Gah – Manmohan Singh’s Village


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Yesterday, we visited Gah – Manmohan Singh’s Village. Manmohan Singh is the former prime minister of India. He was born in Gah – a village in present day district Chakwal (Punjab, Pakistan), which was part of district Jhelum at the time of Partition of India (1947). We were looking for old men who could recount the days leading to the Partition of India. We took a round of the village and met three senior citizens. ‘Voices of Partition’ is the latest project of my group ‘Theatre Wallay’.

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The above two photos are of the old village mosque. Gah had a significant Hindu and Sikh population. The Hindus were dominant lot, and minor skirmishes were common as per the old men of the village. As Hindus dominated, they would not allow Muslim population to eat beef. Usury was another significant irritant. When situation started deteriorating, the Hindus and the Sikhs had sensed the danger. In early 1947, Hindu/Sikh population, fearing an attack, gathered in this mosque seeking protection. The Imam of the mosque assured them that they would be fully protected. He announced from the pulpit of the mosque that no harm should reach the non-Muslims living in Gah. The matter was settled as people had profound respect for the Imam.

However, some miscreants decided to seek help from people of other Muslim villages. Thus another more organized attack took place, but that too failed to harm the non-Muslim community on large scale. The Muslim population provided all possible help to the non-Muslims. The women were protected and when it became impossible to protect them, they were safely taken to another village, so when the more ferocious attack was launched, the female population had already moved to safer places.

DSC_0005These solar street lights were installed after a package was approved by Manmohan Singh. It was decided that Gah would be turned into a model village. However, it fell prey to usual apathy and lack of any structural support. The money has been spent on buildings and infrastructure, but there is no system/arrangement for the maintenance of the facilities provided. The school buildings are there, but are not being fully/properly utilized. Street lights are not being repaired. We fear that these would vanish in a year or two. This could have been saved if we had local government system, and this infrastructure had been handed over to the union council administration. Now there is no institution to take care of this infrastructure and ensure that it remains functional.

DSC_0016This was the most interesting thing for us. I don’t know what this is, but was amused to see that it was something of Indian make and was being used for a mosque in Pakistan.

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Freedom Gate – Where My Freedom Ends


Recently, I visited Wagha Border Post – famous for its parade and Flag Lowering Ceremony. It has been filmed/recorded and many videos are available on video sharing websites including Youtube, Daily Motion and Vimeo. I think the best and most succinct description of the parade is the remark by Micheal Palin. He described it as “carefully choreographed  contempt”.

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Freedom Gate on Pakistani side of the border. Picture taken from Indian Side

I had neither time, nor energy to watch the parade. However, a few thoughts from the visit seem worth sharing. The first thing that struck me was the “Freedom Gate” (بابِ آزادی). First, I was stopped by rangers personnel from approaching the very Freedom Gate. I had to park my car as I did not have a special permission, and I did not know where to get this permission from. No such information was available around the Freedom Gate. If you had that special permission, you could take you vehicle very close to the Gate. I don’t mind this restriction, but the information should be available to all.

Anyhow, I parked my car and walked towards the gate. I bought ticket, went further and reached a barbed wire. Another gentleman there told me I could not go beyond that barbed wire before 4 PM. I, along with a crowed of thousands of people, waited there for about 45 minutes. It seemed people from every ethnicity, profession, class were there. The people with special permission were also there waiting in their vehicles. The difference between the haves and the have-nots was peculiar throughout the event.

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On opposite site, women’s encloslure. The Green colored seats were meant for the Haves. There men and women could sit together.

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Pakistani men waiting for the ceremony to start

As gates opened, the people with special permission were allowed to take their cars inside. The ordinary folks like me walked on. The haves were not gender segregated; the have-nots were. I, along with my brother and father, had to sit in one enclosure, while my mother and wife sat in another enclosure. As I looked across the borders, I saw men and women sitting together in one enclosure. “That’s how human beings live”, I thought.

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The Other Side – Indian enclosure can be seen in this picture.

Mobile phones were not working in the parade arena, so we could not communicate through mobiles as well. National songs were blaring through speakers on both sides of the borders. When would the parade start, I asked no particular person. You need to wait till sunset, was the response from someone. I could not bear so much noise and sun for another two and half hours. Luckily, at that very moment, my wife looked at me from the opposite enclosure. I waved at her and gestured to leave. She immediately agreed, and we left without watching the actual ceremony.

As I was leaving, the border gates were opened and Friendship Bus of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation entered Pakistani territory. People waved at the passengers and shouted welcome slogans. I took a few photos of the bus and rushed to catch up with my wife and mother.

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Friendship Bus enters Pakistani Territory.

My head was full of unpatriotic thoughts. I was wondering if the partition (1947) had not taken place, there would have been no Freedom Gate, and I would have the freedom to drive beyond that point without any fuss. I could go to Amritsar, New Delhi, many more Indian cities. In fact, I could go beyond that. I could go to Dhaka, and Chittagong as well. Did I win freedom in 1947, or lost it?

Lest We Forget – A Rejoinder to Dr. Atta ur Rehman


A friend of mine, who would not miss any chance to taunt me for being pro-democracy, shared an article written by our famous scientist Dr Atta ur Rehman who held the position of Chairman Higher Education Commission during the dictator’s regime, and is now president of Pakistan Science Academy. The article is titled “Lest We Forget” and published in The News on December 25, 2013.

I went through the article and learnt how good the economy was doing in 2008 when the great General was made to leave this country. He compares the economic conditions of Pakistan when he took over (usurped power) in 1999 with the time when he left Pakistan in 2008. I was wondering why he needed to remind us all that – the wonderful GDP growth rate, great jump in per capita income etc.

It was in the concluding paragraph that I learnt why the great scientist was reminding us of the great financial successes of the dictator’s regime. He writes “The position of president is purely ceremonial. The power lies entirely with the prime minister”. There I understood that he was actually trying to defend the Commando’s unconstitutional move to impose ‘emergency’. I would have definitely ignored it with a smile but this foolish attempt to defend the indefensible was made by a person who is held in high esteem by thousands of young men and women in Pakistan. It is, therefore, necessary to respond to the nonsense coming from a respected and learned individual like Dr. Atta ur Rehman. I would like to make following arguments against what the respected Doctor has written:

  1. First of all, it is interesting to note the contradiction within the article. Dr. Atta ur Rehman gives all the credit for economic boom to Pervez Musharraf. He forgets that the ‘position of the president is purely ceremonial’. As the power lied with the Prime Minister, the credit should go to the prime minister, not to the ‘ceremonial’ president. However, when it comes to imposition of emergency, the great scientist tells us “The guilt, if any, lies with all of them [Cabinet Members]”. Please do not ignore the words “if any”.
  2. Nation is not the sum total of GDP and Per Capita Income. Nation is much more than that. Our great doctor is so deeply focused on economy that he forgets everything else. So let me widen the comparison between the Pakistan of 1999 with that of 2008:
    • We, the wretched citizens of Pakistan, did not even know of suicide blasts in 1999. In 2008, even five year old kids know about suicide blasts.
    • We had only a few terrorist groups in 1999 (I can recall only two names); we lost count of them by 2008.
    • Swat was a peaceful valley where tourists from around the world were roaming about in 1999; it was under the brutal rule of Mullah Fazlullah in 2008.
    • FATA and Darra Adamkhel were peaceful places where we did not fear to go in 1999; it had become a no go area for everybody except Pak Army and terrorists by 2008. Even Musharraf did not dare visit FATA and Darra.
    • Balochistan was not happy with the federation, but Pakistan national anthem was sung in schools and Punjabis were not killed in 1999; the great commando has left, and we cannot sing national anthem in Balochistan, and non-Baloch Pakistanis are getting killed almost everyday there.
    • Hazara Shias were living peacefully in Quetta, and Balochistan had not heard of missing persons or mutilated bodies dumped around in 1999; Hazara Shia were being targeted in spite of the FC presence, and Baloch families were crying for their loved ones in 2008.
  3. Now let us get back to economy. Would the great doctor expand his research and see that Pakistan’s GDP has always remained high during dictatorial regimes. However, it is interesting to note that as soon as we see the back of a dictator, the bubble of GDP growth bursts and we are left high and dry. Ayub Khan’s era is considered to be the best as far as development is considered but we should see what happened to Pakistan when he left. Within two years, we lost East Pakistan.

I would request the great doctor to conduct a research into the reasons of why Pakistan is found in such a bad state whenever a dictator leaves. I think the doctor would do a great service to Pakistan if he helps us understand this phenomenon. His research may result in the development of a handy tool for future dictators to make good use of, though I really doubt if Pakistan would have the curse of another dictator.


Media's Dual Standards

This photo shows how the reporting differs for different audience. The Express Media group publishes two daily newspaper – Express Tribune for English readers and The Express daily for Urdu readers. I have put the screenshots from the two websites side by side.
The English website simply states that Mullah Abdul Qadir has been hanged for his war crimes, while the Urdu website has captioned it “Support for Pakistan is a crime, Bangladesh hands Mullah Abdul Qadir of Jamat-e-Islami”

Media’s Dual Standards

Girls’ Education – observations at the grassroots


A girl in a secondary school in a remote village in Chakwal

Girls’ education is all the more important because they are the ones who are going to bring up our next generations. That saying of Napoleon Bonaparte has become a cliché now, “Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilized, educated nation”. Nonetheless, it remains as relevant as ever. I would not elaborate it any further because the purpose of this blog is not persuading you to educate your girls – I am sure those reading this blog do not need any persuasion for that – but to share my personal experiences while discussing girls’ education with communities in some remote villages. I have been associated with a project ‘Girls’ Education beyond Primary Level’ being implemented in district Chakwal by Bedari with financial support from Girls Education International – A US based organization. I am a kind of Program Advisor/Consultant. I have used this term just because my friends in development sector would understand it, though my relationship with this project is difficult to define.  This project has provided me opportunities to interact with various communities in remote villages, and discuss girls’ education with men, women and girls themselves. I have drawn two conclusions:

  1. It is a myth that people are against girls’ education or not interested in educating their girls.
  2. The biggest hurdle in educating their girls is not lack of schools, money or will, but lack of transport.

Let me elaborate the above two points:

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Malala Yousufzai

I have, through my personal interaction, found that most of the people/communities want to educate their girls. Some of them are taking serious pains to send their girls to school. Zia ud Din Yousufzai (Malala’s Father) is not the only one. I have come across so many Zia ud Dins trying hard to keep their girls in school. In my recent visit to Maira Aemah (District Chakwal), I found that there were at least 13 families that relocated to nearby town Kallar Kahar just to make it easy for their girls to attend secondary school. Another 15 girls were traveling over 20 kilometers twice a day to reach their schools. Please note that 20 kilometers is a huge distance in remote villages where there is no public transport; where you may have to wait for hours to find a van; where it would take you around 90 minutes to cover a distance of 20 kilometers. In another village Thirchak, the situation was more or less the same. Some families had moved to the nearest town with a secondary school; another 40 girls were traveling 22 kilometers twice a day to attend their schools. There were many more who could not afford this. In Chakki Rangpur, the situation was even worse. It had one primary school but that was not functional. I interviewed two little kids (one boy and one girl) who had just returned from their school but were not carrying school bags. They told me that all the kids from their village walk to the primary school in the neighboring village which is 8 kilometers away. Carrying school bags for such a long distance is too tough for most of them, so the community has found a solution for them. They are allowed to leave their bags at the school. They stay around an hour or so after the school is officially closed. They do their homework at the school, leave their bags in the class room and walk back to their homes. Girls’ mobility is a very serious issue in Pakistan. Boys can use bicycles, motorbikes, or can hang onto any available transport – bus, pickup, truck etc. Girls, on the other hand, have none of these choices. They must have a decent van or bus to carry them. Bicycle or motorbike is not an option. These hurdles in their mobility turn out to be the hurdles in their growth and empowerment. Transport is very expensive. With rising petroleum prices, the fares are going up and up. Though education is free, girls have to pay for their transport. In the three villages I visited, each girl was paying around Rs 2000 (US $ 19) per month. That is a huge cost for a poor family. Other issues are timings of public transport, sexual harassment and personal safety of the girls. Through my discussions with the communities, I have concluded that free transport would be one big step towards putting millions of girls into schools. Interestingly, government provides buses to so many schools and colleges in large urban centers to transport students from their homes to school and vice versa. But this essential facility is not provided to any secondary school in the remote villages and towns.

I would strongly recommend to the civil society organizations to join hands and make one demand from the government – provide buses to all the secondary schools in the country.

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Government Girls Primary School, Thirchak (District Chakwal)

Art and Peace go hand in hand


It is common observation that art is not valued by our society. Many people believe that it happens because of poverty, but there are many countries poorer than Pakistan and they value art and their artists a lot more than we do. If art is not valued, artist is also not valued. That is why most of our artists live their last days in dismal conditions.

Whenever I search for reasons for the lack of respect for art and artists, I cannot ignore the role of the long dictatorial military regimes. Well, others might not know the significance of art and artists, but the military dictators did know it very well. This can be gauged from the bans and restrictions on artists like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Habib Jalib. On the other hand, fake artists like Ashfaq Ahmad and Qudrat Ullah Shahab were promoted by them.

It is not easy to explain the bans/restrictions on poets/artists. They usually have no ambition to rule the country, they do not hold guns, their fans are not organized groups which can become a threat to the ruling junta; yet the restrictions, bans, arrests, jails…

Artist (painter, poet, dancer or singer) has the capacity to express the true inner feelings of his/her nation – something the dictator does not want to happen. The true inner feelings of a suppressed populace would always be of hatred towards the dictator. In such a scenario, it becomes necessary to restrict artists, keep them imprisoned or they would come out in the open and shout:habib-jalib

Aisay Dastoor ko Main Nahi Manta

(I don’t accept/obey this law)

The artist creates a verse, and it becomes a national slogan. This is something unacceptable for a dictator.

It does not mean that art has no role during democratic rule. A nation is made up of many groups and sub-groups. For example, Pakistan has difference ethnic groups, people following different religions, and people following different sects of Islam, and then there are interest groups, political groups and many more divisions. All these groups make efforts to safeguard their own interests. This may lead to clashes – civil war is the worst example of this clash of interests. Art provides a civilized way of resolving these issues. Artists present these clashes in different art forms, and generate discussions on simmering issues. These discussions lead towards solutions, and help a society avoid serious clashes or civil war. Thus art plays the role of a safety valve.

Another important aspect of art is that it attracts people from various backgrounds and brings them together at one platform. Though people from different sects would not pray together at the same mosque, but they would meet at a musical concert or a theatre auditorium. Art blurs the various divides in the society.

blog3If we look at our recent past, we see that ours was quite a peaceful society as long as artistic and cultural activities were common. During 1960s and 1970s, films, theatre, music and poetry recitation sessions (Mushairay) were part of our everyday lives. On the one hand, classical singers like Mehdi Hasan would mesmerize audiences in Lahore all night; on the other hand, folk singers like Allan Faqir, Essakhelvi and Zarsanga would enthrall people living in rural areas. Our film industry was doing good business and we were producing hundreds of films annually. Cinema halls were busy places and Poetry Recitation Sessions were attended by thousands of people. Those were the times when Pakistan was a peaceful country.

Enter General Zia ul Haq, who, under the guise of Islamisation, put so many restrictions on art and culture. Since Zia’s dictatorial rule, our film industry went down; around 1000 cinemas have been pulled down making room for shopping plazas. Open air concerts have become a thing of the past. Quality theatre is no more. On the other hand, we have become intolerant people. There is no room for disagreement in our society. Bomb blasts, targeted killings, kidnappings, extortion and ransacking have become norm of our everyday life.

We badly need to revive cultural activities in our society. That can help start a dialogue, generate some tolerance and help us make Pakistan a peaceful and peace-loving country. Let us take the first step.

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Aitebaar – Street Theater


I would like to share the recent experience of doing street theater aimed at raising awareness about the problems faced by women returning to their families/communities after completing their prison term. The play was to be performed in the twin cities – Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It was to complement a project “Aitebaar” being implemented by Strengthening Participator Organization (SPO). The script was provided by SPO. However, I revised it to enhance the duration of the play from 7 minutes to 12 minutes. We held 8 performances of this play – 4 in Islamabad and 4 in Rawalpindi.

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Synopsis of the Play

Aitebaar is a story of Sohni – a woman who was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. The play opens when her husband Saeed receives a letter from jail authorities informing him that Sohni’s jail term is about to end. Saeed is not sure whether he should receive her back or leave her to her fate. Saeed’s uncle, representing the community, is hell-bent on convincing Saeed to forget about Sohni.

Sohni is also not sure whether she should be happy or sad. She does not know whether Saeed would take her back as Saeed has not come to see her for over one and half a year now. Her mate in prison tries to comfort her and assures her that Saeed would come to jail and would take her back to his home.

The final show-down or climax comes in the third scene. Saeed, probably under the influence of his uncle and the community, has decided not to take Sohni back. However, he is confronted by his 16 years old dauther Ghazala, who tells him that people do not care about him. She reveals that Sohni has got prison term not for her own crime but for a crime committed by someone else. This puts Saeed off, which shows that Sohni must have been imprisoned for a crime committed by Saeed. Ghazala has more and stronger arguments when she says people would not care for Saeed when he would be ill or hungry. Only Ghazala and Sohni would care for him. She tells him that he should not listen to the people but to his own heart. Saeed is convinced by her aggressive arguments, and decided to receive Sohni from jail. The play ends with Saeed and Ghazala meeting Sohni as she is released from the prison.

Audience Response

The theater team interacted with the audience informally, and found that people had enjoyed the performance a lot. Women in Shelter Homes were particularly moved by the performance. Some of them had tears in their eyes while watching the play. The intended message was delivered successfully, as mostly people agreed that women should be welcomed after completing their prison term and should be facilitated to reintegrate into the community/family, instead of turning them away.

Lessons Learnt:

Theater is a very strong tool and always appeals to the masses. However, it needs a lot more time to prepare and execute a street theater project. It is not a stand-alone activity. It must be complimented with community mobilization, and it should be integrated with other components of the project. Only then, it can bring about an effective change.

The Dilemma of Young Pakhtoon & Our Responsiblity


I have come across many people who lament that the young generation of Pakhtoons is shifting its medium of communication from Pashto to Urdu. More or less the same situation prevails in other provinces of Pakistan.Photo0445-599x275

I don’t think we need any thorough research to find out the reasons behind this phenomenon. The reasons are quite obvious. Pashto is looked down upon. Media does not portray it as something respectable. Pakhtoon character in any play on our public and private TV channels is there only to create some fun for the audience. Pakhtoon is almost always playing a servant (family servant or watchman) in a wealthy Pakistani family (portrayed as educated, civilized, using Urdu as its medium of communication). He is brave but dim-witted person who takes naswar. The other image of Pakhtoon that you would find in our media is a cruel man, who is more than ready to kill.

More importantly, Urdu and English bring money, power and authority. Pashto does not promise this. If you do not learn Urdu and English, you cannot get a respectable job. It has been our state policy from the very beginning to suppress our mother tongues. In 1948, some Bengali students were killed by Pakistani authorities who were protesting against the imposition of Urdu as national language and demanding respectable status for their own mother tongue. (That day, 21st February, is now celebrated world-wide as Mother Tongue Day.)

This game has created three classes:

  1. The lower class who speak their mother tongue
  2. The middle class who speak Urdu
  3. The elite class who speak English

Our Reaction

This trend of shifting language is going on for quite some time now. Our elders react to this situation in the following ways:

  1. There are some who willfully encouraged their youngsters to change their language from Pashto to Urdu or English depending on their own financial status.
  2. There are others who lament this trend but do nothing about it except wailing.
  3. There is a third group that took to rebuking their youngsters for depending too much on foreign language for their (youngsters’) communication. They forced their youngsters to speak Pashto, which resulted in a kind of hatred for Pashto.

These youngsters, under the influence of our media, make fun of their own elders declaring them ignorant and illiterate, having no idea of the modern world and its demands. We may chaff our hands at this reaction of our young Pakhtoon, we may take him to task for this attitude, but that would not help us in the long run.

What to Do?

If we want to change this trend, we need to do two things:

  • Resurrect the image of Pakhtoon in the mind of our younger generation.
  • Make Pashto a financially viable language

Both these tasks are not easy to accomplish, but should not be considered impossible (where there is will, there is a way). Here I would discuss the first one only. The second one needs more reflection.

For the first one, we need to have positive presence in media. Ironically, the only Pashto channel available on cable television in Islamabad is AVT Khyber owned by a Punjabi businessman. We badly need to invest in media and have our own TV channels, films, magazines, websites and newspapers. Furthermore, we need to bridge the gap between Pakhtoon and other ethnic groups living in Pakistan.

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Badar Munir who ruled Pashto films for decades

As far as Pashto film industry is concerned, the less said, the better. It is not only performing badly, it is doing disservice to Pakhtoon culture. Badar Munir (and his successors like Jahangir Khan) cannot inspire Pakhtoon youth.  Our young generation cannot associate themselves with the kind of hero our films give them. In fact, they are ashamed of those films and avoid talking about them. This cacuum is filled by Bollywood heros (though interestingly enough, Bollywood is being ruled by Khans, which speaks volumes about the talent Pakhtoons have).

 

We need to give them our own Khans, so that they do not have to look elsewhere. We need to produce films that portray our own aspirations. We need to produce films that touch our own social and political problems. If we do not act now, we will be held responsible for the death and decline of our language and culture by our next generations.

Child Marriages – The Way Forward


In an earlier blog, I had written in detail on the issue of child marriages and its reasons. Now I would like to focus on solving this issue. I know that many organizations are working on this issue and want to get either the existing law amended or a new law enacted. way_forward_signI personally am in favor of getting a new and comprehensive law enacted. The existing law “Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929” prescribes one month of imprisonment and/or Rs 1000 (US $ 10) as fine for the culprits. Furthermore, it discriminated between boys and girls as it sets different age limits for them. A boy should be 18 years old, while a girl should be 16 years old to get married. Even this law is being flouted with immunity and no one in Pakistan is bothered about it (I know I appear a fool lamenting the lack of implementation of such an insignificant law in a country where nobody is bothered if constitution is violated).

An important loophole in this law is the determination of age. As birth registration is not a common practice in Pakistan, determining age of a child is difficult. If caught, parents would claim that the girl is 16 years old. Then there is nothing police can do about it. DNA test is another way to determine age. However, Council of Islamic Ideology has recently declared that DNA test cannot be presented as evidence in rape cases. Only God knows whether Mullahs would allow us to use DNA test to determine a child’s age (or we will have to pull ourselves out of the clutches of Mullahs holding us by our necks, and sucking our blood).

Anyhow, let us get back to the original issue – the way forward. We need to have two-pronged strategy to solve this issue:

  1. New and comprehensive laws covering all aspects of child marriages
  2. Raising awareness among masses about the problems faced by child brides

New Law:

You may be wondering why I emphasize so much on new law. I have already explained a little bit about the problems with the existing law. Additionally, I would like to remind you that after 18th amendment, the federal government cannot legislate on the issues of children and women. In this scenario, the civil society would have to focus their attention on the provincial governments. The new law should cover many more aspects of child marriages rather than just punishing the parents of a child bride. The new laws should cover:

  • Birth Registration: it should be made mandatory. The process should be simple and easy. The local governments at Union Council level should be responsible for this. Proper birth registration would remove the grey areas regarding age determination.
  • Age Limit: Age limit for both boys and girls should be same – 18 years. Remember, a person younger than 18 years is not allowed to drive a car, maintain a bank account, keep a passport or vote in elections. Marriage is a much more serious business. 18 years old person gets his/her computerized national identity card (CNIC).
  • Marriage Registration: marriage registration also needs to be made mandatory. Similarly, CNIC should be mandatory for registration of marriage. If this happens, the child marriage issue would be resolved very quickly.
  • Harsher Punishment: the crime should be punishable by at least 5 years of imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 500,000.
  • Punish All The Parties: The punishment should be applicable to all the parties involved in a child marriage including parents of the bride and the groom, the Nikah Khwan/Registrar, witnesses, and the groom if he is 18 years old.

Awareness:

Law alone cannot help much unless people (at least majority of them) believe that child marriage is a cruel practice. To bring a change in the mindsets, we would need to run exhaustive campaigns to reach out to the people at the grassroots level. We need to communicate following messages effectively:

  • Child marriage is not a solution to poverty. In fact, it ensures that poverty is transferred to the next generation. A person married in his/her childhood is deprived of education. The burden of a family comes very early in his/her life and makes it difficult to get out of poverty cycle. It is very likely that their children, too, would not get good education, and would continue to be plagued by poverty.
  • Teenage pregnancy is something really dangerous and can result in the girl’s death.
  • Child bride is unable to cope with the pressure of taking care of a family, and serving her in-laws – something that is expected of a daughter in law. She lives a miserable life. Physical and psychological violence becomes a norm in her life.

These messages should be conveyed through various means. Media can play a very effective role in this. Street theater and FM Radio can be used to make content in local languages/dialects for this purpose. All we need to do is hold thorough discussions with different communities on this issue and get to know how they perceive this issue. Only then, we can come up with something that would target their perceptions of the issue. The content of the messages must not be developed sitting in an air-conditioned office in Lahore/Karachi/Islamabad.

Curriculum:

Another very important means of raising awareness is putting these issues in the curriculum for children. Only one lesson added to the syllabus of class 8 or 9 or 10 could do wonders in the long run. Remember that the lesson would be studied by millions of children in our schools every year. This would be the most cost-effective measure. We may not need to run any awareness campaigns on this issue 10 to 15 years after the inclusion of such lesson in curriculum.

At the end, I would suggest that all the organizations working towards eliminating child marriages in Pakistan should come together and form a network/coalition and make joint efforts to achieve their objective. If we succeed in getting a good law enacted in one province, it would become easier to convince governments in other provinces to follow the suite.

 

 

Jirga System – is there a way forward?


A Jirga under way...

A Jirga under way…

Public opinion seems thoroughly divided on Jirga system (Panchayat in Punjab). On the one hand, it has been scorned at by the modern and liberal people; the honorable courts have actually banned it. On the other hand, the general public especially people living beyond metropolitan cities continue to rely on this centuries old system to resolve their conflicts. Both the groups are right to some extent.

The Jirga system has very serious flaws especially in the feudal society of Punjab and Sindh, where the Jirga is always presided over by a feudal lord and decisions are often heavily biased and sometimes outright disgusting as in the case of Mukhtaran Mai in Muzaffargarh a few years back – the case that made us all bow our heads in shame. The Panchayat found Mukhtaran Mai’s brother guilty of having illicit relations with a girl of an influential tribe, and ordered a few men of the aggrieved party to rape Mukhtaran Mai to settle the score. Honor killings or karo kari, and vani like customs are the fruit Jirga has borne.

In Pakhtoonkhwa, we, the Pakhtoons, cannot even imagine that kind of verdict by any Jirga. Yet the situation is not very different when it comes to punishing the guilty. Men are more often let off the hook, and the punishment is borne by the close female relatives – sisters or daughters – of the guilty men. It is called Swara.

Keeping these facts in mind, nobody would dare to defend Jirga (or Panchayat), in fact nobody should. However, it is also a fact that despite a clear ban by the superior courts of the country, it continues to be used to settle disputes. It is a centuries old tradition. No doubt, old habits die hard.

The problem is that the critics would not bother to think of reforming it or making an attempt to integrate it with the existing justice system of the state. The defenders of the system would often close their eyes to the disquieting failings of the system.

Well, it is always easy to keep it or discard it. Reformation of the system is a gigantic task, which would be very tedious and, of course, somebody will have to take a lot of pain to accomplish it. Before I move on towards proposing some reforms, people would be quick to ask why reforms? Why should not we completely discard it?

I have following reasons for taking it along and against discarding it.

  1. Our judicial system is thoroughly corrupt and inefficient. The cases take years to reach the logical end. This inefficiency has created a vacuum, which would keep Jirga/Panchayat alive for long (Of course, a serious effort at reforming our justice system is also an important need of the hour).
  2. Our judicial system does not reach out to grassroots level. The small scale disputes cannot be taken to magistrates sitting a few kilometers away with already piled up cases. The small scale conflicts include cattle theft, damage to crops/property, and land distribution. If Mr. X borrowed Rs 3000 from Mr. Z, and failed to return at the agreed time, it is too small a matter to be taken to district court or local police. It should be resolved at community level. Jirga fills this gap.
  3. Jirga is a centuries old tradition, which cannot be wished away. It is better to focus on reforming it rather than trying to kill it.
  4. And the most important argument is that a reformed version of Jirga system would be more acceptable to the society/people as it evolved here and is owned by the people as compared to the Judicial System imported from the west, which is still not preferred by our people to settle their disputes.

Hence, we need to own our own centuries old traditions and build upon them rather than go for imported systems.

Now let me propose some broad reforms we may introduce in our Jirga System. Please note that these are just loud thoughts to initiate a dialogue, not final recommendations.

We need to set basic criteria for people who want to be on Jirga. The composition of Jirga should be thoroughly discussed. It should have representation of youth, women and minorities. It could vary from village to village or district to district.

The Jirga members for each village/mohallah should have a defined tenure (may be three or five years). A member should not be allowed to have two consecutive terms.

The Jirga members should be notified by the local government (union council or any equivalent forum). We would definitely need to have local governments in place. Thus whenever a problem arises, the administration would not have to find who was on the Jirga. They would already know it and act as according to the law.

The parties should have the right to appeal to the district and session judge if they are not happy with the verdict of the Jirga. Through this right to appeal before the District and Sessions Judge, the Jirga system would be integrated within the existing judicial system. It would become the lowest tier of the system.

The Jirga’s authority to give out punishments should be defined. For example, it should be clearly defined that a Jirga verdict should not affect people other than the guilty. Thus Jirga would have no right to let a guilty person off the hook and use women/girls to settle the dispute.

Other restrictions on giving out punishments could be: Jirga cannot sentence anyone to imprisonment or order demolition of a culprit’s house or confiscation of a culprit’s property. For that, Jirga will have to put up a case before the district and session judge, who would decide the case in three hearings or within one month at the maximum.

The maximum punishment a Jirga can give out for any offence is to ban a person from entering village/mohalla for 6 months.

Maximum fine a Jirga can impose is Rs 50,000. If Jirga feels the fine should be higher, it would have to put its recommendations to the District and Sessions Judge who would decide the case after hearing both the parties and the Jirga and give his/her verdict within one month.

Jirga must not use women/girls for dispute settlement. If a Jirga gives such verdicts, the verdict should stand null and void and the Jirga members should be punished with imprisonment of minimum 7 years, and should become ineligible for becoming members of Jirga for the rest of their lives.

These are some humble suggestions. I hope these generate a productive and useful dialogue on the issue. Your feedback is highly valued.