gayatri Mantra is a religious hymn that is often chanted during Hindu religious ceremonies. Without prejudice to any faith a simple question to India’s ministry of science and technology, the sponsor of the study, could have stopped further squandering of precious resources. When the smallest microbe known to humanity, a virus, lacks an auditory system and a brain, how do you propose to convey this message, this chant, to it?
It reminded me of an interesting episode in Pakistan where a televangelist, who is now an MP, inquired a religious scholar about killing lizards. If memory serves me correctly it was a what-if question about a djinn pretending to be a lizard. The said scholar told him without a trace of irony to shout out this line thrice before killing the lizard: “O lizard, if you are a djinn then go away”. Lizards neither lack auditory pathways nor a functioning brain, but I am not convinced that they are fluent in your native tongue. Otherwise, we would have known of a talking lizard. What’s more, if it was at all plausible what makes you think that this voyeuristic djinn who has taken so many pains to take the shape of a lizard to spy on you would be deterred by your threats or killed by your mortal instruments? Are they not supposed to be very powerful?
As I pointed out at the start, being ignorant misapplications of faith or direct products of superstition, these stories are easy to debunk. But not all are. They come in layers or levels. And like any steep climb the farther you get from the ground the scarier it gets. The first denial makes an entry. It is not easy to wrap your head around the suddenness and the scale of a black swan tragedy. You were never equipped to handle the shocking ingress of widespread pain and loss. Two tragedies immediately come to mind. The 9/11 and the Covid-19 crises. The former because it was truly a traumatic experience for anyone who lost a loved one or viewed it as an assault on his or her identity. The fact that the mastermind was living in a distant and downtrodden country and only 20 of his acolytes perpetrated this crime would not let the emotional closure come. So, what do you do? You look for conspiracies. And those who had initially failed to empathise with the suffering in the United States, dismissing it as somebody else’s problem, were soon shocked to learn that war had reached their region. Hence, they also joined this conspiracy theory club. On its own denial as an emotional response comes with an expiry date. But more often it is co-opted by sinister motives. There always are groups out there to profit from your agitated state of mind. And they move in with the grace of vultures.
In the case of the Covid crisis, their presence was largely felt. Almost at the very start of the crisis the social Darwinists and staunch believers in the hierarchal society had already made their minds. The weak and the elderly are drains on the economy and the reason for the higher taxes the rich have to pay. Or so the argument. Why should the profitable businesses of the rich be closed to save them? Let them die. If you recall parties were organised with monetary rewards for anyone who voluntarily got infected. It is a test, right? Survival of the fittest. If you are not fit what is the point of your life. The lockdowns were an attack on liberty, those who supported it were either hyper-woke or then beta males and females. We all are exposed to some degree of corporate greed. But this, my friends, was the new, deadlier, and most despicable manifestation of corporate selfishness. From anti-maskers to anti-vaxxers you could see this selfishness rearing its ugly head again and again. The selfishness of the rich who sponsored these tirades, not the poor brainwashed johnnies who became the unwitting pawns.
There, of course, was a political context too. Most of it was happening in the Trumpian era. You can blame Russia for his victory all you want. But he was probably the worst example of the allies, not the enemies, getting greedy and selfish. Russia did not profit much in Donald Trump’s time, but Israel and India did. Also a few Arab countries and Turkey. Every ally wanted to maximise its gains and Trump let them. In exchange, they would let Trump harvest their soft power. Notice that conspiracy worlds like QAnon are products of the very same soft power. Be as anti-Semitic as you want. Just don’t be anti-Netanyahu. Be as anti-Asian you want, just be kind to Modi. Be as anti-Muslim as you desire, just be nice to the Muslim strongmen. All such affluent countries would spend what mattered the most. Something from the theme song from Trump’s The Apprentice show. Money, money, money. And these allies would take the abuse and exploitation of their diasporas to the breaking point. In Nikki Haley’s obsession with China, the origins of coronavirus, and attempts to court Israel you can see this sad trend playing out. What is the way out? When democratic correction comes in these countries, do not stop it.
And despite all factors above, there is one element that can fix these problems like no other: transparency. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which destroyed the Arab world and was ostensibly undertaken to deprive Saddam Husain of his non-existent weapons of mass destruction, could have been a very different story had it not lacked transparency. Another test is the ongoing inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus. The lack of empirical evidence and the provable causal chain has spawned a million conspiracy theories, all of them deadlier than any truth can be and is always benefiting the worst lot possible. A logical and satisfactory closure of this story can help the world heal faster.
The recent 11-day conflict between Israel and Gaza reinforces what I have been saying all along. While preparing for this piece I noticed that in the past three years Benjamin Netanyahu’s name found some 26 mentions in my writings. It was often accompanied by one […]Farrukh writes
The recent 11-day conflict between Israel and Gaza reinforces what I have been saying all along. While preparing for this piece I noticed that in the past three years Benjamin Netanyahu’s name found some 26 mentions in my writings. It was often accompanied by one or two other names and usually involved one warning. But all of that in good time. Today, I need you to view things only from the vantage point of a voter who supported Netanyahu or the two other leaders who will feature later. Suspend the attention paid to the other side in the conflict, not for the want of pain, suffering, or righteous indignation there but based on the simple assumption that for a voter like that it might be a non-factor, somebody else’s problem.
So, if you are a voter who votes for Netanyahu, what are your likely expectations? Safety of the homeland? The economic and military strength of the country? Political stability and global clout where you can even help the diaspora against the unwarranted cases of harassment? And what do you get?
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has been in power without a break since 2009. And this isn’t his first rodeo. He first became Israel’s prime minister in 1996 and his stint lasted until 1999. Now, curiously enough in his recent 12 years in power Israel has become more polarised and so politically unstable that in the past two years alone it has held four elections without a clear political outcome. Meanwhile, by hook or by crook he has maintained his grip on power in a caretaker capacity. In terms of economics, the country has struggled to pass a budget in the intervening period. And what of military strength and physical safety of the homeland? The answer is more interesting than you would think. Let us look at the comprehensive picture, shall we?
To understand Israel’s current security predicament, you have to understand the sequence of events leading up to the recent crisis. The security situation in Jerusalem remained volatile throughout the Muslim month of Ramazan given an imminent court verdict expected to evict Arab families from the tiny neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. If you are looking at sinister motives behind this verdict your misgivings will not be misplaced given that the case has been pending since 2009 and it was expected to be announced when Netanyahu was struggling to form a government after the fourth inconclusive election. After he fails to form a government, the Israeli president offers the 28-day mandate to his chief rival and former finance minister Yair Lapid on May 5, and May 6 is the first day of the said mandate. May 6 incidentally is also the date when the situation in Jerusalem flares up and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are sent into Al Aqsa Mosque when prayers are going on. A video soon emerges where the IDF can be seen lobbing stun grenades at Muslim worshippers in prayer rooms. Religious Muslim media and social media ecosystem then informs us that the prayers were being offered to mark Al Qadr, a holy Muslim night. Very soon two more reports emerge. One, about a warning issued by Hamas to withdraw troops from Al Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah. And the other, about an expected meeting between Lapid, Naftali Bennett, a former defense minister and the head of right-wing Yamina party, and Mansour Abbas, the head of recently minted Ra’am party. The meeting is scheduled to take place on May 10. If this meeting is successful, Netanyahu who is under trial in three different cases of corruption is done would have to leave office and would most certainly end up in jail. He pays no heed to the Hamas deadline, and on May 10 the Palestinian militant group launches seven missiles at Israel. Two developments follow. The Gaza-Israel crisis. And reports that Bennett who is already facing death threats from Netanyahu supporters has sought to indefinitely postpone his meeting with Lapid and Abbas plunging the coalition talks into crisis. If you are startled by the reports of Netanyahu supporters threatening Bennett, well, don’t be. This is very much a part and parcel of the former’s MO. Before his first elevation to the premiership in 1996, he led a successful hate campaign against the then-premier Yitzhak Rabin, culminating in Rabin’s murder by a right-wing extremist in November 1995.
Also, take a look at Hamas from an Israeli’s point of view. Hamas serves as a bogeyman for the Israeli right. Since its last confrontation with Israel in 2014, while Gazans have suffered Hamas has been directly rewarded by whatever passes for Netanyahu’s concessions to Gaza. The group also serves as a convenient force to make moderate and politically savvy Palestinian groups like Fatah irrelevant. If that was not all the group also faces internal competition. If Netanyahu stays in power the group’s rise and freedom from factionalism are guaranteed.
Netanyahu has always maintained that there is no two-state solution and one state is good for all. That should have meant peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence within Israel. However, as soon as the reports of fresh hostilities between Gaza and Israel emerged, messages went out in far-right Israeli Telegram groups exhorting people to come out and attack Arab neighbourhoods. The incidents that followed were aired live on national television including an attempted mob lynching of an Arab shopkeeper. The desired cycle of violence continued for days. There were casualties on both sides. Israeli casualties. Apart from this, 12 people have died in Israel, including a five-year-old and a 16-year-old girl, and hundreds have been injured as a direct result of the Gaza-Israel conflict. All of this to keep one corrupt man in power? Wag the dog much? Phew!
Who does this remind you of? Donald Trump? Well, almost but not quite. The Telegram bit does because his supporters in the QAnon community regularly use the platform. Authorities around the world need to take a long, hard look at the app.
But the man I had in mind is none other than India’s Narendra Modi who successfully used the 2019 stand-off with Pakistan to win an election. But what did his supporters get in the end? An incompetent government that polarised the country, terrorised the population, destroyed the economy, and is throwing the dead bodies of its supporters in rivers to downplay the Covid death numbers. Imagine, how stupid you have to be to do that? And yet such governments stay in power by hook or by crook.
Word has it that pressure is mounting on state actors in both these regions to throw another set of lifelines to these two struggling politicians. But whosoever does that will not be judged kindly by history.
At any rate, now that their tricks are out in the open, I feel I have every right to say I told you so!
If you are interested in South Asia, you might have come across a news report about Indian actress Kangana Ranaut who was permanently suspended from Twitter. Reason? Hate speech. Given the amount of crazy that now comes out of India you are unlikely to make […]Farrukh writes
If you are interested in South Asia, you might have come across a news report about Indian actress Kangana Ranaut who was permanently suspended from Twitter. Reason? Hate speech. Given the amount of crazy that now comes out of India you are unlikely to make a lot of this news story. Who cares if an actor you have never heard of is punished for something crazy? Right?
But the actor’s own statement after the suspension reads something like this: “Twitter has only proved my point they’re Americans & by birth, a white person feels entitled to enslave a brown person, they want to tell you what to think, speak or do. I have many platforms I can use to raise my voice, including my own art in the form of cinema.” Interesting right? Especially when race is the first place you go to, while reacting to a social media ban. Let’s now see what the controversial tweet said about the purported violence after the West Bengal election.
“This is horrible… we need super gundai (violence in Hindi) to kill gundai… Modi ji please show your Virat roop (larger-than-life form) from the early 2000s,” reads the tweet. Early 2000s is a reference to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom where over 2,000, mostly Muslims, were killed in broad daylight. After the violence, Sanjiv Bhatt, a senior police officer, filed an affidavit in the Indian Supreme Court claiming that Modi as the chief minister of the state had allowed the mass murder to take place and asked to let the Hindu extremists “vent their anger”. Once Modi became prime minister all such cases were systematically dropped and Bhatt sent to prison for trumped-up charges. Teesta Setalvad, a brave social activist, who formed a non-profit organisation to provide legal aid to the victims of Gujarat violence was harassed beyond wits through litigation and otherwise. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who among other things was translating her colleague Rana Ayub’s book, Gujarat Files, detailing Modi and Amit Shah’s role in the violence translated into Kannada, was shot dead in broad daylight. But Modi’s supporters have always denied his role in the pogrom. Modi himself could only offer a mild condolence when accosted by a journalist in an interview comparing the 2,000 killed to a puppy that is crushed under a car.
But when you take a few steps back you truly grasp the implications of the said actor’s tweet. Before that a little bit of the West Bengali context will be helpful here. After a year-long highly communalsed election campaign by Modi’s BJP aided and abetted by the Indian Election Commission, the state’s assembly election results just came in and the prime minister’s party could not even cross the psychological threshold of a 100 seats. This despite the wholesale hate offensive against the state’s minority population and the allegations of minority appeasement against Trinamool Congress, its chief rival and the incumbent party in the state. So, what do you do when India’s fourth most populous state rejects brand Modi so openly? You try to deflect in a way that you emerge as the victim. Remember, Modi’s love for his supporters in the state is evident from the fact that despite open warnings about the second wave of Covid infections he kept holding his mammoth sized rallies with little precautions and even boasted about them in Trumpesque fashion. Votes and images matter, lives don’t. But as soon as the results were in the BJP social media spin-masters started the yarn about Modi supporters being attacked. This pony knows only one trick you see. The purpose was simple. To use these claims to impose governor or president’s rule in the state, depriving it of its elected government. Miss Ranaut was then a part of the BJP’s online psy-ops where the purpose was to provoke the upper caste and upward mobile classes of Hindus (Modi’s core vote bank). This campaign however missed the mark because the very same voting bloc is reeling under the weight of the sheer incompetence of Modi’s government in handling the Covid situation in the country and cannot be asked.
The significance of the tweet, you ask. One, that whatever Miss Ranaut tweeted came directly from the BJP’s IT cell. You will remember what happened when Greta Thunberg tweeted support for India’s protesting farmers. Leading Indian celebrities came out of the woodwork and shot out tweets criticising her. Some even did not bother to remove quote marks that came along with the message from the IT cell.
Two, Modi bhakts have stopped denying his role in the 2002 pogrom. In fact, they take ferocious pride in the violence and seek to use it as a deterrent at best and as a model for the future course of action at worst.
Three, Modi supporters now openly deify Modi. The internet had this to say about Virat roop: It is where everything is part of Lord’s (Krishna’s) physical body. As per Purusha Suktham, the Vedic verse which explains this, we have everything arising out of his body (Sun from his eyes, moon from his mind, Indra and Agni from his mouth, etc.)
Four, racism is the first place these elements go to whenever they face scrutiny or a disciplinary action from a western social media company or body. This, at a time when the world faces the spectre of racism in every continent. If you ask me, while the West focuses a lot on Russia’s role in sponsoring the rise of racism when Russia is a former socialist republic which keeps paying at least a lip service to the idea of an egalitarian society. No one bothers to look under the Hindutva hood where the doctrine of monism, the blind faith in the fundamental inequality of human beings, is practised and upper caste Hindus who believe in the doctrine claim to be related to the white race by virtue of being Aryans.
Another distant implication. Remember, how India is facing oxygen shortage due to a surge in coronavirus cases? Foreign governments have been rushing assistance to the Indian government to help the country. Remarkably this foreign aid doesn’t seem to be reaching the suffering humanity. Is it possible that all of this is being stored for the economic and political elite of the country? It would most certainly seem so because the Indian courts are constantly taking the government to task for failing to provide these services to the patients. The situation on the ground is only worsening.
Now that India, along with South Africa and a number of other states, has gone to the WTO to seek patent waivers on Covid vaccines ostensibly to offer more relief effort to its citizens and the US has decided against its better judgment and interest of its own companies to support the move, is it possible that the Indian government would use the waiver and the resulting vaccines against its more combative and less privileged neighbours and own minorities by depriving them of access? Which part of the evidence of hate and examples of prejudice reproduced above indicate otherwise?
A quick question to all who think peace with India under Modi is possible: in what world?
In February this year, Coronil kit by Yoga guru Ramdev’s company Patanjali Ayurved got a formal nod by the Indian government as an evidence-based ayurvedic cure of Covid-19. The event launch of a report supporting the wild claims of the company was attended by the […]Farrukh writes
In February this year, Coronil kit by Yoga guru Ramdev’s company Patanjali Ayurved got a formal nod by the Indian government as an evidence-based ayurvedic cure of Covid-19. The event launch of a report supporting the wild claims of the company was attended by the Indian federal ministers of health and transport. Pantanjali CEO even claimed that it could cure the disease in five to 14 days, was WHO certified and was ready to be shipped to 158 countries. The WHO’s regional office for South East Asia soon put out a statement on Twitter debunking the claim and asserting that the organisation had not even studied any traditional medicine for this purpose. And yet two federal ministers, including the one with the health portfolio, had thrown their weight behind it.
At the height of the India-Pakistan face-off in 2019, a video clip emanating from the Indian media emerged and became the talk of the town. In this video a gentleman, probably an expert of some sort, can be seen telling his audience that cow dung when used in building materials can shield people from nuclear radiation. In one show I was asked to comment on the matter. As I began to rebut the claim based on scientific evidence, a co-panelist and a friend, accosted me. It wasn’t before the break that I could inquire about the meaning of this. In response, Napoleon’s quote, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, was thrown at me. My answer: “Because when you don’t stop him the false sense of invincibility can mean that after inhaling his propaganda he starts a war that kills everyone on both sides.” Pseudoscience is now an existential health and security hazard.
Before we move ahead let me disabuse you of any residual sense of superiority. The situation is no better in Pakistan. Only a few days ago I chanced upon a video where a doctor is relating a story of a wasted, unconscious patient of his out of whose nose (pardon the graphic imagery) maggots would flood out whenever holy texts were recited in his presence. Upon inquiry the doctor learned from a third person account that the dying man was a sorcerer who indulged in black magic. And while we are told this no evidence is produced. Now, I have no experience of black magic, or any other supernatural phenomenon, but I can tell when I see an embellished breach of doctor-patient confidentiality or an attempt to deprive a dying patient (if not fictitious) of all dignity.
You already know about the water kit grift where the ‘inventor’ managed to get endorsement of a federal minister and many prime-time anchors. But guess what? Pakistan has very little impact on the international discourse. So expect very little harm to science. India, however, is a different story.
After the Modi government came to power it arranged many academic conferences where pseudoscientific papers were read on explaining how Hanuman and Ganesh were products of cosmetic surgery, head transplant and similar scientific miracles. Similarly claims were made that ancient India used spaceships. This should have caused an international uproar. But only a few local scientists objected to such papers.
Two recent incidents really underscore the point. First, Narendra Modi’s interview following the Balakot attack in which he claimed to have advised the defence chiefs to use cloud cover for the warplanes to evade radar detection. Look at the implication. Here he was bragging about something he knew little after two months of the incident. Nobody, including the country’s powerful services chiefs could pluck up courage to correct him. And the story doesn’t end here. After enduring tweetstorms of derision, the government’s spin masters went into overdrive and suddenly news reports disguised as scientific analyses found their way into the press substantiating his claim. And within days it was being treated as the new dogma. Then a hurriedly written academic paper by an expat Indian postdoctoral scholar stationed abroad trying to scientifically validate the comment surfaced. Is it science’s new job to prove every dim-witted thing that comes out of a mal-educated strongman?
Another example is the Indian media’s hasty promotion of a paper published in a medical research journal more or less justifying public gatherings like this year’s Kumbh Mela. If the writers were to be believed there was no chance of the virus’ spread there. We know better now. There is a chance that this paper may not have been specifically written for the purpose and that the Indian media only picked out an outlier study just because it helped get some pressure off the government’s back. But what if it isn’t and researchers are being pressured to substantiate preconceived notions for political purposes?
In your life you must have come across many impulses to bend the scientific truth to fit unrelated agendas. The first comes naturally to every mortal. The desire to validate one’s faith or religious beliefs through science. But that is akin to building a castle on shifting sand. It is in the nature of the scientific inquiry to challenge and often disprove every theory that is taken for granted today. Subjecting what you consider self-evident universal truths to such a fickle-minded inquest can wreak havoc on your deeply held belief system a few years down the line.
Then the attempts to substantiate prejudice through the use of science. The Nazis did it. So do many other racists or casteists. That’s where monism’s dogma creeps into the works of psychologists and social scientists with an undying faith in a hierarchical society. Science keeps changing its outlook. While it correctly generalises in the study of inanimate objects or insentient beasts, it cannot do the same for humans. Too many variables in play. That’s why social science is such a poor substitute for natural sciences. And in any case, if you have chosen to be prejudiced for your whole life what do you need science for?
And then the worst grift. Science for political validation. The great leader always knows the best, right? If you are really that bothered about science then do us a favour and stick to the first rule of business: choose an informed leader. Also, keep faith in causality and empirical evidence. Sense perception and the scientific method have served humanity faithfully so far.
Make no mistake. This threat is real. Politicians usually have too much power already. But Modi’s minions are unique in that they now have access to the infinite resources of the Indian state and diaspora abroad. While by virtue of sheer size of its market and population India will have a voice and a role to play on every stage, this threat actually is an obstacle in India’s mainstreaming. The sooner this virus is caught and isolated the better it is for everyone. Otherwise, we are already witnessing the wilting of the tree of knowledge. To anyone still not convinced of the need to confront this problem, a look at the unfolding man-made tragedy in India today should suffice. Always bet on knowledge and competence my friends. When have they ever failed you?
As a powerful blast rocked Quetta’s beautifully built Serena hotel, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, one was reminded of our commitment to fight extremism and terrorism by all means necessary. It seems only yesterday that the vandals from the same terrorist organisation had butchered […]Farrukh writes
As a powerful blast rocked Quetta’s beautifully built Serena hotel, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, one was reminded of our commitment to fight extremism and terrorism by all means necessary. It seems only yesterday that the vandals from the same terrorist organisation had butchered our children in APS Peshawar and the country had for once come out of its denial and vowed to defeat the menace of terrorism. A 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) that emerged out of top-level deliberations as a consensus document had committed to combating both the hardware and the software of terrorism including the underlying extremist tendencies. Two men, the then army chief and the PPP’s co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, reportedly played an important role in the consensus-building exercise. The kinetic operations that followed need no elaboration. Operation Zarb-e-Azb and later Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad went a long way in degrading and uprooting terrorist infrastructure. While the armed forces and the intelligence agencies played their part, the civilian side’s performance was a mixed bag.
Why is this discussion important today? Because once again the region stands at the crossroads. The Biden administration has announced that it will withdraw troops from Afghanistan on September 11, with or without a lasting solution to the country’s myriad problems. Pakistan has already presented a detailed dossier to the UN and various influential actors documenting India’s constant sponsorship of terrorism and export of destabilising ideologies to Pakistan. Some of the details like a Punjab National Bank receipt of a wire transfer to anti-Pakistan miscreants based in Afghanistan have been independently corroborated by the FinCen leaks. There are reports of the TTP factions regrouping on the other side of the border. In such a situation constant vigilance and implementation of the NAP seem the need of the hour. You may not be able to control what happens within the boundaries of other nations but you can certainly do something about what happens at home. This piece tries to address the software side of the problem.
More than one clause of NAP focuses on the issues pertaining to the narrative against terrorism and extremism. Clause 5, for instance, speaks of strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism, and intolerance. Clause 11 declares a ban on the glorification of terrorists and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media. Clause 14 vows to take measures against the dissemination of terrorist and extremist propaganda on the internet and social media. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks and the unanimous adoption of the action plan, these clauses were quite visibly being adhered to. The TTP’s spokesman, for example, stopped or was made to stop making phone calls to live television transmissions and talk shows. Similarly, anchors who were using endism and eschatology to sympathise with the terrorists suddenly started talking about something else. But what happened next was quite intriguing. When they absolutely had to mention the kinetic operations against terrorism the otherwise chirpy anchors would transform into these boring automatons and in a soporific voice parrot only one line before losing interest: “Operation Zarb-e-Azb kamyabi se jari hai (operation Zarb-e-Azb is progressing successfully)”. When they had to talk of terrorism, they would churn out word salads that inevitably ended up decrying the murder of citizens by the proscribed organisation but economic terrorism. What is economic terrorism, you ask? Well, using obscure conspiracy theory devices like John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, they would make everything about corruption and about the politicians they did not like. Make no mistake. I am all for fighting corruption. Only that a scourge that has killed over 80,000 citizens and ruined the lives of countless deserves your undivided attention. Attempts to undermine the counter-terrorist, counter-extremist campaign by hijacking the key terms can mean only one of two things. Either you lack the sense of perspective, the sight of the bigger picture, or have sympathies for the guilty party and therefore deliberately misdirecting the conversation. Whatever the reason, this called for a strong counter-narrative against terrorism and extremism. And given the quality of education in this country, many of us emphasised the need for one.
Following these calls succeeding governments have tried to come up with something. But before this, you have to understand the key mistakes that drove a wedge between the state and its people. When General Musharraf received the fateful call after 9/11, the conditions he faced meant he had very little wiggle room. Consequently, he could not engage in the dialogue necessary to convince an unnerved nation that what the country was doing was not against Islam and was for the country’s greater good. Because he had absolute power there was little the country’s powerful clergy could do openly about it. But it certainly felt abandoned and slighted. Meanwhile, the absence of an elected parliament meant that people’s representatives were not there to be taken into confidence which in turn could have had convinced people that there was no threat to their faith. A low-level intellectual insurgency ensued which moulded the electronic media which was soon to be free. Instead of confronting the trend Gen Musharraf’s political successor just gave in to the trend. General Raheel Sharif’s tenure marked a concerted effort but the media effectively steered the conversation away to Karachi and elsewhere where the definition of miscreants did not offend the religious sensibilities of the media pundits.
If you want to know how easy it is to deconstruct the extremist narrative there is a simple example. It took Pakistani clergy over a decade to reach a crucial point: that since suicide was haram in Islam, suicide bombing could not be halal. The simple point. But to arrive here what you needed was the commitment of the political brass. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if this consensus had arrived in time. The state of Pakistan, while working with the clergy came up with Paigham-e-Pakistan (Message of Pakistan), a thin volume building consensus on the rebuttal of terrorism. But here is the problem. In case you have not noticed the forces of chaos have left no stone unturned to create more problems for the Pakistani state. This means that with every passing day another latent national fault line will be weaponised and will erupt. A piece of paper, a single document, will be insufficient to fight these challenges. You need a fully empowered, highly well-informed, and liberally funded civilian and transparent think tank or a research body to chart out the future course, build consensus, and combat propaganda with better arguments. Why should a country which has over 50 news channels have to worry that nobody sees its position? Why should a state with a 96% Muslim population have to fear that its position on the majority religion would be misinterpreted? The media and state religion should be the country’s assets, not deficits. And people’s civil liberties ought not to come under pressure because of any of this. Before floodgates of extremism reopen in the region, the state has to build this dam. Sadly, it is a conversation we haven’t even started yet.
Nothing is perfect in this world. Everything comes with two sets of attributes. Fatal flaws and redeeming characters. When you want to cancel something, you look almost exclusively at the former. When you want something to be accepted you talk up the redeeming features. In […]Farrukh writes
Nothing is perfect in this world. Everything comes with two sets of attributes. Fatal flaws and redeeming characters. When you want to cancel something, you look almost exclusively at the former. When you want something to be accepted you talk up the redeeming features. In the end, it is the balance between the two that separates the good things from the bad. Or as is likely, the popular from the unpopular. Wondering where I am going with this? To a simple and yet shocking question. Is humanity totally useless and incapable of redemption? If you are hoping that I am about to say something mollifying in response, please do not hold your breath. All evidence sadly confirms the implication inherent in the question.
Have you spared a thought about the shape of things after the Covid crisis? If it is ever truly gone. The evidence suggests that the world will look and sound even dumber than it sounds today. Why? Because the seriousness of the crisis hasn’t sunk in even now. Even after around 140 million infections and three million deaths. After vaccine shortage and uneven distribution is exerting ungodly pressure on the existing healthcare and life support facilities. India is rapidly running out of oxygen. The state of critical care in Brazil is in shambles. Since our Indian friends will get offended if I highlight their flaws without adequately berating Pakistan, let me state here that in this country it is hard to reflect on the state of things because in its infinite wisdom the media has stopped covering the matter in granular details. Happy? Elsewhere, it is bedlam. At the outset, the virus told you it was everyone’s enemy, and it did not care about race, ethnicity, faith, nationality, caste, geography, or any other such construct. But what did you do? Singled out the country of origin and started spewing hate against it. And guess who suffered the most? The poor Johnnies whose great grandfathers had given up their countries for yours and had been totally loyal subjects. Some experts realised that the virus usually entered your body through the mouth and nose so perhaps wearing a mask was a neat idea. And the prima donnas rejected it in the name of freedom or by simply claiming that they could not breathe. A likely story. The man who told you that a good way to kill the virus was to ingest or inject bleach or disinfectants into the body won over 74 million votes in the US presidential elections. Perhaps, the voters saw the wisdom in the simple fact that the mainstream media was hell-bent on obscuring: that killing a body would most certainly kill the virus in it.
Just think about the simplest of solutions that were recommended by the experts and the creative ways you invented to undermine them all. If there was a Nobel Prize for stupidity, deservedly humanity would have won it more than once by now. Just to rub it in, let me remind you what these instructions were. Wear a mask in public. To avoid accidentally inhaling someone else’s infected droplets ensure that you position yourself at six feet distance from others. Since your hands are usually the dirtiest parts of your exposed body, make sure that you wash them often with soap for 30 seconds. Because you cannot carry a bar of soap and water around to wash your hands in public don’t touch your mouth and nose and use a sanitiser. To ensure that you do not inadvertently carry the virus to your home, try to keep your house clean and stay indoors as much as you can because let’s face it you know you cannot be trusted in public. Then the good doctors and researchers developed a whole range of vaccines to take care of the problem. And what did you do? You decided that you could not trust them. Every breakthrough was met with a whole host of conspiracy theories. If you have been a part of the exercise to spread these lies, please know that you are a stakeholder in the deaths of three million of your fellow human beings.
I have no personal experience of these vaccines because I have not yet qualified for one even though I know people who are leading a happy life after vaccination of course. But I can tell you why the other precautions work. Because although I cannot say it with certainty about tomorrow, so far owing to my pre-existing conditions I have adhered to these simple precautions (which are so basic that a kindergartner can follow them) and have been Covid free until now.
So, if these guidelines work and are so simple that a child can follow them, what do 140 million infections worldwide tell you? That mankind is doomed. And its tombstone inscription will read: Died of stupidity.
You do not need Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon or his psychohistory to tell you about the precarious future. Why do that when you have a mirror to tell you the truth? The novel coronavirus is only the first superbug of this century, not the last. Deadlier ones will come. Other freaks of nature will emerge. The Covid crisis and the response to it are only the full-dress rehearsals for what is to come. And then there is the fetching matter of the freaks of human ingenuity. From nuclear arsenal, short-sighted exploitation of earth resources, the unclean codes of weaponised artificial intelligence, tinkering with the human genome, social media, and broader, the all-pervasive drought of imagination.
Is there a way around it? There is. That all nations give up politics, paranoia, and hate and vow to work together for the collective security of mankind. That the UN in its current shape is empowered and given enough resources to help those who are left behind. That without giving up profit motive businesses suspend their desire for profit maximisation at all costs and invest in more equitable solutions for all. That the religious elite of all faiths realise that the wellbeing of its followers comes first and the Kumbh Mela in India, the street agitations by now proscribed religious organisations in Pakistan can wait. That politicians and the culture warriors give up their bickering at least momentarily for the greater good. That you wear a mask, wash your hands with soap, maintain social distance and take vaccine when it is made available to you. Can this happen? Of course. But will it? I am not holding my breath because it is extremely improbable.
So, what is the one prognosis then? Dumb as a doorknob, dead as a dodo. Humanity cancelled. Good Luck!
(Dated: April 10, 2021) Is the teacher out of his depth or the classroom has changed beyond recognition? At a time when the Covid-19 crisis has devastated the world economy, thrown economic pundits for a loop and made the lives of citizens around the word […]Farrukh writes
(Dated: April 10, 2021)
Is the teacher out of his depth or the classroom has changed beyond recognition? At a time when the Covid-19 crisis has devastated the world economy, thrown economic pundits for a loop and made the lives of citizens around the word hard to bear, this question was to be expected. The World Economic Outlook Report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that just came out speaks of a remarkable recovery where the world economy is likely to grow by 6% this year only moderating to a 4.4% growth in the year 2022. But a careful reading of the report tells you and it is also the report’s constant refrain, that nothing much can be said with certainty. This is how it should be given the number of variables that have entered the picture. The sheer scale and scope of the Covid crisis, even if foretold in the margins of research literature, for all practical purposes is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a black swan incident. Even the best planners among us could not come up with a plan to pre-empt something this big. But it tells you that the teacher needs to revise his curriculum and notes because this class of students is dealing with issues dramatically different than the previous ones. But I get ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning.
The economic world order that we have grown accustomed to is still based in Washington despite some competition from China recently. The institutions that look after global economic wellbeing are the IMF, the World Bank and the US Department of Treasury. The standard reform guidelines, a set of 10 commandments, offered to the countries in economic distress in exchange for financial help are often referred to as the Washington Consensus named so in 1989 by British economist John Williamson. The list appears to be fairly simple and makes a lot of sense. It includes fiscal policy discipline, improved government spending by replacing indiscriminate subsidies with targeted if small ones, focusing on the vulnerable, broadening and reforming the tax net, competitive exchange rate, trade liberalisation, opening of the economy to foreign direct investment, market determined interest rates, offloading of state-owned enterprises, deregulation and legal protection for private property. Pakistanis must be aware of this set of recommendations because over the past many decades repeated governments signed up for these reforms whenever they went to the IMF for a bailout and gave up after some initial attempts. Consequently, the country resembles a landfill of abandoned reform initiatives, broken promises and dreams and massive external debt.
Before I move any further let me point out where I stand on the debate about institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. I do so because in our conspiracy theories prone neck of the woods there is no dearth of detractors. I am tired of people quoting books like Confessions of an Economic Hit Man back at me when I tell them that the policy recommendations of these institutions stem from a good place. As I have humbly pointed out in past cases of conspiracy theories like QAnon, you can suspect anything you want but your suspicions would almost always be based on conjecture, half-truths and misinformation which in the end would make life a living hell for you. I believe that when governments approach these institutions, they are offered a recipe that the chefs truly believe in. Also, may I point out that during the Covid-19 crisis these institutions have been of great support to countries like Pakistan. That said, there are some serious issues with the teacher’s curriculum.
I have mentioned above that Covid-19 has introduced several new variables into the debate. Consider this: Covid-19 is basically not a crisis of either demand or supply. It is primarily a crisis of labour. When your workforce cannot come to work out of fear of getting infected everything else goes south. We face this crisis right when automation and numerous other dynamics are already killing jobs. Then there is the issue of vaccination efforts. In a brief period where we have witnessed the impressive development of vaccines to combat the virus, we have also seen the emergence of variants and the limitations of immunity. Pfizer tells us the effects of its vaccine may last for six months. What happens if the virus along with its mutant forms refuses to go away at the end of that period and all countries must periodically administer more vaccines? Consider also other challenges like population growth and technological change. When the Bretton Woods system came into existence in 1944, the world population was roughly around 2.4 billion. When the term Washington Consensus was introduced in 1989, we were around 5.2 billion. Now the world population is estimated to have reached the 7.9 billion mark. When transformations like the use of AI in business are giving birth to the idea of universal basic income and when blockchains and cryptocurrencies are taking monetary controls away from governments, where does the consensus stand?
There is nothing inherently wrong with the market fundamentalist or the monetarist worldview. But right when policymakers in Washington are adhering to the new Keynesian model, expecting struggling economies to adhere to the old recipe seems counterintuitive if not dangerous. The point is, every dogma originates from good intentions, but then it can prove regressive. Two examples should suffice to make the point. Evidence has recently surfaced that the Indian government based its demonetisation drive which shaved a substantial part of demand, purchasing power, micro, small and medium industries off at the very least on the assessments of the World Bank. Similarly, the recently introduced farmer laws were inspired by the IMF. The reason why both policies backfired royally is down to a disconnect from the systemic limitations of a postcolonial bureaucracy, complications of a diverse society and a populist regime. Because these institutions are so convinced of their belief system, they are less likely to worry too much about the human cost and the fallout at the grassroot level. If the purpose of the Washington Consensus is to trim fat in troubled economies to make them more efficient, the architects of the world economy will have to consider the all-pervasive and inevitable decline of nation-states. The fear is that in trying to cut fat you may end up cutting critical muscles which gives a government power to make life easier for its citizens. When too many factors are unknown you are bound to reconsider the parameters of your experiments.
The central argument in this piece is not of doing away with the Washington Consensus but to improve it. We need a new Washington Consensus. This can be accomplished through a broad-based debate, wide-ranging consultations and hectic efforts to learn more about the emerging trends and ground realities of each country. Maintaining, reforming and monitoring the world economy is no more a nine to five job. The Washington based economic institutions will need more manpower, improved access to data and technology and the global brain trust. All preconceived notions and biases like a single model approach, decoupling, the new cold war will have to be set aside to build consensus for future challenges.
(Dated: April 03, 2021) Words have power. When words are put together hurriedly, selfishly, or unimaginatively their power is mostly destructive. It was Karl Marx who had said history repeats itself first as a tragedy then as a farce. The world we live in was […]Farrukh writes
(Dated: April 03, 2021)
Words have power. When words are put together hurriedly, selfishly, or unimaginatively their power is mostly destructive. It was Karl Marx who had said history repeats itself first as a tragedy then as a farce. The world we live in was shaped and reshaped by giants of men. Their vision and wisdom informed us in time of the approaching disasters and hence the democratic side won in the end. Hitler did not need to be invented. He was there. But had it not been for Churchill’s farsightedness appeasement would have continued until it was too late. Amazingly, the US took a long time in making its mind about the Nazi threat. Why? Because that’s what perverse powers do. They put you under their spell. The book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States, tells a strange tale of American lobbying groups that were in Hitler’s thrall. Another a bit more controversial work by Robert G Ferguson titled, The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich, have some shocking revelations which go beyond the scope of this piece. Had it not been for men like Churchill perhaps we would have been living in a world quite similar to the one found in Man in the High Castle.
Similarly, Harry Truman was the unlikely giant who reshaped the post-war world, signed the UN charter and informed by intellectual legends like George Kennan and Paul Nitze, laid the foundation of both the international liberal world order and the Cold War.
That was history. Now starts the tragedy. When the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended and a unipolar world was born, a businessman turned ex-spymaster was the president. In his admirable haste to reinvent the enemy his business acumen and spymaster paranoia would take him, his country, and allies to Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein’s stranglehold on Kuwait. Was this the birth of a new enemy? Not so fast. Compared to America’s might Iraq was still living in the stone age. If you need an enemy at least it should not be so laughably inconsequential. Then surprise surprise, a Democrat-leaning intellectual goes to American Enterprise Institute, the hotbed of American conservatism and delivers a speech with a set of stunning predictions. America was not alone. It was part of a broader entity called the Western civilisation which was about to be challenged by exotic but wholly alien civilisations. The Islamic and the Confucian civilisations. But wait, what? The Muslim world that lay fractured into a hundred irreconcilable pieces? And what Confucian civilisation? China is a communist country. This was before China established the Confucius Institute and Al Qaeda rose to its destructive prominence. Throw depressed identities a bone, they would inhale the propaganda and someone eventually would provide you with the pretext to call them the enemy. And then the reign of fear, blood and death emerged. Terrorism was the new enemy. While this speech was presented in 1992, it was published as a paper in the Foreign Affairs magazine the next year. It was being edited by Indian American Fareed Zakaria. Since then policy wonks both in the West and non-western countries have allowed the ghost of Huntington to define them. Tragedy done? Now let us look at the farce.
The War on Terror started by Bush 41’s son George W continued beyond his term and consumed Obama’s. And then came two shocks. Brexit and Trump. And pundits in Washington grew convinced that the much-predicted rise of the illiberal democracy and the hour of post-American world had arrived. Incidentally the phrase “the rise of illiberal democracy” was introduced in modern scholarly lexicon by Zakaria as title of an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs in 1997. His book, The Post-American World, came out in 2008.
But Trump was no ordinary president. While he shook the moorings of American society and the international system, he took Nixon’s madman theory to a new level. Remarkably the application of this theory would be absent in case of only three countries. The first has remained in the news throughout his tenure. The Russian story is known to us all. The second is Israel and quite predictable. The third is the most surprising because no one talks about it at all in the western press. India never faced his ire.
Now the meat of the story. On March 23 this year, the same Foreign Affairs published a curious article by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan. Dr Haass is the president of the Council for Foreign Relations (the independent think tank that publishes Foreign Affairs). And Dr Kupchan is the organisation’s senior fellow. “The New Concert of Powers” is a unique essay because it is a dramatic departure from Dr Haass’ otherwise brilliant writing style. The language is so insipid, vapid, and inorganic that one is compelled to think that it was conceived to be read as the riot act before the huddled masses. The authors are convinced of two things. The rise of illiberal democracy and the birth of the post-American world. Therefore, they offer a remarkable suggestion. To abandon the liberal institutions created three quarters of a century ago because they have gone stale and instead go back further in time to imitate the Concert of Europe but on a global scale. And who should be the members of this concert? The US, Russia, China, Europe, Japan and… wait for it… India. It is significant that the list leaves out two of America’s closest allies: the UK and Israel. Perhaps I do the idea injustice when I surmise that the concert would mean that old structures be abandoned. No, it does something even better. “It would sit atop and backstop, not supplant, the current international architecture by maintaining a dialogue that does not now exist.”
Read the entire piece. You will realise that the inclusion of Japan is a mere nicety. While the piece bemoans the UN’s bureaucracy but includes the world’s second largest international bureaucracy, the EU, replacing France and the UK and overlooking Germany. It complains about the red tape in the UN and the lack of any in G-7 and G-20. In fact, the concert will kill G-7 (India is not a part), but perhaps G-20 should survive (hello India). Interestingly, the three countries it seeks to reconcile, the US, China and Russia, all have veto and are perfectly content with the status quo. Japan is in G-7.
May I humbly submit that India is frustrated because its bid to join the UNSC as a permanent veto power has been failing. So why not create a supra structure above the UN? As for the purported decline of the US, well I do not see any proof. It is still miles ahead of the rest of the powers. Nor the decline of democracy except in India itself. In fact, President Biden’s victory has proven that the democratic project has the staying power. Finally, why abandon the UK, France and Israel, three countries that have been instrumental in India’s acceptance in the West? Because they have outlived their purpose. How transparent? If it was a text message, I would have ended it with a grinning smiley.
(Dated: March 27, 2021) A piece on international relations ought not to start with an illustration from quantum mechanics. But it will become abundantly clear to the reader in the ensuing paras that there is no other way. Most of you must be aware of […]Farrukh writes
(Dated: March 27, 2021)
A piece on international relations ought not to start with an illustration from quantum mechanics. But it will become abundantly clear to the reader in the ensuing paras that there is no other way. Most of you must be aware of the theoretical experiment called Schrodinger’s cat. For those who do not, I seek your indulgence.
In 1935, physicist Erwin Schrodinger used the case of a hypothetical cat to explain his thoughts on quantum superposition to Einstein. A cat and a vial of poison gas protected from the cat’s reach are locked in a steel box, with an automatic trigger mechanism which may or may not release the gas. Until the box is opened and the result is found, to the experimenter the cat is both dead and alive. Hence the quantum superposition.
Now, in this thought experiment replace the hypothetical cat with the universal symbol of peace — a metaphoric dove. The thought of this was triggered by the debate surrounding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulating the people of Pakistan on its national day. This letter did not materialise out of a vacuum. Only a few days ago Modi had wished the Pakistani Premier a swift recovery from the Covid infection in a tweet. After a two-year hiatus, the Pakistani team was already in India to talk about the Indus Water Treaty dispute resolution. And in February, the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO) of both sides got in touch and put out a statement vowing to strictly observe all agreements and ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC). In the intervening period we heard the PM and the Army Chief’s speeches at the Islamabad Security Dialogue (ISD).
The last bit is a constant. Pakistani leaders have indefatigably extended the hand of friendship to India. From the Indian side however, the response has been incredibly temperamental ever since India decided to cut off its democratic nose to spite the Pakistani face and elected Modi. Since then the dove of peace is caged in the steel box with a vial of poison gas and an automatic trigger mechanism, both dead and alive simultaneously.
The commentary on the recent developments has been quite remarkable to say the least. Immediately after the DGMO talk, as I pointed out back then, the Indian media went berserk. More than usual. India’s Ajit Doval, it claimed, in an unmatched display of statecraft had pulled off this diplomatic coup of sorts through an ongoing back channel engagement. Perhaps he came here looking for the downed F-16 and met his counterpart. When democracy is dying, all you are left with is the glorification of ordinary mortals in power.
Then came the Bloomberg story about a UAE-led diplomatic push. And recently another about a UK-sponsored back channel between the two countries. The reports are all over the place. I am sure every country that has the remotest interest in the matter would badly want the two to make peace. Actually, I know for a fact that the United States, China, Russia, the UK, Turkey, the Arab world, Europe, the SAARC countries especially Afghanistan and even the one that shall stay unnamed, all want this. But what do these two want?
This, of course, is not our first rodeo. Throughout my life I have heard the “good news” of the two countries working on peace building. It invariably starts with a few confidence building measures (CBMs). Then some sports diplomacy in which the expectation is for Pakistan to throw the game. Then the media builds the hype. Leaders of the two sides meet. Then their teams start a structured dialogue. Then a press conference with a leading question or two from Muhammad Saleh Zaafir or Muhammad Hanif Khalid. After agreeing on almost everything else, when it comes to Kashmir and recently Siachen, the talks fall apart. When India doesn’t want to talk, a terror attack somehow conveniently appears and the talks go out of the window. I am not claiming that every attack that takes place is a false-flag operation. I do not have all the facts to do that. All I do is study the context, the immediate background, the atmospherics, who wants what and who gains what in the end deeply. To you some of this may sound like conspiracy fiction. To me it is a lived reality.
But what has changed this time? The nature and the quality of the CBMs. In the past it involved creating a genuine climate of cordiality. Cultural exchanges, improvement in visa policies, freeing of caged fishermen and gradual easing of tensions through the visits of business, media and religious delegations. The Indus water talks and the DGMO hotline were constant parts of the bilateral architecture independent of both the CBMs and the structured dialogue. Now they are not. Modi himself doesn’t understand the slow but steady dance of peace. At times his government embroils itself in newly and unnecessarily added caveats and red lines compromising all diplomatic wiggle room, at others he does stuff like reaching Lahore unannounced to attend the wedding ceremony of the former PM’s granddaughter. How is this diplomacy? In fact, matters of diplomatic niceties like wishing an under-the-weather colleague or congratulating a country on its national day now amount to confidence building. Mind you, if Modi, with all his learning disabilities, himself wrote that tweet and the letter, he has my sympathies for the hard labour that must have gone into it. I can see him with a pen and a paper agonising for hours to find the right words, poring over dictionaries, writing and deleting the unneeded lines. But something tells me, he did not. And from our side the CBMs involve all leaders constantly signalling the desire for peace atop their voices.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a peacenik. The said dove. But this is too little to go on. The onset of talks about the talks which may or may not lead to another round of talks which may or may not seriously address any of the real issues does not inspire confidence. The Modi government due to its mastery of all modes of social control can resurrect the hitherto defunct constituency of peace in India in a heartbeat. But on the day when these commentaries were dominating media discourse here and abroad, a viral video on social media was showing a BJP-allied RSS goon beating a poor Muslim man to the pulp in New Delhi asking him to say “Pakistan murdabad (death to Pakistan)”. I think the message was loud and clear.
I promise I will break my Sunday best out and dance the conga, if you insist, when the moment of peace comes. Until then, may I humbly suggest that you stop declaring victory without opening the steel box in which sit the peace constituencies of India and Pakistan, in a quantum superposition, both dead and alive at the same time. It is not funny, you know.
With every passing day, I see more evidence to support Mushtaq Yusufi’s assertion that the memory of the bygone era is the main villain of the Asian drama. Don’t get me wrong. Every nation is tethered to its past. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great […]Farrukh writes
With every passing day, I see more evidence to support Mushtaq Yusufi’s assertion that the memory of the bygone era is the main villain of the Asian drama. Don’t get me wrong. Every nation is tethered to its past. Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, after all, harked back to an alleged golden era. Today with the help of various Trump supporters in the QAnon conspiracy theory circles and the citizen sovereign movement we know this supposedly golden era is a reference to simpler times when the American economy still relied on the gold standard and slavery had not been abolished. Some golden age, right? But in Asia, particularly its southern parts, this issue is of particularly daunting consequence.
Take Pakistan for example. You will find many geniuses who believe the street agitation of 1977 which allegedly brought a government down, television entertainment of the 1980s and the cricket world cup victory of 1992 can be imitated with exactly the same effect. No government since has fallen as a direct consequence of street agitation so far. But that of course is not for want of trying. Similarly, to reproduce the drama series of the 1980s you will have to bring the audience of the time back to life with its distinct global and local socio-economic and politico-cultural sociology. Perhaps it is my naivete but so far, I have not seen any miracle worker capable of that simple trick. And whenever you see a Pakistani team entering a world cup contest with a slow start, please know that somewhere in their mind’s eye the team members and managers can see themselves lifting the 1992 world cup. Unfortunately, the country has failed to win the cricket world cup since. For a country that sees very few euphoric moments of national or international consequence, the dopamine addiction produced by such events ensures you do not live in the present moment.
This problem is not peculiar to Pakistan. Look at India. Between 2004 and 2014 it got everything it could wish for. Wealth, influence, muscle and glamour. And then it threw it all away. When you replace Dr Manmohan Singh with Narendra Modi and that too at least at the moment in the name of better governance, you ought to know something has gone woefully wrong with your worldview. A PhD scholar and a finance wizard with a proven track record of successful national reforms even before he became the premier replaced with a man whose MA in “entire political science” is reportedly as fake as his promise of Gujarati model Vikas (progress) and his single most memorable “accomplishment” before his premiership being the Gujarat riots during his tenure as chief minister which left some 2,000 citizens (mostly Muslims) killed in broad daylight. Reminds you of a few lines from Aaron Sorkin’s written film, American President. I am paraphrasing of course, but here goes: people do not drink the sand because they do not get water when they are thirsty, they do so because they cannot tell the difference.
But what has damaged the South Asian mind so irretrievably that it cannot tell the difference? You got that right. Always blame the past and the victim. Helps you justify your victimhood. When everything you do is predetermined by history’s crimes, the agency you exercise today can be easily written off as another logical moment in the series of unfortunate events. Who should pay the price for Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion of India in 1001 AD, and subsequent ransacking of the Somnath temple? Why, of course, the depressed, backward and increasingly vulnerable Muslim minority of India in 2021 AD. Who should account for the excesses of the East India Company and the British Raj, we supposedly left behind in the previous century, the previous millennium? Why, the equally vulnerable Christian community of India, today. Forgive me if I do not subscribe to the genetic transmission of sin. The agency we exercise today belongs to us and today. We cannot and must not blame anyone else for our own mistakes. That is the only way you learn from your mistakes.
I have been asked often why I cannot stand Bollywood or Indian TV serials. Here is why. It is not like I have not tried. I think I have mentioned this before but the last movie I sat through without any interruption and enjoyed because its message resonated with my own philosophy is called 3 Idiots. Imagine my dismay when upon a chance re-watching of West Wing I noticed that one of my favourite bits from the movie about the pencil being used during space exploration was borrowed from an episode of this series called “We Killed Yamamoto”, without any acknowledgement. This intellectual appropriation, recycling of someone else’s work and taking pride in it by calling it your own goes against the norms of civility, decency, creativity and flies in the face of intellectual property rights. Again, don’t get me wrong. It is not like Pakistan is producing too much original work. The country’s recent television hit is a dubbed Turkish drama about… wait for it… history. Even when the Pakistani film industry was producing a number of movies per year this is how the cycle of creativity (or recycling) went. Hollywood would produce at least a few great movies per year. The Bollywood writers and directors would watch some of these, read some of the more successful novels, plagiarise plot points and lines, mix them up, add a few musical numbers and produce films for local audiences. Then some genius from Lollywood would go, watch some Indian movies, copy plot points, mix them up, add Pappu Samrat’s impossible if unappealing choreography and produce content for the local audience. This from a region that has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers, Nobel laureates ranging from the very insightful to the youngest, and great performers. But they are the ones who got away and broke free. When you spend most of the time worshiping or combatting the past, how can you do justice to today? Another reason why I cannot stand such content is this pony knowing only two tricks, one dystopian, the other utopian. Dystopia being a sum of all the violence, crime, politics, war and history in the region. And utopia: girl meets boy, sings a few romantic songs, marries and lives happily ever after on a borrowed plot (literally). This formula might come handy to keep the collective imagination of an overpopulated country in check, but it doesn’t work for me.
If South Asians had an unfair share of suffering in the past it is not because they met an unfair share of villains but because they were never united. The intrigues and fights among castes, clans and communities always offered the marauders a fertile ground to invade. If you want proof just take a look at the political hostility among South Asian nations and within. You will invariably get a headache. I live for the day when South Asians would grow up, choose to live in the present instead of fighting or staying in the past. Until then, their addiction to mediocrity will continue unchecked.
The general elections of 1985 were the first that I can remember. A primary school student, I stayed up all night glued to the television screen. Leading newspapers in those days used to publish the extensive list of candidates in each constituency with ample space […]Farrukh writes
The general elections of 1985 were the first that I can remember. A primary school student, I stayed up all night glued to the television screen. Leading newspapers in those days used to publish the extensive list of candidates in each constituency with ample space to record the final results. The winner’s name, the total votes cast, and the margin of victory. My father had shown me how it all worked. So I stayed up all night writing down the results. I barely knew who was who. The announcers and the commentators kept announcing names and I took them down. By morning the list was complete. My father’s pleasure was an added bonus. The real treat was the experience itself. Children often find the idea of staying up all night enjoyable. But to witness the galaxy of stars gathered on one screen to help pass time until results started pouring in was an ethereal experience. I was hooked. This romance would take me to the long winding road of political journalism.
When you have spent so much time following and studying politics you inevitably develop an internal compass. As the political polarisation in the country reaches breaking point and one by one we lose friends on the other side of the divide to the fog of war, I feel obliged to revisit these core values. The purpose is to see if my position on things has shifted. As you go through these lines kindly bear in mind that processes are more important than individuals. Institution building is a process. Individuals who head these institutions come and go but what matters is the incremental change that may one day take us to the true north. Also bear in mind that there is no shortcut to progress. We have often squandered away decades of meaningful progress to bring about an overnight change. The overnight change is a mirage. No one has a magic wand. With some deceptive initial progress, every shortcut invariably leads you to the edge of a precipice. The story of political evolution will take several generations and mountain loads of patience to deliver substantial results. With these initial thoughts in mind let us dive into what I believe represents the core set of my principles.
1) Democracy is Pakistan’s destiny. For a country that has spent half of its independent life under dictatorship, this may sound peculiarly odd but it is not. History bears testimony to the fact that regardless of their good intentions, dictators left behind a weaker federation. The fall of East Pakistan, religious radicalisation as a result of the Afghan jihad, and two decades of the painful fight against terrorism all make it clear. And then remember, something always brings us back to democracy.
2) Pakistan’s founding fathers and the framers of the 1973 Constitution were right. Federalism and parliamentary democracy are best suited for a country as diverse as ours. That is why rulers after rulers have found it so difficult to do away with the 1973 Constitution. Does that mean everything is hunky-dory? Far from it. The system has kinks which only time can remove.
3) Women’s rights are fundamental human rights. Given the abuse women have endured in this society due to cultural and societal bottlenecks, the state and society should offer them special leeway. The country cannot abandon one-half of its population. It will have to offer it a conducive environment to catch up in progress.
4) The Constitution of Pakistan offers guarantees for the protection of minorities. The members of the minority communities should enjoy equal rights to the level that one day they stop feeling like a minority.
5) Institution building is a tough and time-taking process. Constant pressure as a result of the political tug of war in the country can make institutions ungovernable. It is imperative to keep the political temperature within manageable limits.
6) With our chequered history, it is critical that each elected legislative assembly completes its term. Before General Musharraf’s tenure, this was unheard of. But since then all assemblies have completed their term. This positive trend should continue unabated.
7) No prime minister in the country’s history has served a full five-year term in office. The sooner this curse is broken the better it is. Who breaks it does not matter.
8) Without internal democracy and regular elections political parties can hardly call themselves democratic. The election commission and lawmakers can come up with reforms but the real qualitative change can only come from within. These parties will need strong constitutions, adherence to term limits, regular elections, strong think tanks, and solid money management codes.
9) No party can be about one man or one dynasty. Invariably so. When parties begin the transition to a more inclusive democracy the existing leadership or dynasties could serve as the starting point but the anti-nepotism laws and term limits ought to ensure that change eventually comes. These parties also need robust internal dispute resolution mechanisms.
10) Without empowered and functioning local governments as the third tier of power neither democracy nor federalism is complete. Apart from that, I am not a big fan of creating new provinces. At best the provincial legislatures ought to be bicameral like at the centre.
11) Media freedom is critical. The infighting among media group owners weakens their collective interest. Media groups and the state should be able to work in tandem. How an economy like ours can sustain 50 news channels is beyond me.
12) Election integrity is of utmost importance. Political parties are notorious for rejecting results when they lose in the general election. Take their claims with a pinch of salt.
13) The establishment (read permanent institutions) should have no role in politics. Only 13 years ago the country was controlled by a military ruler. Denial is pointless. The role of the security establishment got prolonged because of the War on Terror. If the democratic process continues this role will gradually fade away. Attacking institutions that are fighting elements who are after your blood is not just counterintuitive, it is stupid.
14) Judicial overreach invariably creates challenges for the state. But an independent judiciary is crucial for the country’s future. Trichotomy of power must be upheld.
15) Politics and religion should be kept apart because when they mingle it harms both.
16) Peace with neighbouring countries is essential.
17) Without serious efforts to establish an open society a young nation like ours cannot go too far.
18) Democracy is an inclusive enterprise. As long as the elites keep resisting the emergence of new parties, newcomers will flock to places that are out of the elite’s control: the establishment and the clergy.
19) Violence begets violence. There should be zero tolerance for violent non-state actors.
20) It’s the economy stupid.
You have read these principles. Now I invite you to go through my work during the past decade and point out where I have deviated from any of these principles. May I also ask why other pro-democracy moderates have changed their position after the 2018 election?
The title of this column comes from a viral video trend where people introduce themselves, their commute, or friends and then they inform you that they are partying. Since the few seconds clip that broke the internet is the epitome of innocence and good-natured merriment […]Farrukh writes
The title of this column comes from a viral video trend where people introduce themselves, their commute, or friends and then they inform you that they are partying. Since the few seconds clip that broke the internet is the epitome of innocence and good-natured merriment I had to mull it many times before using the word pawry with the thing that passes for politics in this republic. Why? Because it is neither innocent nor good-natured or fun. It is like a long barefooted walk across a burning desert with no amenities, no company, or end in sight. But the thing with the newly minted word pawry is that it is not quite but almost there. Just like our party politics. So, with due apologies to the original creator, I am borrowing this word to comment on the perverse. Let the record show that it is not by any means intended to reflect on her good work. More power to you young lady!
After this long-winded explanation let me congratulate the members of the still young Pakistan Democratic Movement and thank them dearly for proving every word of their detractors right. The art of the possible, when coupled with the graphic footage of and the blow by blow commentary of the making of the sausage, can never lose its charm. See everyone, we want you to respect the vote and while we are at it let us also show you how to destroy a vote. We want an open ballot but not this time because this time secret ballot most likely will help us. Money? What money? We are not corrupt. But yeah kindly keep the packages reasonable otherwise if the words get out everyone will want the same amount. When someone defects from our side it certainly is the work of that sinister establishment but still at the end of each vote we will chant slogans praising Zardari. Ek Zardari sab pe bhari. One Zardari dominates everyone else. The same when someone defects from your side. Orange is new white. And Zardari is the new establishment. When money talks only those with the endless supply of it can stand the ground.
Given the theater of the absurd, that plays out in the neighboring and alleged largest democracy of the world I have been telling myself that Pakistan is doing better and things could be far worse. But is it really? A man who was disqualified and removed from the office of the prime minister for not writing a letter to implicate Zardari against the court’s order is plucked out of the backyard of history and hoisted upon the federal capital. Everyone looks at the numbers and is surprised by the move. How could it be? The PDM does not have the numbers. But then we see videos upon videos. This is how it is done.
My problem with all these developments is simple. South Asia is in the habit of constantly rewarding bad behaviour. And the worst elements possible. In neighboring India, they expressed frustration with a savvy statesman and intellectual like Manmohan Singh and surprise surprise, brought in Modi. Nothing proves Charles Darwin wrong like this. In Pakistan, the sale and purchase of votes is openly being celebrated. And by whom? An alliance that calls itself a democratic movement and is headed by a religious cleric. How is that for good behaviour?
And oh the feudal spirit. Everyone is expendable. Except for the leader. The leader who repeatedly shows through bad choices that he believes in no restraint or limits of personal power. When Aitzaz Ahsen starts getting big because of the lawyers’ movement the great leader does not just take exception to the movement but makes sure that the man goes down with the ship. When people praise Raza Rabbani for his hard work in putting together the eighteenth amendment and bringing the parliament to the centre of national discourse, the leader removes him from the Senate chairman position and plucks a man out of obscurity and with zero parliamentary experience and anoints him as the new Senate chief. I know it is not the fault of the man who was appointed but can there be a better example of the feudal spirit at work? When memogate surfaces every child would know that an ambassador cannot do much on his own. But upon the great leader’s instruction, he is expected to throw himself under the bus. When the Dawn-leaks scandal breaks who is scapegoated? A common man. Let’s also talk about the man who pulled off a surprise in this Senate election. He was once the premier. Then he was not. Why? A court ordered him to write a letter to reopen a case against the great leader and he did not. Could the said letter do any damage? Certainly not. It was about a corruption case that was already dying because of the death of one of the co-accused. But the great leader could not let his name be besmirched by a letter written by his minion. So off he went. A sacrifice for the great leader.
And the minion is not supposed to have any volition. The great leader asks him to stand up. He stands up. The great leader asks him to sit down so he does. Good boy. Yesterday you were the PM. Today you are asked to be the Senate chairman. So be it.
And the proverbial cherry on the top. Always blame the victim. We were buying your votes but ask your members why are they always ready to be bought. We will do whatever we want. But how dare you object to what we are doing. It is for the greater good. It is for democracy. It is for the constitution.
The constitution that we wrote. And don’t expect us to abide by it. We are above it. For we are democracy incarnate and what we say goes.
That’s what pawry politics stands for. And if it does not trouble you about the nature of politics in our dear republic nothing will. If you want to see how long their unity lasts offer them some power. But before that pray give me leave for I cannot bear the burden of the South Asian politics upon my soul.
The dynamic between India and Pakistan has held the region hostage for a long time. We witnessed it time and again in the SAARC meetings. Every time a SAARC summit took place the rest of the agenda would be shunted to one side. Now that […]Farrukh writes
The dynamic between India and Pakistan has held the region hostage for a long time. We witnessed it time and again in the SAARC meetings. Every time a SAARC summit took place the rest of the agenda would be shunted to one side. Now that the two countries often share other platforms ranging from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to the UN summits and have a growing say in international matters it seems that this dynamic may repeat itself.
Right when you are about to make peace with the idea that due to its sheer reliance on meaningless optics the current Indian leadership is incapable of talking to Pakistan, some interesting development materialises. The hotline between the Indian and Pakistani Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) is considered a matter of routine. But this time the talk was about resuming the Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire agreement of 2003. As per reports, both sides agreed to implement it in letter and spirit. Whether it can lead to something bigger like the resumption of dialogue between the two countries is yet to be seen. But even if the agreement leads to the stabilising of the LoC it would be quite a heartening development. Since the Modi government came to power the LoC instability has wreaked havoc on both sides of the divide. In the occupied territory because of the atrocities of the Indian authorities, and in Azad Kashmir because of the reckless shelling by the other side. I wish I was exaggerating but it is what it is.
While Pakistani authorities issued a balanced if cautiously optimistic statement, the Bollywood adjacent Indian news industry is spinning a yarn of a heroic outreach where the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval magically materialised in Pakistan to hold backchannel talks with the national leadership. And this arduous journey took three months. One can understand the eagerness to take credit in the changing global environment and let’s face it, it is an improvement if the Indian media’s penchant for theatrics is put to better use than peddling war hysteria.
What happens next? There have been many false starts in the past. So I am not going to lose any sleep over it yet. Meanwhile, Pakistan has done a lot to document the Modi government’s perverse activities in occupied Jammu, Ladakh, and Kashmir and its part in exporting terrorism and destabilising ideologies to the neighbouring countries. The leaked FinCEN files, the DisInfoLab’s report, a spy confessing his involvement in terrorist activities in Pakistan, statements amounting to territorial ambition against all its smaller neighbours, the ill-advised confrontation with China, the noise and Indian ruling party’s inexplicable zeal to get Trump re-elected. What gift has the current Indian government not given to its detractors? And that is in addition to what India does to its people. Can it change its spots? We shall see.
In the past two years especially since Pulwama, I have shared with you whatever I have heard from the authorities. Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Foreign Office, the ISPR, the Army Chief. I admire the fact that despite the Indian government’s stir-crazy attitude our civil and military leadership continues to remain convinced of the importance of peace in the region especially between India and Pakistan. What I have missed I intend to share with you in the coming days. Let me tell you for example that when I interviewed Dr Moeed Yusuf, the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security, last month, there was no sign of an active backchannel with Indian authorities. The Indian media’s talk of such a channel sounds more like embellishment than reality given that he is identified as the Pakistani liaison. I believe whatever transpired happened in the past one month.
Another riveting experience was an interaction with the Air Force Chief this week. Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan took us back to the days of the post-Pulwama confrontation between India and Pakistan. So far, we had heard from the civil and army leadership about the face-off between the two nations. Listening to the chief of the force that brought two Indian planes down, three if you count the helicopter downed by Indian friendly fire, captured an Indian pilot, and yet did not go for an overkill helped fill in many gaps. Compared to the dog whistles through which the Indian security establishment communicates with its press nowadays, I must say that I am growing fond of the openness their Pakistani counterparts brief the media with. You get a clear picture of the strengths and limitations, opportunities seized and missed, the vision and ground realities.
The air chief minced no words when it came to what Pakistan accomplished that day. Where Operation Swift Retort restored conventional deterrence it also established the operational and psychological ascendancy. There was only one pilot who was downed, captured and then returned. The rest was the fog of war. In the calibrated and proportionate response of our civil and military leadership he sees the trappings of a responsible state in comparison to the irrational actor India has become. In sharp contrast to the mixed signals emanating from New Delhi where a government wanted to use a crisis between the two nuclear-armed states to win an election, the Pakistani leadership was clear-eyed about the mission objectives — deterring further adventurism while avoiding escalation. Mission accomplished.
And yet it speaks to a larger issue at hand. The strategic calculus in New Delhi. Compared to all its neighbours but China, India is a giant of a country. With the endless supply of money, resources, diplomatic and political clout and access to cutting-edge technology, this power should act its size. But now replace this giant’s head with that of an impulsive seven-year-old kid. How do you contend with such a force which is least self-aware and oblivious to the consequences of its actions? On one side muscle-memory keeps dragging it to a position of growing influence, on the other its impulse control issues keep dramatically increasing by the day. What are we to do? The PAF, we are told, is alive to the challenge. It is focussing on indigenisation, improved training and research and development. It recently established a Centre of Artificial Intelligence and Computing along with state-of-the-art training facilities.
This is what the PAF is doing to meet the challenges despite its limited resources. But given India’s mad rush to procure more military hardware I like to posit that we will have to be more creative with diplomacy. Improved relations with India may one day convince it of the need for restraint. India talks a great deal about confronting China. But its strategic outlook remains obsessed with Pakistan. The problem with the idea of diplomacy bearing fruits is that the current Indian government is devoid of the vision to see its uses. For long I have argued that Pakistan should reach out to the Indian diaspora. In our countries we do not need to be reminded of our identities. But in foreign countries we, South Asians, look and sound the same. Given the Modi government is becoming a liability for the South Asian diaspora, Pakistan can reach out and win it over for an agenda of broader regional peace.
Are you distressed by the rapidly changing world? Worried that you have no control over the broader currents of change? Or perhaps like me, you feel that your nose has been so close to the grindstone that when you look back to the past decade […]Farrukh writes
Are you distressed by the rapidly changing world? Worried that you have no control over the broader currents of change? Or perhaps like me, you feel that your nose has been so close to the grindstone that when you look back to the past decade all you can account for is going through motions. This one, in fact, is quite an intriguing topic of dinner conversations. Recently at dinner, when I asked my highly accomplished friends how much they could recollect of the 2010s, they agreed with me that this one ran out pretty quickly without leaving any trace. Could it be a part of the aging process that time passes in a blur? Maybe. Or maybe it is that we all are so preoccupied with the minutiae of daily routines that we stop paying attention. In any case, if you are troubled by the rate of change please know that you are not the only one. In fact, so omnipresent is this feeling that experts have coined a term for it. It is called metathesiophobia. The Greek word ‘meta’ means change and ‘phobos’ means fear.
But before you worry too much about your mental health please bear in mind that no generation before the one that is alive right now has seen so much change in a lifetime. The younger ones among us are lucky that they never had to know the world without the internet. The youngest among them never had to contend with the immobility caused by the absence of smart machines like smartphones. But we vividly remember the days when a 35mm camera film could take only 36 photos and the pains we had to go to take them to get developed. If somehow this film got prematurely exposed to light all photos were ruined. When we had to wait at video stores to rent a film on a VHS tape. And when we got late in returning the movie the fines we had to pay. When we had to go to a music shop to get the mixed tape of our choice and all that money for only an hour of music play. When books on tape cost a small fortune and storing a large number of tapes per book was a logistic nightmare. And don’t even get me started on regular books. For someone like me who went through too many books in a short period of time retaining and organising books in a regular household was hardly anything short of a Greek tragedy.
And where are we now? Reading devices are getting more common with large storage and battery capacity. The prevalence of cloud storage and steadily improving internet bandwidths assure you do not need to physically store much. With the ever-improving smartphone cameras and their connivance with the social media outlets you seldom need to print out your photos and when you need them it takes just a printer to print out as many copies as you want without any loss of quality. Take as many pictures you want and keep as many as you want. Streaming services and over-the-top platforms ensure that you get a steady supply of movies, music, and videogames with a touch of the screen. Is this change dramatic enough for you? If not, more is yet to come.
And the technological backwardness that I just mentioned was still a coup of sorts for its age. Many of us recollect the gramophones and LP records of our grandparents gently being retired. The broken sounds they made and the ungodly racket that was created when the needle got stuck somewhere. Black and white TV sets being replaced with coloured sets. The thrill of using remote-controlled devices for the first time. The advent of portable telephones and Walkman. The introduction to primitive-looking walkie-talkies. The sad-looking computers which had to be attached to television screens and mere kilobytes of their data backed up on ordinary cassette recorders after hours of painful noise. All of this change in one lifetime.
Granted that human progress has not caught up with the flight of human imagination. There are no lunar or Martian colonies. No beam me up, Scottie. No flying cars or hoverboards used by Marty McFly. No galaxy-class spaceships. No aliens. No subterranean cities. No Jedi swords. Cities are still not inundated by moving holograms. No matter or food synthesisers or to borrow from the Star Trek lexicon replicators. No faster than light space engines. No portable wormholes. No all-purpose medical tricorders. But you know the direction things are likely to take.
Distressing? When you overcome the fascination of it all, of course, it is distressing. Just consider what difference the small changes make. When phones depended only on voice communication you could be creative with the truth about your location. Now with the ever-growing dependence on video calls how will you convince your spouse or your boss that you are in a hospital and not at a friend’s party? Privacy already seems to have gone out of the window. The smartphones you carry usually have uncovered cameras pointing in two directions and a highly sensitive microphone. Paranoia is already growing regarding the wide array of cameras strewn across our homes thanks to some creative spin by Hollywood and testimonies of the likes of Edward Snowden.
Then all progress comes at a cost. The population keeps growing rapidly making our cities more crowded and noisier, disappearing villages due to growing urbanisation. Pollution is only to increase despite valiant efforts by the conservationists. If humanity finally graduates to cryptocurrencies the environmental toll will be immense. With the growth of 5G networks that use considerably smaller cell towers, smart cars, dependence on drones, and the mushrooming skyscrapers meant to cater to the needs of a growing population, our lives and skylines are about to change dramatically. If you have not seen the videos of staff stuffing passengers into crowded subway trains in the world’s most populous city — Tokyo — you need to do so to know what faces us soon. Diseases are becoming more virulent and lethal.
All of this calls for planning and research never witnessed before. There is a need for one mega institution that keeps us informed. The problem is we look in the wrong direction for the solution. For three-quarters of a century, we have looked towards the United Nations for political solutions and global governance. In that aspect, the UN is designed to fail. But if it were to be treated as the world’s most powerful think tank and research institution, we could perhaps easily find the solutions we need to overcome our anxiety about change. A well-researched and well-informed future is the only way to prepare for what is to come.
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has given birth to some serious questions. Countries with tough regulations, boisterous state control and big governmental infrastructure have fared rather well in comparison to the nations with institutionally protected civil liberties which struggled to contain the pandemic. […]Farrukh writes
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has given birth to some serious questions. Countries with tough regulations, boisterous state control and big governmental infrastructure have fared rather well in comparison to the nations with institutionally protected civil liberties which struggled to contain the pandemic. For now, the world’s most powerful democracy (United States) and the world’s largest (India) seem to be in a competition to get the most citizens infected. Meanwhile, China, whence the virus originated, appears to be totally in control, with life back to normal and the economy moving full steam ahead. Here and there you may find some exceptions like New Zealand where the government’s proactive approach and general goodwill have almost vanquished the disease but they are what they are – exceptions. This, more than any other academic discussion, has given rise to the question about the future of democracy and the balance between regulations and freedoms.
The neoliberal economics tells us that big governments are bad. That the only job of the government is to act as a reluctant moderator. That the private sector is best regulated by competition, not a nosy government. And yet the crisis of neoliberalism, democracy, and libertarianism is quite evident from the disaster the pandemic has wrought. The citizens of free societies are usually not accustomed to the kind of restrictions that were imposed during the Coronavirus-related lockdowns. Consequently, protests, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical, occasionally violent, have erupted in democratic societies. In clear contrast, the countries with controlled democracy or authoritarian governments have witnessed little disruption. This makes the cause of overregulated societies quite tempting to be very honest.
But the critics of authoritarianism point out that it is in the fundamental nature of these societies to be less transparent. Therefore, the data from the states with big bureaucracies, larger than life government control, and less individual freedoms, in their view, will always remain suspect. Let me introduce an intervention here before we disconnect China from this discussion altogether. It is interesting to note that in China’s case you can see an evident exception to this rule. China’s post-COVID economic progress and other indicators unrelated to official data like pollution emission indeed show that the Chinese society and economy have really returned to normalcy and in very good shape. China, to many of us, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery where many universal generalizations do not apply. However, with countries like North Korea where the ruling strongman had allegedly ordered to shoot dead the patients suffering from COVID-19, you see a clear example of subterfuge and obfuscation.
The question then comes down to the fundamental nature of human beings. Is it good? Can a citizen be trusted to make to the choice that is best for him? What about the social fabric? Do individual freedoms pose any threat to society? Will you wear a mask and ensure social distancing when no one is around to ensure the implementation of the rules? More importantly, if you are a business owner, will you voluntarily want to implement the COVID-19 related SOPs even if it means a substantial dip in your profits if not a total loss? See, in these cases, there are two questions, not one. The first is about the goodness of an individual. The other is of self-preservation. Wearing a mask and ensuring social distancing is a matter of self-preservation. If you are properly informed and no conspiracy theory or paranoia finds home in your mind, you are likely to take these precautions in any case because you know a failure to do so will result in you being sick. The other aspect, about human nature, is harder to answer. We know many people are capable of unethical, even criminal behavior. So, should this automatically result in the assumption that man by nature is evil? Far from it.
It is true that even the world’s most liberal democracies have regulations and law enforcement systems. But in any society, may it be underregulated or overregulated, stability exists primarily owing to a citizen’s conviction and choice. In other words, in any society, the number of people who are likely to abide by the laws and respect the sanctity of the system outflank those of miscreants. There is a reason for that. Government is just one reason why anybody would be loath to disrupting society. Man is barely anything without society and within the societal framework, we survive because of our sub-collectives or hives. There always are more social controls at play than any government or authority can possibly think of introducing. All behaviors are pre-determined in some way by an individual’s social context. And society at large is seldom evil. For a society to be so would be counterproductive to its very raison d’etre. Our parents, siblings, offspring, friends, colleagues, religious leaders, cultural and political symbols, even characters of fiction, all exert influence on us. So, there is a good chance that even in the absence of regulations in a society hitherto overregulated life will carry on like before barring some initial disruptions caused by the realization of their absence.
In democracies, the people and the authorities trust each other and the relationship is not forced. Governments in such societies do not gain legitimacy by herding citizens like cattle or sheep, but by being useful. The function of the law enforcement apparatus then is not to intimidate the citizen into submission but to keep a vigilant eye out to ensure that if a citizen is wronged by someone there is legal recourse available for the redressal of grievances. Imagine a government that is more concerned about providing healthcare and other civic amenities to its citizens even if it is not the agent responsible for doing so rather than the one that is obsessed with imposing discipline in the lives of its subjects. The need for discipline, when it organically grows, stems from the society itself. That is why constitutions are often referred to as social contracts. In countries where constitutions evolve historically, they become enduring documents. Where they do not, even when the document exists, they are made irrelevant and redundant. The U.S. constitution has endured for centuries because it naturally evolved. In Pakistan, the reason why every unelected government has struggled to get rid of the 1973 Constitution and eventually failed is that at the heart of it, it was a consensus document. In India, when a segment of the society which was overlooked by the then ruling elite while framing the constitution came to power it made the document redundant. The ruling BJP has made India’s secular, democratic and federal constitution irrelevant along with all institutional safeguards. In short, societies do not remain stable because of the regulations that are in place but because they grant legitimacy to such laws and regulations, and choose to adhere to them.
The question then is if democracies do a better job of providing stability to their societies why is it that the U.S. and India are having such a tough time? The answer lies not in the democratic nature of the polities but in the erosion of democratic institutions or public faith in those institutions. In America’s case, for people troubled by the devastating effects of 9/11 the first instinct was to repose trust in their government and empower it to go after the terrorists. But then the Bush administration thoroughly abused this trust and waged a totally unnecessary war in Iraq on a deceitful pretext. While this brought the old paranoia about a military-industrial complex back to life, the Bush administration’s parting gift was an economic recession. And when the Obama administration could not bring an end to foreign expensive wars in the middle of an economic downturn it also fell from grace. I have seen many average Americans lose their composure while discussing how much money the U.S. government has spent in Afghanistan alone even as the infrastructure around them kept crumbling due to disrepair and lack of funds. This fracture of trust was not caused but only highlighted by Donald Trump’s victory and the COVID-19 pandemic. Bottom line: Never cheat your own people.
I think I have covered some aspects of the Indian crisis of democracy above but the true root cause of India’s miseries is its inefficient colonial-styled bureaucracy and authoritarian state structure. India claims to be a democracy and in a procedural sense, it is so. But since its inception, it has relied solely on government machinery left behind by its former colonial rulers. To borrow from Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson’s rich political vocabulary, originally conceived as an extractive institution the Indian bureaucracy’s sole purpose was to extract as much riches from the people as possible, ship them to the United Kingdom and ensure that the local population did not rebel in the face of such exploitation. While the masters changed after independence, the extractive nature of bureaucracy and crony capitalism in South Asia did not. That is a big reason why all South Asian countries still grapple with the specter of corruption. Even when Dr. Manmohan Singh tried to bring reforms, despite some immediate success, every time he left power, the bureaucracy worked hard to make them redundant. There is a myth in South Asia which claims that the military apparatus in these countries functions as the establishment. In reality, however, it is the bureaucracy with its extractive torments, which continues to call the shots. Even a military ruler like General Musharraf had to lean heavily on his old friend and a bureaucrat of legendary proportions, Tariq Aziz, to conduct the business of the state. The only country with moderate success in transforming an extractive bureaucracy into an inclusive one is Bangladesh and that is why this year its economy will grow faster than the economic powerhouse that once was India. Bottom line: Never treat your own citizens as foreign or colonial subjects.
The biggest problem with forced regulations is the stifling effect they have on productivity and the chilling effect on creativity. Even today the democratic west is a powerhouse of creativity and innovation. The recent U.S. ban on Huawei produced some instructive evidence. From Google’s Android software, major apps on the play store to hardware like guerilla glass, SD cards, WiFi technology and even microprocessors all turned out to have the U.S. or Western patents. Right now, from Tesla to Amazon, Google to Microsoft, all major innovative companies originate from freer societies. Creative minds gravitate towards open societies because these places offer them leeway to exist and grow in spite of their idiosyncrasies and quirks. This results in national wealth creation. Richer societies can afford better law enforcement system involving better technology and skilled manpower, and smarter mechanisms to ensure stability without compromising freedoms.
At first glance this may seem like an argument against regulations. It is not. Every society needs common sense laws and a mechanism to enforce them. But the relationship of a state with its subjects is like yours with your child. You obviously would go an extra mile to keep your child from harm’s way. But today you are there and the child does as he is told. Tomorrow you might not be with him or not looking and the young man may find himself incapable of making choices and mistakes that are necessary for progress. The key then lies in winning hearts and minds, convincing and educating rather than compelling and coercing.
Soon after 9/11, the first Arab Development Report came out. While it was a commentary on Arab societies, its foundational principles still apply here. The report found that the Arab countries were suffering from three deficits, those of freedom, women empowerment, and knowledge. Think about these deficits and you may find them in your society too. No wonder then that such societies are often left behind in progress.
Those who obsess about overregulation do so because they think human beings cannot be trusted either out of fear for one’s own wellbeing or for ideological reasons. In some cases, that might be true. But usually, when someone else decides what is good for you, there always is the chance of abuse, exploitation, and corruption. The better way is to educate people, motivate them, and then put trust in them. The best government is the one that is the least visible to the naked eye and yet only an earshot away to come to the rescue of a citizen in distress.
To paraphrase Yuval Harari, ideas like freedom, regulation, and stability are all stories, commonly held myths and constructs. The only thing that makes them real is public faith. Hence, regulations should only be introduced when there is a publicly recognized need for them and not when a ruling elite arbitrarily chooses to introduce them. And even then, they should not be the reason to unduly curtail freedoms. Freedom, regulations, stability and the need for progress all must be put in sync to support the growth of individuals, state and society.
The political discourse about democratisation in Pakistan is in the habit of hitting the target while entirely missing the point. It is your stereotypical forest for trees situation. Decades of conditioning has left our pundits and journalists programmed not to notice the systemic flaws in […]Farrukh writes
The political discourse about democratisation in Pakistan is in the habit of hitting the target while entirely missing the point. It is your stereotypical forest for trees situation. Decades of conditioning has left our pundits and journalists programmed not to notice the systemic flaws in the plan. The battle lines are so drawn that each side seems convinced that all fault lies on the other side. But that is not how you improve the system. You need disruptions upon disruptions to weaken the stranglehold of vested interests. Institution building, societal rejuvenation, economic revival, and upward mobility all depend on it. But do we have time to pause and take stock of what is wrong with our own camp? Of course not.
Consequently, throughout my whole life, I have seen the same theatre of the absurd playing out over and over again.
Political parties that do not get along. Elections that consistently fail to gain widespread acceptance because in Pakistan only one party that wins accepts the result and the rest cry wolf. How many times will this happen before we realise something is fundamentally wrong with our political structures? We are so benighted that we cannot even seem to get our mission and purpose right. Notice this. Ask anybody from the two major parties of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) what is wrong with the system and they would invariably blame the country’s powerful security establishment for everything. Ask their rivals in the incumbent ruling party and you will hear only about graft and a sense of entitlement. Tempting as the two narratives are, they do not care much about nuances or for that matter even bigger animals like the elephants in the room. Let’s strip the debate to its bare bones and the real issues in Pakistani politics.
The first elephant in the room is money in politics. I am sure by now you have seen that fateful video where MPAs from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa sit quietly as money is stacked in front of them in an apparent bribe. But trust me that is only the tip of the dung heap. The biggest problem lies with the inability of political parties to raise funds. A decade and a half ago when I asked a leading light of the country’s then-largest party how they funded their operations the answer I got without a shred of irony was: by selling tickets of course. And therein lies the biggest problem. Political parties are not organic creatures that can feed themselves by grazing the naturally occurring food. They are supposed to have complex structures that need a constant infusion of cash. In most cases save major elections or any major financial scandal their coffers are almost always empty. How would they pay the professional staff or carry out the day to day business? A shortcut. Install rich people on every post or then find people who are ready to starve for the party’s cause. When the party comes into power this dedicated staff gets public posts to fill their pockets. Thus, the structure of any party is rigged against the middle and lower classes and the honest.
For a long time, many pundits have obsessed about religious political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. And if truth be told the JI gives a lot of opportunity to the men and the women of the working class. But here the organising ideology is not political but religious. No secular ideology can match the religious fervour despite having a better knowledge of how a country should run. So basically a model that cannot be replicated.
If you have voted in any of the established Western democracies and registered with a political party you must be aware of how often these parties reach out to their supporters to collect funds. If you vote for a party in Pakistan how often do you receive phone calls, emails, or text messages urging you to donate with the relevant information? Most likely never.
One personal frustration is watching election reform consultations that take place every few years. Political parties meet, debate, and finalise changes to the election bylaws without any focus on the campaign finance or party fund laws. When so little heed is paid to such a crucial detail how will you ever evolve criteria to separate legitimate funding from financial fraud? We haven’t even codified targeted laws to punish the offenses documented in the leaked videos.
Then another elephant in the room. The leader, the potentate, the almighty dictator. When parties do not have funds to choose their leaders they are bound to gravitate towards what works. In most cases, it is the cult of personality or dynasty. These leaders do not like dissent. Hence, if you have any radical solution in mind you will likely lose your walk-in privileges in a heartbeat. With this power come a posse of sycophants who always progress and a sense of entitlement. The leader was put on the planet to rule, your king, your owner, and proprietor. Kings, queens, princes, and princesses do not lose elections, so how could they?
Third elephant: lack of democracy within parties. Whenever the election commission asks you to hold elections you rubber stamp your way out of the requirement. The ECP is seldom bothered about the fine details. Otherwise, pray explain why no major party has held undisputed and transparent internal elections in a long while and why do the same faces keep returning to each prized position?
The final elephant: homework. Today the country’s opposition parties constantly accuse the ruling party of being inexperienced. It is indeed for the first time that the PTI has come to power at the centre. Every party has to start somewhere. But how about the so-called experienced parties. Do you think everything was hunky-dory during their rule? If yes, then the provinces of Punjab and Sindh should be rivalling the best regions in the developed world. Do they?
When it comes to preparedness and homework no party can boast of exceptionalism. At its core, each party exists with a terrible dysfunction. No professionally organised party think tanks, no shadow governments during a stint in the opposition, and no serious paperwork. Do you know what stops the creation of shadow governments in our parliaments? The fear of jealousy. If you give a shadow portfolio to one party member many other rich members are likely to walk out. Consequently, when the parties come into power they are led blindfolded around by the country’s bureaucracy. Why do I vote for a party if the unelected bureaucracy is supposed to decide what is good for me? But bureaucrats can do it because unlike the political class they come from the working class, are toughened by the challenges faced by their class, and are usually well informed and disciplined.
When you refuse to even acknowledge these elephants in the room what you say hardly amounts to anything.