Occupy Central Hong Kong and 9mms of Karachi

I think nothing makes us feel more alive than pushing ourselves to the limits, dreaming big, digging for new experiences and getting romantically involved; the trials and tribulations of hard days work, animal attraction, wanderings in to realms that have no precedents but have rewards beyond our wildest imagination and equally intensive challenges in shapes and forms that cross the normal human threshold. At least in my philosophy, call me narcissistic and some have over the years, or even elitist but that is my point of view. For now.

I also happen to believe that these are the attributes of a good researcher.

So I’m in Hong Kong (HK) now folks the most vertical city in the world and one of the four asian miracles of the 20th century; grossly inflated real estate prices, thriving capitalist service economy, cheap sea food, pricey vegetables, centre of a political shit storm (tussles with China), rather behaved residents minus the wacky taxi drivers, massage parlours (yes there are many) and typhoons all, for an experimental doctoral program that spans across, Asia and Europe.

However this post is not going to be about my experience with sushi buffets, dancing fire dragons manned by 50 strong or selfie sticks (yes there are devices now that makes selfie taking more professional. You better believe it!). This post will attempt to bring a perspective of a Karachiite to the massive street protests staged by HK students against their government for universal suffrage and democracy, a right they believe is being denied to them by the central government in China.

One of the thousands of posters placed around HK. - Photo TAC
Some of the thousands of posters found all around HK these days – Photo TAC

I left for HK from Karachi on the afternoon of August 31. You would recall that prior night, Imran Khan and the maschismo, Allama Dr. Sir. Tahir UlQadri’s revolutionary and freedom marches had boiled to a hostile standoff with law enforcement agencies in Islamabad. Tear gas, rubber bullets and aerial firing were used to ward of protestors. The political climate once again brought the affairs of our fragile state to yet another precarious moment in time. Media outlets, political parties, including the omnipresent establishment, scrambled to score points; revising stances and shifting allegiance to suit the perceived winds of change.

As is customary in such volatile times – and there are many in Karachi, so many in fact that volatility has lost its traditional sense of meaning – fuel stations are closed, cell phone services are terminated, law enforcement presence is increased, shops and markets are shuttered, at least during the day and the ones that remain open for business are coerced by political parties. To say that the KSE index drops down would not be enough as the working class finds it difficult to report for duty when public transport is suspended thereby affecting the entire economy. The whole fabric of society is thus affected when people chose to stay under the safety of their homes. The massive class divide becomes apparent even here, when the silent majority of urban Karachi, politically exhausted remains homebound and waits for the chaos to pass as it usually does, while the poor and zealous take active part. Some get killed and become collateral in these recurring events which are essentially power struggles among the elites.

So when I visited the protest sit-in at HK’s central financial district I was overwhelmed by the sheer level of organisation among the youth, which forms the bulk of the Occupy Central movement, and their resolve. The demonstrators that fluctuate between 10 to 50,000 have vowed to protest peacefully and not affect the routine functioning of the government. Every morning they collect and clear the trash that has accumulated on the site, distribute food and water, provide gas masks and goggles for new arrivals and keep a steady spray of water to account for the heat.

Protesters at the Admiralty
Protesters at the Admiralty – Photo TAC

The general feeling of camaraderie becomes apparent when you participate in the hundreds of small conversations that are happening all over the site. Hong Kong like Pakistan was once a British colony and follows a legal system very similar to the common law system that Pakistan follows. In 1997 when the British formally handed the territory back to China, it was under the condition that the state would have universal suffrage and enjoy complete autonomy under a ‘one-country-two-system’ policy. So while HK has its own mini-constitution, independent judiciary, separate currency, law enforcement, electorate and legislators, it’s foreign policy and defence is under the control of the PRC government. The protests essentially are a part of the evolving nature of the executive authority of HK as it attempts to maintain its distinct identity while remaining part of China.

But I won’t start a political commentary here. Because, we students of political science are trained to look at matters objectively and as external observers which often dehumanises the process of change. Let me explain…

As I made my way through the heart of the protests, I saw children, adults, students alike camped together on the roads; sleeping, chatting, doing their home work etc. all very solemn however in the awareness that the future of their country and culture is at stake and genuinely believing that they can and will change the decision of the government. It didn’t matter that they represent a small percentage of the 7 million people living in HK, or that the PRC government and the Chief Executive both have announced not to budge on their initial ruling of vetting the candidates for the country’s highest office first by NPCSC. It dawned upon me how little credit I always give to the collective understanding of the people, always coming with prescriptions where in fact collective reasoning may prove just as beneficial if not more. Maybe this is what democracy stands for. The idea of a philosopher king following Plato’s school of thought which is a characteristic of authoritarian rule presumes an elitist perspective on governance. Maybe the existing order of HK represents this rule and maybe the state of HK has grown out of this form of governance?

Its a protest, not a party! - Photo TAC
Its a protest, not a party! – Photo – TAC

These people are not the sheep that follow greener pasture trails or the fear of the whip, or that most destructive force, ‘the wrath of God’ unlike in Pakistan. There belief is supported by prominent local scholars of law and urban studies who are also the leaders of this movement. So there are flyers shared online, on social media platforms and distributed as hard copy that attempts to answer questions and educate an average Hong Konger; Why is this crisis taking place? Who are the players involved? What can we gain if they meet our demands? What is being done to maintain civility, law and order? There is even a path within the massive sit-in that ensures thoroughfare and everyone respects it…

In stark contrast to the 9mm pistol demonstrations, in Karachi that bring the entire city life to a grinding halt, or those festive concerts and rhetorical performances that promise to change the country overnight. Some people have argued that brutal force is the only way to get anything important done in the city. But have we forgotten, the May 2005 earth quake where citizens of Karachi made a peaceful and collective effort to send massive supplies to effected areas? When women, men, policeman, officers and politicians alike joined hands without any prejudice towards a common cause? Its a pity that it takes a natural calamity for us to act civil.

And yet, I am writing now to draw parallels so that we may also aspire to be citizens of Karachi in a real sense. Take ownership of our actions and our community heavens know our bread and butter depends on it. It may take a generation to realise it but the awareness for the process must start now! It is possible yet.

Between the thoroughfare - Photo TAC
Thanks for coming, sit with us, fight with us – Photo TAC

Countenance with Caution

Statements from the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), arguably since its inception, are followed by widespread condemnation by progressive vocal minds in the country. The cause for concern stressed is the perpetual retrograde agenda that religious scholars in the country allegedly posses. However debates that emphasize a holistic approach to analysis attuned with worldly events is surprisingly rare.

Our case in point, the recent announcements by our religious scholars on the incompatibility of Pakistan’s conjugal laws with the Shariah – namely the validity of child marriage and of multiple wives that some might even term polygamy – come at a time when the impasse of the state sponsored talks with the Pakistan Taliban seems to be breaking; perhaps with some wisps of light visible at the end of the tunnel.

To understand this we should take a look at how the Pakistani state has historically dealt with rogue elements and militancy; the emergence and prominence of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) in 1985 as a breakaway group of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) can give us an insight. Although there is no direct evidence of this but the rise of Shia extremist organizations provided an impetus for the support of Sunni militants by the state and Saudia Arabia at the time for fear of increasing Iranian influence in the region.

This militancy that took roots in Southern Punjab, primarily in Jhang, however spread to other areas of the country where Sunni and Shia tensions were latent such as in Peshawar, Quetta and Kurram Agency of FATA encompassing other militants, forming allegiances and increasing its mandate to further target Christians, Ahmedis, Hazaras and other minorities. In short a Hydra headed monster took birth that has many faces each begetting the other, spreading its arcane ideology often violently.

Although the states attempts at controlling this has been effective to an extent one needs to take it with a pinch of salt; in the 90’s several militant leaders such as Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi and Azam Tariq were killed by unidentified gunmen with all signs indicative of Shia terrorist and the Pakistani state. In the words of Anatol lieven in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011)

According to credible reports, Pakistani intelligence responded in typical fashion with a mixture of arrests, extra-judicial executions and attempts to split the militants and draw more moderate Sipah-e-Sahaba members into allegiance to the state.

This brief anecdote on the history of militancy has two very important lessons. Firstly it seems that the present strategy of the state in dealing with the Pakistani Taliban is similar to its dealing with other militants. The twin attacks on 3rd March in Islamabad, when a ceasefire had been agreed with the Taliban, show the rifts emerging within the Taliban camp. Undoubtedly these talks will help the government and the state understand the organizational setup better, gather intelligence and increase the efficacy of counter insurgency in the region.

The announcement made by the CII becomes very timely indeed under these circumstances as the CII is a government institution and any lobbying on its part demonstrates the Pakistani government’s efforts to be privy of religious sentiments of the people. It increases the government’s credibility for genuine dialogue in FATA with ‘moderate militants’. A similar announcement by CII last November by declaring DNA evidence against the defendants of rape cases as un-Islamic shows a similar pattern. These announcements in quick successions by the normally sluggish CII seem unlikely to be a coincidence.

The second implication of CII announcements in Pakistan must be looked within the context of the rise of the Habermasian public sphere in a ‘South Asia that stands at the crossroads of possibilities fraught with alternative scenarios of a great developmental and democratic ascent’ (Kukreja and Prasad 2008)[1]. The virus of insurgency is a byproduct of democratic transitions in South Asia; the naxalities in India and Nepal and the now defunct Tamil Tigers of Srilanka are prime examples of this issue. In fact the insurgency in India is according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the ‘single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country (India)[2]’.

It is an escapable reality that Islam is and will always be an integral part of Pakistan’s identity as in many other Muslim countries. The extremist militancy in Pakistan however is an apt representation of the most impoverished areas of our country devoid of infrastructure, health services and food security. The narrative of the CII is but one face of our evolving public sphere that is contested by numerous actors before it reaches a fairly acceptable form. This certainly is the essence of inclusion in governance as is evident by the voices heard in the media against these announcements. For now though, it seems to fit in well in the scheme of affairs that we should countenance albeit with caution.

[1] Kukreja, V & Singh, M.P., (2008) Democracy, Development and Discontent in South Asia, India: SAGE

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7151552.stm

Media as a Catalyst for Structural Change in Pakistan – Thesis Abstract

I quite literally stumbled upon the prospects of doing a PhD when halfway through my official editorial internship at the Eastern Eye newspaper I was informed by my MA coordinator that I will still have to write a dissertation as partial fulfillment of my MA program as well. Normally a student is given a choice to do either of the two but as it turned out I ended up with a lot of extra work. However, what started of as a mere accident turned out to be a blessing as the learning, networking, contact building and field experience I acquired in the process made my masters experience truly grand besides opening a whole new career opportunity in academia.

I secured a first class on my dissertation supervised by the very able Dr. Brilliant Mhlanga who is a mentor and a great friend. Here is an abstract of my dissertation. Please feel free to post a critique in the comments section. Cheers!

Thesis title: MEDIA AS A CATALYST FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE IN PAKISTAN

ABSTRACT

This study is an investigation of the rise of the public sphere in Pakistan after the liberalization of media at the end of the Kargil conflict 1999, its implication for public participation in policy making and the potential for structural change of Pakistani institutions as a result. The basic notion of media theory is that politics and ideology of a country have direct consequences on the media power models in a society. If that is the case then does it logically follows that the reverse may also hold true? This is the premise of this investigation. To this effect problems of a colonial past unique to Pakistan and indeed South Asia are juxtaposed with the nature and development of Journalism in Pakistan before and after Independence in 1947 with particular emphasis on the political economy of newspaper and television media after promulgation of PEMRA Ordinance 2002. The study follows a qualitative research paradigm with an interpretive and constructivist epistemology by utilizing a combination of stakeholder mapping technique with a case study paradigm. The findings indicate that the paradigm shift in the mobilization of public opinion after 2001 has caused a significant amplification of public voices, that there is no doubt that private media has emerged as a vanguard for the publics especially under the lens of the Lawyers Movement in 2007 and that there is strong evidence to suggest that public policy is not as ambiguous and arbitrary as Pakistanis are led to believe. The assertions surmise that sorting the right balance in the nexus of power between a socially responsible and authoritative media can theoretically effect a similar healthy change in other institutions of the Pakistani State.

I will upload the link to the entire thesis very soon but if you have any specific queries you can email me directly at siddiqui.aayaz@gmail.com.