Pakistan columnist doesn't mince words

Times Staff Writer

Perched in the living room of his sprawling villa, security guards posted outside, Ardeshir Cowasjee is feeling a bit cantankerous about the future of volatile Pakistan.

Another leader has been killed. He considers his president a pawn of the United States and accuses him of sponsoring the kidnapping and torture of citizens. Massive vote-rigging in the upcoming parliamentary elections appears certain, he says.

Worse yet, his beloved Karachi, once such a civilized city, has turned murderous and macabre, darkened by waves of religious militancy, suicide bombings and perverse political intrigue.

He thinks people should head for the border, and do it now.

"Pakistan is going to break up in the years to come, and everyone who can should pack up their bags and leave," he told a recent gathering. "Pack up and leave if you can. There's no hope for this country."

When Cowasjee sounds the alarm, people hear it. Nearly 82, he is often referred to as the grand old man of Karachi: a veteran columnist for Dawn, the nation's largest English-language newspaper, and one of Pakistan's most outspoken critics.

In a country where press freedom is transitory and perceived enemies of the state are often jailed, he continues to agitate.

Cowasjee is a Parsi, a follower of Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, which has roots in ancient Persia. His is a stubborn non-Muslim voice in this nation created as an Islamic homeland, refusing to be silenced.

Attempts have been made. His life has been threatened so often the government has provided him with 24-hour protection.

A frail, erudite man who takes comfort in the company of his two lap dogs, Cowasjee comes out of hiding each Sunday, as he has for decades, with a new column challenging the nation's political and religious institutions and advising on its future.

He doesn't have to write. Scion of a wealthy shipping family, the widower and longtime philanthropist provides for educational and environmental causes. He values his privacy, his reading and painting. "I don't do it for the money," he said, pulling on a gray woolen shawl against an afternoon chill. "What they pay me wouldn't even buy this tie. It's an exercise of the mind. I do it to be sane. Because nothing works with logic in this place."

He regularly lampoons land grabs by developers, and blows the whistle on illegal building projects. He has exposed government corruption, nepotism and incompetence. He has blasted what he calls Pakistan's insane nuclear arms race with neighboring India.

He's been summoned before Pakistan's Supreme Court for calling the panel corrupt during a radio interview. The powerful military establishment here is rumored to dislike and distrust him.

"I go on the theory that a bully is a coward and a coward is a bully," he said. "I take my risks. People here don't believe in finesse. If they want you killed, they'll cut you up and stuff you into a gunny sack. If I feared fear, I couldn't live in this place. Still, I could be shot on my way out today."

The newspaper is flooded with response to his columns. "He annoys everyone," said Zubeida Mustafa, an editorial page editor at Dawn.

"People expect him to speak out. He takes on the land mafias, developers and builders encroaching on land. Some illegal buildings have been demolished as a result of his columns."

Cowasjee writes about the nation as "this moth-eaten country of ours" and "the floundering Islamic Republic of Pakistan," and about his city as "the battered and abused city of Karachi."

One recent column carried a typical headline: "With Disgust."

Part gadfly, part muckraker, he takes on Pakistan's high-profile personalities. His columns refer to President Pervez Musharraf as "the best of the worst" and dismiss his administration as an "unthinking, muddled government that speaks with forked tongues."

He calls assassinated ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto a corrupt "notorious international criminal" and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, "the stupidest" in the history of Pakistan's "stupid leaders."

Yet he pleads for tolerance in a volatile nation where Islamic extremists battle government forces in the country's far-flung mountain reaches and suicide bombings are commonplace.

He has angered Muslims by describing a traditional garment as a dishcloth. The calls, letters and threats came pouring in. But Cowasjee won't back down. It's not in his nature.

"I am convinced life is a gift of God, not to be spent all the time in prayer," he said. "If a man wants to pray 10 times a day he can, as long as he doesn't disturb me.

"If a woman wants to wear a ninja hood she can, as long as she doesn't insist that my wife and family do the same thing. I'm a tolerant man. I come from progressive people."

He says Pakistan has become an intolerant land that confuses religion with religiosity. Readers often lash out.

"I tell them, 'Fine, hold your opinion, but let me keep mine,' But they get angry," he said. "I have credibility because I don't write nonsense. If you don't have logic, how can you reason? If you don't reason, what do you do?"

Many Pakistanis say they don't pay attention to Cowasjee.

"He writes in English, not Urdu, so his readership isn't very big," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party. Dawn's circulation is 138,000. "His political views are controversial, but not because of what he says about Muslims."

Critics poke fun at his name, which in the Sindhi language of his home province is similar to the word for latrine.

"But he really cares," said Shershah Syed, a former general secretary of the Pakistan Medical Assn., who says his life was threatened after he reported what he found to be government corruption. "When people attacked me, he called me and asked me if I needed money, or a ticket out of Pakistan."

Cowasjee has long been outspoken. He was born in Karachi, home to a large, vibrant Parsi community, before the Muslim refugees began to arrive in 1947, when India was partitioned. In 1976, while serving as tourism chief, he was jailed for 72 days by Benazir Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on what he calls trumped-up accusations of conspiracy.

Laughing sadly to himself, he displays letters his late father wrote the government to help secure his release, pleas that were ignored.

Years later, after Zulfikar Bhutto was executed, he sent a letter to Dawn. Editors liked it and invited him to write a column. Since then, he's been a harsh critic of the Bhutto family.

"People think I'm a Bhutto hater, they think I'm vengeful. I'm not," he said. Still, he adds, "Bhutto was an evil man."

He calls Benazir Bhutto "a CIA cipher."

"Am I glad she was killed? Of course I'm not glad. But Benazir is dead. The file is closed."

The remaining Bhuttos dismiss Cowasjee. "It's important that Pakistan media have its good, bad and ugly -- and he certainly is one of those," said Fatima Bhutto, the niece of Benazir Bhutto, a poet and columnist who has been estranged from her clan.

"But he has used his column as a platform for personal assaults. I understand it's important to hold public figures accountable while they are alive. But once they're gone, why continue the attacks?"

Confidantes have advised him to lighten up on Benazir Bhutto, who is considered a hero by many Pakistanis. And to steer clear of confrontations with the religious right.

Musharraf remains fair game. And Cowasjee has challenged him over the growing number of missing Pakistanis that many believe have been kidnapped by the president's security forces.

"Does he, as head of state and de facto head of everything in it, not owe some sort of explanation to the distressed, to the hundreds (if not thousands) of mothers, fathers, wives, children, sisters, brothers of these citizens of Pakistan who remain on the 'missing persons list'?" he wrote.

He jokes that he's still ignored by the former general, who took power in a 1999 military coup. "He hasn't put me in jail," he said. "He doesn't read, thank God."

Despite his years, Cowasjee remains ferocious. "I could find a hundred things to write about every day," he said, "and they'd all be true." And he's humble about his accomplishments: "Maybe I've saved a few ballparks, a few open spaces, nothing more."

But he knows he won't be Pakistan's most outspoken critic forever. "I've lived a full life, I'm ready to go," he said. "Just don't ask me where."

His advice notwithstanding, Cowasjee would never leave his beloved Pakistan, a country that has both maddened and amused him.

"I'm an ordinary man," he said. "My critics can come and call me anything they like. And I'll just say, 'Fine, have a cup of tea.' "

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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