Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Of Fanaticism, Leaders and Fear

Just a day after I wrote my last piece “The Blasphemy of Tolerance”, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani made a public announcement that his government has no plans to amend the blasphemy law. This announcement by the number two in the Pakistan People’s Party government, especially after such hue and cry over its senior member Salman Taseer’s murder, was shocking. It proved to be tsunami of sorts that jolted the very foundation of the fragile toddler of a liberal bustle in Pakistan. While the champions of this liberalizing movement were still overcoming from this jolt, another pillar of the anti-blasphemy law movement Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead. Bhatti was the Federal Minister for Minorities, a practicing Roman Catholic, founding member of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), a prominent voice calling for scrapping of anti blasphemy law, and thus logically the next target of the bigots.

Slain minister Bhatti’s car was intercepted by “unidentified gunmen” who opened a burst of Kalashnikov fire over him, left his Muslim driver unhurt, ensured Bhatti’s breathing has stopped, and fled comfortably leaving a number of Tehrik-e-Taliban pamphlets behind. Interestingly Bhatti had informed the authorities about dozens of threats he received every day and had requested to beef up his security, but when Bhatti was killed there was not even one security guard with him. Authorities blamed it on his own insistence to leave the security cover back at his office. I am not implying that the ruling PPP government is hands-in-glove with the perpetrators of Taseer’s and Bhatti’s murders, but I blame it for failing to rein in the holier-than-thou bigots and protect liberals in Pakistan.

Failing to rein in bigots is not new to the sub-continental governments, especially for the Pakistani governments – civilian and military governments alike. However, this time it was not a common man or an opposition party member who bore the brunt of religious extremism; this time ministers of the ruling PPP government were murdered in broad daylight. This fact makes ruling PPP government’s failure more conspicuous than its predecessors. More so when leaders in this PPP government, including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime-Minister Yusuf Raza Geelani, had blamed Parvez Musharruf’s government of being scared of hardliners over its inaction following the assassination of their erstwhile leader Benazir Bhutto.

Yet again PPP leaders are being assassinated, but this time PPP is in power, and still there has been no conclusive action taken against the perpetrators. How PPP’s inaction against hardliners different than that of Musharruf? Is this inaction a part of the legacy that has been passed by one Pakistani government to other? Why this inaction on part of PPP government?

We will explore most of these questions in the coming articles, but to arrive at the root of this inaction by PPP, let us first explore how extremism spread in Pakistan. A much influential Pakistani army, ever since Zia-ul-Haq’s time, has been overtly and covertly supporting religious extremism as a fuel for cross-border-terrorism. This cross-border-terrorism in real terms has been another name for Pakistan’s India (read Kashmir) policy. Even though army initiated the spread of a jingoistic vehemence amongst Pakistani youth, it was the civilian political leadership (including that of Benazir Bhutto) that propagated it. Now this plague created by civilian and military leadership has returned to haunt both of them. Even Pakistani edition of the big brother, military, has been attacked by the extremists in recent times; not many have forgotten the attack carried by the extremists on the army headquarters at Rawalpindi in 2009. So, it is highly unlikely that the army would not want any action to be taken against the hardliners. Having arrived at this, let us avoid the trap of believing that civilian governments can’t take conclusive action against extremists because army won’t approve of it. So what is the reason behind the inaction on PPP government’s part?

From where I look at it, the situation presents itself as a modern day Pakistani adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein; only difference being that there are more than 170 million monsters that Victor Frankenstein thinks he is at peril of. Victor Frankenstein in the said equation is Pakistani leadership who thinks that it has created a monster out of the Pakistani masses by allowing a continuous promulgation of religious extremism and jingoistic filth in their minds. Believing that it has created an inexorable monster, Pakistani leadership at a subconscious level harbors a fear of religious extremism being now fixated in the Pakistani consciousness; it fears that fanaticism has now ingrained itself in the DNA of Pakistani identity. As in the original classic Frankenstein got increasingly engaged in the fear of the monster and finally died in its pursuit, Pakistani leadership is being asphyxiated by its own fear of Pakistani masses being intoxicated with extremism to the point of no return.

This fear in the minds of leaders of current PPP government is being reinforced by events like rose petals being showered at Salman Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri in appreciation by lawyers of Lahore high court, a thousand member strong Facebook fan page popping up overnight singing Qadri’s glory, protests breaking out in support of Qadri across the major cities of Pakistan. Having said this, all these events at best can reflect only the sentiments of a selected few of the urban Pakistani society. They do not reflect on the majority of Pakistani population that resides in villages; not a single protest was reported from the rural parts of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province in support of Qadri. In this Pakistani adaptation of Frankenstein, monster is not made up of the extremist masses but it embodies Pakistani leadership’s fear of Pakistani masses being ultimate extremists.

This situation demands Pakistani leaders identify the real monster that is reinforcing its roots in their own minds, and then slay it. Pakistan needs its Frankensteinian leadership to start its journey for slaying the monster by actually relating with any common Pakistani living in a small village of Punjab or Baluchistan to discover that he does not care more about blasphemy than he cares for security of his children. Following which it needs its leaders to challenge the ideology of fanaticism not out of selfish reasons rooted in its feudal lifestyle but for the sake of the idea of a forward looking developed Pakistan high on happiness quotient. Could Pakistan fare better with its own adaptation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blasphemy of Tolerance (TLR Vol. 3)

Cries for a separate state for Muslims were growing louder and louder since the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 and ultimately under Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s leadership the Islamic state of Pakistan came into being in 1947. While dream for the Islamic state of Pakistan was being realized, thousands were massacred on both sides: Hindus and Muslims, on the name of religion. Ironically a year after that Jinnah in an Australian radio broadcast said “Make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.” This disconnect in the ideology, wherein a state created in the name of religion striving to be a democratic republic, has been the cause of over thirty two years of Military rule in Pakistan. Starting from Ayub Khan, to Yahya Khan, to Zia-ul-Haq – military dictators, left to their own devices played the hardliner Islamist card to distract the masses from the anxiety of living in an autocracy.

Zia-ul-Haq, the most brutal of military dictators, to the horrors of the minority introduced a series of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The archaic laws laid out death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and barred the minority sect Ahmadiyas from behaving like Muslims, proclaiming to be Muslims, and trying to convert Muslims. Over the years they have been the instruments of harassment and subsequent murders of many innocent civilians from minority communities on the hands of local landlords, intolerant clerics, and establishment. Sadly, these laws introduced by Zia-ul-Haq are still being forced on Pakistani society, but not without opposition from the intellectuals and liberals.

Ever since the blasphemy laws came into being veterans like Asma Jehangir, Hina Jilani and Julius Salik have been waging a war against the blasphemy laws, but could never garner any significant support – even from the so called liberals. Even in the protests from minority communities, notably Christians who make up most of the minority in Pakistan, calls for removing blasphemy laws remained concealed under the garbs of demands for protection from Muslim hardliners.

Conversly, the post 9/11 world witnessed a gradual shift in the mindset of Pakistani youth towards peace and democracy from radical Islam. A lot of credit goes to Parvez Musharraff’s efforts against radicalization, or for that matter Armitage’s legendary “Bombing back to the stone age” admonition. Since then, a new crop of journalists, human rights activists, philosophers, students, and bloggers have provided much needed support to the struggle against Blasphemy laws.

However until Aasia Bibi case, where a Christian woman Aasia was condemned to death following the allegations of defiling Prophet Mohammed’s name, and a subsequent appeal from the Pope and various human right groups within and outside Pakistan, the protest against blasphemy laws seldom came out of selected print and online forums. The movement actually gained momentum, after Salman Taseer became its face.

Having an uncanny resemblance with Jack Nicholson, Taseer was one of the most charming and influential leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. He rose to power when he successfully built the bridges between Mushrraff and Asif Ali Zardari, and later helped Zardari oust Mushrraff to become the new President of Pakistan. He was a very powerful man, but what make his support against blasphemy laws more interesting are his xenophobic inclinations. In the words of his own Indian born son Aatish Taseer, “He harbored feelings of hatred, for Jews, Americans or Hindus, that were founded in faith and only masked in political arguments.”

Although, Salman Taseer maintained his anti-India ways, which in Pakistan is a political necessity, he was championing for the rights of minorities. This however, was not going down too well with a lot of religious bigots –well-known and closeted.

Ever since Taseer voiced his opinion on blasphemy laws, a lot of personal vilification and threats came his way from the clerics, terrorists, clerics and terrorists like Azhar Masood, and even from self-proclaimed enlightened media personnel like Hamid Mir. A lot was said and printed about his “non-Islamic” ways of consuming alcohol and allowing his daughters to freely mingle with men in parties, mostly to reject his opinion on grounds of him lacking “Islamic morality”. The whole generation of Taliban-like extremists, originally raised to be used against India and with consent of Taseer, saw a new enemy in Taseer. On January 4, 2011 he was shot dead by his own securityman Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri.

What came next can be described as the most powerful opposition religious-bigots ever faced from the liberals in Pakistan. Salman Tasser became the face of movement against the blasphemy laws, and the liberal activists gave him the title of “Shaheed” (translates to martyr in Urdu). The calls to “deny Taseer an Islamic funeral” were fiercely matched with chants of “Long live Shaheed Taseer”. Even established hardliner leaders like Maulna Fazalur Rehman had to come out and condemn his killing. This condemning of Taseer’s murder from known extremists becomes of great significance, as it also implies condemnation for killings due to difference in opinion. It is a progress for the country where law spells out death for alleged insults against a particular religion and religious figure.

Sherry Rehman’s private member bill proposing amendments to the blasphemy law has long been presented in the National Aseembly, and it is going to take a while before blasphemy laws will be reduced to the history books where they belong. Nevertheless a national movement has started which promises to go beyond the blasphemy rules, and interestingly it has been fueled by the blood of an alleged extremist Salman Taseer who was assassinated for not being extremist enough. The situation is so replete with irony that a dramatist would not dare to invent a scenario like this. A life-long fanatic, perpetually suspicious of the ‘other’, gunned down for not being hard-line enough. Of such unlikely clay is the chariot of change fashioned.

The iPad foe and the Indian behind it

(This feature was published in the second volume of The Leadership Review)

Rohan Shravan seems to personify the effervescent energy pushing Indian youth to explore and conquer new dimensions. He is the founder of Bangalore based Notion Ink with an employee strength of close to a hundred and an average employee age of 22 years. Notion Ink describes itself as a firm dedicated to pushing computing devices towards Singularity. {The Singularity being geek speak for the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence through merging the thresholds of multiple technologies. Convergence, apparently, is when humans achieve Singularity.} Notion Ink’s breakthrough product Adam Tablet which is a beguiling mix of a computer, a phone, and a camera all by itself, is deservedly making the headlines. Shravan himself is, perhaps prematurely, touted to be the Indian version of Steve Jobs.

The Shravan style

An Indian Institute of Technology alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, Shravan’s description of himself on his LinkedIn profile speaks volumes.

He describes himself as “(one who) Design(s) devices which will enable people to realize their dreams!” He does not use ‘mediocrity crutches’ like wants to, is enthusiastic about, plans to, is going to et al, which characterizes the patchiness displayed by the products of our education system. His certainty that he is an achiever comes from his conviction that he is different, and he tells us why– “First time when I earned through direct business was when I was 12 years old.” What he seems to mean is “An average twelve years old does not normally achieve what I have. I am an achiever. I have always been an achiever.”

As to his future ambitions - Convergence excites me and I will constantly be working towards the same. Adam is my brainchild and it’s just one of the first few devices I want to realize.” It is clear that his ambition is his passion; he does not say that Convergence is the next big thing, or Convergence as a concept has enormous unrealized potential. Instead, he emphasizes that he is in the game for the sake of the game itself. He concludes that Adam is just a harbinger towards pushing computing devices towards Singularity, and in no way represents finality. This ambition of realizing more devices is powered by his passion for convergence, and seems to be an innate expression or authentic quest for growth.

This sort of confidence has been seen before, but usually in Silicon valley, not in Bengaluru, and especially not at this age, a ripe old 25. If he can pull it off it will be exhilarating, and a very good thing for all the repressed, suppressed and oppressed entrepreneurs of Young India.


With all these game changing promises that Adam makes, it sounds too good to be true to many, more so when it comes with a relatively unknown brand name Notion Ink. Even The Adam’s coming into being has been questioned a lot, as almost one year had elapsed between its eventual availability for pre-order in December 2010, and its first presentation at Consumer Electronics Show in January 2010. Besides this their loyal followers who had avidly followed and posted on their blog written by Rohan, felt cheated when they were allegedly not given the first access to Adam. While the pre-orders are still being taken, people questioned the security of their payment processing gateway, as many Banks were denying transactions thinking they were fraudulent.

Having said this, The Adam can very well be the next technological breakthrough which we all were looking for, and Rohan may turn out to be India’s answer to Steve Jobs.