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DAWN - Features; July 7, 2005

July 07, 2005

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Songs of the season of struggle

Veteran trade unionist and journalist, Wahid Bashir, is a poet of real space-time. No time warp or surreal fog dims his social perception of what is happening around him. You find this clarity in his first collection of mostly free verse that he titled Cactus ke Phool or his second and latest Jo Eitebar Kiya comprising mostly his ghazals.

Commenting on Cactus ke Phool, Dr Mohammad Ali Siddiqui said the influence of progressive movement was visibly stamped on his poetic thought. But having braved incarceration and the daily hazards that those who strive for justice in life, his view doesn’t project that gloom of the armchair revolutionary who faults the technique for the failure of the technician. His poetics is a blend of his life view and his verse a natural reflex of someone who believes and strives for the establishment of a fair society.

According to Dr Siddiqui, Wahid Bashir’s poetry springs from a value system that if one were in agreement with, one could appreciate the peculiar expression of that poetic sensibility which even in the passion of love sees the taints of class struggle, so classically expressed in Sahir’s couplet on the Taj Mahal. Unique in his case has been the life long and active participation of his brave wife, Hamza Wahid, whose commitment to the cause of the working class remained unflinching to the end of her life a couple of years ago. Without her Wahid Bashir is a lone though not lost voyager on a quest that he believes must go on against all odds. It keeps him going.

Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui reviewing Eitebar describes his verse as the poetry of self-knowledge and social awareness; it is meaningful, based on real life encounters, not sweet tittle-tattle. There’s no attempted vagueness or intended confusion that is introduced by many poets to create an illusion of profoundness. He isn’t a poet because a poet he must be. He doesn’t weld verses from a smattering of words from the thesaurus. He has things to say, so he cannot afford the luxury of spewing statements devoid of sense or even aesthetic sensibility. His close knowledge of social dynamics as an agent of change in a milieu that he finds utterly static, demands expression when there are such heavy covers of green velvet smoothed over the harshness of ordinary working lives. What is ironic is that most such facades are erected through the masonry of words.

As is the wont of most poets who tend to be too full of themselves (not prose writers?), Wahid Bashir, having given so much of himself to others, that much full of himself he cannot be. He entertains no great illusions about his verse. It is neither “epochal, nor striking or either unique”. It is just a sharing; a sharing of feelings that all but hermits do not seek.

Media issues: What are media issues? Most of us won’t have the vaguest idea. Censorship comes to mind and its stepfather, propaganda. The former strives to conceal the truth while the latter promotes falsehood. Between these two lies a world of confusion in which the mass of humanity is made to feel good about its state of information. Simply stated, media issues impacting civil society concern the manipulation of information, that is facts, by those who have control over the means of mass communication. Broadly speaking they are the government and the corporate sector. Now Mr Javed Jabbar, (JJ as his female fans in pure sisterly affection call him) who has a penchant for doing complicated things, and sometimes even patently incomprehensible things — like helping a feudal lord in his politics of filial welfare, a mission his limited endurance for chicanery couldn’t carry far — has come up with a new dimension for the media, his permanent mistress who he keeps returning to in broody days to hatch new schemes for his restless soul. It is the creation of a third independent non-profit body called Citizens’ Media Dialogue that people will establish to oversee the working of the first two agencies, that own and control broadcasting and newspapers, to tell them how and where their projections differ from common public perception. Such an avenue already exists loosely in the shape of letters to the editor and live phone calls during radio/TV programmes, roadside interviews by broadcasters etc but even these are editorially supervised and the comment is often given a desirable slant.

Mr Jabbar has set up a Citizens’ Media Commission to institutionalize the ‘dialogue’ through access to a radio or TV channel whose sole function will be to report on the content of other electronic media. But till such access becomes available the CMC has established a website for the purpose, namely www.wiredet.com that all members of the public can access to discuss the distortion, suppression, concealment, obstruction and obfuscation of facts by the conventional media. All this is detailed in a book by JJ that Unesco has published as sponsors of a survey the author conducted to find out the position of other countries in this regard.

Literary people should have an interest in this kind of a project as the projection of literary activities and literature itself is dismal on the private and public channels which devote the major part of their broadcast time to the promotion of vulgar Pop music and cheap soap and sitcoms, fashion parades and make-up parlours. Whatever time the once-a-week literary programmes get is in late hours of the night and mostly with the same old, tired faces. No young writer or poet is ever seen on the screen and hardly ever one sees the dramatization of a literary novel or short story on the public or private channels. Television plays of whatever worth one gets to watch are badly marred by frequent advertisement breaks. Compared to the electronic media, the newspapers give more coverage to literature. The ‘dialogue’ can serve to influence this sad state of affairs.

The economics of Pakistani politics

By M. Ziauddin


THE very economic clout that the Saudi government had reportedly used in 2000 to rescue Nawaz Sharif and take him to the kingdom for safekeeping for 10 years could well become in the year 2005 his passport back to Pakistan.

It was perhaps fear of losing the all-important Saudi Oil Facility (SOF), worth a billion dollars annually, that had made Gen Pervez Musharraf accept the Saudi request in December 2000 to send Nawaz and his family in exile to the kingdom. And now the need to renegotiate a similar deal in the backdrop of rising world oil prices and the resulting threat to our foreign exchange reserves, notwithstanding the recent earnings of $2.6 billion from the sale proceeds of 26 per cent PTCL shares, could well persuade him to take steps to facilitate Mr Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan.

The Saudis had tried to bail out the Nawaz government in 1998 when our economy was down and out following the imposition of nuclear-test related sanctions against Pakistan. By the time the Saudi oil facility ended in 2004 under pressure from the IMF and also because the even more generous flows from the US in the post-9/11 scenario had greatly reduced its need for Islamabad, the kingdom had given Pakistan as much as $5 billion worth of oil virtually free of cost.

Now in view of the escalating international oil prices and the continued failure of the official economic managers to keep a tight leash on domestic food prices, Pakistan seemingly once again needs a medium-term oil facility to not only sustain the higher growth rates that it has achieved in recent years but also to keep domestic prices from heating up to an extent that it becomes too costly to do business for the rich and too unbearable to live for the poor.

While the possibility of obtaining a fresh SOF from Saudi Arabia has made President Musharraf perhaps start taking one more U-turn on Mr Sharif, he is also now seemingly in the process of taking another U-turn — this time on his much publicized idea of ‘enlightened moderation’ which he had reportedly got from a US consultancy firm run by Dr Henry Kissinger.

This U-turn, it is believed, has been necessitated by the general’s failure to win over secular and moderate political elements to his idea of rehashing the Constitution to make it read more like the French constitution. President Musharraf and his foreign friends perhaps thought that, with the Swiss cases hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles, Benazir could be bullied into signing her party’s death warrant by helping the government in parliament to bring about the needed constitutional changes. She appears to have refused to oblige so far.

The only time she showed any interest in any kind of deal was when she was negotiating the release of her spouse. Since then she seems to have stonewalled all attempts by the regime and her friends in the US to beat her into submission.

Now, as a result, Gen Musharraf seems to have gone back to his domestic obscurantists. This is the reason perhaps why the official refrain on enlightened moderation has already started waning. As a corollary, the regime which, so far had appeared to be highly sensitive to the voices of civil society, has started bad mouthing the NGOs.

With the Chaudhry brothers leading the local government election campaigns in Punjab, Arbab Ghulam Rahim in Sindh, and the MMA and Sardars in the NWFP and Balochistan, the subject of enlightened moderation is hardly likely to get a mention in their election speeches. And the prospects of a violent MMA-MQM clash in urban Sindh during the polls have already rendered the subject of enlightened moderation totally irrelevant for the voters there. This will mark a reversal of the campaign Gen. Musharraf had himself launched at the beginning of the year by addressing huge public rallies promoting his vision of moderation at politically strategic points in each of the four provinces.

But then, interestingly, Washington which should have been the most worried party at these backtracking developments, has reportedly made it clear to all the interested parties inside and outside Pakistan that, come what may, it will continue supporting President Musharraf and that for the US it does not matter whether he continues to rule in uniform or without it, whether he holds fair, free and transparent elections or does not even hold elections or rules the country with the help of the MMA alone. As long as he keeps delivering on America’s global agenda, he might as well rule for life as far as the US is concerned.

South India promotes temple as a living ‘wonder’

By Soma Basu


CHENNAI: Hype is growing. Chances are slim. Yet the people of Tamil Nadu State’s oldest and culturally most active city — Madurai — are upbeat that their 16th-century Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple will be voted as one of the seven new wonders of the world.

It is still 18 months before the final list of the seven wonders goes public, but global voting is on to allow people to choose their favourite.

This first of its kind massive exercise was launched in Athens in December 2004. In May the first-round ranking of 77 nominees concluded, and Madurai’s ancient temple dedicated to the lovely consort of Lord Siva finished 25th.

This has galvanized the locals into an aggressive campaign. Prominent city hotels and institutions are offering their space, infrastructure and services to enable people to cast votes for the temple online, either free or for a nominal charge.

Posters, banners and media ads exhort the public to become “cultural ambassadors for the city”. Mementoes and emblems of the temple fill shops and public debates are held to discuss its prospects.

Yet hovering amongst the excitement is a pall of gloom — from shopkeepers, who feel threatened because they will be the first ones to be evicted from the temple area, if the temple’s status grows — and from local residents worried that they could lose easy access to a “wonder” that is part of their daily routine.

Zurich-based Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber launched the New Seven Wonders Foundation prior to the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. His idea is not to replace the seven ancient man-made monumental wonders — all built between 2,500 BC and 200 BC and selected by Philon of Byzantium in 200 BC to serve as a travel guide for fellow Athenians.

All the stunning sites were located around the then Mediterranean Basin and only one, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, remains.

Rather, Weber says his objective is to create an awareness of historical landmarks and preserve Earth’s cultural heritage. “It is an exercise where not one man but millions of people will become the new millennium’s Philons,” he says on the foundation website, which is open for voting.

The preliminary round of voting will end this year with a shortlist of 21 sites. The campaign will move into its last and crucial phase of voting through 2006, and declare the final seven on Jan 1, 2007.

Expectations in Madurai are soaring after the temple’s nomination was cleared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and from looking like a dark horse it has climbed into contention despite India’s wonder monument, the Taj Mahal, also figuring among the 77 nominees.

Six other sites from India are also on the seven wonders short list.

If another six months of intensive campaigning translate into votes, then Madurai’s splendour in stones will surely clear the first round and be among the top 21, feel many people here.

An important cultural and commercial centre as early as 550 AD, Madurai was the capital city of the Pandya kingdom until the 10th century, and traded with many countries, including China, Greece and Rome.

Situated by the banks of the Vaigai River, the city’s rich cultural heritage was passed on from the great Tamil era more than 2,600 years old.

Tamil and Greek documents record its existence from the 4th century BC. Often referred to as the “Athens of the East”, great chroniclers like Magasthenes (302 BC), Pliny (77 AD) and Ptolemy (140 AD) made reference to Madurai in their travelogues. Marco Polo visited the city in 1293 AD, followed by Ibn Batuta in 1333 AD.

The original Meenakshi Temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya as a modest structure based on agamic guidelines.

But the credit for its splendour today goes to the Nayakas who ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th centuries. They expanded and modified this temple with 12 towers (gopurams), which is a majestic imprint of their rule.

Undoubtedly the oldest and probably the largest temple in India, both in area (a complex of 6,039 sq metres) and in number of structures (33 million sculptures) within a single compound, Meenakshi Temple symbolizes all that being a Tamil means.

Madurai’s skyline is dominated by its gopurams, particularly the four outer towers, which rise 43-49 m and are a landmark from any direction. Each tower is adorned with numerous sculptures of gods and goddesses, people, animals and birds, which can be discerned from a distance of at least 18 feet without binoculars.

A hall inside the temple, ‘Ashta Shakti Mandapam’, depicts 64 scenes from the miracles of Siva. Another mandapam has 110 pillars, each carved in the figure of a Yalli, a mythical animal akin to a griffin, and a votive lamp holder with 1008 lamps that are lit on special occasions.

A 1,000-pillar hall called ‘Ayirakkal’ is a riot of sculptures. Viewed from any angle, these pillars appear in a straight line. In its outermost corridor are situated matchless musical stone pillars, each of which when tapped produces a different musical note.

Meenakshi temple is one of the holiest places of worship in South India, drawing thousands of devotees each day. And some of them are genuinely concerned about its nomination as a new “wonder”.

Says retired school teacher, Rama Subramaniam, the fourth-generation occupant of a 125-year-old house on one of the four streets that surrounds the temple: “Once the Archaeogical Survey of India takes over, I wonder whether the sanctity of the temple will remain?” Others, diehard religious people, are also uncomfortable with the thought.

There are other reservations being expressed. Textiles shop owner Ramji Lal echoes the voices of fellow traders who worry they will be displaced if the temple gets “wonder” status: “Will the administration give us a suitable alternate place to carry on business?”

“It is unfair to compare the Taj (Mahal), which is a white marble wonder tomb in memory of the dead, with Goddess Meenakshi’s abode. This is a vital living temple and we all are a part of it,” he asserts.

But Temple Trust Joint Commissioner P. Bhaskaran assures devotees that the temple’s life will not substantially change.

There are two other contenders for “wonder” status from Tamil Nadu: the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, an architectural marvel of the Chola kings and already a UNESCO heritage site; and the Mahabalipuram Shore Temple, the pride of Pallava architecture, with the world’s largest bas-relief engraved in its rocks.

But Meenakshi Temple — after the Taj Mahal — has polled the highest votes so far from India.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.

Curbing mobile phone thefts

By Omar R. Quraishi


ON Tuesday, three people, including a 23-year-old woman, were shot and injured during three separate incidents of mobile phone theft in Karachi. A day earlier, 44 mobile phones were stolen in the city and these were figures taken from the police, meaning that the actual number stolen could have been higher.

In recent months, it seems that mobile phone theft has become the crime of choice of most criminals operating in Karachi. After all, things couldn’t be better for such elements who seem to function with complete impunity in the city –- and what is perhaps more disturbing now is the violence that appears to increasingly accompany such robberies. Competition between an ever-increasing group of mobile service providers has driven down tariffs, with the result that just about anyone and everyone is in possession of a mobile phone. But the growing demand has provided criminals in Karachi with an easy avenue for making a quick buck.There is now a thriving market for used mobile phones.

A few months ago, when cellphone theft started becoming such a problem that it couldn’t be brushed aside, a ban was imposed on the sale of used phones. The Citizens’ Police Liaison Committee also got involved and a proposal was floated that in case someone’s cellphone was stolen, the service provider concerned could take steps to jam the device so as to render it inoperable. That way, the phone would be of no use and hence no third party would be willing to purchase it if thief sold it to a retailer involved in selling used phones.

When the ban was initially imposed, the Karachi Electronics Dealders Association (KEDA) got into the act and launched what turned out to be a violent protest. The plea taken by KEDA was (a) that its members were not involved in any kind of mobile phone thefts and (b) that a ban on the sale of used cellphones would be akin to punishing KEDA’s members since for many of them that was their sole means of earning a livelihood.

A few KEDA members, whose shops allegedly traded in stolen cellphones, were picked up by the police, but this was followed by a demonstration and a complete shutdown of the market. Eventually, a few days later, the government relented and the ban was lifted, and the proposal to direct cellphone service providers to jam stolen handsets was dropped.

Unlike stolen cars, which, since they are easier to trace, require that they be driven out of the city or completely disassembled, it is relatively easy to sell a stolen mobile phone, especially if there are shops in the city which are willing to buy.

The imposition of the ban and its later withdrawal has been termed by some quarters as the result of alleged infighting between two provincial ministers, one in favour and the other obviously against. But it could well be that theft of cellphones and their sale could be patronized by criminal elements in the police and the local administration.

This is something not entirely impossible given the fact that the police (or at least some of their members) in this part of the world are widely believed to be involved in the facilitation of all kinds of criminal activity: from providing cover to gambling dens and prostitution rackets to more mundane things like taking bribes from pushcart vendors in exchange for encroaching footpaths meant for pedestrians. KEDA obviously has a vested interest in not having a ban or any kind of regulation over the sale of used cellphones because that would, as it admits, jeopardize the livelihood of its members.

However, the Sindh government should take a cue from the rising, and increasingly violent, incidents of mobile phone theft. Inaction would only strengthen the perception among many people that those in a position of influence and decision making, who can do something to check this problem, are looking the other way for their own vested interests. Either the government should impose an outright ban on the sale and purchase of used phone or if that is not possible, then the help of the CPLC and mobile phone providers should be taken to put in place a system where any phone that is stolen is blocked and rendered inoperable for later use.