Thousands of Burmese Muslims fleeing deadly attacks on their homes were stranded in the Bay of Bengal after Bangladesh barred their entry to the country over fears many of them are illegal immigrants. 80 per cent were found to be trafficked people and only 20 per cent genuine refugees fleeing violence.
As many as 3,000 Rohingya Muslims were reported to be waiting off the coast of Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh in around 50 boats after fleeing attacks by Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state. According to official reports, 84 people have been killed and more than 28,000 displaced in a wave of attacks in which hundreds of homes have been torched.
Several thousand Rohingya - one of the world's most persecuted minorities - fled to a mountainside to escape the violence while thousands more took to boats heading for the state capital Sittwe and to Bangladesh.
Last night (MON) senior Bangladeshi officials said while they sympathized with the Rohingya's plight in the current communal violence, they believe many of those heading for its coast are not genuine refugees but migrants being smuggled in by human traffickers.
Of the 800-1000 "Rohingya" who arrived in Bangladesh by boat in June, when just under 100 were killed in the first wave of attacks, 80 per cent were found to be trafficked people and only 20 per cent genuine refugees fleeing violence, said senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Saida Muna Tasneem.
No groups of boats had yet arrived from Burma, she said, but Bangladesh is "not looking forward to more illegal people coming from Myanmar (Burma)." Related Articles
"80 per cent were part of regular human trafficking by well-organized groups which took advantage of the sectarian violence," she said.
"Bangladesh is a very small state and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Whilst we sympathise, the international community should reflect on why these people are being persecuted.
"As far as Bangladesh is concerned we don't have the capacity for illegal people from Myanmar (Burma). Whether they are refugees needs to be assessed," she said.
Some Muslim migrants from Burma have been blamed for 'retaliatory' attacks on Buddhist temples in Bangladesh. "We have a large number of these people and tremendous national security problems because if it," she added.
There are 800,000 Rohingya living along Burma's border with Bangladesh but they are stateless because they are not accepted as Burmese nationals. Rakhine Buddhists regard them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
The town was under complete lock down that cold January day when two young Tibetan men ducked into the courtyard of a hotel, doused their bodies in kerosene and set themselves alight. Running out into the streets of Ngaba in Sichuan province they shouted “His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet” and “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for 10,000 years!” as they burned. Tennyi, a monk of Kirti monastery, died of his injuries that same day, and Tsultrim, thought to be an ex-monk of the same monastery, passed away the next day.
Tennyi and Tsultrim’s self-immolations were the first of 2012 in Tibet. There have been 23 more since then, taking the total number of self-immolations since 2009 to 38. Over that time, the image of the burning Tibetan – most often a monk or a nun, but also lay people, the young and the old – has been seared by the media into the world’s consciousness. Struck by the poignant horror of such acts, and unable to conduct field research, there has been a certain reticence amongst commentators to deal with their meaning analytically. But the self-immolations are clearly messages. Although an exhaustive statement cannot be made about what each of the self-immolations ‘means’, at the very least it can be concluded that the Tibetans who self-immolated were not content with their lot and, as the immolations were public spectacles, this discontent was sourced outside of themselves in the local socio-political context. It can thus be speculated that their acts embodied the concerns of many people in the same area.
A large majority of Tibet’s self-immolations have been carried out in Sichuan province, outside the Chinese-designated Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). At a talk on the 18th May of 2012 at the London School of Economics (LSE), Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya argued that this is in part due to relatively more liberal security policies outside of the TAR as well as the specific dynamics at play in that “very localised context”. After protests had covered large swathes of the Tibetan areas in 2008, the Chinese government identified Ngaba town as a sensitive area due to the existence of Kirti monastery – a stronghold of Tibetan culture and religion with substantial sway in the surrounding areas. The resulting security clampdown on the town is still ongoing, with military checkpoints every 30 to 40 metres along the street. Monks and nuns have been forced to undergo intensive patriotic reeducation classes during which they are pressured to regularly denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Frequent news stories in the local press also serve to malign him publicly. Shakya believes it is highly plausible that these local dynamics have engendered the spate of self-immolations. At LSE he stressed that reading the self-immolations as part of a pan-Tibetan struggle – as many have, including audience members that day – is too assumptive an analysis at present, likely more suited to exile Tibetans’ desire to see a political movement building than to the, as yet unstudied, lived realities on the ground.
But, just over two weeks later, on the 27th of May 2012 two self-immolations in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, significantly changed the dynamic. They were carried out at the heart of old Lhasa outside the Jokhang temple– an important place of pilgrimage for Tibetans from across the plateau, which has also been the site of previous protests by Tibetans against the Chinese rule. In March 2008, a group of monks staged a non-violent protest there which spread to Tibetan areas outside the TAR and triggered a nationwide uprising. In a place like Lhasa where ideas of Tibetan identity and political autonomy coalesce, the overt political symbolism of these self-immolations could not go unnoticed. In their aftermath, Tibetologist Robert Barnett told media that Lhasa was in a “boiling situation” with the Chinese authorities “really worried” because of the sense that these acts were clearly “driven by an idea, a political goal.” Such concern led them to arrest over 600 Tibetans in the self-immolations’ tense aftermath.
The Lhasa self-immolations have brought the act beyond local contexts, revealing it to be part of a wider social and political struggle by Tibetans both against the oppression of the Chinese state, and for an assertion of their cultural and political identity, manifested in calls for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. Thus, the on-going cycle of self-immolations can no longer be detached from the larger socio-political context and downplayed as a local phenomenon triggered by local circumstances. The dynamics which have led to their form and occurrence are in part regional. From the historical to the political to the social, these self-immolationsinvolve South Asia.
For centuries prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, the inhabitants of the Himalayas had met across the present-day borders, trading, inter-marrying, exchanging cultural practices and religious beliefs. A famous shared son of the Himalayas was born round 2500 years ago, in what is now southern Nepal. Siddartha Gautam travelled, learned, meditated and finally gained enlightenment as the Buddha in present-day northern India. 1000 years later, his teachings crossed the Himalayas to Tibet, to the court of King Songtsen Gampo. It is said that Gampo’s two wives – Chinese and Nepalese princesses – encouraged the King to adopt Buddhism. So began a series of religious exchanges that were to extend over centuries as a result of journeys undertaken by Indian and Tibetan monks and sages, bringing depth, widespread adherence and, at times, resurgence to Tibetan Buddhism throughout the Himalayan range. Compassion is a central tenet of the teachings. In one incarnation, the Buddha came across a starving tiger and, seeing she was on the verge of eating her young cubs, sacrificed his own life instead, his pure intentions overriding the sin of suicide. In testimony to this flow of ideas, prayer flags now fly from the lake sides of Ladakh in the north of the range, to the bridges of Bhutan in the south. Cultural practices that developed alongside the religion and as a result of intermarriage along trade routes left a sense of shared identity amongst the inhabitants of the Himalayas. So it was that in 1910 the 13th Dalai Lama, when threatened by the then neighbouring Chinese administration, was able to take temporary refuge in a sympathetic India. In 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans fled Tibet, and were granted refuge in India by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Since then, on average between two to four thousand Tibetans have escaped repressive Chinese rule annually. Thanks to Nehru’s initial support for the Dalai Lama, Tibetans have been able to establish a government in exile and set up substantial refugee settlements with the support of the host countries and a range of international nongovernmental organizations. The exile governmentestimates that today around 109,000 Tibetans live in South Asia – making it the largest concentration of Tibetans outside Tibet. The circular motion of ideas and actions that occurred between Buddhist scholars back at the forging of Tibetan Buddhism now finds repetition in a circle of ideas which move between Tibet and South Asian countries who play host to Tibetan refugees.
News of self-immolations is most often broken to the world’s media from the Indian town of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh – Tibet’s capital in exile. There Tibetan monks and laypeople work hard against China’s firewalls, radio jamming and phone surveillance and black-outs in order to maintain communication with those inside Tibet. For example, Kirti monastery’s sister establishment in India, populated mostly by monks from Tibet, has become a lifeline for information regarding the self-immolations in Ngaba. When it comes, the news prompts mass mourning and international media coverage. But the self-immolations are not restricted to Tibet. On 26th March 2012, Jamphel Yeshi fatally self-immolated on Indian soil on the eve of Hu Jinato’s visit to Delhi for the BRICS summit. In 1998, again in Delhi, Thubten Ngodup was the first recorded Tibetan to self-immolate, doing so to bring awareness to the Tibetan situation – this time in the context of a Tibetan hunger strike in Delhi which was being broken up by India authorities. As such, it is important to view Tibetan self-immolations as part of a continuing Tibetan struggle. This is reinforced by the fact that the few recorded last statements of some of the self-immolators compellingly call for a wider sense of Tibetan unity. Respected Buddhist Lama Sopa Rinpoche, 40 years and thus one of the older self-immolators, said:
“To all my spiritual brothers and sisters, and the faithful ones living elsewhere: You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future. This is the sole wish of all the Tibetan heroes. Therefore, you must avoid any quarrelling amongst yourselves…You must maintain unity and strength.”
Jamphel Yeshi, originally from Eastern Tibet but who set himself alight in Delhi, had this to say: “My fellow Tibetans! If you care about your happiness and future, you must have the spirit of patriotism. Patriotism is the soul of a nation. Moreover, it is the confidence in search of truth; and also the harbinger of a happy future.” As UK-based Tibetan scholar Tsering Topgyal propounds, the self-immolations can be seen to exist at one end of a spectrum of strategic resistance – predominantly nonviolent - that Tibetans have been engaging in for decades, and increasingly so from 2008 onwards. ““Whether [Tibetans in Tibet] are self-immolating, writing poems, taking to peaceful protest on the streets or posting a blog, they are mostly speaking about Tibetan rights, they have the same goals and aspirations.”With Chinese authorities clamping down heavily upon conventional protests and demonstrations, especially in the aftermath of the pan-Tibetan uprising of 2008, a large number of disaffected Tibetans in the TAR and the adjoining Tibetan areas, have turned to forms of defiance which are largely non-confrontational and centred around a sense of their common heritage and identity.
This home-grown national self-awareness and non-cooperation movement, popularly known asLhakar, is aimed at countering Beijing’s intensified efforts in recent years to systematically undermine Tibetan people’s distinct culture, language and identity.
The Tibetan word “Lhakar” literally translates as “White Wednesday”; Wednesday is an auspicious day for Tibetans because it is, according to Tibetan astrology, the Dalai Lama’s soul day (lah-sah). AsLhakar provides a discreet avenue for people to express their loyalty towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause in an implicit manner without attracting harsh punitive consequences, Tibetans from all walks of life have enthusiastically embraced it as a form of strategic nonviolent resistance against what they see as Chinese government’s relentless onslaught on everything Tibetan under the sun.
Thus, Wednesdays for Tibetans have, in many ways, become synonymous with their struggle for survival as a nation and culture. An increasing number of Tibetans, especially the youths, are now asserting their “Tibetan-ness” by donning Tibetan attire and promoting Tibetan cuisine. Whilst some Tibetans are adopting vegetarianism and keeping fasts, many others are taking pledges to converse and write in the Tibetan language on a regular basis, and avoiding the use of Mandarin with fellow Tibetans. Intellectuals and individuals with creative skills are using social media, blogs and music to explicate what being a Tibetan means and entails today. One such example is a composition by a young musician from eastern Tibet which has become somewhat of an anthem amongst Tibetans on either side of the Himalayas:
We are the kin of the same parentage
We are the inheritors of one nation
O ruddy faced Tibetans!
Though seemingly benign, these are gestures of profound symbolic significance for Tibetans both within Tibet and without. And what they have cumulatively done is further consolidate the sense of unity and common purpose fostered by the 2008 uprising.
Notably, in many Tibetan areas, Lhakar has sparked other acts of civil disobedience. For instance, early last year, Tibetans in Nangchen county, Qinghai province decided to completely boycott Chinese vegetable and grocery stores to protest against skyrocketing prices of commodities. Locals there are now reportedly purchasing all their supplies from delegated Tibetan vendors and at much lower prices. There have been reports of such boycotts spreading to adjoining Tibetan areas as well. Similarly, in a show of open defiance, Tibetan monks in Lithang county, Sichuan province ignored orders from local authorities and enthroned a life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama during a religious gathering in July 2011 attended by more than 5,000 devotees representing all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon tradition. Likewise, in October 2010, between 5,000 to 9,000 high school students from six different schools took to the streets of Tongren, Qinghai province to protest against the Chinese government’s plans to curb the use of the Tibetan language in their classrooms. Since then similar language protests have occurred in other neighbouring Tibetan areas, with the latest protest reported in March of this year. Also worthy of mention here are the mass burnings of garments made from animal fur in various parts of Tibet in response to the Dalai Lama’s appeal in 2006 against the use of tiger and leopard skins by some Tibetans for ornamental purposeswhich, conservationists say, was spurring illegal trade in animal fur and adversely affecting wildlife projects in South Asia and elsewhere. These mass fur-burnings were much less about ecological concern and much more about being able to demonstrate allegiance to the Dalai Lama over the Chinese State.
This ongoing identity-driven, civil disobedience movement inside Tibet – which is seen by many as a new chapter in the Tibetan people’s five-decade old struggle for greater freedom – has ample historical antecedents in South Asia, in particular the Indian independence movement. It is not hard to see the parallels between Lhakar and Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement launched in 1921. For one, both these movements were initiated in the aftermath of two very similar historical events -the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and the pan-Tibetan uprising of 2008. Tibetans inside Tibet appear to be coopting elements of Gandhi’s non-cooperation and Satyagraha movements and employing them to remonstrate against the PRC’s oppressive policies in their land.
Given that there has always been a two-way dissemination of ideas and influences across the Himalayas, it is hardly surprising that, in the face of oppression, Tibetans inside Tibet are emulating the path of strategic nonviolent resistance which was pioneered against colonialism by a highly esteemed South Asian leader. This two-way dissemination of ideas, in recent decades, has been facilitated by the sizeable Tibetan Diaspora in South Asian countries such as India, Nepal and Bhutan. In fact, the exile community in South Asia has often acted as a conduit for the diffusion of various socio-political trends from across the globe through communication devices, news output or through the many Tibetans who have returned to family in Tibet after education or time spent in exile. With regard to the Lhakar Movement in Tibet, one could argue that certain acts of non-cooperation such as the boycott of Chinese businesses by Tibetans in Qinghai province may have been inspired by similar campaigns to boycott “Made in China” products launched by the leaders of the exile community in the early 1980s. That said, it must be emphasized that Lhakar, as a movement, has its origins inside Tibet. It was only after the movement started gaining momentum within Tibet that the Tibetan Diaspora in South Asia and elsewhere began initiating parallel campaigns to express solidarity with their compatriots back home. Incidentally, this has sparked a hitherto unseen fascination regarding Tibetan culture and identity especially among third generation Tibetans, and engendered an analogous cultural resurgence outside Tibet.
Such resurgence is reflected throughout the democracies of Himalayan South Asia, where, in stark contrast to Tibet, Himalayan cultures and languages have been able to flourish. In late 2011, Himalayan Buddhists gathered for a conference on the Nepali plains, at Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. Australian Tibetologist Gabriel Lafitte noted its significance in creating a renewed sense of “heartfelt” identity amongst Himalayan peoples of Tibetan origin “and thus to a wider concept of Tibet as the spiritual home”. Significantly, the conference had the support of 17 members of Nepal’s parliament, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Vijay Kumar Gacchadhar, who attended as Chief guest. Events like this are manifestations of a growing sense of awareness in recent years among Himalayan peoples such as Sherpas, Tamangs, Bhutias, Ladakhis, Spitians, Bhutanese, Dompos, Monpas and others about their shared Tibetan heritage. Not surprisingly, these peoples, along with thousands of non-Himalayan Nepalese and Indians, form the core support base for Tibetans in South Asia. The Burmese people, with whom Tibetans share both cultural traits and a history of oppression, have also been very forthcoming in their support for the Tibetan cause. In fact, just days after protests broke out in Lhasa in March 2008, the All Burma Monks Alliance, an underground monk’s organization inside Burma founded in September 2007 during what is dubbed as the “Saffron Revolution”, and the International Burmese Monks Organization issued separate statements in support of Tibetan monks and condemned the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators.
Of all the South Asian states, the public level support for the Tibetan cause may well be most vocal in India. Given that the Tibetan movement has such strong similarities with the Gandhian ideas and strategies of India’s independence movement, a large number of Indian citizens can identify with it. For instance, during the recently concluded BRICS summit in New Delhi, many prominent Indians especially from the Himalayan region and the North East expressed their outrage over racial profiling and preventive custody of Tibetans and “Tibetan-looking” Indian citizens by the authorities. In a show of sympathy, Union Minister Agatha Sangma who hails from the Indian state of Meghalaya in the northeast told reporters that Tibetans like everyone else should have the right to protest peacefully on Indian soil. Similarly, in 2008, Bhaichung Bhutia, the then captain of the Indian National Football team refused to carry the Olympic torch during the India leg of its journey to voice his support for the people of Tibet and their struggle.
Yet despite the public-level solidarity which is extended to Tibetans in South Asia, this has not translated into real political support. The Chinese government is sensitive to the fact that recognition of strong shared cultures and histories across the Himalayas negates its meta-narrative that Tibet has always been a part of China. This sensitivity is greatly increased by the fact that, until recently, Tibetan refugees residing in South Asian countries have been able to use their relative freedom to non-violently call for change in the Tibetan situation. The Tibetan uprising in 2008 sparked solidarity protests across the world, led by Tibetan exiles. These reached a height in Delhi, Dharamsala and Kathmandu where, daily, Tibetan refugees raised their voices against the regime on the other side of the Himalayas. Beijing is well aware that despite its closed borders and restricted communications, furtive connections on telephones and the internet, international news broadcasts, as well as refugees and returnees enable ideas to cross the physical and technological barriers that surround Tibet, allowing those inside, and the refugees outside to share in and shape one movement.
Shaken by the 2008 uprising, Beijing has since viewed Tibetan refugee activity as a serious threat to China’s political integrity. In a conscious move to mitigate this threat, China has firmly centred its political negotiations with northern South Asia on the issue of Tibet. Indeed, China’s interest in joining SAARC as an observer state, prominent Tibetan commentator Bhuchung K Tsering notes, is to be able to have more leverage on how South Asian countries deal with Tibet. Both politically and geographically, China now meets South Asia through the prism of Tibet.
China’s rise to the echelons of superpower means that over the past few years, the democratic ideals of Nepal, Bhutan and India have been strongly tested by a Chinese government keen to see adherence to a ‘One China’ policy, wherein states publicly support the concept of China’s territorial sovereignty. In order to prove their commitment to this policy, China uses considerable political pressure, soft power and financial incentives to encourage states bordering Tibet to stem the Tibetan refugee flow, and silence Tibetan refugee communities. As a result, where once they were safe havens, India, Bhutan and Nepal have become increasingly restrictive in their treatment of Tibetans.
This is most evident in Nepal, which is the least stable of the three Himalayan states, and receives the majority of new arrival Tibetan refugees. A decade-long conflict that ended in 2006, and the years of political turbulence which have followed gave Beijing opportunities to assert itself in Nepal’s internal affairs. After the conflict, China switched from providing arms to the Nepal Army to funding infrastructure projects and providing aid. In return, China asks for only one thing, a demonstrated commitment to stopping “anti-China” activities, in adherence with a One-China policy. The freedoms which Tibetan refugees once enjoyed in Nepal have been dramatically reduced as a result. In correlation with China’s funding of Nepal’s security forces, with the express command to quell “anti-China’ activities, the rates and lengths of detentions of Tibetan refugees have soared. Tibetans report being harassed and detained by police at protests, but also at cultural events and, often, seemingly, for no reason at all bar political expediency. In January 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao touched down into Kathmandu for a state visit – the highest level such visit in a decade – that lasted less than 5 hours. On the day before the visit, over 200 Tibetans were rounded up and detained, only to be later released without charge. While these Tibetans languished in detention, Wen Jiabao made clear China’s determined engagement with Nepal by announcing an increase in development aid to $119 million this year. The figure was just $128,200 in fiscal year 2005/6.
Though a stronger state, India too has often capitulated to Chinese pressure with regard to Tibetans. This was apparent in the run up to the BRICS summit in April this year when the Indian authorities cordoned off Tibetan colonies and hostels in and around Delhi and preemptively detained hundreds of Tibetan activists and students. But India has always walked a fine line on the issue of Tibet, its actions largely motivated by long-standing geopolitical concerns. A major factor in Sino-Indian relations is the 3,380 km long shared border that is disputed by both sides and along which numerous Chinese incursions have been reported in recent times. India claims that China has illegally occupied the Aksai Chin area bordering Tibet in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and China in turn lays claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as “South Tibet”, and also parts of Sikkim. Ironically, much of this border was already demarcated via a bilateral agreement between British India and the then independent state of Tibet in 1914. India inherited this agreement on its independence in 1947 but the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 complicated the equation. So, to resolve this longstanding border issue, the two Asian giants have had several rounds of talks since the 1980s. But China has often made its participation in such talks conditional upon New Delhi restricting the activities of what it calls “splittist” elements from its territory. For example, in November 2011, Beijing pulled out of what was to be the 15th round of border talks between the Special Representatives of the two countries when New Delhi refused to call off a congregation of religious leaders and scholars in the Indian capital that was to be addressed by the Dalai Lama. Thus, India’s imposition of increased restriction on the political activities of exiled Tibetans in recent times should be viewed within this larger geopolitical context. Tibetans still greatly benefit from India’s hospitality, but are increasingly becoming a pawn in their political game with China.
In contrast to India, other less developed South Asian states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma have readily echoed China’s position on Tibet and helped further Beijing’s agenda in South Asia. But these countries themselves are not immune to the adverse consequences of China’s presence in Tibet. The livelihoods of millions of people in South Asia depend upon rivers originating in Tibet. Chinese proposals to divert these rivers and build multiple dams on them are likely to hit them the hardest. As such, Beijing’s mismanagement of Tibetan rivers has the potential to disrupt economic activity in the whole of South Asia and trigger unprecedented social unrest in the region, far beyond Tibet.
Which brings us back to the messages that are the self-immolations. Taking into account all the connections, Tibet is, in many ways, a South Asian nation. South Asians, having had such close connections with Tibetan people, are perhaps better equipped than most nations to ‘read’ the situation inside Tibet. But as South Asian states respond to the current geopolitical context by strengthening economic and political relationships with China rather than speaking up for their oppressed brethren, the trade-off is increased Chinese influence over their internal and external policies. Given that China also exerts control over South Asia’s water and threatens its northern states’ borders, that some Tibetans have gone to the lengths of setting themselves on fire to draw attention to their plight under Chinese rule is both a warning and an appeal, which South Asia – both public and political – would do well to heed.
Iona Liddell is a freelance writer-activist who has lived and worked in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. She writes on human rights, conflict and refugee issues in South Asia.
Samdup Tenzin is a writer, blogger, and Tibetan rights activists.
The pogrom-like atmosphere gathering apace vis-a-vis its minorities in Pakistan is a far graver threat to society than is commonly realised. Sunnis, the majority community, do not appear to perceive that what is at stake is not an ‘altruistic’ concern for some weak, insignificant others. The larger framework of our lives—capitalism, and its partner in the abomination of our collective existence, nationalism—works to make us think and act as if ethical action towards others is reserved for exceptional moments of ‘altruism’, rather than being the everyday condition of a decent life. This destitute conception of ethics has come to pervade more and more of our lives, including our ‘religion’, which increasingly appears as a domain distinct from its own heart: ethics. Like everything around us, our ethics and religion too are fast becoming content-free.
What is at stake is the character, meaning and quality of life as such, inclusive, above all, of Sunniism and the integrity of its own nature and traditions. It is one of the key teachings of the Abrahamic faiths (and beyond, for example, in the Indic concept of karma) that what is of equal concern in acts of injustice and violence is the impact they have on one’s own soul. This cosmological insight is also at the origin of the philosophical tradition where, in Socrates and Plato, virtue is cultivated in the care of one’s own soul. Both rest on one fundamental: the most basic, enduring pleasure of life—the ground and potential of all other pleasures—is the pleasure of one’s own soul. Simply put, one cannot be a scoundrel to others without becoming a scoundrel to oneself. It cannot be denied that there are pleasures to be experienced in the ego of the scoundrel, but their destitute and transient quality is a common experience. The extreme survivalism of capitalist-nationalist society has worked to suppress this basic truth: it is quite possible to survive, to live a long life (even one endowed with wealth, power, status) and yet never to experience the reality of life. Indeed, without the enlivenment of the soul, even if one survives, one might as well be dead—indeed, our present condition increasingly resembles rotten death, not ripened life.
Most immediate to the question of ‘minorities’, the ricocheting impact of violence on the soul of the perpetrator is evident in the rapidly declining quality of the life of Sunniism itself—in the everyday evacuation of Sunni piety of its ethical content, in the menacing quality of its sanctimoniousness. The disclosure that the Christian child Rimsha Masih’s accuser, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, a mosque-imam, had himself planted “blasphemous” material to get the child caught was most revealing. Chishti—a stain he is upon the exalted name of South Asia’s largest Sufi silsila—may be a particularly egregious scoundrel, but the twisted disposition of his piety is by no means devoid of affinity with the emergent character of the society of his co-sectarians.
Turning and Turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold: Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. — From ‘The Second Coming,’ by W.B. Yeats
Do poets see further ahead than the rest of us? From the evidence of “The Second Coming,’ the much-anthologized poem by the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats, poets indeed do. Written almost a century ago, the poem, which can be read on many levels, can also be construed as a prophecy of the cracking up of India that seems to be in process in 2012. Stripped of its mystical language, the poem can be read as a prophecy of New Delhi losing its hold on the outlying parts, of a breakdown of law and order, of the release of regional genii that no longer obey the commands of their master.
The poem, written in 1919, has been described by British and American critics as obscure. But if you look at the first stanza as referring to the state of India in the age of Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee, it makes perfect sense. The second stanza looks at the future, envisioning a second coming. At a time when the old order is collapsing and the new is yet to take shape, a poem can be our best crutch to limp through the dust of collapsing structures.
An Airbus 330 had disgorged 320 passengers at Indira Gandhi International Airport on the morning of July 13, including this writer and Minakshi, at the end of a week of power cuts in the capital that would later be described in the Indian media, with characteristic glee at disasters, as the “second worst in history.” (The “worst power cut in history” would come at the end of the month, July 30-31, when 20 of India’s 28 states would be left without electricity.) Having been caught up in the Northeast blackout of 2003 in New York, I have some idea of the horror of power outages even in temperate regions. But the suffering caused by power failures must be a hundred times compounded in Delhi or Rajasthan where the mercury soars to above 110 in late July. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi was right. Shouldn’t have let ourselves be spoilt by electricity.
Anyway, if only the second worst, the New Delhi power cuts of early July meant that there was no relief to be had from the heat. In a week of being driven to 13 Talkatora Road and back to Shaikh Serai, with not much more exposure to the sun than while getting in and out of the car, I acquired such blisters on the neck and chest that wearing a shirt was torture. Everyone I met sweated torrents and smelt horsy. Ordinarily I have no sympathy for cops, but I felt sorry –and also an uneasy respect — for the Delhi policemen standing in full uniform in the sun. Ditto for TV commentators and interviewers hanging out at 13 Talkatora Road. While their crew sought shelter from the sun under awnings and the lone mango tree, the TV ‘personalities’ sweated and panted in their lounge suits, pacing the front yard of 13 Talkatora Road, waiting to interview the current occupant of the Raj-era bungalow, Pranab Mukherjee, finance minister and Congress party old-timer who had suddenly sprung into banner-headline prominence with the announcement that he was his party’s choice for the 13th President of the Republic of India. Unlike that of the 12th President, the election of the 13th had aroused great interest, and — from an unexpected quarter — vehement antagonism.
Inexplicable to many was the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee’s opposition to Mukherjee’s candidature. She used to be seen as not merely Mukherjee’s protégé, but his very own creation, his surrogate in Bengal. Fellow Bengalis were aghast at the extremity of her opposition. After all, wasn’t the President’s largely a ceremonial office? Why was she going from door to door, bent on to shooting down Mukherjee’s bid for the Presidency?
Equally inexplicable were the clucking noises from Mukherjee seeking to pacify her. Making light of her rebuffs, he called her pleadingly on the phone, and told newsmen he didn’t mind her tantrums; she would always remain his dear little sister. Personal slights did not seem to touch him, nor was he moved by larger upheavals. In the mini general elections earlier in the year, the Congress party had won a majority in just one state out of seven. The straws fluttered this way and that in the erratic wind. There was, however, no mystery about the rejection of the Congress by Uttar Pradesh, which returns 80 members to the Lok Sabha, and has long been regarded as the demesne of the Nehru-Gandhi family, in the state elections in February-March 2012.
At the end of a hugely publicized campaign led by the scion of the dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, Congress came up with only 28 of the 403 seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly when the results were announced in March.
“If he had any other surname, Rahul Gandhi, commonly mentioned as a prime minister-in-waiting, would surely be pondering a new career, reported The Economist from New Delhi on March 10. “His ill-starred record as a political campaigner reached a new low on March 6 when he accepted blame for his party’s dreadful showing in assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). … Mr Gandhi must regret his personal effort, which he grandly dubbed ‘Mission 2012’ (he campaigned full-time, with lavish funds, for over a year)… He picked gargantuan UP, the old family fief, hoping that success there would compensate for Congress’s fading fortunes in another big state, Andhra Pradesh. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, joined him in the campaign, urging voters to stay loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. They ignored her.” Will they continue to ignore the Gandhi-Nehru loyalists in the next general elections? Will any party emerge strong enough to hold the union together? Clouds of smoke rose from smoldering scandals. The ethnic clashes in the north-east were spreading to the south and the west. Narendra Modi seemed set to sweep Rajasthan in the election slated for the end of the year.
Many questions hung in the hot, hot air of New Delhi last July, but chief in my mind was what kind of a President would Pranab Mukherjee, my friend of over 40 years, make in the time of transition looming ahead? Would he be content to be a mere bowhead of a ship breasting a storm? Would he be just a rubberstamp for the Congress party?
When we first call at 13 Talkatora Road, Pranab Babu (as Mukherjee is universally known in India) is away on a nine-state tour, catching no more than a couple of hours of sleep between cities, emerging every morning colorfully dressed in the local traditional costume. The mathematics of the coming vote are clearly in his favor, but he is reinforcing the mathematics with charm and diplomacy.
We spend our first morning in Delhi with Suvra, who is emerging from a long illness to take up her place at her husband’s side and fulfill her many duties as India’s first lady. She has had long preparation for this role, having been initially mentored by no less than Indira Gandhi.
When Suvra arrived in New Delhi 42 years ago, she had no other recommendation to be one of the top hostesses of the Indian capital than being the wife of the rising Rajya Sabha member who had caught the eye of the Prime Minister.
Gandhi not only steered Pranab up the steps of the ministerial stairs, she took Suvra under her wings. What better finishing school would a debutante need? No detail was too small for Indira Gandhi, from how best to do her hair to dinner table etiquette.
“I would arrive at one of the dinners at 1 Safdarjung Road, out of breath, the stain of turmeric still showing, for I had just finished cooking for the kids,” Suvra used to reminisce, ramblingly– long before the possibility dawned of her being the hostess at the world’s largest lived-in presidential palace. “She would take me aside, make me wash my hands and rub some soothing lotion on, while sharing with me a secret or two about the evening’s guests to put me at ease. I used to make a loose lump of my hair, letting it hang on my back. Indiraji made me change to a tight bun gathered as high as possible — because I had a short neck, and looked dumpy.
“Her mantra was always to have faith in oneself. Accompanying her on her trips abroad, I was amazed by her complete self-possession; she always had the right smile and exactly slanted nod for all –from the ambassador to the honor guard to the head of state.
“And the right answers. She had a sharpness of mind I could never aspire after. I remember the British Prime Minister asking her after a dinner at 10 Downing Street whether India was ready to change its policy and stop making war on Pakistan. Indiraji replied: ‘Change policy! The first bullet has always come from the other side.’ That silenced him.” It goes without saying that the Mukherjees adore their Indiraji. Is their worship based on reason, or is it blind idolatry?
I walk into Mukherjee’s private office attached to his residence the night of his return from his whirlwind tour, making my way through a side door from the living area, unobstructed by the secretaries, secret service men, politicians, and party stalwarts who throng the entrance. Pranab Babu is at a large desk at the other end of the room, with a mural size portrait of Indira Gandhi on the wall behind. He is alone. He looks up, puzzled, from his papers.
He needs a few seconds to recognize me, which I think is a feat of memory equal to his other amazing ones, such as quoting statistics about Cuttack from the 1881 Imperial Gazetteer by Sir William Hunter. For my arrival is unannounced. I am supposed to be at that moment on the other side of the Atlantic, while he is expecting some political boss or the other to walk in. Also, I know I have changed fast in the past couple of years, losing most of my hair and acquiring many wrinkles. I have also got rid of the thick glasses I have had since boyhood, while he is without his formerly inseparable briar pipe, which made drawing Pranab such an easy lark for cartoonists such as Abu and Kutty.
Despite he is almost the same age as me, his face is entirely without lines, with a ruddy glow many observers claim emanated from Gandhi. The other Gandhi. The Mahatma.
The last time I had extensive dialogues with Pranab Babu was in 1995, when, intent on forming his own political party, Rashtriya Samajbadi Congress, he was crisscrossing West Bengal by day, returning to Hyderabad House late at night to catch his usual fewer than forty winks. He was agog with his ideas of imbuing RSC with the true spirit of Indiraji, and would not stop talking till early the next morning, which was most welcome to me, as I was, as at a number of other times in my life, about to launch yet another newspaper, and exulted, at securing an exclusive interview. At that time, I had been the first to publish details of what transpired between Rajiv Gandhi and Pranab Babu on the IAF flight from Panagarh to Calcutta on October 31, 1984, following news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This July, I have no secrets to scoop. I am seeking, as a dramatist or a poet does, clues to the character of the man. There are schools of thought that put no weight to the role of individuals in history, considering it to be a blind play of impersonal forces. I disagree. At certain crucial moments, it does matter who is at the helm. Had Churchill not been Prime Minister, would Britain have taken such punishment by the Luftwaffe without reaching out for a Munich-style compromise? It is only by hindsight that the collapse of USSR seems a certainty; the Berlin Wall might still have been there was it not for Gorbachov. To Deng goes the credit for China now being the world’s No. 2 power, as perhaps to Obama the blame for the US not extricating itself from its direct and drone wars in the first few weeks of his election.
The question is: Will the office of the President of India ever be more than merely decorative? Happily, not much so, this far. Among other factors, the Edwardian English gentleman in Jawaharlal Nehru be praised for providing the necessary early shade for seedling parliamentary democracy in India. The Nehru-Gandhi families deserve also to be thanked for contributing three Prime Ministers who helped the system achieve a degree of continuity. It is, however, no longer certain that the country will continue to be loyal to the House of Motilal.
In fact, will there be one country? Suppose the Congress party gets no larger a share of seats than it did in Uttar Pradesh, and so does the BJP; what crazy sudoko of numbers will India resemble? Many in America are concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan following the US drawdown; the anxiety goes up many degrees when we consider the likely fractured outcome of the 2014 General Elections in the core region.
There is no denying the centrality of India in the region, which is less than 3 percent of the world’s land area, but is home to 20 percent of the planet’s population. If anarchy is loosed on India, it will be a planetary disaster.
While the Indian Presidency is described as a largely symbolic office, the reality behind the symbols is frequently overlooked. All those paper tigers have real teeth. Dressed up in Rajput and Mughal finery, the President’s Bodyguard may look a harmless picturesque lot, but the unit is capable of fast military strikes, having seen action in Chusul and the Siachen glacier. The President is the head of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. He opens the Sessions of Parliament, being driven there in a specially built bullet-proof Mercedes, with motorbike ceremonial outriders and flanked by turbaned cavalry men. But with the BSP, BJP, TCP, SP, CPI-M, INC, BLD, IEMC, and others turning Parliament into an alphabet soup, what hand but the President’s will be left to steer the ship of state? The Fathers of the Indian Constitution did indeed have such a situation in mind, and not trusting on the wisdom of the general electorate with its universal adult suffrage, had created the very special machinery of the electoral college to come up with a wise, experienced, nonpartisan head to come to intervene and act when the system was in dire straits and Parliament was in paralysis.
One doesn’t have to be a shaman to see what direction India is heading. In this drift, it is good to know we have Pranab as a reserve on the bridge. It is unjust to describe him just as Mr. Fixer of the Congress party. He has not always toed the party line. Those who know him intimately, admire him for not only his mind but his morals. If Indira was fond of him for his beautiful manners and sharp intellect, Mahatma Gandhi would have approved of his Spartan life. After six decades in public life, including forty years in such profitable ministries as shipping, commerce and banking, he remains one of the country’s poorest ministers. While according to Election Commission figures, 40 of the 69 MLAs of the sparsely populated, pastoral state of Arunachal are millionaires, it’s Chief Minister’s 35 year old brother has declared assets worth Rupees 220 crores, and the Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath is worth Rs. 263 Crores. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Rs. Crores, Pranab Babu is worth a measly Rs. 1.8 Crores — which is less than half a million dollars.
Pranab Babu emerges from the soot and grime raining from India’s many corruption scandals, including ‘coalgate,’ with his Bengal-style punjabi and dhoti immaculately white. He may be a good man; will he be effective? Of those who have worked with him, none have known how he operates behind the screen more than Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Bannerjee; one goes to the extent of consulting him in private for hours, while the other was for some time running around the yard like a chicken being chased by a man with a knife. Bannerjee’s shrieks got louder and louder as Pranab Babu’s election drew nearer, finally falling into a last reluctant gasp of defeat, while the latter made soothing clucking noises, reminding one of scenes in rural Bengal in which women claim to be possessed by spirits, and the local ‘ojha,’ or witch-doctor approaches them, reciting propitiating mantras. Folk wisdom is manifest in the Bangla saying, “Shaaper Haanchi Bedei Chaynay,” that is, unknown to the rest, the snake-catcher and snake know when the hunt is on.
Pranab Babu may be effective, but will he be as good for the entire South Asia region as he is for India? The minimum I can say is that he is not an interventionist. Same as his icon, Indira Gandhi, he is not seeking expansion of territory. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi, he is unwilling to send an expeditionary force to any neighboring country.
I happened to be at Pranab Babu’s side when as Minister of Defence he was asked by a powerful visitor from Nepal about the likelihood of a commando swoop on Kathmandu to whisk away King Gyanendro to exile — which he simply laughed away, declaring that he left such adventures to James Bond novels.
Who can see into the future? Even poets can see it only as reflected in a dark and smoky mirror.
Since July 2012, I can clearly relate developments in the immediate past in India to Yeats’s cryptic utterances in the first stanza of ‘The Second Coming.”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” — ‘gyre’ was Yeats’s favorite word for ’spiral’ — India is going into a spiral, spinning out of control.
The ‘falconer’ in the next line is the Congress Party which created the ‘falcon’ of Mamata Bannerjee hoping she would swoop down on the CPI-M (Communist Party of India -Marxist) and then fly back at its command to her perch on her trainer’s wrist in Delhi.
“The blood-dimmed tide?” — How else to describe the Gujarat killing! “And everywhere,” from Gandhi’s Sabarmati to Tagore’s Shantiniketan, ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” — Too true, alas, as honest Manmohan Singh suffles his feet and dithers, while the fanatics of Shiv Sena and BJP breathe fire and spit brimstone.
It is the second stanza that leave us a pray to doubts about the future direction of the country, the region and indeed the world. Was world civilization a two-millennia fantasy? Will all that Tagore sang and Gandhi spun come to naught? Will the region, the most fertile in the world, home to 2,000 ethnicities, cradled by the planet’s highest mountain and ocean named after it, watered by snow-fed rivers, nurtured by such a rich mix of religions and philosophies, end up as a nuclear war graveyard? The answer may be a “No,” if a keen mind and a steady hand at the helm of India counts. In the meanwhile, we wait breathlessly for the sphinx of the history to speak.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: A waste of desert sand. A shape with a lion body and the head of a man A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Wind shadows of the indignant birds…
The former Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer was murdered by a religious extremist. The late Governor sought to initiate positive changes in Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law, introduced by late General Zia-ul-Haq, the former military dictator who sent populist President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the gallows and used Islam to legitimize his autocratic rule. Urdu press coverage of the bigotry and harangues of his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri (one of the late governor’s guards) led to a frenzy of demands for his acquittal.
The Blasphemy law needs to be reformed for two reasons:
1. It is used for vendetta, mostly to target marginalized individuals, especially from among minorities, in settling private scores. The strict punishment for blasphemy is the death penalty, even when the evidence is ambiguous.
2. It is a manmade law and like any other law should be open to debate leading to amendment.
Introduced by the British in 1860, the blasphemy laws applied to all religions. Their purpose at the time was to prevent communal conflicts in British India. The laws lay dormant for an extended period only to be reborn in a severe and ambiguous form in the 1980s during General Zia’s regime in Pakistan. In 1986, Section 295-C legitimized the death penalty for anybody who was accused of disrespecting the prophet of Islam. From the 1980s onward, there was a rampant increase in reported blasphemy cases. Blasphemy became a popular excuse to settle petty scores and most of the accused ended up in jail for long periods. Religious zealots in Pakistan, in the same way as Judeo-Christian fanatics in USA, whip up hate campaigns in the name of evangelism, and manage to exert tremendous pressure on lower courts and the police to indict and punish alleged blasphemers without due process of law. Since it was difficult to prove allegations of blasphemy, most cases took a long time to be settled, and in almost all cases the accused were either acquitted by the superior courts or punished by death.
Aasia Bibi, a Christian laborer and mother of five, was sentenced to death under the Blasphemy Law by a court in Nankana Sahib, Punjab in November 2010. She was the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law (Pakistan Penal Code). The allegation against her was that she had blasphemed against Prophet Muhammad during a quarrel with fellow Muslim women laborers. A mercy petition was prepared by Governor Taseer for President Asif Ali Zardari on November 20 2010 during his visit to the district jail. He stated at a press conference that she had been wrongly accused of the crime. Following Taseer’s appeal for mercy, a mob rioted outside the Governor House in Lahore, burning his effigy and calling for his death.
President Zardari at first said that he might pardon the Christian woman if she had been wrongly convicted. However, on the advice of his legal advisors, he stalled his decision, allowing the superior courts to review the conviction. The issue became a “bone of contention between the government and the mullah” (Guardian, U.K.) A section of the Pakistani media played a highly provocative role by presenting Taseer as an accomplice in blasphemy. The governor’s actual role was to stand up for minority rights and officially enter his plea against the misuse of the law. The Urdu print media, in particular, joined the chorus of religious parties in a vicious campaign that culminated in the brutal assassination of Governor Taseer. On January 4 2011, Taseer’s security guard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, fired his gun at the Governor 29 times, shooting him dead. He surrendered himself to the police saying: “Salmaan Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer.” (BBC)
In the past, religious parties played on the emotive issues of blasphemy and the finality of the prophet-hood of Prophet Mohammed for public appeal to suit their political ends. Often the Urdu media played into the clergy’s hands and created a public frenzy. Blasphemy cases have always been exploited in Pakistan by the vernacular media, which tended to ignore the persecution of minorities. Moeed Pirzada has noted how an otherwise robust media ignored the story of an alleged Hindu blasphemer, Jagdeesh Kumar, who was brutally murdered by a Muslim mob in Karachi’s industrial area (Daily Times, April 19 2008). Analyst Ziauddin found that the Pakistani press was suffering from a patent majoritarian bias.
The mullah and the media nexus over blasphemy has developed because the blasphemy story is a selling point. The Aasia blasphemy case provided yet another opportunity, this time for the electronic media, to exploit the public’s wild imagination through primetime television slots hungry for ratings in absurd competition. The religious right in politics is understandably determined to defend the gains it made in its collaboration with General Zia, who used Islamization as a pretext to prolong his authoritarian regime. General Zia won over the religious right by offering them the trophies of the blasphemy law and other controversial legislations, such as the Hudood Ordinance and Qanoon-i-Shahadat order. Successive legislatures dispensed with many amendments brought into the Constitution by successive military rulers but could not remove the controversial Islamic provisions. Pressure from the religious right and a scoop-hungry media playing to their tune ruled the roost.
Indeed the media spin over Governor Taseer’s initiative to obtain pardon for the wrongly convicted Aasia followed the familiar pattern of newsrooms racing to create news-stories rather than follow news events. Taseer’s official request for the due process of law, albeit with the fanfare of a press briefing, was deliberately turned into a “hot” story. The newsrooms ignored Aasia Bibi’s side of the story, her declarations that she respected the Prophet, and her plea that she had been falsely accused and jailed. Instead, a large segment of the media chose to present Aasia as a blasphemer deserving death who was being protected by a liberal, nonconformist governor. In addition, television channels covered long, passionate speeches by religious and nonreligious leaders inciting Muslims to take revenge on those who dared to show disrespect for the Prophet or even call for due process of law for anyone accused of blasphemy.
Sensationalizing the issue for their mass readership, Pakistan’s Urdu newspapers took the lead in farming negative rhetoric against Taseer and played a pivotal role in inciting the people to violence. The public reaction, along with TV channels, was initially divided. A group of civil society protestors in Lahore rallied on November 21 2010 demanding Aasia’s release. Yet only a few days later, during a more charged public rally in the same city, an Aalmi Tanzim Ahle Sunnat leader, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, appealed to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to take suo moto notice against Governor Taseer for defending the “blasphemer” Aasia Bibi. Threats were hurled at government functionaries, parliamentarians, and religious scholars who had expressed their reservations about the death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi. Most Urdu editorials were vociferous in framing Taseer as a blasphemer. He was compared to his father M. D. Taseer, who had actively participated in the burial of Ghazi Ilam Din, a Muslim convicted of murdering a Hindu accused of blasphemy in the 1920s. Repeated columns raised the question: How could the son of an aashiq-e-rasool (lover of the prophet) support a blaspheming woman?
Numerous articles in the Urdu press were bent upon discrediting Taseer for having brought shame to the Muslim ummah (brotherhood). A section of the Urdu press deliberately distorted Taseer’s argument for procedural revisions necessary to stop misuse of the blasphemy law. Sherry Rehman, a leading parliamentarian of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and Asma Jehangir, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, were castigated for expressing their dissent over the misuse of the blasphemy law. On the other hand, the English press, with its limited readership, garnered very little public attention on behalf of its advocacy for corrections, as the law was flawed.
Taseer’s preliminary news conference favoring Aasia’s release was presented on November 20 2010, and was covered in television as part of general news segments. Eventually the TV coverage followed the sensationalism of the print media. Javed Chaudhary, in the introduction to his program “Kal Tak” (aired on November 22 2010 on Express News), attempted to present Taseer as a governor bent on pleasing the Pope, America, and other western countries by supporting a Christian woman. He obtained, however, a broad spectrum of opinion in his choice of guests, inviting Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, Dr Atiq-ur-Rehman, secretary general of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), and Tahira Abdullah, a human rights activist, onto his panel. He pursued a provocative style and did not balance his questions, but he offered equal space for a fair debate among the guests in his program. Atiq-ur-Rehman defended the blasphemy law and Tahira Abdullah argued that it has been reduced to a political tool for many political players. Shahbaz Bhatti, by giving facts about the misuse of the law, brought some sense of objectivity and rationality to the discussion.
Anchor Najam Sethi’s program on the blasphemy law (aired on November 22 2010 on Dunya TV) was more of a balanced debate. Apart from his researched analysis, his program included a news package on the Aasia Bibi case, a short interview with Governor Taseer, a brief chronology of the blasphemy law, and contributions by the Punjab law minister Rana Sana Ullah and religious scholar Javed Ghamdi. His documentation displayed objectivity, and his analysis was candid.On November 23 2010, Express TV took up the Taseer/Aasia story and provided the religious clergy extra space to denounce the governor. Mubashar Luqman’s program “Point Blank” included Hafiz Butt (Jamaat-e-Islami), Allama Abbas Kashmiri, and Mufti Abdul Kareem (Jamaat-e-Ahlesunnat, Pakistan) as guests. Luqman himself, though, blamed his guests for turning a legal debate into a religious issue, but it did not have much effect.
One of the most controversial talk shows was conducted by Samaa TV anchor Meher Bokhari on November 25 2010. Bokhari conducted a satellite interview with Governor Taseer on Aasia Bibi. She venomously put Taseer in the dock and narrowed her questioning line to bypass the merit of the case itself and seek the governor’s answer to vilifications in the Urdu press and to insinuate a betrayal of his father’s ideals. Most of the time, Bokhari either put words in his mouth with the intention of distorting his points, or refused to let him finish by rudely cutting him off.
She shouted at him thrice and once waved a supposedly secret document in his face, bluffing and confusing the TV audience with a hint of dark suspicion. In yet another program, Bokhari went to the extent of admirably comparing Taseer’s murderer Mumtaz Qadri to the “heroic” legacy of Ghazi Ilam Din.
Pakistan’s sensationalist news channels certainly played a dubious part in blurring the distinction between law and emotion in the public mind, and whipping up hostility toward Taseer. The lead part was taken by Meher Bokhari. As Huma Yusuf noted in the Dawn, January 31, 2011: “Pakistan’s electronic media industry is known for creating an atmosphere of perpetual crisis. Bokhari is particularly accused by many critics, especially among the new media, of fanning the hysteria over the Taseer/Aasia story that eventually led to the governor’s tragic death. By crossing all ethical limits, Bokhari led the hysteric misrepresentation of the case for the gutter media to follow, inviting mass critique on popular blogs.”
Indeed, breathing in the atmosphere created by some television channels and most Urdu newspapers, the Taseer/Aasia discussion found space in the social media on various blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Anchors like Meher Bokhari were discredited on blogs such as Kala Kawa and Café Pyala. But she was hailed on websites such as pkpolitics.com for the same show: “Shahid Masood and Kamran Khan are losing their rating. So today I will only give 1/10 to Kamran Khan and 0/10 to Dr Shahid Masood. I will give Mehar Bokhari 10/10 because she tackled Salman Taseer very well.”
It is possible that innumerable blog posts hailing Bokhari’s instigating style and the outspoken Taseer’s frankness may have attracted higher ratings. The media was quick to realize that the audience was not warming up to balanced talk shows, but applauding Bokhari who was appealing to deeply-rooted religious prejudices. The objective media appears thereafter to have turned tail and given space to a hate campaign. Amplified negative coverage on channels such as Royal TV, Apna, and Waqt, where numerous budding journalists tried to copy Bokhari’s passionate indignation, brought about the doom of a right-minded governor. The Mardoch syndrome in U.K. could not have such tragic victims as were targeted in Pakistan in the increasingly competitive media environment, in which newsmen and TV anchors consider it their journalistic prerogative to selectively pick on misinformation or themselves raise suspicions without proper research or evidence, and hype malicious stories only to boost their sales. TV anchors in Pakistan come largely from the Urdu press. As such, they tend to be oriented toward rightwing conservatism like Fox News in the USA. Some of them have developed or style of ‘hard talk’ that amount to heckling of guests without giving them adequate time for rebuttal. Their ‘unmasking’ technique may or may not earn them media star status, the damage they may do to causes or persons are enormous, particularly when vulnerable communities are involved.
On the blasphemy issue, audience response to Bokhari exemplifies the black magic of media power. Some analysts surmise that the Pakistani media was deliberately developing an audience with a specific extremist mindset, espousing sensationalism and leaving little room for object-ivity. Private channels may be unwittingly orchestrating doctrinaire campaigns of religious extremism by the manner in which they selectively seek and broadcast public opinion samplings.
Some anchors look toward a market that is more responsive to sensationalism and scandal-mongering. They do not care about possible traffic consequences of their unscrupulous media activism. The Domino effect of glorifying Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Governor Taseer, on the screen as a “hero of faith” was rolling social media applause and a Facebook page saluting him for “heroic” defiance of the law by stabbing his master in the back, so to say, in a cowardly act of assassination.
Governor Taseer was not the only victim of Blasphemy Law frenzy. Lahore High Court judge Justice Arif Iqbal Husain Bhatti, who acquitted two Christian youths, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih on charges of blasphemy, was assassinated in 1997. Minorities’ voices had been so suf-focated that, in May 1998, a Catholic bishop, John Joseph, shot himself dead as a protest. Former strongman President Pervez Musharraf too had to give in to the threats of the mullah. He recalled a directive that would have looked into complaints of misuse of the blasphemy law.
As the politicians lack necessary moral courage to take a firm stand on the issue, it is up to the civil society and a strong human rights movement to turn the table on the fatal peddlers of religious bigotry and uphold the age of reason. ■