Feisal Naqvi

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

The mummy-daddy, burger-baby revolutionaries

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2011 at 3:57 am

Pakistan’s most recent sensation is a young law student by the name of Zohair Toru, an enthusiastic, but somewhat muddled follower of Imran Khan, who had the good fortune, last Friday in Islamabad, to be interviewed by a television channel while protesting the release of Raymond Davis.

Fashionably coiffed with a semi-beehive hairdo reminiscent of the lead singers of The B-52s, the main thrust of Mr Toru’s complaintwas that as somebody trying to improve Pakistani society, he didn’t deserve to be pushed around by the police. Or as he plaintively wailed, “Police humai maray gi to inquilaab kaisey aye ga?”[1]

In the cosy little world of Pakistan’s intellectual vanguard (also known as the 50 people who talk to each other on Twitter), Mr Toru’s complaints have been much derided. His original interview has been widely circulated as has indeed his second interview in which the anchor told him, “Beta, cameray mein dekho. Achay lagtay ho; hero marka.”[2] The gist of the chatter is that Mr Toru is a vapid, empty-headed, mummy-daddy type who doesn’t realise that life is hard, that revolution is harder, that power flows from the barrel of a gun and that burger-babies like him should concentrate on their hairstyles and leave the heavy lifting to people who have read their Gramsci.

With all due respect to the beret-wearing poli-sci types, I think there is more to the story. Yes, Mr Toru is fantastically ignorant. Yes, he is deeply innocent of the realities of power. And yes, any revolution is going to be a long time a coming if it is dependent on people like him. But there are things to celebrate about this narrative as well.

First, let us first celebrate the fact that well-meaning, English-medium burger babies have been so roused from the depths of their traditional apathy that they are actually taking to the streets. Given the attention paid by Mr Toru to his personal appearance, not to mention his general unfamiliarity with the Urdu language, it does not seem as if he is part of the starving masses of Pakistan. In fact, given his age and general appearance, one could be forgiven for assuming that Mr Toru is more likely to be found sprawled on a couch with a PS3 controller in his hands than protesting on the streets. If Imran Khan has succeeded in penetrating the adamantine shell of apathy and indifference, which normally shields the wealthier individuals in this country, then more power to him. I don’t agree with much of what the PTI has to say — for example, their decision to join a great left-of-centre coalition while simultaneously spewing semi-jihadist rubbish — but, in this particular regard, the great Khan is entitled to take a bow. Bravo, sir.

Second, I think it is worth celebrating the fact that our burger-babies do not feel that it is appropriate for the police to push around non-violent protesters. This argument is so beautifully innocent, so perfectly divorced from all prior history and past experiences that one feels much like the fabled Grinch in taking a contrary view. However, the point here is not what is true, but what is believed to be true. I can argue now, and forever, that the colonial police was conceived back in 1860, as a paramilitary force tasked with thrashing the natives into submission (and that it has held true to its original conception). However, the point here is that stereotypes are self-reinforcing. If my concept of the police is of a bunch of thugs, then I will accept their thuggery with greater equanimity than if I conceive of them as public servants. Mr Toru may be historically, politically and factually wrong in his views of what the police in Pakistan can actually do. But he is historically, politically and factually right in demanding a police force which does not shove around non-violent protesters like him.

The final point in this regard is that we need more innocents in politics. I know that politics is inherently a dirty business. I also know that in Pakistan, it is a particularly dirty business. But if Pakistani politics is ever to become less of a straightforward extortion racket, it will be because idealistic people actually stick around and get involved in the mechanics of governance. Mr Toru may or may not be one of those who stick around. But, somebody like him eventually will. And we will all be the better for it.

This column first appeared in the Express Tribune on 25.3.2011.

[1] “How can we have a revolution if the police beats us?”

[2] “Look at the camera, son. You look good. Just like a hero”


A good end to a bad idea

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

The Supreme Court’s investigation into all loan write-offs since 1972, recently came to an end when the court announced that the question as to whether or not any write-offs were politically motivated would be examined by a three-member committee headed by Justice (retd) Saleem Akhtar.

The decision to khudday line the problem into a committee makes sense because the investigation into loan write-offs was, from the very beginning, a bad idea.

It was a bad idea, firstly, because this was not a task that the Supreme Court could handle. Over the past 40 years, there have been, not just thousands, but tens of thousands of cases in which banks have written off loans. Each loan write-off involved a factual judgment call made by the bank in question that there was no more blood to be wrung out of that particular stone. Is it possible that some of those write-offs were politically motivated? Absolutely! But how were you going to find those particular needles in a vast haystack of instances? Was the Supreme Court going to carry out a factual inquiry in each and every case to determine whether or not there were other properties which could have been sold? Was the Supreme Court going to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of each instance to determine whether or not the write-off was made for ‘mala fide’ reasons? If so, what about all the other issues and cases requiring court attention?

It was a bad idea, secondly, because there comes a point in time when we have to let bygones be bygones. Yes, we went through a period of time — essentially 1974 to 1994 — when, in many cases, political power was grossly abused for material gains. But trying to peek through the murky remnants of decades-old financial documents leads nowhere. These deals are now dead and buried. Interring their bones would do no good. If the companies which got the write-offs went on to prosper, the write-offs were worth it. And if they died notwithstanding their write-offs, then what further purpose would have been served by stretching their desiccated remains on the rack?

Let us also remember that we have already been down this particular road to nowhere. In 1999, some fool sold the NAB law to General Musharraf and a whole organisation devoted to tracking down fraudulent write-offs was born. Did it succeed? Short answer, no. That would be why the NAB law was amended to allow the State Bank of Pakistan to ride herd on the NAB cowboys.

In any event, the root of the problem was not the fact that loans got written off but the fact that the nationalisation of banks by Bhutto Sr. had put politicians in charge of the banking system. That original sin has now been fixed with the privatisation of the major banks (MCB and ABL in 1991, UBL in 2002 and HBL in 2004). So, if banks lose money on bad write-offs, it is no longer the government’s problem or even ‘the people’s’ problem: It is the bank’s problem, or more correctly, the bank’s shareholders’ problem.

The write-off hullaballoo was also a bad idea because it catered to the populist perception that an unpaid loan is a crime. Unfortunately, it is a cold, hard fact of nature that businesses make money by taking risks. Sometimes the risks work out well and sometimes they work out badly. But the reason why banks charge interest on loans — oops, pardon me, mark-up — is so that they make enough money from the good loans to cover the losses from the bad loans. Those losses are an inevitable fact of doing business. They are to be minimised, but they are necessary and unavoidable. If anything, it is our idiotic obsession with minimising default risk which makes doing business so problematic in this country.

Let me explain. Suppose you have identified a promising business opportunity. Like many entrepreneurs, you need to borrow money. But if you go to a bank, they will force you to back up the loan, not just with property, but with a personal guarantee. Which means that if you fail, you lose not just your investment but, quite literally, the shirt off your back. And, thanks to the NAB law, a default could land you in jail for 14 years, even if it occurs despite your best efforts! Now, tell me, how many risks would you be willing to take?

This is not a minor issue. A failure to allow risks in business is much the same as a failure to allow business. The single most important legal step in business history was the development of the limited liability company. The reason is that this development let people put a cap on their risks, so that if the business went belly-up, the investors lost the value of their investments, but no more. This in turn produced a flood of investment which in turn led to, in aggregate and over time, far greater prosperity for all. In Pakistan, we have effectively destroyed the concept of limited liability and the consequences of that are evident for all to see.

The final point is that there is no cosmic unfairness in the fact that small defaulters get no respite from bad loans while big defaulters are able to finagle deals: That is inherent in the nature of business. To paraphrase Keynes, if you owe the bank a thousand dollars, you have a problem. But if you owe the bank a billion dollars, then the bank has a problem. Yes, from the perspective of the small defaulter, that sucks. But, to repeat, that’s business. Get over it. Or come back when you have figured out how to rewrite the laws of finance.

This column appeared first in the Express Tribune on March 20, 2011.


Decency is never inappropriate

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2011 at 5:56 am

Communism has faded so far from public consciousness that there seems little difference between discussing the Bolsheviks and the Merovingians. But back when I studied Darkness at Noon, the Red Menace was very much still an extant threat.

The story of Darkness at Noon is that of Rubashov, a revolutionary communist, now himself imprisoned on charges of treason. As Rubashov rots in jail, he thinks about all the people he betrayed in order to further the cause he then believed in — even his own mistress. He tries to convince his torturers of his innocence, but to no avail. Eventually, he realises that his fealty to the Cause requires him to confess, even though he is innocent. He does so and is then executed.

In the Cliff Notes version of the book that remains seared into my brain, the moral of the story was as follows: The ends do not justify the means. Corrupt means will eventually only produce corrupt ends.

I mention all of this because of Ejaz Haider’s recent column on “Emergency Ethics.” So far as I understand it Ejaz’s argument is that this is not a time when we have the luxury of respecting the full panoply of human rights. Instead, he gave the example of Peru’s war against the Shining Path guerillas, as well as Britain’s decision to bomb German cities and civilians, as ways in which states have overcome mortal threats to their existence. We must, he concludes, “put a moratorium on our decency because that is the only way to ensure [our] survival in the long term.”

It is by now, fairly evident, that we live in troubled times. The murder of Salmaan Taseer was followed by a storm of outrage and then a slow fade into indifference. The murder of Shahbaz Bhatti has accelerated that process so that we went from shock to indifference in a few hours (as opposed to a few months). Can there be any doubt that this country is locked in a mortal struggle for its very soul? Do we really have the luxury of being decent to our opponents?

My answer is that we have no option but to be decent. We are fighting, not just for our lives, but for our ideals. If we believe in a humane order, we cannot achieve that goal through inhuman means.

The irony about this conversation is that we have just witnessed a terrible war in which the gung-ho approach has been tried and failed. Have we already forgotten what happened in Abu Ghraib, as well as the delight we all took in condemning the United States for its hypocrisy? What was Abu Ghraib except the institutionalisation of indecency?

Leaving aside the euphemisms, what exactly are we talking about here? Does Ejaz want our police to have the legal authority to torture suspects? Does he want the armed forces to have the power to carpet-bomb North Waziristan? Does he want the state to have the power to detain people indefinitely?

I ask these questions not to be unhelpful or condescending. The soldiers dying out there in the tribal areas are dying to keep my mushy liberal backside safe and it does not behoove me — or anybody else — to be flippant. And I am not. Instead, the argument I am making is that we are fighting, not just for physical survival, but for a set of values. Those values do not include torture and they do not include crimes against humanity. And I, for one, am willing to live with the consequences.

At the end of the day, I believe in this country, not as a gift from God, but as a creation of a compact between its peoples, an agreement to live and die by certain rules. Unlike Americans, I do not have the luxury of idealising the framers of my constitution. (Anybody so inclined should read those parts of the constitutional debates where Mian Mehmood Ali Kasuri is repeatedly interrupted by cries of “oye motay!”) Nonetheless, there is a fundamental wisdom distilled into this document, none more so than Article 233, which provides that certain fundamental rights can be suspended during an emergency, but not all. The rights which cannot be suspended include the right of habeas corpus (Art. 10) and the right not to be tortured (Art. 14). In other words, our most fundamental agreement provides that no matter what happens, we cannot and will not give up certain basic human dignities.

Let me put this argument a different way: every time we are confronted by a fresh outrage, this nation turns and asks itself, what kind of people could do such sick things? What kind of people can use a 15-year-old boy as a bomb? What kind of people would bomb a mosque full of worshippers? What kind of people would kill a person just because of his faith? Do we really want the answer to be “people like us”?

One of the few heartening things that came out last year was the yeh hum naheen movement. That simple statement — this is not us — meant a great deal to me. It showed me that there is a core gentleness in our character which rejects the violence and the hate being inflicted upon us in the name of our religion. Yes, I have heard all the cynical analyses, that Pakistan is an unfortunate mistake composed of nothing but the mongrel remnants of the subcontinent, that there is no ‘nation’ in any coherent sense of that term. My answer to that is very simple: We may not have been much of a nation in 1947 but we sure as hell are becoming one now.

To return to Ejaz’s suggestion, the purpose of this column is not to sneer at him. He is not only one of my dearest friends but also one of the most deeply learned people I know. But in this case, he is completely and utterly wrong. Decency is never inappropriate. Yeh hum naheen.

This column appeared first in the Express Tribune on March 6, 2011.