Vanished: Pakistani children are going missing from their homes…and our minds

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After the horrifying attack on APS Peshawar, the nation was united in shock and outrage against a crime targeting children. These were the children of Army officers, but we understood that they represented all of our children. The response from the state was swift and unforgiving. The threat would be chased to every corner and put down without mercy. However now a crack is beginning to show in the state’s resolve to be the defender of our children. The children of Army officers will be avenged, but the children of the poor are being forgotten.

Reports have been flooding in about hundreds of children going missing in Pakistan, while the state has remained deaf and blind to the crisis. Kidnapping gangs have been busted in Peshawar, and one kidnapped girl from Lahore was able to make a daring escape and live to tell about it. According to Punjab’s Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, though, kidnapping is ‘blown out of proportion’.

Was the response to the APS massacre ‘blown out of proportion’? 132 children were killed in that attack, and no one will dare to say the response was ‘blown out of proportion’. Over 700 children have been kidnapped in Punjab alone, and authorities say that the response is ‘blown out of proportion’. If the proportions are different, please inform us how many poor children does it take to equal the value of an Army officer’s child?

All children have equal value no matter whether their father is a decorated war hero or a beggar. The state should not dismiss the worries of parents. They should treat the crisis as a threat to the nation’s future, which is what our children are. All of them.

Education Has Become a National Security Crisis

classroomEducation is important, not just so that a child can learn to read and write, but so that a nation can prosper. Researchers with the United Nations found that “each additional year of education boosts a person’s income by 10 per cent and increases a country’s GDP by 18 per cent”. This should make education a central part of national policy in Pakistan where economic growth has lagged for decades despite the country being located in one of the fastest growing economic regions of the world. Actually, Pakistan is second from last in economic growth in the region. The only country worse is Afghanistan, which has been a war zone since more than 10 years.

South Asia Economic Growth 2015If we are lagging in economic growth, and education is a proven way of boosting economic growth, what is our current education policy? Once again, we are almost at the bottom. Not only of the region, but of the entire world.

Pakistan has the second highest concentration of out-of-school children in the world after Nigeria

Some efforts are being made to improve things. Punjab government has successfully enrolled in school 18,622 children from brick kilns. However, it is a drop in the ocean of the problem. 360 schools were destroyed in Fata this year. And while 18,622 children have been enrolled in school in Punjab, 1.6 million children are out of school in Balochistan.

Pakistan’s education emergency is not new, but it is not improving and it is pushing us towards economic disaster for coming generations. Education is a matter of uplifting the poor and improving girls empowerment, but treating this emergency as such has been a failure till date. We need to treat the dire education emergency for what it is: a national security crisis.

Disneyland Lahore: Who Benefits?

As reported by media, Punjab government has signed a deal for a Chinese company construct a mega-theme park in Lahore. With a price tag of Rs36 Billion, the new destination is described as ‘Disneyland Lahore‘. That’s not even the entire price. Punjab is also going to pay someone Rs7.78 billion to build apartments for all the labourers who will be building this massive project.

Who are these labourers is not known. We already know that the theme park contract has been awarded to a Chinese company. Can we assume that this means that the 2,900 new apartments are going to be housing for thousands of Chinese labourers coming to build it? Will this be another project, like Gwadar, where the only real jobs for Pakistanis are providing security for our Chinese guests?

Setting aside questions about whether or not China and not Pakistan will reap the economic benefits of this ‘Disneyland’, there is also the question of who will the actual enjoyment is meant for. It cannot be missed that this massive entertainment centre is being built in Lahore, only widening the gap between Punjab and the rest of the country. Already CPEC is heavily criticised for being Punjab-centric, and this ‘Disneyland Lahore’ is only the icing on the cake.

We need something hopeful and entertaining. Is a new theme park the answer? I don’t know. But whatever it is it needs to be carefully thought out to avoid certain obvious problems, even if those problems such as paying billions to foreign companies and foreign workers while unemployment here affects millions. It should also be considered whether such entertainments are being built for Pakistan or only for a small elite that already enjoys so many options for leisure, further widening the gap between Pakistanis who ‘have’ something and Pakistanis who ‘have not’. Ignoring these points will only invite new grief, not happiness.

Salmaan Taseer memorial attack a bellwether for the nation?

Salmaan Taseer vigil

40 suspects are being held in connection with an attack against citizens who had gathered to remember slain Governor Salmaan Taseer on Sunday. An attack against a peaceful memorial should be shocking enough in itself, but there are certain details which make the event even more disheartening.

The first thing to note is that media reports that the attackers are all ‘belonging to a banned organisation’. This shows that despite lofty rhetoric about the nation finally being united against extremism and terrorism, the fact remains that banned organisations continue to operate with little disruption. Even though arrests have been made after public outcry over the incident, police were reportedly standing aside while the attack took place. It should also be noted that media has so far protected the name of the ‘banned organisation’.

More troubling, however, are the comparative numbers. According to reports, 40 militant extremists were arrested for attacking a gathering of ‘more than 35 activists of civil society’.

The number of extremists outnumbered the number of people at the vigil.

This can be attributed to a couple of factors, but neither of them bode well for the future of the country. It could be as simple as a sign that there are more extremists than tolerant moderates in the country. I am still unwilling to believe this, however. I think what is most likely is that most moderates recognize the risks inherent to standing up for their values.

Salmaan Taseer was murdered because he dared to take a stand for protecting a poor Christian woman who he believed was unjustly accused. Fatwas were issued calling for death of Sherry Rehman. Husain Haqqani received life threats from extremist groups.  Mohammad Shakil Auj, the 54-year-old dean of Islamic Studies at the prestigious University of Karachi, was declared ‘apostate’ and murdered for being too moderate in his religious views. Militants carried out operation to kill moderate columnist and TV anchor Raza Rumi. Though he survived with his life, his driver, Mustafa was not so lucky.

Army has stepped up attacks against militant groups that attack them, and those convicted of carrying out attacks against military targets are being executed. While the military looks after its own, the rest of us are left to look after ourselves.

I continue to hold onto the belief that a moderate, tolerant, ‘silent majority’ exists in this country, but I also believe that this majority does not have the security to stand up to the extremists. My fear is that this lack of security not only weakens our ability to stand up to extremists, it weakens our will to do so. If we do not do something to change this, the majority soon may not be in our favor and extremists may outnumber us not only in the streets, but in our homes, our schools, and our institutions.

If it hasn’t happened already.

What Happens After North Waziristan?

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As airstrikes continue to pound militant compounds in North Waziristan, media reports that a full scale military operation is finally in the works targeting militants in the region. Such an operation is necessary, but it is not sufficient to root out the problem of extremist violence in the country. Just as the 2009 operation in South Waziristan did not end terrorism, neither will a successful operation that only takes place in North Waziristan today.

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