Remembering Kuldip Nayar, journalist, activist, peacemonger

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A precious photo: Kuldip Nayar, Nandita Das and Asma Jahangir at Wagah border. Photo: courtesy Seema Mustafa, The Citizen

I was sad to hear about the passing away of veteran journalist and peacemonger Kuldip Nayar, 95, in Delhi. His passing in general evoked great sadness — as well as a resolve to keep working for his values — not only in India but the land of his birth, Pakistan. I had got to know Kuldip ji over the years through the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) that I joined as a young journalist from Lahore when it was launched in 1994-95, as the largest people-to-people organization between the two countries. The last time I met him was at Allahabad train station a few years ago. The lawyer S.M.A. Kazmi and our family friend Zia ul Haq — the comrade, not the general, himself now over 90 were dropping me off and picking him up. He got the surprise of his life. We didn’t have much time to chat as my train was about to leave but I treasure that memory.

Sharing here the two pieces I put together for Aman Ki Asha (hope for peace), the India-Pakistan website I edit. One is pegged on a tribute from Dr Syeda Hameed in Delhi his long-time friend and fellow-activist, former member of the Planning Commission of India and founder trustee of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) and the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation. She aptly termed him the “gentle giant of India Pakistan peace” in her wonderful piece in The Citizen. See also her account of the Aman Dost Yatra (peace and friendship march) at the border. In the other piece, I put together other tributes paid to him by Pakistanis.

Here are links to both pieces: Remembering the ‘gentle giant of India Pakistan peace’,  and Pakistanis pay tribute to Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar.

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(L-R) Dr Syeda Hameed, Navaid Hamid, Kuldip Nayar, Maulana Syed Jalauddin Umari. File photo – Indiatomorrow.ne.

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Bangladesh #FreeShahidul – my opinion piece in Washington Post yesterday

Shahidul Alam in Central Park, New York, 2012. Photo: Beena Sarwar

The Washington Post published my opinion piece about Shahidul yesterday. Below, a slightly earlier version of the final edited piece for those unable to access WP.

Here’s why Bangladesh made a huge mistake by jailing Shahidul Alam

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Khan, Sidhu, Vajpayee, and India Pakistan relations

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Navjot Singh Sidhu has a visa to attend Imran Khan’s swearing in ceremony. Why can’t visas be easy for everyone? Image courtesy: CatchNews

August 17 this year marks 30 years since the mid-air explosion that killed the military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988. This year, Zia’s death anniversary ironically took a back seat to the election of the country’s new prime minister. Today, the 342-seat National Assembly voted on the prime minister, who of course was Imran Khan. His speech and that of Shahbaz Sharif were sadly marred by sloganeering in the gallery from their opponents. Everyone listened attentively to Bilawal Bhutto’s maiden speech in parliament – well spoken, reminded the speaker and prime minister-elect of their responsibilities and paid tribute to those who have given their lives for democracy. Very much hope both PTI and PML-N observe more decorum in coming sessions. Also worth listening to: Mohsin Dawar’s maiden speech, courageously calling for accountability beyond politicians and parliament. Tomorrow, Imran Khan’s oath-taking ceremony will be attended, among others, by Indian Punjab minister for culture and tourism, Navjot Singh Sidhu, himself a former cricketer. That, and former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s passing away yesterday are sharp reminders of the urgent need for peace between the two countries. I wrote about Vajpayee and his significance in terms of this issue for the India Today Group Digital, published in Daily O today (text below).  Whatever his flaws and political moorings, when it came to building peace in the region, Vajpayee showed the kind of moral courage and political will that today’s leaders would do well to learn from.

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Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy among writers, artists urging Bangladesh #FreeShahidul

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Academics, writers, artists and journalists around the world , including Noam Chomsky, Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Patrick Farrell, celebrated writers Arundhati Roy and Bapsi Sidhwa, artist and daughter of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz Salima Hashmi, historian Ayesha Jalal, Urvashi Butalia, and others from Harvard to UC San Diego, have urged the Bangladesh government to free the detained photojournalist Shahidul Alam, picked up on 5 August — see statement and endorsements below. See also eminent photographer Raghu Rai’s powerful open letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. and the Change.org petition urging Dhaka police to drop charges and release him.

Shahidul Alam’s detention underlines the growing crackdown on dissenting voices in Bangladesh, in a pattern that is visible elsewhere too. The court denied him bail and gave the  police a seven-day remand. This was subsequently reduced and the court ordered that Shahidul be sent to a hospital and given an immediate medical exam and treatment. However, at the time of writing (Aug 7), he is still at the Detective Branch and has not been moved to hospital. (UPDATE Aug 8: He was moved to hospital amid tight security and a few medical tests conducted. His family was allowed to visit him before he was taken back to the DB Special Branch centre).
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My take on Pakistan’s elections: Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event

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In March this year, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan welcomed Aamir Liaquat Hussain into his political party. Aamir Liaquat will now represent NA-245 Karachi-I East-IV in the National Assembly. Naya Pakistan?

Below, something I wrote for The Print, published 31 July 2018 under the title Those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi shouldn’t be dismissed as bigots or sexist. I began writing it last week but was too caught up in my nephew’s wedding festivities to complete it earlier. But the break was helpful in gaining a better perspective. Some of my conversations with other wedding guests who are staunch PTI supporters (and there were many) inform this piece on why Pakistan should learn a lesson from what not to do from USA and India, and why dismissing those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi (or Trump) as bigots or sexist avoids the real issues – something Ayesha Siddiqa takes up in her excellent piece, in The Wire, Pakistan’s Middle Class Awaits a Miracle. The only point I’d add to her article is that Imran Khan’s support comes not just from the youth but also plenty of middle-aged aunties and uncles who gained political consciousness during the Musharraf ‘benign dictator’ years. My unedited Print piece below with a couple of videos from my Al Jazeera interviews ahead of elections, and a post-election podcast in Himal Southasian

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/477025080&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

Beena Sarwar

As dust from Pakistan’s general elections settles, this is a good time to look at the bigger picture and take stock of what has happened and what is likely to happen. It is also time to re-assert that democracy is messy business, that it is a process, not an event, and that controlled democracy, while not quite democracy, is better than dictatorship. In short, it’s complicated.

Despite the surface optics, this may well be the best of times for Pakistan. A time of despair, but also uplifting. The country is moving in the right direction politically, but the process is marred by interference from within and outside its borders.

Noteworthy within the larger picture is that Pakistan has recently completed an important cycle in the democratic political process: the peaceful transition of power from one elected government that completed its tenure, to the next — only the second time in the country’s history that this has happened.

The first time was when the government elected in 2008 (the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, PPP) handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N). Both governments completed their tenures despite noisy, distracting opposition often seen to have military support.

Now, the PML-N is handing over power to cricket legend Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“movement for justice”, PTI). Most political parties have rejected the election results but hopefully they will stay in the system. As Benazir Bhutto once said, “Boycott, and then what?”

There are many factors behind the election – or “selection” — results.

Firstly, there is Imran Khan’s charisma coupled with his emotive rhetoric that appeals to many who came to political consciousness during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008). They include youth as well as adults who initially supported the “liberal” dictator seen as symbolising a change in ideology from his predecessor Gen. Ziaul Haq’s oppressive rule (1977-1988).

Coupled with this is disillusionment with the old political parties – “desperation” as one PTI supporter put it. PTI’s slogan “Tabdeeli” (change) and its anti-corruption rhetoric speaks to the desire for change among such people.

These factors together could well have made PTI to be the election frontrunner in any case. But the process was not allowed to take place on its own. Various other elements pushed the PTI past the finish line further and faster than it may have reached on its own.

These include massive, unprecedented censorship in the run up to the 2018 elections that helped forge a narrative loaded in favour of PTI. Journalists, particularly in the broadcast media, were forced to not only virtually black out PPP and PML-N, but also mention their leadership only in a negative light. Of course, the dominant narrative does not determine how people vote – party loyalists will vote for their party regardless — but it certainly can influence the undecided voter or one who is on the fence.

My take on the upcoming Pakistan polls – Beena Sarwar on Al Jazeera, 22 July 2018 from beena sarwar on Vimeo.

Additionally, the judiciary was deployed to disqualify candidates belonging to these parties. Further, candidates (especially from PML-N) were threatened, coerced or blackmailed into giving up their party tickets at the eleventh hour and either withdrawing from the race or contesting as independents.

Perhaps the most significant factor behind the electoral results is the lack of electoral transparency and post-polling manipulations. Polling agents in dozens of stations were not allowed to be present for the vote counting. Many also complained of not being provided copies of Form 45, a document containing data about each candidate, names as well as how many votes they received, to be signed by Returning Officers and polling staff after the vote count.

Results for some constituencies came in an unprecedented 72 hours after polling ended, causing further suspicions about this most “rigg-orous” election process as the columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sarcastically termed it.

Significantly, all the parties except for PTI have complained of these manipulations and irregularities. Imran Khan has magnanimously promised to look into all electoral complaints. Not a word about the censorship and other pre-poll manipulations.

But whatever the factors behind PTI’s electoral win, Pakistan must ride this wave. There are positives to focus on and strengthen, for example, the clear desire for change among the people – beyond the superficial “tabdeeli” promised by PTI. These aspirations have led to the emergence of some promising electoral candidates, including women and representatives of religious communities other than Muslim. Some have won provincial and national assembly seats against daunting odds. Others, even if like the lawyer Jibran Nasir in Karachi did not win, continue to challenge the dominant narrative, raising important questions about identity, inclusion and pluralism.

It is in fact such real changes taking place on the ground that are so threatening to the establishment and the politico-religious forces. Citizens are no longer satisfied with treading the path they are expected to follow because of where they were born and into which community. A groundswell of growing awareness about basic rights and human dignity is leading more and more individuals to reject the old order and to cross or aspire to cross socio-economic, class, caste and gender barriers.

This is the real “tabdeeli” that is taking place, regardless of Imran Khan’s rhetoric. Changes on the ground will continue to challenge the status quo in ways that only make news when there is violence.

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Indian PM Modi and US President Trump: elected leaders riding the waves of fear of change, much like Imran Khan. File photo.

As Pakistan braces for the next phase in its polity, there are lessons to be learnt from countries like India and USA where fear of change has led to the emergence of similar ‘strongman’ leadership.

Those who voted for Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not all bigots, misogynists or racists. Many are just ordinary people desperate for “better days” and to make their country “great again”. This is not too dissimilar from Imran Khan’s supporters seeking “change”.

Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event. And so we continue to march along that road.

On the run up to the Pakistan elections – Beena Sarwar on Al Jazeera NewsHour, 22 July 2018 from beena sarwar on Vimeo.

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In New York, a unique India-Pakistan art exhibit

I wrote this after attending the opening of a powerful group exhibition of Pakistani and Indian artists in New York; published in The News on Sunday and Aman Ki Asha. The show is up until 28 July; must-see if you’re in the area.

In New York, a unique India-Pakistan art exhibit

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Exhibit entrance: Shehnaz Ismail: What have they done to my land? 2018, Natural dyes hand woven fabric embroidered with natural dyed yarn, lentils and Tulsi seeds. Steel barbed wire, 63 x 29 in

Pale Sentinels: Metaphors for Dialogues
Curated by Salima Hashmi
June 28 – July 28, 2018
Aicon Gallery, 35 Great Jones St., New York.

A thought-provoking Pakistan-India art exhibition that opened 28 June in New York City has its genesis in a conversation last year in Lahore, between an Indian origin professor in his avatar as an art gallery owner and a Pakistani artist.

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Attempts to Maneuver Polls Unacceptable: HRCP

The narrative being peddled in Pakistan through social media and Whatsapp, is one, that the politicians are totally corrupt and the Army is the only institution worth supporting. And second, even if the army has been interfering, it is “no longer an Army with a ‘security mindset’,” as one long message being circulated puts it, but “truly a national army, which has come of age”. Along the way, it “has become the fourth pillar in our country with influence far beyond its mandate. Something not to relish and a sad reality”. According to this narrative, “a strong, democratic, well governed and corruption free Pakistan is a political death warrant for Nawaz and Zardari”. And since the army is there to stay and “if Imran wins, this will be the first time in Pakistan’s civilian history that we will have this strategic alignment between these key State institutions which matter”.

Dept of political engineering

The satirical caption for this photo above is an example of the satire with which Pakistanis are countering the manipulations. Another satirical caption for this photograph is “Election Commission of Pakistan”. Wonder why many are taking such satire literally?

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. I believe that such a “strategic alignment” will backfire. Controlled democracy is not democracy. You can’t put the people’s democratic aspirations back in the bottle. If Imran Khan wins, it will be a win orchestrated by muzzling the media in an unprecedented way, threatening, killing and terrorising opponents, and mainstreaming hardliners along the India model as I wrote recently. And look what’s happening in India. A democratic, well governed, and corruption free Pakistan is a death warrant not just for the individual politicians named but also for the boots.

Below, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan‘s statement on the “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections” . Note: Please also see this  HRCP pre-poll monitoring form 2018 based on:

  1. Local news reports (print, radio and TV) about the area in which you live.
  2. Your own observations of the area in which you live (for example, candidates’ rallies, campaign banners, meetings with candidates).
  3.  Reliable observations of the area from other people (preferably, with supporting evidence).

Please send your completed copy of this form and any other supporting evidence (for example, photographs) of pre-poll irregularities to:

  1. Email: elections.hrcp@gmail.com
  2. Mobile/WhatsApp: 0332 430 4656
  3. Fax: 042 3588 3582

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