Monday, May 07, 2007

A Challenger in Pakistan

We're starting to see real signs that Pervez Musharraf's hold on power in Pakistan may not be absolute. Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a speech in front of thousands of supporters in Lahore yesterday, expressing dissent with the current government. Chaudhry has been under house arrest in Islamabad since March, and it isn't completely clear to me how he was permitted to address the public on the grounds of the Lahore High Court. But he's clearly become a popular icon of secular dissent with Musharraf's rule, and his speech has to be making authorities nervous:

Speaking to the crowd, including many lawyers, the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said, “The concept of an autocratic system of government is over.” He added, “Rule of law, supremacy of the Constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the Constitution are essential for the formation of a civilized society.

“Those countries and nations who don’t learn from the past and repeat those mistakes get destroyed,” he said.

He said the government had no right to impose laws that violated basic human rights.

Mr. Chaudhry spoke at the compound of the Lahore High Court, under the scorching Lahore sun. Seventeen judges from the Lahore High court also attended. Many of the supporters covered their heads with newspapers to escape the heat. Banners urging the independence of the judiciary and denouncing the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hung on boundary walls surrounding the compound. Political workers, who were not allowed inside, listened to the speech outside the boundary wall. (link)

Chaudhry was also greeted by thousands of cheering bystanders on the side of the road between Islamabad and Lahore; the fanfare was so intense that what is normally a four hour journey took twenty-five hours!

I briefly and irreverently mentioned this brewing crisis back in March, but a much more thorough analysis of the back-story of Justice Chaudhry's dissent by Anil Kalhan can be found at Michael Dorf's "Dorf on Law" blog.

As Anil maps it out, probably the most important issue is actually Pakistan's prosecution of the war on terror, specifically its policy of "disappearing" hundreds of people accused of being Al-Qaeda supporters. While Pakistan's hunt for terrorists has resulted in some important catches, including especially Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, its growing dependence on authoritarian practices has become increasingly unpalatable to many Pakistanis. And the presumed cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, the latter with its secret detention facilities, has to be galling to both Pakistan's secular liberals (they do exist) and the Islamists on the right.

There are other issues on the table too (human rights in Balochistan, and corruption surrounding the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills), and Justice Chaudhry has apparently built up a reputation as an activist and a progressive over some years, as this detailed analysis suggests.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Musharraf will continue to let Iftikhar Chaudhry speek freely. And one has to wonder whether the feeling of dissent represented by the support for Justice Chaudhry can be transformed into an actual political movement in Pakistan.

As a final note, the following Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal was being played over the loudspeakers at Justice Chaudhry's rally. The Times gave it to you in English, but here it is in transliterated Urdu as well:

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
When the mountains of cruelty and torture

Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
Will fly like pieces of cotton

Hum Mehkumoon ke Paun Talay
Under the feet of the governed

Yeh Dharti Dhard Dhard Dhardkay gi
This earth will quake

Aur Ehl-e-Hukum ke Sar Uper
And over the head of the ruler

Jab Bijli kard Kard Kardke gi
When lightening will thunder

Hum Dekhain Gay
We shall see (source)

Yes, Hum dekhain gai. That is probably about all that can be said at this point.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Professors and Troubled Students

At least five of the people who lost their lives in yesterday's tragic shooting at Virginia Tech were faculty. G.V. Loganathan came to the U.S. from India in 1977; Abhi has a post on him at Sepia Mutiny. Liviu Librescu was, as has been widely reported, a survivor of the Holocaust, and is also reported to have placed himself in the way of the gunman -- saving student lives. Three other faculty members who were killed include Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Kevin Granata, and Christopher James Bishop.

It's been widely mentioned that the shooter responsible for yesterday's deaths was an English major. In fact, members of the English department at Virginia Tech are being mentioned in some recent media reports. Cho Seung-Hui took creative writings classes at the university, and what he wrote apparently was found to be quite disturbing to his professors. Here's the New York Times:

Caroyln Rude, the chair of the English Department, said that she had spoken to a professor who taught Mr. Cho and was told that the general impression of him was that he was “troubled.”

“There were signs that he was troubled,” she said. “And the English Department at one point did intervene.”

She said that it related to something he wrote in a creative writing class but did not give details about what was written or what kind of intervention was taken, only that it was some time ago, before she was made chair of the department.

“Sometimes some creative writing class students will say something that unnerves us,” she said. “I know that there was some intervention and I don’t know the particulars.”

She said she had not seen what he wrote and said that she could not make public such personal information about a student.

Without going into the specifics of this case, she said that often when there is an intervention the incident is reported to either the counseling center or the dean of students.

“We are not psychologists,” she said. (link)

There are also articles to this effect at The Chronicle of Higher Education (via Gwynn Dujardin), and Inside Higher Ed.

Professor Rude makes a good point: it's not really a professor's job to take responsibility if and when it appears that a student may be disturbed. Since academia has been thoroughly professionalized, there is the presumption of a strict line between a professor and the lives of his or her students outside the classroom. And in this case, it appears that the English department did make an attempt to contact the administration, encouraging counseling for Cho Seung-Hui.

But the nature of creative writing classes in particular -- where the personal lives and psychic dispositions of students are often in the foreground -- makes that line a little blurrier, does it not? Shouldn't the rules be different for teachers whose students are engaged in creative activity?

More generally, I wonder if this recent shooting might suggest a rethinking of the current "hands off" academic culture, especially if a tendency to commit acts of violence is suggested. I'm not suggesting that professors be asked to play the role of substitute parents, but rather that greater emphasis could be placed on building community belonging and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. What that means in practice is difficult to say. There's a fair potential for abuse; young men in particular tend to experiment with representations of violence when they first start out as writers, and we certainly don't need "interventions" every time that happens. But it's also hard to simply conclude that nothing can be done, even with students who show signs of extreme, anti-social behaviour like Mr. Cho.

Any suggestions from readers?

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Samjhauta" Thwarted: Another Senseless, Horrible Bombing

It's difficult to know what to say sometimes after terrorist attacks like the recent bombing of the Samjhauta Express. 68 innocent people lost their lives -- and for what? If it turns out to be an attack planned by Kashmiri militants or other Islamists, this kind of attack seems particularly bizarre, as it appears that the majority of the people who died were in fact Pakistanis. (If another motive or ideological agenda was behind the attack, it's not as if it would be any better.) And needless to say, if this follows the pattern of some other recent terrorist attacks in India, it's entirely possible -- likely, even -- that weeks will go by without any satisfactory answers appearing. (I'm perfectly happy to be proven wrong if this turns out not to be true.)

Here are some of the issues I've seen people discussing with regards to this attack:

  • At Outlook, there is an interesting article that describes in depth the general lack of security on the Samjhauta Express train. Hopefully, both governments are going to seriously revamp this.

  • A big question that people are asking is, were the doors locked from the inside, preventing people who survived the original explosions from escaping the two burning cars? Some witnesses have claimed they were, but India has denied it. At Bharat-Rakshak, however, I came across a commenter who has a good explanation for why this might have been done:

    In north India, when travelling overight, train compartments are usually locked from inside to prevent entry of people who do not have reservations in that compartment. The TT opens them at stations to allow entry only the passengers that belong to that compartment.

    With intense heat, the locked door latches must have jammed. It is difficult to open these latches even otherwise. Women and kids have to ask other passengers to help then open the door.

    The windows in trains are barred to prevent 'chain snatching' and other types of burglaries. (link)

    Those sound like good reasons, but I hope after this tragedy officials are thinking about possible failsafe mechanisms, so nothing like this happens again.

  • Sketches have been released of the suspects. They were apparently speaking the "local Hindi language." That doesn't tell us much, however.

  • What was the explosive used? The bombs are being described as IEDs with kerosene and other "low intensity" fuels -- in other words, not RDX or other material obtained through transnational networks. These sound like materials that are very easily available, but still incredibly deadly for people in a confined space. A witness at the BBC mentions that the explosions did not force the conductor to stop the train right away -- indeed, he may not have known about them until several minutes after the fires started.

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