A personal reminiscence
Dear All,
The effects of the recession are to be felt all around, and every time we go to our local shopping centre, we notice some business or the other that has closed down. First it was the HMV and the Waterstones bookshop, then one shop and restaurant after another...



Preparation of new electoral rolls has become the latest in a series of knotty issues. While the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) has given February 23, 2012 deadline to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to put in order new error-free voters’ lists, the ECP says that new rolls cannot be done before the end of May this year.

Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Hamid Ali Mirza, during a meeting of all the stakeholders on January 23, had explained why the ECP was unable to comply with the SC’s order to finalise new electoral rolls by the February deadline.

According to a participant, the ECP chief had said, “Elections are scheduled for March 2013 while new voters’ lists will be finalised at least eight months before the election. So how are we late?”

He had also said though it is their constitutional obligation to conduct byelections within 60 days after a seat gets vacant but “the ECP will comply with the SC ruling and not conduct byelections.” He was referring to a recent court order issued by the Supreme Court in the petition Imran Khan vs Election Commission of Pakistan.

He told them the only way to comply with the SC order was to consider preliminary voters’ list, which is scheduled to be provided to ECP by the Nadra by Febrauary 28, as the final voters’ list. “All the participants unanimously rejected the idea as it was against the constitution and Electoral Rolls Act 1974. Because all political parties and voters needed to see the preliminary voters’ list and then file complaints, if they had any, against it to get it corrected,” the participant tells TNS.

The ECP and Nadra started making the error-free voters’ lists some two years back and they also identified that 37.1 million out of 80 million voters on the lists could not be verified. According to an ECP official, most of these unverified votes were included in the voters’ lists in 2007 on the directions of the SC. “In 2007, the ECP was preparing electoral rolls on the basis of computerised national identity cards and omitted almost 18 million voters from the list on that basis. Then Benazir Bhutto filed a petition before the SC which directed the ECP to include those voters who had been left out. So we relaxed the condition to enlist voters and enrolled more than 20 million votes in one month. This whole effort is being carried out to correct that error,” the official says.

Deputy Chairman Nadra, Tariq Malik, tells TNS that they are not only preparing new electoral rolls, but are putting together a new computerised electoral rolls system to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. “The existing electoral rolls have a lot of flaws and we need to develop a new system. That takes a lot of time. We have been scrutinising every single vote, giving a chance to every voter to decide where he wants to use his right to vote,” he says.

Nadra has already corrected the existing electoral rolls by identifying verified and unverified voters. “Placing them in the right census block is a time-consuming job as we have also been syncing them with the new census blocks. According to the 1998 census, there were 102,000 census blocks in the country while the number has increased to 140,000 after the 2011 house census,” says Malik. “We printed the voters’ lists and handed them over to the ECP in July 2011 which was supposed to do door-to-door verification of voters in a month and hand it back to us with corrections by August 31, 2011. But the ECP gave it back to us in mid-December, 2011, because it took them three months instead of one month to verify the voters’ lists.”

According to Malik, the delay was mainly because of law and order situation and floods in Sindh and Balochistan province. “We were expecting a maximum of 10 million corrections to be made after this exercise, but we found that we will have to correct the records of 19.5 million voters. So, it is once again a huge task and to comply with the court’s orders, we have put all our staff together to make corrections and prepare new electoral rolls. We have been working in three shifts seven days a week, but even then we will not be able to hand over the preliminary voters’ lists to the ECP before February 28.”

A source in the Nadra tells TNS that the SC order has put the organisation and workers under a lot of stress. “We have suspended 80 per cent of our normal operations which is issuing identity cards to people and have been issuing only emergency identity cards. We have already been working on projects like Watan Card, Pakistan Card, BISP and computerised arms licenses. The Nadra staff in different parts of the country has already started protesting against this work overload,” he says.

An official of the ECP explains the process once Nadra has handed over preliminary lists to them. “It will take at least 1-2 weeks to print three copies of these 80 million voters list, then it will be displayed at 55,000 display centres for three weeks. This is a legal requirement as it will provide political parties, voters and civil society organisations to point out errors. Then for the next couple of weeks, people will file their complaints on these electoral rolls to the complaint resolution authorities of ECP. It will take two weeks to correct the final errors.

“In all it will take at least 8-10 weeks to get the final electoral rolls if everything works systematically. But, if there is some problem like law and order or rains and floods etc. then it could take longer,” he explains, adding there is no way that new electoral rolls will be finalised before the end of May. “We are also including thumb impressions and photos in the new electoral rolls.”

A senior PPP leader says the SC order suits the Pakistan Tehrik-e- Insaaf (PTI) that wants the byelections postponed because they need some preparation time.

Pervaiz Malik, MNA and senior leader of the PML-N, who attended the meeting at the ECP on January 23, says the ECP should meet the deadline set by the SC. “They have wasted a lot of time and if they are facing problems in meeting the deadline, they should tell the SC.” Regarding the postponement of byelections, he says it is a constitutional obligation and it should be met. “If there are some legal lacunas, the Supreme Court should sort them out.”

Mudassir Rizvi, Country Coordinator of Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), an NGO working on the promotion of transparent election process in Pakistan, says that preparing new and error-free electoral rolls is a vigorous technical process while the SC is looking at it from an administrative point of view. “I think the ECP and the Nadra should be given adequate time and the SC should consult some technical expert on the issue before giving the final verdict.”

He warned that a perception of unfairness could be quite damaging in the election year and put a big question mark on the entire election process. “The Electoral Roll Act 1974 is very clear about the jurisdiction of ECP. Section 23 of this Act reads that electoral rolls will remain in force until revised, while according to Section 26, electoral rolls shall not be invalid by reason of any misdescription of a person enrolled thereon or of omission of the name of any person entitled to be so enrolled or of inclusion of the name of any person not so entitled.

“Section 29 discusses bar of jurisdiction and reads no court shall question the validity of the electoral rolls prepared or revised under this Act or the legality or propriety of any proceedings or action taken thereunder by or under the authority of the Commissioner or a Registration Officer.

“How can the Supreme Court postpone the by elections according to this Act? It should keep in mind that by protecting the fundamental right of one personal or political party, it may not have been putting fundamental right of over four million people at risk. The law is very clear about it, but if the SC is trying to interpret it, nobody has approached them to do so while in so many other cases it is saying that it will interpret certain laws when it will be approached,” he questions.



Once every year, a unique convergence of artistic output at the NCA, Lahore, transforms the ecology of contemporary art into a spectacular field of display, production, multiple curatorial conceits, gossip, and ennui

In previous years, the entire art world had seemed to follow the same route, making the long, exhausting trip to Lahore like a caravan trailing a summer carnival. But this year seemed different.

Even before the gates of Pakistan’s first-ever arts college opened to the public, a striking, unspoken sense of doom and boredom seemed to have set in among the art-world pilgrims — an expedition that would this winter mix together the serious and the curious, the outlandish and the bombastic, to an alarming degree. And attending this atmosphere was an extravagant spirit that seemed the rule; one conjured in no small part by petit local collections inflating their cultural value by way of sized-up surplus value.

To say this much about the state of contemporary art (i.e., if NCA Annual Degree Show 2012 is any yardstick to go by) is not to lapse into nostalgia for a supposedly more genteel, serious time, for art always follows the money. That said, one does wonder whether something has changed fundamentally.

Something about this year’s exhibition, with its funereal pallor, prompts one to ask: Does the money-drenched condition of contemporary art spell the end for the kind of curatorial irreverence and ingenuity that transformed the art world in the early part of the new millennium into a truly global affair? Do the mordant and even hostile responses to this year’s degree show on the part of professionals and general audiences alike signal that the paradigm of the large-scale show, which once represented a unique grammar of exhibition practice, has hit an iceberg and is about to sink? In the prolix environment of art fairs and endless institutional group shows that make no attempt to hide their pilfering of ideas from the Internet, has this show become a victim of its own radical difference?

In early 2000s, contemporary art took an entirely new direction, as a coalescing of post-colonialism and globalisation changed the principles under which curatorial practice advanced artistic and critical analyses of aesthetic and cultural canons. There was a shift in curatorial language from one whose reference systems belonged to an early 20th-century modernity to one more attuned to the tendencies of the 21st century. Everyone understands the NCA’s limits: It has become a marketplace of objects, not of ideas; and it features a programme that no one would ever consider a counterpart of intellectually and critically inflected exhibitions.

The Annual Degree Show may not be content to play the role of a commercial enterprise. Rather, it seeks to bill itself as an intellectual leader and, to that end, convenes panels, film screenings, and a variety of commissioned projects. Its most vital coup to date is the grossly obese Miniature Art department, which showcases contemporary miniature as a spectacularly investible, loud, bright practice. Even respected socialites come to ply their trades here, lending a certain gravitas to their proceedings.

The Annual Degree Show’s success is such that it inflects the very air in which contemporary art functions, lives, and breathes; and it produces atmospheric effects that absolutely must be taken into account when seeking to articulate any critical appraisal of the year’s exhibitions.

This year, the Department of Painting became, either by design or default, a cemetery for abstract, blue-chip paintings with Tahir Ali’s gigantic, oddly vacuous panels setting the stage for what becomes a punishing exercise in revanchist melancholia. Nisha Hassan’s luminous paintings with radiant auras reinforced the idea of art as a mystical experience.

Asra Samad’s muted, almost monochromatic paintings were distinguished by their still, meditative aura. Her sombre palette, distinguished by a balance between the sensuality of a colour-saturated surface and the severity of the underlying linear structure, explored particular ideas. And the most enduringly tough, spare and emotive paintings of Qadir Jhatial made the widest impact. While pursuing his personal quest, he managed to pull off and profoundly change the grammar of painting with expansive spatial effects and evocative colour.

On the other hand, Ali Mansur’s powerful depictions of the male figure veered between stark isolation and collective joy. Painted in large, flat areas of colour in remarkable chiaroscuro, his heroic canvases reflected an interest in the human condition bordering on tension and combat.

A few of the sculptural installations were noteworthy as well. For his installation, Rehmat Kareem rigged the interiors of electronic devices to resemble buildings, creating a cityscape that served as a setting for a revisitation of twenty-first century’s space-programme agenda; the goal of transcendental democratisation symbolised by dummy skyscrapers, some supine on the floor, some floating higher. For Mohammad Shoaib, skin is the most important organ of communication and contact. It is through the skin that the newborn learns where she begins and ends, where the boundaries of her self are. She learns the first feelings of pleasure and displeasure, transcending the skin, the epidermis as a legible screen and the skin as bearer of ethnic information.

Printmaking Department deserved credit for ‘attempting’ to do something different. But, if in the end, the sole criteria for the alternative offered are personal — not to say private — preferences and arbitrary connections on the level of superficial visual rhymes, then precious little is gained. What, after all, is one to make of the idiosyncratic mix of installation and 3-D in Zara Asghar’s ‘washrooms’ with video projections; or, for that matter, of Zainab Zahid’s major in printmaking executed entirely in freehand charcoal and graphite drawings? What, indeed, are we to make of the artists’ unwillingness to adequately theorise their exhibition, of their preferring instead to let the art speak for itself, “on its own terms” — as if art “in itself” were something given? One may be left with the queasy feeling of being in the hands of dilettantes.

Natasha Malik’s remarkable ability to communicate the inner world of her subjects compounds empathy and technical prowess. Her super-real images, even exaggerated, invited Surrealist labels. Undefined emotion and an indirect method of allusion were conveyed through a slight twist of the mouth, the hair or the eyes — slight dislocations that lifted the work from being a ‘mere’ portrait.

The quiet preponderance of the sky and the clouds got more interesting the more one appreciated the intricacy in Sajid Khan’s exquisite miniatures. It seemed to be the mixture of opacity and absorptiveness that fascinates Khan, interested, as he is, in the analogy between the behaviour of clouds and the characteristics of his medium.

The miniature show was also antiseptic, the setting more suited to a highbrow retrospective than to a committed attempt to present a truly compelling aesthetic view of what it means to live and make art in this most unruly time of ours.

Of all the exhibitions, the Annual Degree Show is the only one that invites us to take a shot at it — impelling us to reject it, to quarrel with it, to debate the purpose of an exhibition as an aesthetic and intellectual experience.

If this show was, for me, all too ordinary for its operating in many localised idioms, it nevertheless obtained its own unique voice and character, assuming its own view of historicity. In this regard, the Annual Degree Show was a singularity: a reminder that one sometimes must take a road less travelled, even if that occasions mistaken detours onto other, well-trodden paths. I cannot help but think, despite the hostility of the art world, that there is something in the project worth retaining. The students may have written a polemic, even though they wanted to write a manifesto. Though it did not shatter the white cube as they intended, we must all remember James Baldwin: The fire next time.


In keeping with its conservative tenor, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution to ban the holding of music concerts in educational institutions in the entire province. The reason for this latest legislative manoeuvre was the recent tragedy in a music concert of the Punjab Group of Colleges held at the Alhamra Cultural Complex, where three girls died and many were injured in a stampede.

It is still not clear as to what happened in that concert and what caused the stampede, as there were thousands of young people in and outside the open-air theatre but fingers point to some management failure. The security and venue arrangements were not adequately equipped to handle the number of people who attended the concert. Instead of drawing the logical conclusion of improving upon the system of management and security, the assembly voted in favour of the decision to ban music concerts altogether in all educational institutions.

The government has distanced itself from this resolution while some members have offered conditional justification. It is a case of playing on both sides; running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. The legislators have again opted for the path of convenience. The easiest option is to discontinue with activity or to ban something seen to be causing trouble. The premise being that if there is no activity, there is zero possibility of trouble either, a classic approach adopted by many in the bureaucracy who want to keep their necks intact while climbing up the administrative ladder.

The Punjab government has been ultimately responsible for two disasters that took place in the recent past. One was the total breakdown of the system of examinations at the matriculation and intermediate levels. Thousands of students in all the Boards of Intermediate and Secondary Education of the province were very badly hit by the malfunctioning of the newly-introduced computerised system of tabulation.

The situation got out of control and these very students ransacked the offices of the various Boards. As the damage in material terms was colossal, the authorities were moved to cancel the results and call for tabulation. The entire exercise of revision too was an eyewash — as, by only adding a few numbers to the already announced results, a compromise solution was arrived at.

The second massive failure has been of the drugs administered to the patients at the Pakistan Institute of Cardiology (PIC) in Lahore. As the expiry date of the drugs had passed, dozens of patients lost their lives.

If handed over to the Punjab Assembly they would have passed a resolution calling for the closure of the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) because it was there that the patients were being treated and it was there that the drugs with lapsed dates were administered to the patients. Since the Board too played with the lives of so many students, its offices should also have been shut down permanently or that the entire education department, probably the biggest in the province, wound up altogether.

One wonders whether the Punjab Assembly took any real notice of the huge failures quoted above taking the administration to task or was it more involved in debating its perks and privileges or calling for the dismissal of some government official not obsequious in following the command of a member of the assembly.

The correct steps to upgrade the management and administrative structure, to improve efficiency and conduct work with greater responsibility, was taken at the requisite level. The core of most of our problems usually given the colouration of conspiracy against the country and religion are rooted in inefficiency and lack of sufficient commitment.

But in both the cases, there was no rallying cry for banning the activity and closing down the institutions because it was not about the arts. Culture is seen as a soft target and to most an unnecessary activity, wastage of energy and an alibi for promoting immorality. The slightest lapse is not an opportunity wasted, but a rallying point for crying foul in banning cultural activity and making sure that it is dug deep into the ground like the proverbial burial of music as wished by Emperor Aurangzeb.

There is a shame involved when the word culture is mentioned. It is like a forgotten sin resurfacing from the past or some skeleton in the cupboards beginning to rattle. There is something about the performing arts in particular that awakens the guilt embedded in our collective conscience. For this ‘bukal da chor’ summary execution by a sledgehammer is the safest and expeditious manner of good-riddance.

Culture and free thinking are probably the greatest dangers to those who insist on a regimented order being the basis of an ideal society. As it is, there are too many disruptive ideas infiltrating through new technologies and the media, all-detrimental to our being good human beings. So much has been shut down. Basant was curbed through an edict, the international festivals have discontinued due to attack on the performing arts, the cricket matches are being played to empty stadiums in the Gulf, and so does it really matter if music and dance and drama too shut down in colleges. Ordinary students should cram books and study by rote. The children of those who matter study in great universities in the West where the highest premium is paid to original thinking and free expression and both grow out of a culture based on the values of scepticism and experimentation.




A personal reminiscence

The effects of the recession are to be felt all around, and every time we go to our local shopping centre, we notice some business or the other that has closed down. First it was the HMV and the Waterstones bookshop, then one shop and restaurant after another...

We are lucky enough to have a multiplex cinema locally but that is looking more and more run-down too: most of the staff has gone and the place has a semi-deserted look. There is a real possibility it could go out of business — which is why we are now making a bit of an extra effort to go to the cinema here regularly.

As part of our support campaign we went to see Mission Impossible 4 and Don 2, both nonsensical action flicks made according to the usual, action-intrigue-heist formula. Very tiring, but of course spouse enjoyed them both (after all, boys will be boys).

Last week we went to see the film starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady. Streep’s performance is absolutely brilliant but this film has tended to confuse people, as its tone is intensely personal and reflective rather than being that of a sweeping, political biopic. It has also been much criticised because it shows Thatcher as an old lady suffering from Alzheimers, much diminished from the feisty British prime minister who was elected in 1979. Many people have said that it was in bad taste to make such a film in Baroness Thatcher’s lifetime rather than waiting until after her death.

I am not sure what my position is on this but I found this a very interesting film, which rather humanised a leader who has been much reviled. Thatcher’s Britain was not a happy place to be unless you were in big business or an entrepreneur. Like the current Conservative prime minister now, she tried to fix the economy by ushering in private enterprise and privatisation and she fought trade union pressures with utter determination. She was a staunch ally of such leaders as Ronald Reagan and General Pinochet.

British society is bitterly divided in its opinion of Margaret Thatcher and for those who grew up in the 1980s (the Hanif Kureishi generation), what she did to British society is considered ‘unforgivable’. But this film is focused on her in a more personal way; on her family life (she always made breakfast for herself and her husband, even when she was PM), and her personal struggle to go from being a ‘Grocer’s daughter’ in Grantham to becoming the leader of the Conservative party with all its class prejudice.

In the film we see the old lady hallucinating about her dead husband and having conversations with him, but even in this confused state we see her strength of character and her astonishing self assurance come through.

The dialogue is sharp and well-written and often very funny, and credit for this goes to Abi Morgan who impresses here as much as she did in last year’s BBC series The Ticket.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking film; a personal reminiscence of a troubled and difficult period of recent history. Even if you loathed her politics, Thatcher really is an impressive character. I can never forget the image of her after the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the bigwigs of the Tory Party Conference were ensconced, and where she, the prime minister, escaped death and injury by a whisker. She emerged fighting and defiant and insisted on going to the conference the next morning exactly as scheduled and making a fighting speech. This was a lady who simply would not be cowed down, who gave life to the Shakespearian words “Frailty thy name is woman.” The film does show a personal frailty in her but it also reveals her self-belief and her commitment to serve and change the world, despite prejudice and chauvinism.

As expected, spouse did not much enjoy this film, the reason probably being there were not enough scenes of flashy fighting or people hanging off tall buildings or accomplishing other such impossible feats... But I think it is a very interesting study of a life, and a beautiful piece of cinema. And of course Meryl Streep’s performance is astonishing.

Best wishes,

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