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Sunday, 15 November 2009

My observations of Pakistan

Democracy in Pakistan Despite the fact that Pakistan has been governed for many years by military rulers in its 62-year history it is regarded as one of the most democratic countries in the third world.

Currently about 60 private TV channels are active in the country and thereby different voices have found an opportunity to air their views.

Surprisingly, such a blossom of media started growing during the rule of Pervez Musharraf, a general who ruled the country for eight years.

Sometimes a TV channel maybe provisionally banned but it is still allowed to resume broadcasts.

Pakistani officials believe that in a climate of media freedom people will gradually realize who is right and who is wrong.

However, running an independent media in a relatively conservative society like Pakistan is not an easy task and journalists should be very careful not to antagonize some segments of the society. At the same time print and electronic media must arrange well-thought-out programs and dialogues to root out ideas that may give rise to extremism.

Qamar Zaman Kaira, the federal minister for information and broadcasting, told the Iranian journalists that media in a young democracy like Pakistan will mature over time and learn how to proceed. However, he agreed with the view that a relentless broadcasting of bomb blasts by so many different TV channels can depress people.

Intelligent and politically aware people

In general Pakistani people, like all other people in the subcontinent, enjoy a rather high IQ with the difference that Pakistanis are also very politically-minded people. Probably one of the main reasons that the society is receptive to the growth of private media is that public is sensitive toward political events in their country and in outside world.

People are very curious about the developments in the Islamic world particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, India-ruled Kashmir, etc. They may not have access to reliable information about certain events outside their country but they follow news and give their analyses of events.

In a political debate with a person in Islamabad I was surprised by his information about political events in India, Iran, China, Afghanistan, etc.

Being gifted with such a talented people, who most of them can also speak English, Pakistan can emerge as an economically prosperous nation if it can succeed to end political instability, chronic corruption, and extremism.

Mixed feelings toward India

On rivalry with India there is a mixed reaction.

Some Pakistanis make reasonable complaints against India. They say that any incident that happens in India officials there make no hesitation to blame Pakistan.

For example, Fariha Razak Haroon, a former lawmaker and senior journalist from GEO TV and Jang Group, said: “Even if an earthquake happens in India they say Pakistan is responsible.”

Logically speaking it is not sensible to think that Pakistan, which itself is a victim of terrorism and caught in an unprecedented war against terrorists, will instigate terrorism in India.

Some people also made reasonable complaints about gross human rights violations in the Indian-ruled Kashmir. However, I did not have any answer to them.

A person also said their forefathers suffered greatly at the hands of Hindu extremists. I said I agree with what you say but the current generation in India is not responsible for what the previous generations did. I said we must build on the future.

Pakistanis also say India is spending billions of dollars on military projects while Pakistan’s defense budget is too low in comparison to India. I argued that Pakistanis should not think that India’s military expenditure is merely aimed at Pakistan since India also considers China as a main rival.

To everyone whom I talked to I insisted that it is essentially important that Pakistan and India end bitter their rivalry. I repeatedly said that Pakistan and India are members of one family with numerous things in common.

The fact is that both India and Pakistan have been taken hostage by the Kashmir dispute. While millions of people are living in abject poverty in the two countries they are spending billions of dollars on arms purchases.

Some technocrats and intellectuals also believe that Pakistan should focus on economic development of the country. They believe that the main threat to the country is extremism and not the dispute over Kashmir.

For example, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer says, “All the warlords in Afghanistan and tribal lords in Wazirstan are very primitive people. We have nothing in common with them while we have lot of things common with India.”

Talking with the Tehran Times and two other newspapers from Iran in his office on October 20, the Punjab governor said, “We have territorial disputes with India but there are not other major problems with India. We have a lot of shared history with India. Most of the people of Karachi came from India. There are many families in Pakistan whose relatives are still in India. There are as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan.

“Pakistan and India have an old relationship. We have economic interests with India. We have lot in common with India. We have territorial disputes with India but they can be settled.”

Announcing his prediction that the dispute with India would be finally resolved, he said, “China had territorial disputes with India. In fact China had more territorial disputes than any country in the world, with Cambodia, with Vietnam, with Russia … and they sorted them out because the only way forward is economic way.”

Salmaan Taseer believes that the main battle today is at the economic front.

“If you win the economic war you win the political war,” the businessman-turned-politician explained.

Punjab’s top official added, “Only Third World countries fight over territory; first world countries do not fight over territory; they fight over research, over economics, over ideas.”

The scholarly governor added, “Since the World War Second there have not been territorial wars in Europe. They don't want to fight over territory. Fighting over territory is a Third World concept. We have to solve our problems with India because we want to win the economic war not territorial war.”

He agreed with the idea that there are some elements in both Pakistan and India which constantly fan the flames of nationalism and rivalry between the two countries.

When I was coming out of Governor Taseer’s office I told myself: We had a better world if countries were ruled by persons such as the Punjab governor.

Flag ceremony at Wagah Border

A really interesting event is the Flag Ceremony at Wagah Border (Pakistan’s border with India). Visitors from each side of the border come to see the ceremony which happens every day before sunset.

This ceremony which has the potential to receive many tourists around the world can be turned into a friendly scene between the two sides of the subcontinent. The slogan “Long Live Pakistan” by Pakistani citizens and “Long Live India” by Indians on other side of the border can be changed into “Long Live Pakistan and India”.

Religion should not divide people in any part of the world, let alone the people of Pakistan and India who share many things in common: Common race, language, culture, and physical appearance.

Great love for Quaid-e Azam

After more than 60 years since independence there are still strong feelings toward Mohammad Ali Jinnah, known as Quaid-e Azam (Great Leader) in Pakistan, the founder and father of Pakistan.

Quaid-e Azam’s mausoleum in Karachi is open to the public. People pray at his tomb and also visit a museum just nearby displaying his pictures, meetings, clothes, automobile, etc.

As I was looking at the pictures I saw a photo of Quaid-e Azam with Mahatma Gandhi. I told our tour guide that if Quaid-e Azam and Gandhi were alive today they would have never approved of bitter rivalry existing between India and Pakistan which is consuming a large share of two countries’ resources.

The reason for my claim is that Quaid-e Azam, in his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, said: “Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in cooperation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed.”

Hate for the U.S.

Pakistani people have bad feelings toward the United States as they are of the opinion that terrorist acts in their country are a direct result of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. They say insurgents in Afghanistan have been fleeing into tribal areas in Pakistan, creating a miserable situation for the locals and creating a sense of fear in the whole country.

Such a belief that Pakistan is a victim of the U.S. war on Taliban was best exemplified when in a face-to-face dialogue with journalists and citizens in Pakistan on October 30 when a man told Hillary Clinton: “Please forgive me, but I would like to say we've been fighting your war.”

The resentment against the United States is not just confined to ordinary people. Fariha Razak Haroon, the top journalist from the GEO TV, said, for us the international community is not the United States. She said, “The international community for us is Iran, Turkey, Japan, China …”

People say, under a pressure from the U.S., Pakistan turned against the local Taliban who have been giving sanctuary to Afghan Taliban and now local extremists and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are venting their anger over the government by targeting defenseless civilians and soldiers.

The people are also angry against U.S. drone attacks targeting terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas which in most cases lead to murder of innocent civilians.

They also abhor the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They argue that the United States invaded Iraq to control oil resources in the Middle East and attacked Afghanistan to contain Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran.

Affection toward Iran

Pakistani people have a great affection toward Iran. In marketplaces they keep telling us that “you are our guest.” Immediately after they found out that we are from Iran they expressed their positive feelings of Iran and those who were Shia wished to visit holy shrines in Mashhad, Qom and Imam Khomeini mausoleum in Tehran.

Ordinary people referred to Iran as a brotherly country and praised Iran for standing against the United States. Some of them also expressed support for Hezbollah of Lebanon.

Any Iranian citizen who visits Pakistan finds out many commonalities especially the use of Persian words in media. In public places like airports one notices many Persian words that gives directions to passengers and this creates a sense of belonging in the person and he does not feel alien there.

The people also expressed their sadness over the terrorist incident on October 18 in the city of Pishin in Iran’s Sistan-Balouchestan province near the border with Pakistan. They said the Abdolmalek Rigi operatives who flee into Pakistan after each cowardly act will not be able to damage relations between the two brotherly neighbors.

Lahore, the cultural heart of Pakistan

Lahore, a large city near the border with India, is the cultural capital of Pakistan. Lahore hosts the tomb of Muhammad Iqbal, known as Iqbal Lahori in Iran, a celebrated poet of Persian and Urdu, who has composed many of his poems for peace, friendship and humanity. The grave of Iqbal Lahori is located in the courtyard of the Badshahi Mosque or ‘Emperor’s Mosque’.

Badshahi Mosque, a 17th century monument magnifying the Islamic architecture and civilization, is the second largest mosque in Pakistan and South Asia and the fifth largest mosque in the world. It is Lahore's most famous landmark and a major tourist attraction.

The mosque was constructed in 1673 on orders of the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb Alamgir.

The mosque is capable of accommodating 10,000 worshippers in its main prayer hall and 100,000 in its courtyard and porticoes. It remained the largest mosque in the world from 1673 to 1986, when overtaken in size by the completion of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

Today, it remains the second largest mosque in Pakistan and South Asia and the fifth largest mosque in the world after the Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) of Mecca, the Masjid al-Nabawi (Prophet's Mosque) in Medina, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca and the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

Wish to put a brake on population growth

Pakistan, already an overpopulated country with over 160 million people, has one of the highest birth rates in the world and this has put a great burden on the government.

Sindh Information Minister Ms. Shazia Marri from Pakistan People’s Party, who gave an interview to the Iranian media team on October 19, was also of the opinion that there should be a brake on population growth. She said attempts have already begun to encourage families to have fewer children, saying a slogan is being promoted: one child is enough and if you want to have a second child, plan for it.

However, the road ahead is not easy. There are certain conservative religious groups who oppose campaign for controlling birth rates.

Citizens are highly critical of the government for high price of sugar and newspapers run stories about sugar prices. People are also weary of constant power outages.

Even now Pakistan is doing marvelously by feeding such a huge population and even exporting hundreds of tons of rice.

Punjab province is considered Pakistan’s breadbasket. The name Punjab means “five waters or rivers” which originate from Himalaya Mountains.

Islamabad, a beautiful capital

Islamabad is a beautiful city located in the Pothohar Plateau in the north of Pakistan. The region has historically been a part of the crossroads of Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. It was built during the 1960s to replace Karachi as Pakistan’s capital.

Islamabad is one of the greenest and well-planned cities of South Asia that is divided into different sectors and zones. The city is punctuated by thick forests, running brooks, which come from the nearby Margalla Hills, and full of big villas, spacious parks and tree-lined wide roads.

Traffic congestion, which exists in cities like Lahore and Karachi, is a rare sight in the federal capital.

The city is similar to Tehran in some respects. Like Tehran that is located at the foot of Alborz Mountains, Islamabad is also situated in the lap of Margalla Hills.

Murree or Queen of Hills

Like Tehran which has natural resorts like Owshan Fasham and Meygoun in the heart of Alborz Mountains, there is a hilly resort in the north of Islamabad called Murree. One reaches the hill station from Islamabad after an hour’s drive along an extremely winding alpine road. Murree, known as the Queen of the Hills, is considered Pakistan’s most popular hill station.

Murree in a hot country like Pakistan is considered a paradise in the summertime. At the hilltop there are hotels, restaurants, villas and bazaars selling colorful traditional clothes including shawls. The songs of birds at the hilltop and pleasant weather bring solace to the minds of the visitors, and all these things together constitute a long-lasting memory.

In general, traditionally dressed hospitable people, cheap prices, carved wooden souvenirs, and soft colored shawls known as Kashmiri shawls have the potential to make Pakistan a good destination for foreign tourists.

Karzai to reach out to Taliban

The big story in Afghanistan, underreported so far, is the emergence of coordinated American and Afghan efforts to bring Taliban leaders and fighters in from the cold.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai is inaugurated again next week, he will call for peace and reconciliation with Afghan insurgents. Popular pressure for such efforts is strong, as I have heard in many conversations with Afghan elders and local officials.
Past efforts at reconciliation have been a dismal failure. But a broad consensus has emerged that the Afghan insurgency can’t be quelled by military means alone. So U.S. and Afghan officials are looking to develop more effective programs to reintegrate low- and mid-level Taliban into society. And U.S. officials are now open to efforts by the Karzai government to explore whether top Taliban leaders may be ready to give up fighting and live by constitutional rules.
We haven’t changed the policy,” one U.S. official told me, “but we have changed the emphasis in an important way. Now we are actively encouraging an Afghan-led process for reintegration of Taliban, or any insurgents willing to lay down their arms” and respect the Afghan constitution.
When it comes to contacts between Afghan officials and top Taliban leaders, this official made clear that the most pressing American concern was whether such leaders are willing to break convincingly with al-Qaeda.
We believe our strategic problem with the Taliban begins and ends with their support for al-Qaeda and their aggression against the United States and our allies,” he said. “If the Taliban made clear that they have broken with al-Qaeda and that their own objectives were nonviolent and political — however abhorrent to us — we wouldn’t be keeping 68,000-plus troops here. We’d certainly continue to support Afghans who are leading the way for human rights and democratic reforms, but we’d do so mainly through traditional means of diplomacy and development assistance.”
So what does this shift in emphasis mean on the ground?
Lt. Gen. Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British special forces commander, has been heading the coalition’s recent efforts to get Taliban to switch sides, a role he played with Sunni insurgents in Iraq. The Afghan political landscape is far more complex than Iraq’s, but some Taliban are already laying down arms on their own, encouraged by local elders, as I witnessed in Wardak province.
The Americans want the Afghan government to take the lead in dealing with lower-level Taliban and, most definitely, in contacting Taliban leaders. Karzai’s adviser on reintegration, Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai, told me that by December he hopes to put together a comprehensive plan that would offer protection and economic aid to Taliban who switch sides.
Previous Afghan plans for turning the Taliban failed because they lacked both a coherent strategy and capable leadership, and because officials did not consult with provincial leaders. Much will depend on whether those deficits are remedied. Less corruption would also help.
As for starting talks with the big Taliban, that will be much more dicey. With rare exceptions, U.S. diplomats in Kabul don’t even meet with former officials from the 1990s Taliban government who switched sides years ago and live in Kabul. One part-time adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Barnett Rubin, pursues the issue of reconciliation while wearing his other hat, as an Afghanistan expert at New York University.
I sensed no urgency on the American side to see dialogue with the big Taliban in the near term. Top U.S. military commanders believe senior Taliban commanders aren’t likely to compromise until the momentum shifts on the ground.
Big Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have rejected previous Karzai overtures. Stanikzai stresses that the timing of any new peace overture is crucial. Calling for negotiations too soon — before Afghanistan is more stable — would convey weakness.
The key to future peace talks may be sequencing — moving first on reconciliation with smaller fry, which would increase pressure on the top. “If we have an impact on reintegration from below, that will affect the big-T Taliban,” Stanikzai said. “If you combine bottom-up and top-down, you can have a meaningful result.” This thinking is echoed by U.S. counterinsurgency experts.
So watch the development of Karzai’s plan for peace and reconciliation, and whom he appoints to implement it. Bottom-up, top-down may be a key to when U.S. troops come home.

At End of the World: Maybe Not!

The Apocalypse is near. In fact, it will release its catastrophic effects, in a theatre near you, in the form of '2012', Hollywood’s latest end-of-the-world offering.

And while John Cusack and Amanda Peet have had to battle global cataclysm predicted by an ancient Mayan calendar, historical documents, astronomy and biblical and scientific data (whew!), we’ve just sailed by several hundreds of dooms day predictions.

Here’s a list of some apocalyptic dates that have passed us by:

2800 BC: One ancient Assyrian tablet dating to 2800 before Christ was born predicted the end of the world with these ominous words: "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end..." Guess that didn’t come to pass!

1537: According to French astrologer Pierre Turrel's calculations the world was to end this year. He also provided three alternative options: 1544, 1801 and 1814. Hmm. Maybe he wasn’t so good at math.

1794: Charles Wesley, a founder of the Methodist Church predicted the end of the world this year; his brother John, a fellow co-founder later said the beginning of the end would begin in 1836!

1814: A self-proclaimed British prophet, Joanna Southcott, announced that she would give birth to the Messiah and that the end of the world would come at the year's end. But the end, when it did come, was only for her. She died in December that year.

1910: Did you know that the May 18, 1910 passing of Halley's Comet was to be accompanied by death due to gassing – the comet's tail was said to be giving of poisonous gases. This is perhaps the first
 doomsday theory based on scientific fact.

1914: Members of the Jehovah’s Witness sect believed whole-heartedly in the end of the world theory and issued its first date of apocalypse in this year. They subsequently issued end of world warnings in 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. Guess they were using Turrel's calculator!

1935: In 1931, one Wilbur Glen Voliva claimed the world would, rather undramatically, go up in a puff of smoke in September 1935.

March 10, 1982: This end of the world theory is something Hollywood would have been proud of. According to the book 'The Jupiter Effect', published in 1974, certain planetary alignments would create a gravitational pull that would create solar flairs, sun spots and/or earthquake. The most that happened that day was that the tide rose .44mm higher than normal.

March 8, 1998: An Indian doomsday cult, based out of Karnataka, proclaimed the world would end with a series of earthquakes; that the Indian subcontinent would sink into the ocean a la Atlantis and that Lord Vishnu would put in an appearance. El Nino and weird weather would signal the end.

1999: Everyone's favourite seer, Nostradamus, chose July of 1999 as the day the world would end. He predicted, very ominously, that a 'Great King of Terror' was to descend from the sky in the seventh month of the year.

2008: Last year, a British religious group, The Lord's Witnesses, predicted the end of the world, the result of a catastrophic (there can’t be any other kind!) world war. The prediction was made on the basis of 'codes' embedded in the Bible.

(Research sources: A Brief History of the Apocalypse; Listverse.com, Timesonline.co.uk)