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Time To Rethink And Prepare Pakistan For 21st Century Challenges

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Salman Siddiqui attended a book launch and reports on an engaging discussion concerning Pakistan’s future, its political economy, climate change and whether Imran Khan will deliver on his promises

LONDON: Nationalists and dissidents, celebrity journalists and ex-wives all gathered at the prestigious Frontline Club in London recently to witness the book launch of ‘Rethinking Pakistan – A 21stcentury Perspective’, which is co-edited by academic Bilal Zahoor and Naya Daur Editor Raza Rumi.

The event, held during the last days of Ramazan on May 30, came at yet another key turn in Pakistani history when the need to re-evaluate who we really are, or rather what have we become, as citizens of an Islamic republic, is being felt by everyone living inside and outside the country.

The book launch had taken place on the same day when army officials had been sentenced for spying and leaking state secrets to ‘foreign agencies’. This was also the day when the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar had surrendered himself in court following the Kharqamar incident in North Waziristan. The event, however, took place long before the expected arrests of opposition leaders Asif Zardari and Hamza Shahbaz in Pakistan after Eid, and the very out-of-the-blue arrest (and subsequent release on bail of) MQM chief Altaf Hussain in London.

The distinguished panelists, which included the likes of Dr Farzana Shaikh, author of Making Sense of Pakistan and Associate Fellow at Chatham House; Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, SOAS researcher; Dr Daanish Mustafa, Reader in Human Geography at King’s College; and Dr Avinash Paliwal, Deputy Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute, apart from Rumi touched on almost all key challenges facing the country.

Before touching on the book at the event, which was hosted by the Isaan Culture Club, Rumi pointed out the absence of Zahoor who was unable to make it due to “visa delays”. This yet again highlighted the strange times we live in when even scholars and editors from the Global South are facing difficulties in participating in their own book launches and conferences in London. Apart from Pakistani researchers like Bilal, I know of Iranian researchers too who were forced to participate at conferences via Skype after the Home Office denied them visas. In fact, at a leading university in London, I recently learnt, out of 25 African researchers who were invited for a similar talk, only one was granted a visa.

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All such developments in post-Brexit referendum Britain is considered part of the legacy of outgoing British Premier Theresa May but one wonders what’s the advantage to Pakistanis, if any, for having people like Home Secretary Sajid Javed at the Home Office. Javed is often cited in the British media for his working-class origins and Pakistani heritage – his dad used to drive a bus in the UK. One could argue that it’s not that he doesn’t care about such issues, it’s more about how precarious the prime ministerial candidate’s position is within his own Tory party.

After all Downing Street left him out of the delegation that met Trump during his recent state visit to the UK, and even though many commentators believe he was singled out because of his Muslim and South Asian origins, all Javed could say about that was “I don’t know”.

About the need for a book like Rethinking Pakistan, Rumi spoke of an attempt to capture more inclusive and diverse voices as opposed to the recent scholarship and journalistic commentary on Pakistan in the past decade and a half that had been by observers based in the West. He said the book had “put together a mosaic of today’s Pakistan as it struggles to cope with some of the very pressing challenges of the 21stcentury”. In the collection of short essays, the book has tackled issues of Pakistan’s unresolved identity, citizen rights, religion, crises of governance, post-colonial nature of the state, changing demographic, and the role of women and gender disparities, he said.

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According to Rumi, one of the perennial themes is about who owns and defines “Pakistaniat”. Should it be the unelected elites like the bureaucracy that took upon themselves in the first decade of Pakistan’s existence to define Pakistan or is there going to be a more democratic process of redefining Pakistan? “This contest is very much ongoing,” he added.

Siddiqa spoke about the power equation in Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan and shared her thoughts about human rights movements like the PTM, and whether one should be optimistic for a change through such developments. “I think movements like PTM is actually a movement for Pakistan; it’s a movement that is trying to wake us up…, you have to push the power elite into rethinking the interests of Pakistani people.”

Mustafa mentioned the water crisis facing Pakistan and highlighted the need for more conversations on such key topics instead of what he termed as talk over “stupid dams”.

“The conversation would not be about this stupid dam or that stupid dam, it would be about asking how come 97 percent of water goes towards irrigation; entire 210 million people of Pakistan are entitled to only 1 percent of water, 2 percent of water that it has, every city – Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Islamabad, Peshawar – everything all combined draws 0.2 percent of water, what’s going on with that? Someone explain to me,” Mustafa said.

Prominent personalities who attended the event included veteran actor and director Raana Shaikh, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ex-wife and author Reham Khan, BBC Urdu ex-broadcaster Shafi Naqi Jami, New York Times correspondent in Egypt Declan Walsh and journalist/author Owen Bennett Jones.

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