The Shah Rukh Khan controversy: Hype and hypocrisy

As anything Shah Rukh Khan would, the Bollywood megastar’s recent article in an Indian magazine, where he admits to having felt discriminated against in constitutionally-secular India for his Muslim identity, has gone viral.

Everyone and their khala has read the interview, sympathising and basing their entire critique of India’s treatment of ‘minorities’ on this one man’s one statement that’s hardly any different from his previous statements on the matter.

Enter our very own Hafiz Saeed, the noble chief of UN-blacklisted charity organisation Jamaatud Dawa. Unable to bear the injustice being meted out to a Muslim brother in (horror of horrors) India, he jumped in with a hospitable suggestion to Khan: move to Pakistan where he will be secure.

As hilarious as that suggestion is, given the kind of security we provide to our own people and how we have historically treated immigrants from India, it points to deep hypocrisy and confusion among the ranks of proponents of anti-India rhetoric in Pakistan.

Before this article, if you had asked these same people about Khan’s Muslim credentials, they would have launched into a diatribe about how he is a shame to the Muslim ummah and destined for hell for his ‘irreligious actions’.

Invariably, his perfectly harmonious marriage to a Hindu woman would have been cited as un-Islamic and a “gunah-e-kabira” (the greatest sin). His children, whose safety they now care for more than that of at-risk Pakistani children, would have been christened as illegitimate progeny. His work and entire career, from which he derives his rozi, would have been termed haraam because his films have music and women in revealing clothing.

So what has changed now? Have his secular beliefs and choices suddenly become acceptable to pious people like Hafiz Saeed? If it really is all about his Muslim identity, why wasn’t Khan hailed as a hero for his work when he co-produced and acted in a film which spoke out against stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists? Didn’t the film give a voice to Muslim men and women, the world over, who are regularly seen with suspicion simply on the basis of faith?

My hope is that in the middle of all this hysteria, somebody will pay attention to the real problem that Khan was trying to point to in his article: our intolerant and jingoistic attitudes that keep us from achieving bigger and better things in life, as people, as a society and as a country.

And that is something that people like Hafiz Saeed can never, ever let nations achieve.

This blog post also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs’ website here:



Obama’s Pakistani Connection

US President Obama’s electoral victory in 2012 marks the first time that a political campaign has made extensive use of data mining and analysis techniques that are used in only the most sophisticated corners of Corporate America.

Team Obama revolutionised political interaction on social media by creating tools enabling supporters to take twitter and Facebook by storm. There were hashtags, updates on Tumblr, photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, pinboards on Pintrest and even playlists on Spotify.

Few people know that, Rayid Ghani, a Pakistani formerly working at Chicago’s Accenture Technology Labs, was the brains behind this operation. In the ‘tech cave’ at the Chicago headquarters of the Obama Campaign, Ghani designed an entire programme based on data mining, analytics and reporting. The goal: Obama’s Presidential Re-election.


As Obama begins his second term, we speak to Ghani about his work for the campaign, the strategy he followed and what we in Pakistan, a nascent democracy, can learn from it.

“I had just decided to leave my previous job and was looking to get more involved with non-profits. The campaign approached me before I even had time to look for something else. I knew I could have more of an impact by working with the campaign for 18 months than on anything else during the time,” says Ghani, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 and has since worked extensively in analytics and data mining.

Ghani joined the Obama campaign in July 2011, when the US economy was tanking and most political analysts believed that the White House was the Republicans’ for the taking.

The pressure was on from day one. The campaign was already making phone calls and sending emails to people who had signed up as volunteers and donors. They were pulling up data from Obama’s first election campaign back in 2008, including several kinds of data sources which were to form the backbone of Ghani and his team’s work.

obama 1

“We had a number of lists — donors, volunteers, registered voters, email addresses, Facebook likes, Twitter followers etc. The idea was to connect all this [data about people] so that we could do more effective campaigning,” he explains.

The team then organised the lists so as to spot patterns that would help them better communicate with people and, if need be, win them over to their side. “The challenge was that if I know something about a person as a volunteer, I would want to use it when talking to him or her about voting,” Ghani explains.

For instance, if the compiled data showed that a person is both a volunteer and a donor, the team would communicate with them keeping both those facts in mind and give them information relevant to both volunteering and donating.

As fascinated as I was with the idea, given my love for organisation techniques that enhance efficiency, this sounded like really intense work. “It is,” he confirms. “Towards the end, he says, the team would often spend 18 to 20 hours per day at the campaign office, including weekends.”

The hiring was done with a lot of care. “Because it was such intense work, we hired people who would be able to handle the stress. We hired a mix of people — professionals who had been working in the industry for several years, PhDs who had just finished their degrees, graduate students who were still in PhD programs. Many of the people on the team had a graduate degree in some quantitative field,” says Ghani. “One of the challenges in this situation is that you’re not paying people as much as they would get in a company. On top of that, you’re asking them to drop their lives, and move to Chicago for a short time. That’s why a lot of people who applied for these positions and got hired were younger people.”

There was plenty of work for everyone. Data was coming in by the minute, sometimes even the second, as people signed up to volunteer or donate and an automated system would add the name to the existing list. This updated information would then be used by the team that was in-charge of sending out email messages and making phone calls on behalf of the campaign. The latter was the tricky part, because this is where the campaign actually went out to interact with the people. Campaign workers and volunteers were given a pre-written script to use as a guide to make a phone call.

While those outside the campaign were following every news item on the election, the ones inside tried to ignore it as much as they could. “Obviously inside the campaign, you have better information about the state of the elections, and if you’re doing your job, you’re actually changing those numbers,” he says. “The news was often more entertaining than anything else. Every time the media would report on something our team was supposedly working on, we would chuckle because none of us were talking to the media and these articles would often just be conjecture!”

Come Election Day, every single person in the campaign office felt a level of stress that could drive a cucumber crazy! “We were trying to predict things on an individual level ie which way a person will vote and then aggregate up to the electorate. And even though we had confidence in our results, we couldn’t be 100% sure. Our work was all based on probabilities which meant that there was uncertainty in our predictions. We were hopeful that we would win but you can’t be 100% sure until it’s over,” says Ghani.

Then came the morning after and it was surreal — not least because the president himself was overcome with emotion while thanking the campaign team and the volunteers. “I was there, yes. After his speech, he walked around the office thanking people, shaking hands, and hugging the staff,” says Ghani, fondly. He pauses and I ask him how he celebrated the victory. “We all just went home and slept because we hadn’t done that in days!” he says, laughing.

Whether or not Pakistanis like to admit this, Obama is a figure who has had a lasting impact on election campaigns both in his own country and abroad, including Pakistan. For example, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf often uses the slogan “Yes We Khan”, a slightly modified version of the “Yes We Can” slogan from Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Another innovative aspect of the ’08 campaign that caught on was intelligent usage of social media, which was followed first by the PTI and then by almost all other rival political parties. I ask Ghani if he thinks data mining will catch on too.

“Efficiency is even more important in countries where money is scarce and this model is certainly applicable in ways more than one,” he says. “Every campaign has resources [money and people] and figuring out how to most efficiently allocate these is critical to winning.”

When I point out to the lack of data-driven research in Pakistan, he agrees that that makes it a little more difficult for Pakistan. “Campaign workers might have to go out and get their own data. The data is better in the US than in other countries. But everything we did from fundraising to recruiting and mobilising volunteers, to assessing voter behaviour to what ads to buy, all of that is almost equally applicable in other countries.”

In the end, he says what matters is the candidate and no amount of effort or level of efficiency can help a bad candidate win. “A candidate who doesn’t appeal to the voters of a country can’t win using all the data and analytics in the world. This type of technology only helps at the margins. A lot of the work we did eventually was successful because we had large numbers of motivated and energised volunteers who were taking our message and talking to voters and they were there because they believed in the message and in the candidate himself.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.

What women want

It would be amusing if it weren’t so inefficient and downright derisive.

At the Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore, the extent of bifurcation of passengers seems to be on the basis of gender. This is why, before I could even make it to the check-in counter, I had to wait in line a full 20 minutes to go through the first security check. Apparently in the imagination of the officials at AIIA, women cannot be travelling in a hurry and with only hand luggage. They must always be accompanied by children, if not a husband who can stand in the men’s line, and always have a trolley full of luggage as if they are going on holiday.

Since I had gotten to the airport 45 minutes before my flight, I was quite panicked. But my trip was a short one and I had only one trolley-bag, so I figured that I could take the liberty of walking in less than an hour to my flight and would still be there in time. It stands to reason then that as I walked in the domestic departures gate, I chose the short and relatively fast moving line.

“The line for the ladiss is that one,” a porter tells me.

What?! Why would I want to stand in the longer line JUST because I was one of the “ladiss“. Too harried to argue, I switched lines. There were four women with full trolleys waiting in line before me. I tried to calm myself down, all the while looking at my watch. Then, one of the women started putting her luggage onto the belt – it was obvious to everyone that the width of her luggage was longer than that of the belt. Not to her though, it seemed, as she first put it width-wise, then tried to figure out why it wouldn’t move. Finally, with the help of the same porter who had directed me to stand in the women’s line, the suitcase was put properly and the process resumed.

It was then that I realized I would never be able to make it in time if I waited for this line to move. I went back to the “men’s line”.

This time it was an official who informed me of my place. “Mujhe jaldi hai, udhar bohot time lag raha hai,” I told him, defiantly.

Nahin ji wahin kharay hona paray ga.” Some of the men in the line snickered.

Ek to mera bag hai yaar. Aur itnay maslay kar rahe hain aap,” I told the official. This time, I couldn’t help myself any longer and had to tell them off. Eventually, I was told to cut the line and put my luggage before another waiting woman.

That’s something I never like to do. If there is a line, you stand and wait not cut it off like it’s your birthright to. But, this time, I really had no choice and had to do it.

To the men who will read this blog and argue that women get the privilege of “cutting lines” just because they are women, I say I am a woman and I do not like cutting lines. I do not think I deserve any extra privilege or treatment on the basis of my gender (which is not the same as chivalry, though, and I don’t have much to say about that). But when members of our society, men or women, make it difficult for women to get the same kind of treatment as men, I think it is only fair that women play the game by the society’s rules and win it.

That’s the reason I cut the line – because a man in the men’s line whose flight was the same as mine and who had hand luggage did not have to wait 20 minutes like me as if his time was more precious than mine. To me, this is symbolic of deeply-entrenched dismissive attitudes towards women – oh hey, they can wait, it’s not like they have to be somewhere important.

These attitudes need to change, especially in public places. Women are increasingly juggling with high-powered careers and, if anything, they require additional support from public infrastructure. If you can’t provide us that, at least don’t make us battle against a regressive attitude that still considers us inferior in some form to men. In the big picture, it is the small things that matter the most.

P.S.: Spotted at the Lahore airport – a separate counter for parliamentarians, whether or not they are travelling.

Parliamentarians counter at Lahore airport

Movie review: It takes more than an odd name to make a film entertaining

Just when I was convinced that there is nothing that the supremely talented Vishal Bhardwaj can’t do well, he co-writes Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.

The film, a romantic comedy, has a trite plot with an equally trite leftist message jammed in where something fresher could have made MKBKM a much more enjoyable experience. Matru (Imran Khan) is a law graduate from Delhi University who, like his father before him, works as an all-purpose servant for the wealthy Mandola family, Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) and the apple of his eye his daughter Bijlee Mandola (Anushka Sharma). Although Matru is supposed to be Harry’s driver, what he really is is Harry’s Man Friday, and Kapur and Khan are fantastic as that pair. Matru is also in love with Bijlee but she is engaged to Baadal (Arya Babbar), son of the state’s chief minister Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), who she met while studying at Oxford.

Harry loves his drink as much as his daughter and is said to have two different personalities when intoxicated and when not. When sober, and a heartless construction contractor, Harry intends to build a Special Economic Zone in place of wheat farms tended by residents of a village nearby who are led to resistance by a man who calls himself Mao (dear lord!) and communicates with the villagers only through letters written in red (dear, dear lord!). When drunk, Harry transforms into an irreverent Sikh whose takyakalaam is a gaali that involves sisters. Not fully aware of it, he sides with the farmers, leading a movement against his own project while singing a song against capitalists at large. Matru, his faithful servant, is of course right next to him. The film is really all about which version of Harry Mandola overcomes the other and there are no points for guessing which side wins.

Kapur is an absolute delight as Harry Mandola – both of them. It is safe to say that he is the star of the show and, with some help from Babbar, pretty much shoulders the entire responsibility of entertaining the audience. Although they are very convincing in their respective roles, Khan is Khan and Sharma is Sharma from any other film. For me, that was disappointing to say the least because as an avid Vishal Bhardwaj fan, I had expected that he would have been able to help them bring out a hidden actor inside them.

Full points to Bhardwaj for maintaining his signature rustic style and for keeping the film crisp and short; a minute longer and it could have been a disaster like his last film Saat Khoon Maaf. The music, like the dialogue (both done by Bhardwaj), is fun and quirky and songs are very nicely picturised without wasting precious film time. However, it would have been nice if he had not tried to force his wife Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice on Sharma. Also, why the African Zulu tribe was needed in the film is beyond me.

Verdict: The film reminds one of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 with a message that is lost on the audience. Not impressed overall but Pankaj Kapur’s performance is not to be missed.

This blog also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs here:


Why I observed Muharram this year

Ninety-three of us perished yesterday. I don’t mean Pakistanis, I mean Shias. And as much as it pains me to identify myself as something before a Pakistani, this state seems to have left little choice for us.

Since the age of 15, when my parents decided to let me be and decide for myself how far I wanted my religious identity to go, I have been attending fewer and fewer majaalis every year. In some part it has to do with the fact that I got busy building a career for myself, but in some part it was also because I started wondering if the philosophy of marking Muharram as a way of protest really was relevant today. I was always aware that Shias were held as kafirs in many households in my own city and perhaps neighborhood. I also knew that they were being target killed in this country we call home, and I have lost family to it, but I still thought that we may have moved past it.

That was the time when Musharraf was in power. In the haze of his enlightened moderation, my teenage self felt safe. So I stopped going to the juloos as regularly. I also stopped taking Muharram so seriously.

Then, in 2009, the juloos was attacked. Instead of commiserating with us, many of our friends started blaming us for the violence against us. The juloos should be moved out of the city, they suggested. While I gingerly considered the idea, my parents and many other Shias I knew were vehemently opposed to it. I thought they were clinging to tradition.

Three years later, after spending a terror-filled Muharram each year and losing thousands of more Shias to brutal targeted attacks, I realized that what I had earlier dismissed as “tradition” was as relevant as ever. So then, I questioned, why shouldn’t the protest continue? And that is why I, a latent member of the Shia community, decided to observe Muharram this year. This was my way of saying no to the terrorists, of supporting religious diversity in this country. I have no intention of ever trying to convince anyone that my belief is more pure than theirs, but I have every intention to tell everyone that my belief never has and never will let the Yazeedi armies take over.

The protest is still alive, and we are still living what we have been mourning for hundreds of years. Imam Hussain’s followers, in principle or even just in ritual, are out on the streets even today to fight against fellow Muslims the way Imam Hussain did. And they are dying for it just as Imam Hussain did.

I never really needed a reason to become sure of my belief, but now I have found one. I only wish it didn’t have to be so violent.

Save us. Save religious diversity in this country. Save your right to dissent from the majority. Save your country from soaking in the blood of genocide of its own people.

This blog also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs here:


Does the PPP have a youth employment policy at all?

Sometimes, Pakistani heads of state make such ridiculous remarks that it is difficult to decide if they are incompetent at governing, disinterested in providing for the people or simply stupid.

Recently, President Asif Ali Zardari (four of the scariest words in the history of Pakistan) made one such unintentionally hilarious remark. While addressing the graduation ceremony of Waseela-e-Rozgar Program, which works under the auspices of the Bolsa Familia-inspired Benazir Income Support Program, Zardari said that “youth need to be trained to work overseas”.

I was immediately reminded of the master faux pas committed by then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in an interview to CNN. When the host cited a poll and asked him that an alarming majority of young Pakistanis say that they want to leave the country, Gilani responded almost callously: “Why don’t they leave then? Who’s stopping them?“.

And then we wonder where organizations like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and others involved in rioting across Karachi on days like “Love the Prophet Day” find young men to “protest” by looting shops and burning down cinemas. When those governing the country have such ambivalence towards providing a fulfilling future for the youth, what else can you expect?

I, for one, am not surprised at the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) lack of common sense when it comes to devising a labor policy with a special focus on employment for the thousands of young men and women who graduate from universities, colleges and vocational training institutes across the country every year. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after all, whose bright idea it was to send hundreds of thousands of less-skilled Pakistani workers to the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in the 70s. Simultaneously, his government forced more and more workers in companies like Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Pakistan Steel Mills – almost all of whom were jiyalas – who were not only not trained for their jobs but also least interested in the work that was only seldom available for them because organizations were so overstaffed.

Those policies, if you want to call them that, are still being applied and that school of thought is still very much alive within the PPP as is evident from the asinine statements of Zardari and Gilani that I have quoted above. The current PPP government seems to have come out of a time machine and is still stuck in the 70s when the done thing was more state control over the economy. We are now 30 years ahead and the state intervention paradigm has become obsolete.

It is now time that we stop shoving employees into already over-staffed state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and come up with ways to provide more employment for young graduates in sectors that have great potential to absorb these trained individuals – such as the food industry, retail and consumer goods, which are the fastest growing segments of the economy. This can never be a sustainable solution and there is only so many people who can possibly be “employed” within an organization. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, as bloated as the government is when it comes to employment, it still manages to employ only 3% of the total workforce! Quite telling as to how beneficial the policy of forcing workers at SOEs is.

The solution is employment generation, not shipping people off to other countries to shoulder the burden that is actually Pakistan’s own. What is needed is more government spending and attention on industries that are simply waiting to grow, not more government coercion to stuff more and more employees in organizations that cannot afford them, like the once glorious PIA.

Shahzeb Khan case: A spectacle of Pakistan’s failed justice system

It is an exciting time to be a young Pakistani. Yes, it really is. Sure the unemployment, insecurity and political uncertainty have crippled our academic and professional progress but there are also rays of light, thin as they may be but bright still.

One such incident is the Shahzeb Khan murder case and the public outrage that it has created. What the Khan family, their friends and the protesters have been able to achieve is truly commendable. But when one delves deeper into the case, it is a perfect example of all that is wrong with this country’s justice system. It lays bare the problems that have long been the bane of our society’s existence. If only we were to think a little and avoid a knee-jerk reaction, this case points to the issues that we really should be agitating against to ensure that killers of young men like Shahzeb Khan are not let off anywhere in this country.

It is evident from the facts of the case that this is a plain and simple murder case – one that can, and does, occur in many parts of the world. But what has happened here wouldn’t happen in a country with a justice system that people actually trust and that does not bow down to political pressure.

Following protests in several cities, the Supreme Court directly intervened and took suo motu notice of the incident. Although this notice can be perceived as a victory for those who lost their son and friend in cold-blooded murder, what it really is is an embarrassing spectacle of the failure of this country’s justice system. In the shape of this suo motu, the Supreme Court has cut across layers of judicial procedure and overstepped the mandate of smaller courts that are actually responsible for dealing with cases like these.

If due process of law was to be followed, Shahrukh Jatoi, who is accused of having shot dead Shahzeb Khan following a boyish scuffle, would have been taken into police custody for questioning. Had Shahrukh pleaded innocence during the interrogation, he would have been produced before a judicial magistrate, who would hear the case the prosecution would make against Shahrukh. The media, which jumped in to play prosecutor, would really have only been reporting while prosecution lawyers would present both the families and other witnesses to prove Shahrukh’s guilt in a district and sessions court. The judge would then decide whether or not the evidence in the case showed that Shahrukh is guilty. If pronounced innocent, Shahrukh would be free to go but if ruled guilty, he would have the right to appeal in the high court and subsequently the Supreme Court.

One of the most outrageous and thoroughly shocking bits of the murder story is the “process” through which an FIR was registered for Shahzeb’s murder. Because Shahrukh’s father Sikander Jatoi hobnobs with politicians with influence, it took more than an hour for the police to register the report even though Shahzeb’s father is a senior police officer himself. Furthermore, the FIR was recorded only once another prominent politician, a relative of Shahzeb’s, got involved. Now imagine you or me or any one of us who has no political connections, in a similar situation. Where would we go once the police turn us away? How would we lodge a police complaint if one of our loved ones was to be shot dead as unjustly as Shahzeb was? Would the Supreme Court had taken any interest in our case if there were no political overtones to it?

I hope and pray with all my heart that Shahzeb Khan’s murderers are brought to justice and made into an example. But constant suo motu cases and media trials are not a permanent solution to a decimating problem: a weak justice system that can easily play into the hands of those with political support and money while failing to provide for those in real need.

Yes, we live in a jungle where survival of the fittest is the norm that has broken the back of this society. The problem is small but complicated and so is the solution, but our id is so big that we fail to look outside of ourselves and consider anything other than our own benefit. It is time we stop putting bandages on our scars and try to treat the disease that is causing those scars to reappear every now and then. It is time we question why Shahzeb, why that man we read about in the newspaper, why that boy in that village, why anyone of us?