27 December 2011

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

I wrote this piece immediately after BB's assassination.  Lahore, like other cities, was paralysed with strikes and riots.  A three-day mourning period meant that everything was shut.  My column was about cities and the environment, but I wanted to pay tribute.  This piece was published in The News.

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

Before Partition, political dissent often manifested itself in violence towards traffic lights.  Apparently, during the halcyon days of the Pakistan Movement, it was considered routine to attack and destroy traffic signals at the slightest provocation.  These British introductions represented, it seems, enough of the Colonial establishment to justify, in the eyes of passionate “freedom fighters,” such vandalism.  Sadly, not even Partition has spared the fate of the innocent traffic light; they have remained a constant target and victim whenever the public turns unruly, much to the chagrin of better minded people.  In today’s day and age, when Pakistan is supposed to be run by Pakistanis and in the interest of Pakistanis, it’s considered bad form to take on a defenseless traffic device. 

On Friday, before prayers, my wife and I decided to venture onto the streets of Lahore anxious to see for ourselves the truth of the television and numerous text message reports of violence throughout this and other places in the country.  It was midmorning and the city streets were empty.  In the evening before, the President had announced a three day period of grief. 

Lahore was beautiful and unaccompanied by the everyday noise, traffic, dust and that general sense of congestion that makes it less and less attractive.  Every undulation of the Mall was uninterrupted and shafts of midmorning light pierced through the fresh tree line.  The fact it took something so gruesome to bring us a glimpse of its features weighed heavily on the both of us.

In Gulberg, the ubiquitous green PML-Q bicycle banners, so amusingly defaced on the Canal when they were put up, had now been violently torn down.  The path was clear.  This evidence of protest began at the bottom of Guru Mangat road and made its way to Liberty Market.  There, of the four large posters (depicting the Gulberg Town Nazim, the City Nazim, the Chief Minister and his son, Moonis Elahi, who is contesting for a provincial seat from the area), celebrating the recent redevelopment of the area only two bore marks of violence: those of the former Chief Minister and his Prince Ascending.  Clear evidence that they were systematically targeted.

The location of burnt tire marks was very instructive.  They delineated the political allegiance of each area.  On the Shalimar Link road, towards the Shalimar Gardens, every 500 or so meters lay shattered glass and the charred remains of burnt rubber: evidence of the anger of the mob.  The air was tense.  As if something was happening.  Every dozen or so meters small groups of men huddled at the mouths of the alleys and lanes that feed into that artery.  From the majority of the election banners, one could tell this was a PPP area; the men on the streets residents eager to share gossip from the night before.

Near the UET those green PML-Q bicycles banners stood untouched on street lights.  Clearly visible amid the desolation – we may have been the only car on that road at the time – they bisected the Grand Trunk Road like a row of artificial green attempting, tragically, to take the place of a tree-lined median.  On top of a nearby building, a 30x60 hoarding proudly displayed the credentials of that area’s candidate.  Yet there was no one on the road to see it.  The seat, it was clear, belonged to the former dispensation.

There were also signs of violence along the Shalimar Road and at Laxmi Chowk.  But by far the largest protest demonstration must have occurred in front of the Lahore Press Club.  There, shattered glass lay in mounds and the mouth of Durand road lay covered in the debris of burnt rubber and nearby PML-Q hoardings.  From the vandalized posters around the area, angry crowds must have seeped to Simlar Pahari, collected in large numbers there and then marched up Davis Road, past the PML House, and onto the Mall.  The fact that nothing further than that point appeared to have been vandalized tells us about the state of the crowd.  By this time, their spontaneous anger, shock and frustration would have given way to grief and sadness.  This would have deadened their vigour.   

At the Governor’s House, near Naqi Market and Hall road large number of police and Rangers milled about.  Some were taking in the morning tabloids, all of which carried front page photos of the carnage of the night before.  Driving past, it seemed that they were holding up Benazir placards.  More bored police, some faces lost on the yet unopened front page, sat about in the Cantonment and all those other high-end, and, therefore, “high risk” residential areas.  There were no signs of violence there.  In Defence, one could physically take in the fact that the area has the highest density of automobile ownership in the city:  Because this wasn’t a typical day off, because there was no visiting or working to be done, every driveway was full.  Each family safely huddled together.

I remember witnessing Benazir’s return to Pakistan.  She landed in this then sleepy metropolis on April 1986.   The crowds that greeted her were unprecedented.  It took her all day to get from the airport, past our residence on the Mall and on towards Minto Park.  The fact that she – at that time relatively politically inexperienced – got the reaction she did, and that too in capital of the civil and military establishment must have shaken General Zia.  Lahoris can spot political potential from miles.  Even the significance of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s reception in this city over two decades later in May of this year was measured against Benazir’s welcome.  If only one could have read the features of Lahore’s face that morning.  I’m sure its message would be equally profound for our recently retired General.  This happened on his watch, and try as he may, he won’t be able to spurn this legacy.

On 14 February 2006 lunatic extremists took vandalism to new heights by ambushing an otherwise peaceful protest against those silly cartoons.  The resulting looting, vandalism and arson spree stretched from the Metropolitan Bank on Kashmir Road all the way to the motorbikes parked at Bank Square.  The mob – boys in their teens interspersed with the odd extremist – also took on street lights.  All the lights on the signals on that area of the Mall were ruthlessly attacked.  But, as I said, Lahore can spot political talent from miles.  It saw no reason to condone the protest.  On Friday, I didn’t spot a single broken traffic light.   

23 June 2011

Letter from Ardeshir Cowasjee to Mr. Justice (R) Sardar Muhammad Iqbal

Ardeshir Cowasjee is arguably Pakistan's most influential columnist. He's lost the bite he had a decade ago - and they are hundreds of aspirants to the title - but, back in the day, the Cowasjee column was The Last Word.

Before he became Dawn's Sunday centrepiece, he was a letter writer. It was his wit and turn of phrase in this avatar that got him the column (and maybe the fact that he's also very influential and would have got it if he'd asked anyway).

So anyway, like I said in my previous post, while looking for something, I found something else. In this case, it was a letter Cowasjee wrote to Mr. Justice (Retired) Sardar Muhammad Iqbal on his appointment as Wafaqi Mohtasib (Federal Ombudsman).

I've scanned a copy of the letter that I have. It is epic on so many levels.

But in case you can't make it out, I've transcribed it below:


Ardeshir Cowasjee 10 Mary Road Karachi 0402

Wednesday September 14 1983

My dear Sardar Iqbal,

Congratulations! Placed as you are, high up in the hierarchy, I am sure you will be able to do some good.

While doing good, I hope you will effectively deal with sycophancy, the destructive weapon of the low. Somebody has even tried to call you God Almighty (MUSLIM September 6). A blasphemous act by any book, then I suppose you will forgive him. It is not peculiar to our country alone to call somebody God. Many a member of Brooks has entered the club having been awarded the CMG wearing an expression saying “Call Me God”, and when he gets the KCMG, “Kindly Call Me God”, but on trying hard and being elevated to GCMG his expression conveys to those around him that even “God Calls Me God”.

The complaint I make today (No. 001 for identification purposes) is against the Ministry of Information. I charge them with overexposing our President, bringing him and his Government into disrepute and harassing the people in the process.

Please have counted how many times the word “ZIA” appears in the newspapers. And, as if enough is not enough, they headline him over columns unnecessarily. A bus falls into a ravine and “ZIA SHOCKED”, a 98 year old poet dies and “ZIA GRIEVED”, an earthquake in Bulgaria and again “ZIA SHOCKED”; the President of Oongabonga dies (probably of overeating the wrong flesh) and we again read “ZIA GRIEVED”. Rene Frank dies, but the headline reads “ZIA CONDOLES DEATH OF RENE FRANK” (DAWN September 10). Such headlines appear so frequently and repeatedly that we get the impression that we are being ruled by a President in a perpetual state of either shock or grief.

The again, our men of the Ministry forget that Marconi established wireless communication in 1897 and it is times like the present when men like me and many others bring out their transistors and wait for Lillibudero. The BBC said at 0700 on September 11 that the President’s car was stoned at Dadu, that there were disturbances and hostile demonstrations, and that tear gas had to be used. Half an hour later, DAWN and MORNING STAR headlines read “NO POLITICAL UNREST IN SIND SAYS GEN ZIA”. The continuation columns were headed “NO UNREST IN SIND”. Of course, we know that what the BBC says is not gospel, but then its credibility is better than that of our Ministry and its is heard all over the world. It is a very powerful weapon and ways must be thought of to counter whatever they may falsely say. Mere saying that its new head is a Yehudi will not help.

The TV men run a close second. They invariably bring on the President at the wrong time, disrupting people’s expectations. The man who has been waiting to see his favourite serial, or the one good film of the week, is antagonized when Sadar-i-Mumulekat is brought on instead. An incident which you may remember occurred some summers back. For once in its life, PNSC had done something right and bought time to show the Wimbledon finals live. Offices and shops were closed, people stopped doing what they were doing, and then, lo and behold, on came our President and he outlasted the finals. He could have been shown at any other better time, unlike the live Wimbledon finals.

The InfoMin men traditionally contribute largely to their masters’ downfall. You will no doubt remember the Rotiman (the innovator of the Black press laws). He ‘discovered’ the man in Saidu who had heard an ‘avaz’ calling upon him to seek his maker, failing which, his apostle. He then had a great dream which told him he didn’t have to go for there existed such a man in Rawalpindi. Overwhelmed with joy and happiness, the Saidu man spun, wove and stitched a woollen choga and trekked to ‘Pindi’. And the next thing we say on the front page of the PAKISTAN TIMES (a good paper in Mian’s days – MHSRIP) was Ayub Khan wearing that choga which fitted him well - - even the sleeve length was perfect. Then came FRIENDS NOT MASTERS, then “Decade of Development”, and then rot. The Rotiman has gone SOUTH, but word has it that he wants to come home. Lately he lectures our Press extolling the “Freedom of the Press”.

Bhutto’s Nasim Ahmed was no better. By the time he finished, the people were wrought into one. No one, just no one, believed what he made the Press print, or the box say.

At present our media is not beyond redemption. You have got an able Secretary. Your Ministry can perhaps do something.

I hope you are well.

Good wishes

Yours sincerely

Ardeshir Cowasjee

Sardar Mohammad Iqbal



PS: The mail being undependable, perhaps someone would be kind enough to acknowledge receipt of this communication.


(1) The God Calls Me God routine is from Yes, Minister a well known and well-loved satire that, rumour has it, was taken off PTV because it was being taken too seriously!

(2) I have no idea who Rene Frank was/is.

22 June 2011

How Mian Jan got a job

My grandfather, Syed Mahmood Alam, was a tennis player. He has the distinction of playing Wimbledon twice: Once as an Indian and then as a Pakistani.

Few people know that tennis is also how my grandfather landed his first job.

Last night, while I was searching for something else, I came across a note he wrote about how he was hired. I thought I would share it with you.

14 May 2011

The Burning Platform of our Development Challenges

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop’s recent internal memo to his company begins with a story of a man on the platform of a burning oil rig in the North Sea. The man decides to take his chances and jump. In ordinary circumstances, no one would elect to jump into freezing water. But, as Elop explains, the man was not facing ordinary circumstances: The burning platform led to a change in the man’s thinking.

Nokia was the giant in the mobile phone business not five years ago, but has been overtaken by Apple and Android technology and is being undercut by Chinese OEMs that, as Elsop writes, “crank out devices” in “the time it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.”

The “burning platform” memo has become an instant management classic. According to Chris Zeigler in Engadget, a leading industry technology site, “it is one of the most exciting and interesting CEO memos we’ve ever seen.” In the memo, Elop likens Nokia’s position in the market as standing on a burning platform. And he draws attention to why it is necessary for the company to make a radical shift away from the practices that got it to where it was.

The state of our cities is a burning platform and there is an immediate need for reform and shift from the practices that got us to where we are today.

Why are cities important? About 35 percent of Pakistan lives in its urban areas. These urban areas account for nearly 80 percent of GDP yet constitute no more than 3 percent of the country’s overall land mass.

The state of these urban areas is abysmal. In the Punjab, the most populous province, it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of urban residents live in slums or katchi abadis. In Karachi, some argue that almost 70 percent of the people live in slums. One can be forgiven for not noticing: In Lahore, for example, the sprawl is well camouflaged. One third of the city takes up 90 percent of its land mass and one would have to go out of their way to see the conditions the other two-thirds live in. And it’s summer.

The potential of our cities is enormous. If one considers the contribution to the GDP from urban areas, imagine what the economy would be like if cities were more, for lack of a better word, efficient. Imagine how productive our cities would be if their people were allowed to reach their potential.

How can this be done? There are literally hundreds of ways. Mobility is one. Take Lahore, for example. In a city of nearly 10 million, the preliminary report of the ongoing JICA/Government of Punjab Urban Transit Master Plan study reveals that there are, on average, some 9.6 million “trips” a day (a trip is any movement, in whatever mode, which is at least 200 meters). This is an unusually low number for a city the size of Lahore and points to the fact that, because we don’t have public transport and appear to have developed an equally unusual view on the probity of women in public spaces, women are rendered effectively immobile – a violation of one’s Fundamental Right to mobility. Imagine what could happen if safe and respectable options of mobility allowed women to participate in the social and economic life of the city. Imagine what could happen if great public transport erased this prejudice about women in public space. But beyond giving, literally, half the work-force the opportunity to go to work, mobility in cities is crucial for the very reason it allows humans the opportunity and interaction that make cities the unique places of culture and trade that they are today.

Last year, the Planning Commission set up a Task Force on Urban Development under the Chairpersonship of Arif Hasan. Its terms of reference were to see how cities could be made more efficient. The Task Force made three broad recommendations: (1) Amend those urban laws, byelaws and polices that freeze up vast swathes of real estate capital so that land use can freely respond to demand; (2) Promote high-density mixed use city centres; and (3) Ensure public transport provides the human capital in our cities the connectivity, mobility and accessibility they require. In other words, enforce city limits, free up the real-estate capital that’s dormant under old laws and archaic policies and let a well-connected populace do the rest.

The Task Force’s report, which was announced in February of this year (and which hasn’t, unfortunately, seen much of the light of day) was submitted to the Planning Commission and has, in turn, been incorporated it into its new Framework for Economic Growth under the chapter titled “Creative Cities”.

The new Framework is an upgrade of Pakistan’s 10-Year-Plan approach to economic development. The previous platform was a relic of the 1950s whose approach to urban issues was framed in a Pakistan where there was little urbanization. Back then, Pakistan was a rural society with an agricultural economy. According to this world view, the problems of cities – housing, sanitation, employment opportunities, educational institutions, healthcare and recreational facilities – could be solved by providing the necessary infrastructure. According to Muhammad Imran, a transport planning specialist, this paradigm eventually became “path dependent” on your typical investments in hard, grey infrastructure (overpasses, underpasses, ring roads and the like) rather than on investment in green infrastructure (sewage treatment, water filtration) or social capital. This world view has also been taken by Pakistani planners as a means of absorbing millions of consultancy dollars while maintaining, as best as possible, the status quo.

Following the traditional approach to cities is no longer feasible. The current state of and challenges facing Pakistanis living in cities is critical. The traditional approach has been the medicine that’s been tried so far and it is what has gotten us to where we stand today. Our cities, their people and the role they play in the national economy are now complex issues that require innovative and forward thinking policies. The traditional approach has, to use CEO Elsop’s words, “poured gasoline on our own burning platform.”

The new growth strategy understands this and represents a radical shift in how planning in Pakistan – and not just urban planning – is considered. When it comes to cities, the new growth strategy recognizes, at its essence, that cities are places of human interaction; places where people can interact, share ideas and, by doing so, unlock their economic potential. This is just the type of radical thinking that can kick start a new growth process. It’s time for our cities to jump off their burning platform and into a new paradigm of development.

16 February 2011

On Blasphemy

The recent public debate on blasphemy reminded me of an article I wrote, as part of a column called Miscellany-at-Law (A Diversion) that was published, for a while, in The Friday Times around about, I think, 2001/2002. There's an element of time-warp in the column because, I'm posting this on 12 Rabi ul Awwal and there's a cricket World Cup underway (the relevance of this becomes clear because of the case referred to in the last paragraph).

On Blasphemy

Readers will no doubt be aware of the recent violence in Nigeria, precipitated by some unwarranted comments about the Holy Prophet and the contestants of this year’s Miss World competition, scheduled in Lagos on 7 December 2002. The violence protesting against the blasphemous remarks cost some 200 lives, and has resulted in the competition shifting to the safer environs of London.

Readers will also no doubt be aware of the local pathans who had taken umbrage against an allegedly blasphemous letter written in the Frontier Post last year. Their overreaction to this letter has seen the destruction of that newspaper’s offices as well as (non-sequitor) a cinema. The law of blasphemy has had an infamous past in our country, and much has been written about the merits and demerits of this legislation. Notwithstanding the ludicrous over-reaction of the Allah-fearing tribesmen of Peshawar – what with going on a violent rampage when a more dignified response would have been adequate – there have been other occasions where these laws have been pressed into service with amusing (at least in these cases) results.

For example, Muslims are not the only religious community in Pakistan who have been subject to blasphemous remarks. In 1952, an advocate of the Lahore High Court, Khawaja Nazir Ahmad, published a book called “Jesus on Heaven and Earth”. The book was forfeited over a year later by order of the Punjab Government on the grounds that “it was a vituperative attack on four fundamental Christian beliefs.” The book said that “Jesus was born of the wedlock of Mary and Joseph, that he did not die on the cross, but was removed while still alive, that after his wounds had healed, he and his mother went to Muree where the latter died, that thence he proceeded to Kashmir where he also died, that Muree has been named after Mary who grave is also found there, and that the grave of Jesus is in Srinagar.” On a somewhat different note, the narrative of the book resembles the plot of one of Sultan Rahi’s famous films: Hitlar. In it, it is shown that Hitler did not, in fact, commit suicide, but instead retreated to the Punjabi heartland to raise an equally malevolent son.

The case was argued by the Khawaja Nazir Ahmad himself who, as Mr. Justice M.R. Kiyani of the Lahore High Court observed, needed “some little assistance by Mr. Yaqub Ali on the legal issue”. Justice Kiayani went on to describe Nazir Ahmad’s rhetoric as full of “religious fervor, touching occasionally the high-water mark of fanaticism, so essential for a missionary.”

Justice Kiayani found the contents of the book clearly fell into the mischief of section 295-A, but added by way of warning against the misuse of the blasphemy laws that “although the religious beliefs of the Christians have been insulted by this book, it will not be easy to presume on the strength of the words used, that the author had ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging’ their religious feelings. The intention is burdened by so many heavy adjectives that [sic] attack be very clearly abusive, obscene or vulgar before it can cause [sic] mischief of s. 295-A, or to Christians, or indeed to any religious body.”

Justice Kiayani also had a few words to say about the two Christians, Mr. C.E. Gibbon and Mr. S.P. Singha, both representatives of the legislative assembly, who sought to be made party to this case, or for that matter anyone who sought to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy. He felt that the matter was between the government and the publishers. He also had some advice for the government, which had taken two years to take action against the book: “It was unnecessary for Mr. Gibbon to file an affidavit, and it was futile to argue that Mr. Gibbon alone was offended. We do not expect Mr. Gibbon to arm himself with a kirpan and preach violence from the steps of the Assembly building to a very peaceful community. But if we look for resolutions and protests meetings, and processions carrying blackened faces on donkeys and fireworks and tear-gas before we take action, then we foster cold contempt and hatred and sap the foundations of the State.” Words that are relevant even today. (In the matter of the Book “Jesus In Heaven on Earth” and in the matter of Woking Muslim Mission And Literary Trust, Lahore and of the Civil and Military Gazette, Limited, Lahore v. The Crown PLD 1954 Lah 724.)

Even the High and Mighty have not been spared. In the summer of 1977, the Chairman of WAPDA, Maj. Gen. Fazal-i-Raziq gave a rousing speech to the officers of WAPDA, impressing upon them the importance of “haqooq-al-abad”, the need to earn an honest livelihood and to complete Tarbela Dam as early as possible in order to rebuild the economy of the country (the more things change, the more they stay the same…). A few months later, one Riaz Ahmad filed a complaint against the Chairman under section 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code on the grounds that the otherwise innocuous speech was a deliberate and malicious attempt to outrage the religious feelings of the Muslims of Pakistan. The law reports are silent as to his motives, but do disclose that, he had only recently been removed from his post as Superintendent of the WAPDA House in Lahore. Res ipso loquitor.

The complaint was quashed on technical grounds, with the Lahore High Court holding that prosecutions under section 295-A, as per the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, were to be taken up only on the authority of the Federal or Provincial Governments, and not by way of private complaint (Major General Fazal-i-Raziq, Chairman WAPDA v. Ch. Riaz Ahmad PLD 1978 Lah 1082). Readers will be aware that the other sub-sections of section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code do not have such a safety provision, rendering the legislation susceptible to the abuse of private individuals. Readers will also remember that attempts to modify these laws in order to make blasphemy prosecutions the sole responsibility of the Government have been met with violence, much like that seen in Peshawar recently.

More recently, however, even the publishers of the Holy Quran have not been spared against allegations of blasphemy. In the case of M.M.K.A. Zai v. The Director General FIA (PLD 1988 Kar 505), the Taj Company itself was accused of blasphemy. The petitioner found that some of the hard-cover bindings of the Holy Quran hid “nude and indecent pictures” (what the Petitioner was doing ripping up covers of the Holy Quran was not questioned during proceedings), and sought the Company to be tried under section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code. An investigation of the Taj Company’s premises revealed three more Qurans containing “objectionable material”. Even the Taj Company was stumped.

Subsequent FIA investigations revealed that in 1980, the Company had placed an order of 12,500 copies of the Holy Quran from an Italian firm, If-Ghifo of Milan. This Italian concern, as things turned out, must not have been aware of the purpose for which they were being asked to prepare the bindings for so many books, and had used material from old art magazines. That explained the nudies. Justice Sajjad Ali Shah (as he was then) of the Sindh High Court held that as nobody in Pakistan was blame for this reprehensible act, and as the Taj Company was taking the necessary steps to recall the books, no legal action was needed.

Discerning readers will also be aware that M.M.K.A. Zai is one of the first public interest litigants in the country. In 1988, he filed a writ in the Sindh High Court, attempting to ban the broadcast of the semi-finals of the Reliance Cup (M.M.K.A. Zai v. Incharge, Pakistan Television Corporation Ltd. PLD 1988 Kar 307). He contended that the date of the match coincided with 12 Rabi-ul-Awal, and good Muslims should be “reciting Darood, Salaam and Naats” on that auspicious occasion rather than being distracted by cricket. Religious fervor must have made him overlook the venue of the match: Bombay. Dismissing the petition, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, no doubt a cricket-lover, observed that Bombay “is not only outside the territorial jurisdiction of this High Court but it is also outside the country.” Case dismissed.


For anyone's who's got this far, two confessions:

First, that the name of the column, Miscellany-at-Law was shamelessly lifted by me from the name of the wonderful series of diversions on the law by R.E. Megarry, V-C. Megarry's wit and marvellous grasp of legal trivia made, in many ways, my understanding of the law easier and infinitely more fun. In defence to any charges of plagiarism, I will happily reply by stating that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Second, almost every one of the articles I wrote in this series of columns, and I think they were over two-dozen, give or take, began with "On". Thus On Blasphemy or On Goondas or On Honour Killings and so on. I ascribed to this pretentious affectation because, I confess, of a great admiration of The Master Essayist himself, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne started each of his essays (other than An Apology for Raymon Seybond) with "On", I was only happy enough to pretend to I could do so too.