que sera, sera

I just spent around four hours going through more than 150 comments in a discussion thread in which a colleague and his current and former students, over a period of three days, have done their best to malign the character, academic credentials, professional judgement and intellectual integrity of one of the giants of theoretical computer science and of science education of Pakistan.

The target of their ire, Dr Ashraf Iqbal, is the Dean of the Faulty of Information Technology at the University of Central Punjab. He is also a poet and short story writer.

“Previous” include:

  • Almost 30 years of teaching electrical engineering at UET Lahore
  • Research work at NASA Research Centre, Langley and the University of South California
  • Overhauling the CS department at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), transforming it from a small department struggling with severe retention issues in 1999 to a dynamic powerhouse, active in research in both advanced theoretical topics as well as innovative applications of information and communication technologies. It was here that the major axes of his academic contributions of the years since were first elaborated: investigating common learning difficulties and obstacles in science and engineering in order to develop better pedagogical techniques, and, closely related, finding novel ways to apply ICT to solve some of Pakistan’s most pressing problems – lack of basic education, absence from the global research endeavour in the sciences (and hence our perpetual, dangerous, debilitating technological dependence), lack of innovation in terms of the new technology-enabled economy.
  • Developing a unique, research-oriented MS in Innovation, Technology and Education at NUST (National University of Science and Technology, Rawalpindi) – the first graduate program with an explicit focus on novel pedagogical approaches with the mandate to explore effective ways of blending instruction design, assessment and technology to deliver immersive learning experiences. The graduates of this program have an entrepreneurial mindset – self-starters with a deep passion for their field – who are making significant contributions to the goal of affordable, quality education for everyone, any where, any time.
  • Writing a textbook for use in introductory courses in graph theory – a core area in computer science – that gives preference to developing intuitive appreciation of the phenomena studied, rather than process drills or pattern-matching for “solving numericals”.

And he still believes that he hasn’t done enough for Pakistan, for the Muslim world, for science and education in Pakistan.


Coming back to the accusations and innuendo, the veiled and not-so-veiled threats, the attempts at character assassination – what was heartening and really encouraging were some of the responses of UCP students who methodically de-constructed the “case” this colleague has tried to build, pointing out the various logical fallacies, bringing to light the vested interest – vengeance – of this colleague and questioning his blatant manipulation of the religious feelings of his former students, who are, it seems, entirely unaware of the actual causes of his dispute with Professor Ashraf Iqbal.


I want to make this clear: no more. No more evil disguised as religiosity, no more abuse of religion for personal gain or revenge – na cchayR malangaan nooun.


if I’m blown to smithereens
     game over – and others will have to pick up the pieces (in every sense)
else, if I survive
if everyone I know survived
      I have reason to be thankful for small mercies
else, if a family member or relative is injured
else, if a family member or relative dies

A parent whose child was among those killed in the Army Public School attack said:

ہمارے بچے پڑھنے کیلئے اسکول گئے تھے، شہید ہونے نہیں۔

(“Our children went to school to learn, not to be martyred.”)


there used to be this song “semi-charmed life”

“Against that accusatory finger…

“Against that accusatory finger…

there are four more pointing back at you.”

— famous Chinese proverb (according to a someone much better-read than me)

What do you do with a Judas?

He opens so many doors to so many people – yet he lets so many die… or worse, participates in, precipitates their deaths, or the death of their dreams. There are many such examples in today’s world of billionaire philanthropists.

Here, I am mainly intrigued by a Pakistani entrepreneur who has had a major influence on our lives at a very basic level: through the introduction of cheap, food-grade packaging solutions. This company has enabled the agri-business sector (and possibly alleviated unemployment a tad bit) and instead of being another burden on the balance of trade, it has contributed positively to it via exports and the avoidance of imports. Yet, it has brought about a revolution in the sales reach of packaged foods so that you can now find biscuits, chips, milk, cream of more or less questionable quality in the khokha of the smallest hamlet of the country. The environmental degradation, health issues due to consumption of these “non-organic” food products esp. among children, and cultural costs due to the disappearance of so many cottage/home industries brought about by this sea-change are issues that the next generation will have to deal with. Did such intelligent people as those working on these projects not see what they were doing? Or they did not care? “Negative externalities” is the right term to use I believe – which sounds like the economics equivalent of collateral damage.

At another level, the same person has proven to be a visionary: establishing academic institutions that are some of the best in their fields in Pakistan. Well, at least as per the generally accepted standards in these matters. More penetrating analysis might provide alternative, possibly more useful, perspectives. What cannot be denied is that these institutions have been steadfast bastions for a population in need of knowledge, critical thinking and creativity.

So it’s all the more puzzling that he should continue to be associated with a global trans-national corporation that is either the biggest or second biggest food processing group in the world – and it keeps growing, gobbling up smaller companies, expanding its “portfolio”, cowing and cajoling governments into “liberalizing” legislation for fatter profit margins. I don’t doubt that its competitors follow the exact same practices – else, they could not possibly keep up! But it does mean that this company – and its major competitors – care only for the “bottom line”… and even there, only for the profits of its big shareholders and upper management. For many shareholders of this company have tried to hold its feet to the fire on multiple violations of international treaties and national laws (in Europe, Africa and Asia) and have had no more than partial success – such is the power of Manon. For a very balanced, painfully careful account, you can read Mike Muller’s Guardian article from a few years ago: Nestlé baby milk scandal has grown up but not gone away

By providing a public space for Nestlé to comment, this article succeeds in drawing out a revealing response from its chairperson, Mr Peter Brabeck (see comments below the article), which allowed a civil society campaigner to point out some crucial inconsistencies and omissions in Mr. Brabeck’s response.

And then here’s something that is a source of immense pride for me. I really admire the courage and steadfastness of Syed Aamir Raza, a Nestlé baby milk salesperson from Sialkot, who, when he realized that babies in his sales region were dying because of the work of his team “influencing” doctors to prescribe Nestlé’s formula, resigned and spoke out against these practices. Despite the incredible pressure that such a large company has brought to bear to shut him out, to shut him up, he persisted and now, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, the film, Tigers, dramatizing his struggle has been released. I love this guy – here’s a regular, un-pretentious guy, trying to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Struggling, wavering and ultimately choosing to take the road less traveled.

Do you see the incongruity of it all? A Pakistani guy, a young man from a nation reviled for the actions of its young men, from a group of countries considered “failed states”, “basket cases”, “corrupt to the core”, showing up the much bigger, “legalized” corruption of one of the largest companies in the world, based in the country that is the very symbol, in the mind of the public, of high idealism, of human rights (the UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva) and humanitarianism (via the ICRC and the IFRC)*.

Just so it’s clear, Nestlé has consistently violated the marketing codes related to food products for infants – all over the world.

cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies
cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies

In its home country, Switzerland, and its home continent, Europe, it has repeatedly faced criticism for its unethical actions, leading to multiple boycotts and even punitive judicial action in some Third World countries with spine. The World Health Organization estimates that breast-feeding could prevent 800,000 child deaths every year – yet Nestlé and its competitors continue to aggressively market their formula milk for infants, constantly breaking the rules.

So, coming back to the dilemma – what do we do with this man? Just accept that “it’s complicated” (as per social media) and get on with one’s life? I tend towards this conclusion – with one caveat: it’s important to understand the fuller/deeper/larger story and what it means in its context. A case in point: getting a handle on the paradoxes he embodies gives me a better understanding of the highly publicized case of sexual harassment of a student by a teacher who is a member of his clan – at one of the very institutions he helped establish. A case in which, despite the directives of the Federal Ombudsman that he be fired, the predatory relative was protected and the victim vilified. After all, what does one measly National Outreach Programme scholar matter when the deaths of thousands of babies leave one unruffled?

At this point, a friend said, but he could always claim that as a member of the BoG of the company, he can’t be expected to keep an eye on the day-to-day activities of Nestlé Pakistan. To which I have two answers: I’m sure he knows exactly where each and every paisa in the account books come from and also that when one goes into a joint venture with a company, one does one’s due diligence and if the fact of a global boycott campaign somehow escaped their notice, then it sort of makes one wonder if corporate “due diligence” is yet another example of Orwellian Newspeak. Milkpak became Nestlé Pakistan in the late eighties/early nineties, the Nestlé baby milk scandal broke in 1974 and, as noted above, has never really gone away. So.


I asked a friend, an economist, to review this post and he came back with a comment that he says is standard political economy but which untangled so many knots for me: “He created a school so his class could hire cheap local labor and then there were some good things along the way for which he’s had sufficient political mileage. And he’s probably monetized that as well. I judge him neither for the “good” nor for the “bad” for they appear to me to be two sides of the same coin. It’s all good business and that’s how you do good business in a capitalist world. And then there are people […] who keeping nipping at their ankles […] And that’s quite nice.”


The deeper, really difficult question for me is: how would I behave given the same power and privilege? Would I meet the same standards of farsightedness and honesty that I expect from the enlightened don of our business “community”?



* Which opens a whole different can of worms – how to reconcile the co-existence of major UN and various international organisations that may be termed “pro-people” in Switzerland with its terrible record during WWII and the notorious banking secrecy laws – the laws that allowed Switzerland to pioneer the “we’ll keep your ill-gotten wealth safe for you” industry?

re-blogged: A Quick Note to our ‘Male Allies’

A statement from Aurat Raj on some men’s reactions to the murder of Qandeel Baloch.

Too funny: “the next best feminist since Justin Trudeau”,
and so, so right: “We are afraid and exhausted, and debating with you is very low on our list of priorities. Listen to us. And again, if you have so much to say – say it to those who are harassing, abusing, threatening, silencing, lecturing us.”

This statement has been released by Aurat Raj, a radical left feminist group. 

We see you, tripping all over yourselves trying to make the next viral facebook status/tweet/thinkpiece/comment on Qandeel Baloch, gleeful at the opportunity to be the next best feminist since Justin Trudeau, to lecture us on our oppression and theorise on our condition. A few quick points for you:

1) PASS THE MIC. Pass the mic to the women in your lives, on your timelines and newsfeeds, the ones who taught you this feminist vocabulary you drop, the ones who fought it out with you when you were (and are) arrogant and resistant, the ones you never cite, the ones whose intellectual labours are systematically erased and whose intellectual labours you appropriate. Share their posts. Retweet their tweets. Take up less space. The world does not need any more of your mental masturbations. When you feel so…

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2005, a new round of “cricket diplomacy”, two series, one in India and one in Pakistan, thousands of visas issued to people on both sides of the border.
All excited, my friend gets the visa to go watch the match in Chandigarh.

Quite apart from the mela and the incredible hospitality he experienced there as just another anonymous Pakistani, what marked him most was his visit to his ancestral village. He’d never been there before, nor, it seems had his parents. It was his grandparents who, in the early 1900s, had migrated from the eastern doabas to the new canal colonies in western Punjab. Due to an aversion to marrying outside pre-migration sub-castes, they still retain certain distinctive features and even a specific dialect. So, the approximate directions of his relatives were enough to get him to the village deep in the countryside in East Punjab.

When they realised that he was Pakistani and that his ancestors were probably from that village, they took him to the elders and two and two were rapidly put together – even though, thanks to the two migrations, there was not a single Muslim family left. But his features, the shared accent, vocabulary and expressions, some names his grandparents had given him as references were enough. Their childhood memories came flooding back, of former neighbours and playmates, of people and local legends their parents had told them about.

They then took him to the village mosque, maintained in perfect condition, even better than if it were in regular use! They said, “We said to ourselves, ‘One day, some of our friends might visit us or move back. So, we wanted to be able to say that we had kept up your place of worship in good condition, that we had not forgotten you.’”

(I wish he’d taken some photos for me to post here! In my mind, I see it in this off-white/very pale pink shade with the mini-minarets topped with blue or maybe green. The paint is new, the walls sparkling in the bright sun, the covered section deep in shadow, cool, the open courtyard with the prayer mats deserted at 11 in the morning. The door is wooden, light brown, not painted, upright in its hinges, fits correctly in its frame. In other words, a typical village mosque of the kind I’ve seen thousands of times traveling in the countryside on our side of the border. Just that it would be in picture-perfect condition 🙂 )

He loves trekking, hiking, has even done a little rock-climbing. That is to say, he’s connected with nature. And hates littering. None of his friends got it, mocked him for what appeared to them to be his obsessive urge to avoid littering the trails in the Margalla hills he would take them up. They just didn’t get it. I guess it’s one of those many cases where feigning ignorance is so much more convenient than the alternative – making the effort to understand an issue.

One hot day, coming down a trail, merrily bantering away and munching on chocolates (or maybe it was chips), they passed an Australian who saw his friends throwing empty wrappers down the hillside. They didn’t notice it, but he turned around and went right down all the way till he located the offending wrappers – and then brought them back up to the group. He handed them back to the surprised young macho men, saying only, “This is your country.”

It was one of those “I told you so” moments for my friend, and though it took a white person to get through to them (via our mental slavery to all things white), he remains grateful that the message did get through!