Pakistan’s Great Humanitarian 

Abdul Sattar #Edhi was the greatest humanitarian Pakistan has ever had. He was mortal, he’d leave us one day. But I hope his legacy of giving shelter to the rejected women, abandoned children, and the dejected elderly citizens of this country would stay. He also cared for those whose lives were taken in such gruesome acts of violence that their own loved ones could not reach out to them. And also to those who had no relatives to bury them in their final resting place. He was a father to millions of lives who were ignored by the state and this society equally, that he took the onerous task of filling the very deep void left by the state, of looking after its citizens so well. Rest in Peace Abdul Sattar Edhi.


Peshawar school attack was for us, not for our children

December 16. A date that will forever be a grisly reminder in the history of Pakistan when innocent school children fell prey to a worse form of terror.

Those visuals are ingrained in my mind. Mothers running to the attacked school in despair, then running to the Lady Reading Hospital to check whether their child had escaped the terrorists’ bullets. It was a horrid day when the grief of those ill-fated parents, their innocent children, and those children’s hapless teachers was felt severely as I sat mum in front of the TV. Unevenly gasping and praying for God’s mercy and ease of the unfathomable pain that had been inflicted on all of them. Those moments of fright pierced their way through the insensitivity in me that had gradually developed with frequent acts of terror in our country. I am mentioning this as a confession that on December 16, I acknowledged the essence of these words: “thoughts and prayers”. The days that followed – as shocking stories of courage and trauma came in from the survivors and the martyrs’ homes – were cold and heavy. Yet, surely not as much onerous as it was for those who received bullets, survived that hell of terror while trying to save each other, and exceptionally those who were gathering the courage to live without their loved ones. Children lost their parents; parents had lost their children. Many lives, devastated forever. As I write this, and December 16 comes closer, I feel a familiar mixed feeling of sorrow and inner outrage returning.

This December while everyone commemorates – in their own various capacities – last year’s hell that broke loose collectively on us, a photo published in a mainstream newspaper on Dec 9 also caught my attention. The image featured a performance by elementary school children re-enacting the Army Public School Peshawar attack as homage to the martyrs and survivors. One tries to gauge the purpose of such an activity for school children. At another instance, as one had expected, news reporters and cameramen visiting schools again this year and inquiring those schoolchildren how they felt after a year has passed. But it does not end here. I came across the irresponsible hash tag trend on Twitter, #NanhaySipahiZindaHain. ‘Hashtaggers’ fail to understand that parents sent their children to school for learning, not for a battle. They were not soldiers, but students. And most significantly, the new video song of children singing again and pledging to take revenge by teaching the children of the enemy. Even if this is a morale building method or tactic, do we really want our children to be on the frontline?

neverforget1Why are we expecting school children to never forget what happened to their age fellows when they went to school on December 16? Children who are too young to carry this weight of constant fear. Should it not fall only on the adults to never forget the APS attack, and on the state machinery and policymakers, to act for prevention from terror incidents in the future? Or, is it just aimed at sending a strong message to the terrorists – whoever and wherever they are – that our children have a tough resolve and will not be deterred? My persistent question is, why putting it on children when their elders should have a tough resolve instead, in the form of Zarb-e-Azb and thoroughly transparent implementation of the National Action Plan?

In my opinion, all the adults of Pakistan must pause for a moment and think upon this matter more responsibly. An evident intent of the APS massacre was to induce fear in the nation’s mind. Quite clearly, making schoolchildren recite poems, sing songs, write essays, do theatrical re-enactments of a horrendous day of this country’s history is only embedding it as scars into their memory.

School administrations ought to be strictly advised by all the provincial education departments to allow recreation like sports, science projects and other cheerful activities that help them leave behind – if not erase completely, at least diminish – the gloomy memories of the young survivors. They lost their friends at the age when friendship is at its purest form. It is a distasteful thought to expect children to recall tragedies that, in the first place, should have been kept discreet from them. Army Public School Peshawar massacre must always be remembered, never forgotten, but without zooming in its focus on the minors. This deserves to be treated as an increasingly sensitive matter. My heartfelt and sincerest prayers continuously go out to the parents and children whose burden of grief has not lessened even as a year has gone by, after they and many others like them lost their worlds in various terror attacks.

neverforget3Dear Pakistan, #NeverForgetAPS is for us to remember, not for our children. Help them, and let them forget it.


The Protocol Conundrum

The not-so-deeply buried VIP Culture debate hops out and about into the national discourse every few months. In this quarter, it has acquired a legislative dimension, initiating when a political resolution was tabled to be passed in the upper house of the Parliament.

This cacophony picked the beat when a few lawmakers lobbied to get a resolution passed to permit their immediate family members to board airplanes without going through security checks at airports. Although they were forced to withdraw from the resolution amid bitter criticism from varied factions, this matter leads one to debate on the necessity of protocols.

The public holds a very strong opinion against VIP culture. One often comes across posts shared on social media promoting how heads of states in the global north or west travel in subway trains like normal citizens instead of commuting through luxury cars and how we lack in maintaining similar standards of equality in our own country. This is partly thanks to the VIP culture itself for longer and unanticipated hours of waiting on roads. And then the politics against VIP culture that have confused the public even more, so much so that they are seldom able to make a distinction between these two: VIP protocol and Security protocol.

Security protocols are a need of the time. It is the repercussion of a protracted conflict and consequence of the ongoing instability in Afghanistan-Pakistan region. One can take a pause and rewind back to the events of a few decades ago. As of now, security protocols are viewed as a lavish facility provided to the bigwigs of our country – a wastage of the taxpayers’ money. The claim can be partially valid, to the point of taxpayers’ money. It is also true that personalities provided with the protocols are elected by the people and come into the system to ‘serve’ Pakistan and its people. But just as such VIPs have crucial responsibilities, their protection and safety is also very critical for us, our future. Since they are soft targets during their time in office, the terrorists intend to create a momentum and bigger impact of damage by targeting high profile figures. When the leaders are targeted, the morale of the work force under them also suffers inevitably. The most recent reference can be taken from the terror incident in Attock, and the unfortunate demise of Punjab’s gallant Home Minister Shuja Khanzada. After Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour, and the tragedy of losing Ms. Benazir Bhutto in 2007. The attacks on all these personalities have been huge blows and are widely perceived as a demoralizing tactic. All these leaders were assassinated in the aftermath of thin security measures at the time of the attack.

bb convoy

Political leaders and other high profile figures shy away from identifying lapses in their security protocols because this issue has been getting a constant hype. Public opinion on security protocols has become evident quite rapidly. After the attack on Shuja Khanzada and eighteen others with him, a young member of the Parliament commended the former’s valour on social media: Mr Khanzada had commuted without an armoured car, they praised.

It is needless to narrate the indisputable role the slain Home Minister has played in going after militant groups throughout Punjab, while leading the Counter Terrorism Department of the police from the front. Punjab, in fact, the whole of Pakistan still needed his leadership. Mr Khanzada’s title and office deserved the security that was missing at that particular time, and there is no wisdom in taking pride on that pretext. It was a huge security lapse and must be treated as such. At another occasion, when the Chief Justice Jawad S. Khawaja swore oath to the office in August ’15, he refused to accept the security protocols that came with it.

Can we risk losing the incumbent public figures at the expense of protocol politics and creating a bigger vacuum in our national leadership? As a matter of fact, those who use the protection of notable persons or their security protocols as a political card deepen the confusion among their supporters and the public at large because VIP protocols and security protocols are two different things. Critics of security protocols should reconsider their priorities in politics. Henceforth, it should be made a requisite for the office bearers to be cautious about their security matters and comply with the protocols being regulators of our state machinery. In the meantime, others should refrain from encouraging the practice of VIP culture/protocols.ghulam ahmad bilour

Published on December 1, 2015 – The Nation

The ethics of discussion

Recently, I was discussing the government’s pilot plan to shut commercial businesses by 9pm in Islamabad and replicating the model in other cities of Pakistan – a venture to save energy for the summer season. The discussion turned into a debate between supporters and critics of this policy. Which ever group was on the right side, what bothered me enough was their self righteous attitude. Each one of us tends to do this in routine discussions.

To move forward with discussions or find solutions, rule number one is to “Listen to others”. I see this everywhere. Quite frequently, I see this on the television when every representative of a political party or an organisation tries to assert themselves and their opinions forcefully. One cannot ever get to solutions with such an attitude — probably that is why we have not reached to enough solutions as yet.

More than listening to the other person’s contrasting opinions, participants focus on winning the show by proving the other person wrong. In reality, when people listen to us, they are valuing our opinion and expecting the same. However, most of us take this positive attitude as the other party’s weakness and involuntarily, push them to not let us speak; and break into their unfinished sentences while they speak. During the debate on timings of commercial sites, the supporters were talking, the opposers were not listening to them but preparing for a biting comeback. Hence, the dialogue was not really a dialogue but a quest to prove the opponents wrong, and by all means. Had they listened to the other group’s argument, it would have at least made them feel better.

Rule number two, “Never hit on personal grounds”.The moment one enters personal boundaries of a discussant – while deviating from the given topic – it does not just give a clear signal of debating ethics being violated but also shows the tendency of bearing weak arguments that need “protection with deviation technique”, to save oneself from the embarrassment of lacking in logical arguments. We all remember how a female minister (Firdaus Ashiq Awan) disgraced herself by attacking another female politician (Kashmala Tariq) on a talk show. Well, the minister lost in her constituency in the next general elections too.

Rule number three, “Keep your cool”. The bitter truth is, if you lost your temper while conveying your idea or defying – in your opinion – the wrong idea, your argument was probably toothless from the beginning — you just proved it so. You lost your temper because you felt hopeless in convincing them. In short, you proved your failure.

Debates; dialogues; discussions; are fruitful interactions to learn from each other but generally these interactions are looked down at as a wastage of time and energy. “No discussion on politics or religion” often written on fraternity pages and brochures. There has been a reduction in entertaining focus groups or circles as such for the sole reason of having a narrow opinion that it will end up in scuffles. Observe the etiquettes of dialogue and share your knowledge and experience with each other.

Published on July 1, 2015 – The Nation

Oxygen Shots: filling the green policy void?

After smoking sheesha, taking oxygen shots has emerged as a new trend, with its influence in Pakistan as well. Recently, Lahore district coordination officer (DCO) initiated a crackdown on cafe’s serving oxygen shots with glass cylinders and plastic cannula inserted in the inhalers’ nostrils. The Lahore High Court has termed oxygen shots as injurious to health to the verge of having fatal consequences. A person inhales 21 percent of oxygen concentration in the air, whereas, these oxygen cylinders have oxygen concentration up to 95 percent. This excess intake without significant medical purposes leads to lungs injury. Oxygen shots are hazardous for health, but so is the severe absence of natural oxygen factories – the trees.

As active citizens are we worrying about our health as much we think about designer outfits and fancy weddings? We have not had a national plantation drive for years. Although political figures do hold small scale symbolic plantation events in their vicinity but do we have long term national goals with regard to the green policy? Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf vows to bring a ‘billion trees tsunami’ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as a tier to its green policy. The provincial government has announced a five year tree plantation drive despite being relatively less populated and bearing forests up north. It also plans to convert forests into three national parks. According to statistics by Trading Economics: In 1998, around 3 percent of Pakistan’s land was consumed by forests, whereas, it was reduced to only 2 percent by year 2010. Unabated deforestation would make it worse over the years. Ideally, a country should have 15 percent of its land area occupied with forests. While only Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government alleges to increase its forests by 27,000 acres land every year. Pakistan is a country of almost 200 million people who need sufficient oxygen in the air to live a healthy life. Among many other environmental problems and health hazards, breast cancer – which has genetic reasons too – is spreading as a rampant epidemic due to our atmosphere polluted with greenhouse gases. On an average, neighbourhoods of 200 residents, have only five trees to consume carbon dioxide and supply oxygen in return. Drastic climatic changes over the years and fluctuating temperatures are an aftermath of burnt trees and deforestation – because trees are active regulators of climate and temperatures.

The government and planners need to realise that the public has a fundamental right to inhale natural oxygen. Are the other provincial governments doing enough for sufficient oxygen demands of their population? Making flyovers, metro bus transport system, and roads is certainly an indispensable obligation for development. However, the softer part of development should not be neglected either. Apart from going after illegal cutting down of trees, significant attention to plantation of trees and maintenance of green belts in densely populated cities is direly needed. We need clean air to save our lives, stay a healthy nation and cope with the world. The government cannot do it all alone, citizens would have to own this issue equally and raise voice for their surroundings.


An Evening in Naya Pakistan

After August, September, and October passed by, I finally made an investigative visit to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Azaadi Dharna, as they call it.

The very first thing that shook me was the dug up road – in an effort to make a metro bus stop – at the end of Jinnah Avenue, the capital’s main road reaching out to Parliament House. The next blow were the wrecked traffic signals and trash, proof of a shambles adjacent to the Parliament Lodges. This was one of those rare moments when I had felt pity on the members of national assembly who stayed there. The sharp, pungent smell of human excretion hit me as a final blow. IMG_5066-0Yet, I carried on walking till the Parliament lodges gate and moved to its opposite side into a fortified ‘Naya Pakistan’ with huts sparsely scattered; five of them naming the four provinces of Pakistan, including Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the first aroma that stimulated my sense of smelling were the fresh popcorns from a “Go Nawaz Go” cart. Next, I heard a chaye wala calling out from his lungs “Go Nawaz Go Chaye, Go Nawaz Go Chaye” and a face painter followed with two pots of red and green, all set to paint faces even for free — at least pretending not to charge. And so were the azadi props – mufflers, dupattas, hats – on display to be sold to PTI supporters alias protesters or dharna attenders.

Naya Pakistan fortified town has everything that a community needs. A first aid camp, a mosque, the food carts, tents to sleep in, chairs, but what it doesn’t have, is toilets. People highly rely on bushes in the outskirts of the dharna site. Colourful banners in all shapes and sizes, congratulating Imran Khan for a “record breaking protest” are displayed by the party MNA’s from different constituencies. The area in front of the container truck is divided into sections for ladies only at the front, families on its right, television channel cameras behind the ladies section and then the men anywhere at the rear. Family and ladies sections were empty-chaired at 5 pm. The show begins when Mr Khan returns from Bani Gala in the evening. Supporters start approaching the site, and who are already there, start ringing those yet to arrive, to hurry because the showstopper has showed up on the container with his men. Television channels vans enter the site with the party’s central leadership in the evening. Cameras are set up, the LED screen truck then starts, playing clips aimed at exposing sitting ministers or former office bearers. “Go Nawaz Go” slogans are chanted by elders and kids with shared enthusiasm in intervals after speeches and comments on excerpts taken from talk shows – the video clips. The only different thing that has changed in these three months, is the PTI songs that played as background music, were replaced with Naats during the holy month of Muharram.

One assesses, the zeal that once-upon-a-time existed at D-Chowk, does not belong there anymore. It happens to be an abandoned little town during the day, lit up for a few hours at dusk. What ever fate the sit-in bears, it has certainly lost support in the capital. Since, its residents casted at least sixty thousand votes in favour of PTI in May 2013 elections. Furthermore, it does not deserve to be called a sit-in when party leadership keeps visiting the besieged space for only a few hours every day. It could be called a series of political rallies taking place for the last three months.

P.S They say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, therefore, I also had my customised painting done. Thanks to the paint-wala.IMG_5063-0.JPG

Disclaimer: These are the writer’s own opinions. The writer does not represent any political party.