Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

Rotten Tomatoes

November 5, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Rather than asserting that the military and the judiciary could be criticized if criticism was merited, a distinguished minister has taken the position that parliament is just as sacrosanct and hence above being challenged.

In anticipation of what is likely to follow, this being Pakistan, one cannot afford to lose any time taking to task another minister who has asked for the treatment. I am referring to a news item in which the Minister for Industries, Commerce and Investment has informed the Punjab Assembly that there would be “no tomato import despite mafia’s manoeuvring.”

The minister is said to have elaborated that “now tomatoes from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were being sold at Rs. 70 per kilo in the city and would continue to be sold till prices get further stabilized with supplies from Sindh arriving in the local market.” The justification for the policy is contained in a direct quote from the minister: “Why pass the advantage on to foreign farmers instead of our own?” According to the minister, “an influential mafia” was trying hard for resumption of import from India which would not be allowed to happen.

This minister needs to have a whole load of rotten tomatoes thrown at his head and the party chief responsible for his appointment to the ministry needs to explain the poor selection. Imagine a modern minister for commerce who can publicly state “Why pass on the advantage to foreign [producers] instead of our own?” Just follow through with the implications of the logic — it would put an end to all international trade because the only things traded are those that are made better or at lower cost by foreign producers.

There are a whole host of other problems with the argument. First, note the irony that the statement is coming from a minister in a country where even common pins are being imported from China and garbage collection is being contracted out to the Turks. There has not been a peep about the advantage being passed on to foreigners in these and a slew of other sectors.  

Second, this new-found love of “our own” is confined to producers, setting aside entirely the welfare of consumers who vastly outnumber the former. Why? Are consumers not equally are own? And is the government not elected to enhance the welfare of the majority?

Third, what if someone extends the minister’s argument to the provincial level? Why pass on the advantage to producers in KPK and Sindh instead of our own farmers in the Punjab? Such a person would immediately be labelled an anti-national element even though the logic of the argument remains unchanged.

Fourth, who is this “influential mafia” trying hard for resumption of import from India? What does it have to gain from the import? And, if this is actually a resumption of something that was taking place earlier, why wasn’t this mafia hauled in for anti-state activities at that time? Could it not be a producer mafia trying to block imports? Would a producer mafia not be infinitely more influential than one of consumers?

The point of all these seemingly absurd questions is to highlight the mindlessness of the minister’s statement and the sheer vacuousness of the logic offered for his decision. The fact of the matter is that a blind nationalism is at the bottom of this ridiculous anti-trade stance that is hurting the budget of the vast majority of citizens who have to purchase essential commodities in the market.

At the time when tomatoes were selling for Rs. 300 a kilo in Lahore they were available at Indian Rs. 40 a kilo in Amritsar a mere 30 miles away. But a visceral Indo-phobia, shared by many of our influentials, stood in the way of consumers benefiting from the lower priced supply. It was then that another distinguished minister, the Federal Minister for National Food Security and Research said that “the government will never allow import of any vegetables, including tomato and onion, from India despite record high prices of these kitchen items in local markets due to limited local supply.” He elaborated that “this step has been taken to encourage the local farmers to grow more besides saving huge foreign exchange.”

Our ministers are not alone in articulating such puerile logic emanating from their Indo-phobia. I recall a meeting in which an ex-chief of the ISI similarly railed against trade with India because it would destroy “our own” industry. The specific example he gave was of footwear that was being produced at lower cost across the border and whose import would put Pakistani producers “out of business.” During a break, a participant jokingly enquired about the make of the shoes the chief was wearing — it turned out they were Italian.

The point to note is that this India-centric anti-trade hysteria is shared by many who have no compunctions consuming products imported from all other countries and whose income brackets are such that commodities like tomatoes and onions are a miniscule proportion of their budgets. These are people who tell their car drivers to fill up the tank without ever asking the going price of petrol. They are indulging in the psychic pleasure of “hurting” India at no cost to themselves while pushing millions of people who can afford to buy only a litre of gas at a time below the poverty line.

The ultimate irony is that such callous and shallow prejudice does virtually nothing to hurt India. On the contrary, the gap between the two countries continues to widen while our leaders make fools of themselves trying to prove to a wide-eyed world that India is the “mother of all terrorisms.” It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs and a sign of the extent to which people have given up that nobody even bothers to point out these follies before the narrow window for questioning inevitably draws tightly shut.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on October 27, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. An Urdu translation appeared on the Dawn website the following day.

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Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: A Modern Antigone

September 23, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Imagine what Antigone would be like if the action was transported from ancient Greece to today’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis.  This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which updates Sophocles’ tragedy and sets it in the contemporary context of the War on Terror and the struggle of European countries to deal with their citizens who join the “Islamic State”.  Though ultimately a derivative work—one that doesn’t stand alone without reference to the original—the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islam’s place in today’s UK.

Sophocles’ tragedy centres around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of the state. In Shamsie’s update, Polyneices becomes Parvaiz Pasha, a young Londoner who becomes radicalized and leaves to work in the “Islamic State’s” media unit in Syria. His sister Aneeka (Antigone) first tries to enable him to return to the UK without facing charges and later to bring his body back to London. Her opponent is Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, himself of Pakistani and Muslim origin.  The equivalent of Creon’s refusal to allow Polyneices’s body to be buried in Thebes is Karamat’s order to rescind British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against the interests of the UK.  Thus, after Parvaiz’s death in Istanbul, his body is sent to Pakistan instead of the UK.  Aneeka then travels to Karachi to sit in protest outside the British Consulate until the government allows the body to be returned to the UK.  Her sister Isma (Ismene), on the other hand, attempts to distance the sisters from their brother’s actions.

Shamsie’s characters are all three-dimensional and none are entirely heroic or villainous.  Unlike Antigone, Aneeka uses sex to try to achieve her objectives, becoming involved with Karamat’s son Eamonn (Haemon). In the original play, Antigone is engaged to Haemon, but she sacrifices this relationship to fulfill her obligations to her brother.  Aneeka, in contrast, seduces Eamonn as part of a plan to bring her brother home. Though she does eventually fall in love with him, her initial actions cast her in a manipulative light—she prays and wears the hijab yet doesn’t seem to have problems with premarital sex.

Like Aneeka, Karamat is also a complicated character.  He is an integrationist who distances himself from his Muslim background and marries an Irish woman. He gives his son an Irish name, Eamonn, rather than the Arabic Ayman. Yet, he confesses that in times of stress he often finds himself unconsciously reciting the ayat al-kursi.  Asked in an interview to respond to the accusation that he hates Muslims, he replies “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims” (231).  Shamsie heightens the dramatic conflict by giving the Creon character a Muslim background and depicts that type of Muslim and British-Pakistani who believes that in order to advance in mainstream society, he has to distance himself from his religion and be more loyal than the King.

One of Shamsie’s most interesting departures from Sophocles is providing a bigger backstory for the Polyneices character.  Sophocles begins his story after Polyneices is already dead, so we never learn what drove him to become an enemy of Thebes. In contrast, Shamsie shows the reader the process by which Parvaiz is radicalized, and thus highlights how lost and vulnerable young men are often exploited and brainwashed into waging jihad.  In Parvaiz’s case, he is a young boy who has never known his father, himself a jihadi, a fact that Parvaiz’s mother and sisters never discussed, fearing the negative consequences for the family.  When an older man comes along and asserts that Parvaiz’s father was a hero, Paraviz is naturally drawn to him and led down the path to radicalization.  In Shamsie’s narration, even the jihadi is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motivations are understandable though his actions are reprehensible.  

One of the main themes of the novel is how Britain treats its Muslim citizens.  The story begins with Isma at the airport, enduring a lengthy interrogation that causes her to miss her onward flight to the US, where she plans to pursue her Ph.D.  The interrogation is particularly fraught because of her family background, though the experience of being questioned at Western airports is one familiar to many Muslim travelers.  More problematic is the media’s demonization of British Muslims. As Isma recalls a conversation she had during college: “The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists’. Even when the word ‘British’ was used it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favorite, ‘British passport holders’, always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.” (38).  Later, Aneeka refers to the perils of “Googling While Muslim”, a nod to state surveillance of Muslims for any sign of extremism.

Diametrically opposed to the sisters is Karamat, who tells students at a Bradford school: “You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behavior you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently—not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours” (88). While telling Muslims that they shouldn’t freely express their religion is problematic, there is something to be said for greater assimilation into the societies in which Muslims find themselves.  Karamat’s most problematic action is the rescinding of British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against British interests.  Rather than dealing with why some young British Muslims are alienated from the larger society, this action simply ignores the problem by retroactively defining them as un-British.

Home Fire makes an interesting companion to Antigone though most of the power of the novel comes from seeing how Shamsie has updated that great work of world literature.  Without the literary resonances, the novel would simply be another work that attempts to deal with jihad and the place of Islam in the West, themes worked and reworked by many Pakistani novelists writing in English.

Kabir Altaf graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature.

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Thank You, Donald Trump

September 8, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Much as many are finding it hard to say anything good about Donald Trump, it cannot be denied that he has delivered the world a much needed wake-up call. Gone is the complacency about a whole host of topics that had seemed firmly settled – democracy, capitalism, globalization, trade, to name a few. Fresh thinking has been unleashed on a number of other issues – climate change, identity, immigration, terrorism, among them. There was dire need to rethink many of these and if the world required Trump to revitalize the debates, it has only itself to blame. In large measure, Trump is an outcome of not paying heed to what was going on under our noses but escaped attention because of the ideological biases of prosperous and uncaring ruling elites.

The ‘boiling frog’ analogy comes to mind: a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out but if placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it would not perceive the danger and be cooked to death. With the continuation of the mainstream status quo, had Hillary Clinton been elected president of the United States, there is little doubt we would have died in any number of ways because nothing would have changed till it was too late. Either climate change would have overtaken us before we reacted to its dangers while countries continued to bicker amongst themselves; or the neo-imperialist wars in the Middle East would have been intensified with the penchant for regime change to promote American values; or globalization would have have continued unabated enriching a few and reducing the rest of the world to a state of precarious uncertainty.

With Trump, we have been dumped into boiling water. Many of the simmering threats are being desperately examined anew, some, ironically, because  Trump has a much more cavalier attitude towards them. Take global warming, for example, where the Trump team is stocked with climate change deniers. It is precisely because the threat is now so in one’s face that activists have shed their complacency and are seeking new ways to revitalize their efforts. The same is the case with many other issues in which there has been a surge in theoretical revision, community activism, and grassroots mobilization. South Asians ought to look particularly carefully at Professor Amartya Sen’s critique of electoral systems based on the first-past-the-post criterion, a key contributor to Trump’s success.

One way to think of this radically new environment is in terms of a lottery. The status quo offered an almost sure bet of muddling through for another few decades before ending in catastrophe. Trump offers a fifty percent chance of instant extinction (his itchy fingers are on the nuclear button) and a fifty percent chance of revitalized political and social order in which many of the existing pathologies would have been addressed. Without the threat of imminent chaos, it is unlikely the resistance would have been galvanized in quite the manner that is now underway. Complacency and inertia would have continued to characterize the prevailing order with its almost inevitable consequences.

Consider, as an example, prevailing attitudes to democratic governance compared to its unremarked degradation. While Fukuyama hailed liberal democracy in the West as the end of history, Huntington lauded Ayub Khan as the ideal leader for the modernizing world that was not ready for democratic rule. Richard Holbrooke characterized the backwardness of developing countries as follows: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma.” Fareed Zakaria was even more to the point: “Consider, for example, the challenge we face across the Islamic world. We recognize the need for democracy in those often-repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy, or something like it?”

The fact that democracy had produced a Hitler much before it produced any racists or fascists in the developing world was overlooked but now that it has produced Trump in the heart of the developed world, the doubts about the way democracy has evolved are out in the open and no longer considered the exclusive problem of backward non-White populations. American democracy in particular has morphed into a plutocracy quite at odds with its original design.

Or take the flip side of this alleged lack of fitness of the often-repressive countries, the unchallenged belief in American Exceptionalism. This rebirth of the White Man’s Burden in the age of neo-imperialism argued that the world needed to evolve towards American values while assigning a divine responsibility to the US for the purpose. Enlightenment was to be bestowed on the rest of humanity, making it fit for democracy through selective regime changes and by saving its women from the clutches of oppression.

As recently as a year ago, Obama had declared with pride and conviction that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” Now, barely six months into the Trump presidency, the veil has been ripped off American values regarding women and minorities and the reality of the US first policy that has wreaked havoc in the world exposed for all to see. As a result, European countries are already envisioning a future with a severely diminished political and ideological leadership role for the USA.

Nearer home, ordinary Pakistanis, if they pause to reflect, should also be grateful to Trump for calling out their country’s selective cat-and-mouse game with terrorism. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been unsuccessful at best and at worst has imperiled the future of the nation via its economic cost, social damage, and political isolation. It would have continued unchallenged but for Trump raising the ante by laying aside the niceties and evasions that characterized the US-Pakistan dialogue under earlier presidents. The new bluntness and proposed regional realignment offer a glimmer of hope for an overdue questioning and a review under duress of Pakistan’s damaging security paradigm.

The world may not survive Trump, but if it does, many, including long-suffering Pakistanis, would have a lot to thank him for.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on September 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Partition, My Father, and His Wife

September 2, 2017

By Harbans Mukhia

I was born in 1937 or 38, in a tiny village in the Gujrat district of what is now Pakistan. No one, even in Pakistan, seems to have heard of the village Allaha, though it is on my passport to this day. Our home was a nondescript one – a one-and-a-half room structure on one side of a dusty street; on the other side was a tall, white mansion-like habitat with a weather cock on top, which fascinated us kids for hours.

We moved to Delhi before the Partition – perhaps sometime around 1941. My father responded to the Quit India call and was put in a Multan prison for six months. My mother passed away perhaps in 1943 or 44, leaving behind five young children. My eldest sister, then 12 or 13, was withdrawn from school to look after her siblings. She never held it against us when grew up and found our spaces in life.

A year or so before Partition, my father married his first cousin, his paternal uncle’s daughter, back in Allaha. The marriage procession consisted of the groom and his only son, me; the bidai procession added my new mother. It couldn’t have been simpler.

On August 2 or 3, 1947, my grandmother landed at our home in Delhi and suggested that she and my mother go back to the village and escort the rest of the extended family to Delhi, and bring with them whatever savings they had. Father was aghast at the suggestion and appealed to grandma to hold on for another 12-13 days. After independence – to which he seriously thought he had a personal claim – had been celebrated, he would go there himself, instead of two women going on such a tough mission. Even at this stage, they did not suspect any great mishap in the offing. Grandma insisted and father had to give in.

The two women left Delhi for Allaha. That was the last we ever heard about them. The members of the family they had gone out to rescue, however, found their way to Delhi. Father was heartbroken. Understandably.

Then an incident brought him some hope. He was lightly educated, but was always a stickler for reason and logic for understanding and explaining any phenomenon; God had no place in his scheme. One day, he was whiling away his time on the broad street in old Delhi then called Faiz Bazaar, now Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road. A road show was on, where a boy lies on the floor “unconscious” and the master of the show keeps asking him about the problems facing members of the audience. Father was laughing away at the tamasha when suddenly the master asked the boy what his, father’s, problem was. To his great astonishment, the boy spelt out his wife’s name and announced that she was hiding in a building in our village, both of which he identified correctly without father even having to ask him to.

He was dumbstruck and his skepticism gave way to a faint hope – who knows, the boy might even be right. So he decided to take a chance. In around October, he travelled to Lahore and then on to the village. He was just short of six feet tall and, with a kullah (Afghani headgear), could easily pass off as Pathan. In Delhi, most of his friends in Darya Ganj, where we lived, were Muslims and he was familiar with their etiquette, besides knowing Urdu well. He faced no problem in looking up the particular building, but there was no trace of his young wife.

On his return, he wrote a short piece titled My visit to Pakistan, which was never published. But I remember some crucial parts of it. In Lahore he stayed with his Muslim friends from Faiz Bazar who had migrated to Pakistan. In the streets of Lahore, the real Pathans were shooting at street lights and in the air because there were no Hindus left to kill. His Muslim friends, who had given him shelter and support, risked their lives and properties for him. The slightest hint that they were knowingly hiding and supporting a kafir from India would give the Pathans the ‘legitimate’ right to wipe them out and plunder their house. But the truth remained with his hosts.

In the end, father couldn’t find his wife. But he was able to reaffirm the one faith he had: that as often as not, human relations override political, national and even religious dividing lines.

Harbans Mukhia is National Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research. This memory was part of the Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series and was published there on August 15, 2017. It is reproduced with the author’s permission.

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Governance in Pakistan: Context Matters

August 13, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In real estate, the mantra is Location, Location, Location. In governance, it ought to be Context, Context, Context. But while we have grasped the first, our appreciation of the second is deficient because we emulate first-world practices without sufficient appreciation of our conditions.

Take poverty alleviation as an example. In countries where 80 percent of the population is affluent and 20 percent in distress, there are many ways of addressing the situation using transfer payments. Reverse the percentages and all those remedies become financially infeasible. The surplus does not exist to sustain them. Countries like China and South Korea have reduced poverty by creating jobs not by distributing welfare.

Apply the same analogy to governance. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are law abiding and 20 percent otherwise, there are a certain number of ways available to ensure accountability without derailing the system. Reverse the percentages and none of those ways are likely to yield the desired results without unintended consequences.

Let’s put this to the test and ask on oath all holders of public offices in Pakistan to raise their hands if they believe they are honest as determined by the limited criterion on which the prime minister has been disqualified, i.e., for not declaring an income that was due but not received. Then add, as one should, the criterion of incomes received but not due. Let us then subject them to an investigation with no statute of limitations by teams including members of the intelligence services.

How many do we expect standing at the end of the day and do we really believe we can run federal and local governments and public agencies with this number of individuals? If we don’t, we have to admit that attempting to eliminate dishonesty via such a top-down approach is either an example of intellectual bankruptcy or of mendacity and abuse of power.

And that brings us to the crux of the contextual issue. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are unlikely to withstand scrutiny, who shall guard the guardians? Giving discretionary powers to some agents of the state like inspectors, regulators and policemen to apprehend violators is only going to end with endless side deals in which millions of Rupees change hands without any impact on accountability or corruption. Rather, people will invest money in cultivating networks and godfathers that protect them or find ever more creative means to beat the system.

Is it any wonder that the kinds of accountability agencies that deliver in rich countries only end up being used to harass and nab political and business opponents in poor ones? At the worst of times the guardians end up striking deals, proclaiming amnesties, and forgiving each other. At the best of times, one or the other gets run over and the game begins anew with the distribution of sweets, high hopes and loud proclamations that not even the short-term winners believe.

It is hard to conceive that the intelligentsia applauding the elimination of corruption in such a partisan and blood-thirsty manner does not see that it makes no structural difference whatsoever. In this regard, the understanding of common people is much more sophisticated. They are under no illusion that any of their public representatives are, or are likely to be, honest and truthful. Ask the person on the street and he or she would inform you without a moment’s hesitation that “they are all thieves.”

Given their appreciation of the context in which it is virtually impossible for an upright individual to be elected, what then is the criterion they employ to choose their representatives? Very simply, they base their choice on the pragmatic consideration of which thief or set of thieves is going to deliver more for them or their community. Whether this is a sound criterion or not, it is much more in consonance with the socioeconomic reality than the good intentions of the saviours of the nation who supplant the choice of the people with their own, often biased and self-interested, selection of kosher representatives.

This argument is not to suggest that nothing should be done about corruption, only that the way we are going about it is at best foolish and at worst dishonest. We need to find structural remedies for structural problems and these can only be sought in the intelligent reformulation of constitutional and bureaucratic rules. Term limits, shorter electoral cycles, staggering of national, provincial and district elections, recall provisions, and credible due processes are only the most obvious places to start but there are many other reforms to limit the abuse of power and strengthen the hands of citizens and voters.

None of these would be possible unless we pay attention to the context in which we exist and operate.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on August 2, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Re-reads: The Merchant of Venice

August 7, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

In March 2017, a public prosecutor in Lahore, Pakistan, offered to acquit 42 Christian prisoners accused of murder if they converted to Islam. This prodded a re-reading of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which also features a forced conversion—that of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to Christianity. 

Written between 1596 and 1599, The Merchant of Venice centers around Antonio (the titular character) and his financial dealings with Shylock. Antonio’s friend Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, a wealthy noblewoman. In order to raise this amount, Antonio asks Shylock for a loan of 3000 ducats. The moneylender agrees on the condition that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of his flesh. Antonio accepts these terms, since he has several ships coming in to port soon. However, Antonio’s ships are wrecked and he is forced to default. Shylock then demands his bond. At this point, Portia disguises herself as a man and acts as Antonio’s lawyer. She cleverly uses the terms of the contract against Shylock, since the moneylender is entitled to a pound of flesh but not to a single drop of blood—making fulfilling the bond impossible. Shylock is then charged with attempting to murder a Venetian citizen–as a Jew, he does not count as a Venetian– and his estate is confiscated, with one half going to Antonio and one half to the state. Antonio then offers to renounce his half of the estate, on the condition that Shylock become a Christian. The moneylender has no choice but to accept.

Though the play is classified as a comedy, it is problematic for modern audiences. Post the Holocaust, it is difficult not to feel deeply uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock as greedy and fixated on money. The fact that he is forced to abandon his religion also seems deeply unfair given contemporary global norms. This discomfort with the play has led some to call for its removal from school curricula and for it to be taken off the stage. However, a close examination of the play shows that Shylock is by no means a two-dimensional villain, unlike Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (often thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s play).

Early in the play, when Antonio first asks Shylock for a loan, the moneylender recalls how the merchant has treated him:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit

What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’? (Act 1, Scene 3)

Antonio routinely abuses Shylock, simply because of his religion. Yet now that he needs him, he has come to politely ask him for a loan. Shylock points out the merchant’s hypocrisy and asks why he should oblige him. Later, when he is asked what good Antonio’s flesh will do him, Shylock responds that it will serve as his revenge. In one of the play’s most famous speeches, he states:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. (Act 3, Scene 1)

In this speech, Shylock argues that Jews are just as human as Christians and experience all the same sensations and emotions. Just as Christians seek revenge when they are wronged, he will do so as well. By having Shylock make this speech, Shakespeare humanizes him and gives him a motivation for his hatred of Antonio and his relentless pursuit of his bond. Shylock is not pure evil. Rather, he is driven to seek vengeance for the ill-treatment he has received from the majority group.

In addition to depicting Shylock as a three-dimensional character, Shakespeare also shows the faults of the Christian characters. For example, Portia is casually racist, rejecting one of her suitors, the Prince of Morocco, simply for being black. After the prince fails the test set by Portia’s father and leaves, she states “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (Act 2, Scene 7). This racism, though not uncommon in the sixteenth century, is certainly not a noble character trait.

In conclusion, The Merchant of Venice reflects the society that produced it—a society deeply hostile to religious and ethnic minorities. Such blatant prejudice is no longer acceptable in most of the world, though, as the incident in Lahore reminds us,

there are places where it unfortunately continues to exist. Modern audiences may find Shylock’s portrayal stereotypical and anti-Semitic, but it is important to remember that Shakespeare also provides the reasons for the moneylender’s desire for revenge. At the same time, it is true that a play that ends with a forced conversion cannot be said to be a comedy, at least in the view of twenty-first century audiences. However, removing the play from the stage is not the solution. Rather, students and audiences should engage with the play’s context through classroom and post-performance discussions.

Kabir Altaf graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is a freelance writer and editor.

[Editor’s Note: Re-reads is a new feature on The South Asian Idea in which readers reflect on literature to which they have returned after a period of time. We invite readers to submit reflections on their own favorites.]

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Plain Truths About the Economy

July 30, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Every so often someone promises to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger. It is not a bad ambition but it hasn’t happened yet. Not just that, we don’t seem to be moving forward much. All the more reason for an honest examination because knowing where one is starting from is just as important as knowing where one wants to go.

With help of some illustrative numbers one can establish three points. The Pakistani economy is existing at a low level; it is in relative decline; and too many of its citizens are struggling at or below subsistence level. Getting from here to Asian tiger status would require something beyond more of the same.

First, the state of the economy. The Federal Bureau of Statistics website shows that in 2015 per capita income in current prices was Rs. 153,620 per year or about Rs. 13,000 per month (in round numbers) which is also the current minimum wage. This means that if Pakistan’s total yearly income was divided equally among its citizens, each person would get Rs. 13,000 per month – a household of four would have around Rs. 50,000 a month to live on. Add up essential household expenditures and it is obvious this is a survival-level allocation implying that the Pakistani economy in aggregate is a survival-level economy for its citizens.

Easily available data allows for comparisons with Malaysia, an Asian tiger cub, and South Korea, an Asian tiger. Adjusting for purchasing power, the respective yearly income per person in the two countries is five and seven times that of Pakistan. In other words, instead of Rs. 50,000 a Pakistani household of four would require Rs.2.5 lakh or 3.5 lakh per month to attain the average standard of living in Malaysia or South Korea. That is the difference between a survival economy and a prospering one. No wonder people would like to leave Pakistan to work in Malaysia but none would want to migrate in the other direction.

To achieve the status of an Asian tiger like South Korea, Pakistan’s income per person needs to multiply seven times. How long would that take? Even if the economic rate of growth increases from the existing 5% to 7% and is sustained year after year, it would take over 25 years to reach where South Korea is today. Getting there in 15 years would require a growth rate of 12% which is way beyond anything Pakistan has ever achieved.

Second, while the Pakistani economy is growing, it is declining relative to most other developing economies. In 1990, India’s per capita income was 40% lower than that of Pakistan; by 2009 it had drawn level; today, it is around 20% higher. China’s per capita income in 1990 was 50% less than Pakistan’s; today it is 200% higher. At these relative rates, far from becoming an Asian tiger Pakistan will soon be relegated to the status of an also-ran.

Third, if income were equally shared and every individual received a monthly amount of Rs. 13,000 the reality of the survival economy would be inescapable. It is masked by the illusion of opulence created by a highly unequal income distribution – so unequal that half the total national income goes to just the richest 20% of households.  A recent news report discussing salaries of bank CEOs revealed that Rs. 50 lakhs per month was not an outlier. With some individuals living at first world elite levels, it follows there must be others living below the average in order to keep the total income constant. In fact, the majority of individuals in Pakistan have monthly allocations well below the survival level of Rs. 13,000.

Given the extreme inequality, independent estimates suggest that over half the individuals in the country could be classified as vulnerable in the sense that any unforeseen expense can plunge them into poverty. Thus not only is the Pakistani economy a low-level economy in the aggregate, the majority of its citizens are living at well below an acceptable survival income, in fact in various degrees of deprivation.

How do individuals exist at this level of deprivation? By being poorly educated, in fragile health, increasingly indebted, and overworked because of dependence on multiple jobs. Care to follow the story of someone earning the minimum monthly wage of Rs. 13,000 and you will appreciate the real state of the Pakistani economy. Given this human capital, how do its leaders propose to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger in our lifetimes?

Understanding our existing predicament raises the real question: How did Pakistan get left behind in this impoverished state? Obviously it is not Pakistan’s fault – nothing says this was its fated destiny – but that of those occupying the driver’s seat all these years. How come China and India starting way behind have overtaken the Pakistani economy and moved so far ahead all in a matter of a few decades? Or how a small country like South Korea became so prosperous with limited natural resources? How come Malaysia has leveraged its strategic location and managed its ethnic diversity while Pakistan has not?

As we move into the election cycle we should be asking political parties some tough questions about their visions and development plans. We should not be fobbed off with easy answers. Corruption is not a good enough reason; it exists everywhere and the sizes of scams are in fact much greater in India. Overpopulation is also an unconvincing explanation given that both China and India are six times more populous. We should also not be distracted by the promise of CPEC. Even if it comes off perfectly it will add at best another 2.5% to the rate of growth of national income without any accompanying reforms of a fundamental nature.

Pakistan’s predicament is clearly related to some very poor policy choices, badly misplaced priorities and shockingly abysmal governance. We can infer some of these from the comparative experience of China which trailed us less than three decades back and is now so far ahead that we look upon it as a saviour. Such an exploration would be the subject of a subsequent article.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 25, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer would like to thank the following colleagues and students for very valuable suggestions on a number of early drafts: Dr. Ali Cheema, Dr. Farrukh Iqbal, Dr. Ijaz Nabi, Dr. Nadeem ul Haque, Dr. Anupam Khanna, Mr. Shahid Mehmood, Mr. Faizaan Qayyum and Ms. Marwah Maqbool. Any residual errors are the responsibility of the author.

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India, Pakistan and Cricket: To Play or Not to Play

July 23, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan wants to resume bilateral cricketing ties with India while India refuses to play ball. How would an alien from Mars, unaffected by nationalist biases, assess the situation?

It would be hard to dismiss the Indian position outright. Think of it this way: If you live in a community and a neighbour throws his trash over your wall you would be justified in being annoyed. You might go over once for a friendly chat but if the dumping continues you would be well within your rights to protest and break off relations. The neighbour’s invitation to a friendly game of chess will clearly smack of hypocrisy in the circumstances.

Extrapolate the analogy to India-Pakistan politics. There seems little doubt that Pakistan has been abetting incidents of terrorism in India – the 2008 attack in Mumbai was the most egregious and the most explicitly linked to Pakistan. Add to that unprovoked border incursions like the one in Kargil and one ought not to be surprised if India is riled up. In such a situation the demand to suspend sporting relations with a country exporting terrorism does carry weight.

However, extending the analogy of neighbours to countries is logically incorrect.  Neighbours are humans with agency in the sense that they can decide where and when to dump trash and whether and how to retaliate. Countries, on the other hand, are inanimate entities incapable of doing anything on their own. Rather, individuals or groups, acting in their names, carry out actions. And there is never a complete consensus on any action among the individuals or groups in a country.

The implication is that just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Pakistanis are not guilty of instigating incidents of terror in India. At the same time, it is not possible to deny that some are and openly so. Therefore, the question to ask is whether the Indian state is justified in punishing all Pakistanis for the actions of a few?

At an intellectual level the representatives of the Indian state know that some rather than all Pakistanis are involved in the incidents of terror in their country. However, their claim is that either the Pakistani state is complicit in the actions of the offending groups or, if not, is not doing enough to put a stop to their actions. Once again, on the basis of available evidence it is hard to deny that there isn’t validity to one if not both accusations. Therefore, the decision of the Indian state to suspend sporting relations continues to merit consideration.

Does this stance hurt or advance the interests of the Indian state? It would seem the latter because although it recognizes that not all Pakistanis are complicit in the acts of terror across the border, the Indian state does not discourage its media from painting all Pakistanis with the same brush, that is, to convey the impression that Pakistan is evil as an entity. This perception generates public support for a political stance which seems to be maintained for reasons other than those of pure principle.

In support of this conclusion one can cite the fact that despite the boycott, the Indian state is not opposed to contests between the two countries in multilateral competitions such as the World or Asia Cup tournaments. A principled stance that India would not play against a state promoting terror would call for a boycott of matches in such tournaments as well. There are precedents for such principled positions — many countries participated in a boycott of sporting relations with South Africa when its government practised the policies of apartheid. Similarly, Israel used to concede walkovers in global competitions if matches were scheduled on Yom Kippur.

One could be forced to conclude that there is more to the position of the Indian state than what it professes. In a period of RSS dominance, could it be too far-fetched to presume that an ideological consideration of the Indian state might actually be to punish Pakistan as much as possible while minimizing the cost of such a policy to itself?

The contradiction in the Indian position on bilateral and multilateral sporting engagements with Pakistan would seem to support the hypothesis. At the bilateral level, global sympathies are clearly on the Indian side and the finances of its sporting bodies are much stronger than those of the counterparts in Pakistan. Thus the relative economic loss from the bilateral boycott is quite asymmetric in favour of India.

The same would cease to be true if the boycott was extended to multilateral competitions. Not only would India diminish its chances of winning such tournaments by conceding walkovers against Pakistan, it would find it virtually impossible to sustain universal public support for such a position. Thus it is not surprising that Indian policymakers refer to contests at the multilateral level as ‘only a game’ while simultaneously allowing their media to paint bilateral contests in hyper-nationalist terms as an extension of war. This allows the Indian state to have its cake and eat it as well.

The Indian state can get away with this contradictory stance as long as the world believes that the Pakistani state is turning a blind eye to the promotion of acts of terrorism across the border. Given this perception the latter’s high-minded claim that sporting relations should be independent of political considerations is rightly seen as hypocritical.

Needless to say, and quite independent of anything else, the Pakistani state should be taking a much more forthright stand on restraining agents using its soil for acts of terror across its borders. However, given the mood of the moment in India, it is not clear if that would be sufficient for the Indian state to end its boycott of sporting relations at the bilateral level.

This opinion appeared in the Express-Tribune on July 22, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Language, Learning and Logic

July 11, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning.

The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity.

So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one has to choose from an early age which language one’s children should excel in — in a local language which does not have any worth in the job market or the one that can serve as a vehicle for the development of their careers.

This belief does not reflect just the opinion of the author. It effectively represents Pakistan’s language policy and the understanding of parents making it necessary to show why it is misleading. A minor problem is that it undermines the author’s objective. Only living languages are sustained attempts to preserve languages as museum pieces inevitably fail. Languages shunned as worthless for employment are doomed to slow death.

The major problem is the argument’s negation of evidence on linguistics and learning. First, the critical early-age decision is not choosing the language a child should excel in with a career in mind. It is choosing the language of instruction that maximizes the child’s ability to learn effectively. There is ample evidence to suggest that children learn best in their first language they pick up subjects like arithmetic better if taught in a familiar  language.

Second, it is false that children can only learn one language well because it becomes harder to learn a language with age. In fact, evidence suggests that children who begin learning in a familiar language are better at acquiring a second unfamiliar language later compared to those who start directly with the unfamiliar language. After much research the European Union has adopted the ‘mother-tongue plus two’ formula whereby children begin school in their mother-tongue and acquire two more languages before completing high school.  

Third, the belief that excelling in a language requires learning it from day one is incorrect and results from misunderstanding the learning process. Children acquire their first language effortlessly because they are immersed in it and have to survive by communicating their needs in it. This need-driven acquisition is not transferrable to alien languages. For example, in a Seraiki neighborhood if Chinese is made the medium of instruction children will not acquire it as fluently as Seraiki. Rather, they will retard their cognitive abilities struggling with an unfamiliar learning vehicle.

Fourth, adults learn foreign languages quite easily. They may lack the accents of native speakers but can be highly proficient otherwise. Observe the number of non-native scholars of Urdu in Western universities doing world-class work Annemarie Schimmel did not learn four oriental languages as a child. Adult Pakistani students in France and Germany do so likewise.    

Fifth, career decisions are not made in kindergarten. They are based on aptitude which matures later and is itself an outcome of a good education. Dr. Salam and Iqbal did not know their future careers at the start of their education nor did they start it in English. Had they done so they might have ended as babus in a British office.

The importance of language in early education has long been recognized. Macaulay introduced English as the medium of instruction for the Indian elite in 1835 triggering a wider demand because of its association with employment. However, a review of the policy in 1904 by the British themselves came to the following conclusion:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction… This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a 100 years later, a British Council study in Pakistan noted “various adverse outcomes arising from negative attitudes towards indigenous languages and for using Urdu and English as languages of instruction. These included high dropout rates, poor educational achievements, ethnic marginalization and, longer term, a risk of language death.” The study concluded that “there was an urgent need for awareness-raising about the importance of the mother tongue in the early years of education.”

Parents most in need of this message, with children shortchanged by early education in poor English, do not read such studies. It is for educationists to both raise awareness and convince the authorities to respect available evidence. Note that the Chinese have made remarkable progress without using English as the medium for early education while we who have done so are left far behind. All Chinese who need to learn English to advance their careers manage to do so.

The simple message to convey is that to acquire English it is not necessary to have it as the language of instruction in early education and doing so is bad for learning. It is understandable if parents confuse the issue; for decision-makers to do so just proves that knowing English does not necessarily correlate with intelligence.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 10, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Pakistan and its Neighbours

July 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Look at the map of Pakistan. The overwhelming length of its land border (92% of a total of 6,774 kilometers) is shared with three countries – India (43%), Afghanistan (36%), and Iran (13%). Pakistan has poor relations with each of these three neighbours.

Has anyone seriously asked the two obvious questions: Why? And, At what cost?

Before we jump on the moral high-horse and go into paroxysms of indignant self-righteousness, could we consider the following:

When George Bush asks ‘Why do they hate us?’ and answers ‘Because we are so good,’ we marvel at his intelligence. When we proclaim the same, we want to be taken seriously?

Surely, some self-reflection is in order.

Point number one: When nobody likes you, the problem could very well be with you. At the very least, intellectual honesty demands one should be open to the possibility.

Alright, there is a ready-to-serve narrative for the hostility with India. It is a Hindu country and Hindus are sworn enemies of Muslims wanting nothing better than to undo Pakistan. Ergo, we have to terrorize them from time to time lest, God forbid, they change their minds.

But what about our fellow-Muslim neighbours. Do we have semi-plausible narratives to explain our unhappiness with them?

We need to have a friendly regime in Afghanistan so we can be friends with them. Of course, this involves regime change about which we have serious qualms except when we are desperately seeking friends. And a little strategic depth won’t hurt either because when we have to pole-vault over the Indian border, we can start running from much further back.

Meanwhile, as Madeleine Albright said about the death of 500,000 Iraqis: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

And Iran, don’t they belong to a different sect? In any case, the enemy of our friend is our enemy, isn’t it?

Okay, I am exaggerating (slightly) but could we put some more coherent narratives on the table and have a national discussion without being defensive or afraid. And, while we are at it, could we also discuss who the geniuses are who are making these brilliant foreign policy decisions because it is certainly not the citizens.

We do seem to have a surreal notion of how to resolve our issues. Instead of trying to get along with the neighbours we have, we seem desperate to relocate ourselves to another neighbourhood. If only we could become Bakistan and cuddle up to Saudi Arabia or attach ourselves to the udders of those wonderful ’Stans, or be an extension of China, wouldn’t everything be so wonderful?

Quite aside from the fact that moving a country is not quite the same as moving a family from quarrelsome Harbanspura to peaceful Bedian, the nice thing about counterfactuals is that they never need to be put to the test. Having made a hash of SAARC and RCD, we can boldly dream we would make a great success of CAP (Central Asia and Pakistan – seriously).

It does help to have a short memory. Didn’t we have a neighbour (a little more than a neighbour, actually) about a 1,000 miles to the east and what exactly did we do to it that it could not bear our embrace?

Is everyone in this pipedream too smoked up to keep track of the contradictions? We launched a jihad in Afghanistan because godless communists were being nasty to our fellow-Muslims and now our best friends (sweeter than honey, etc.) are godless communists who allegedly won’t allow Muslims in their country to grow beards or fast during Ramzan (sorry, Ramadan). We are sincerely upset about Kashmir but, please, could we sincerely avert our eyes from Xinjiang. Or else.

More and more this comes across as a melange of self-serving gibberish that just doesn’t hold together. But who is to say and we know who there is to hear?

And what about the benefits and costs? Every situation has its winners and losers and in almost every case two truths hold: The winners are few and the losers many; and, the winners convince the losers that everything is happening in the latter’s interest and is exactly as the Good Lord willed. How much better the reward when it is finally conferred in the Hereafter.

There’s no prize for guessing the winners and the losers. Just look for the folks whose lifestyle is immune to whatever happens on the borders and those who are laughing to the bank and onwards to the Bahamas. There go your winners. As for the losers, think of those for whom a few Rupees less in the price of food would mean two meals a day instead of one.

You may not be able to do much about it but I am sure you can figure it out.

This opinion was published in the Express-Tribune on July 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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