Pakistan: The day the music died

KARACHI, Pakistan — Sardar Khan has been languishing for years in Karachi’s central prison. A crowded and dangerous place, the only happiness he ever felt was in the guitar he was learning to play — part of a music course that had been the first of its kind in Pakistan’s broken prison system.

Khan, 32, is three years into a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. Wearied by the harsh prison life, he jumped at the chance to learn the guitar, part of a program the Pakistani government started ten months ago to keep inmates out of trouble.

But just three months into the class, about 200 Taliban detainees newly transferred to Khan’s wing, declared the course haram, or sinful, and demanded he and everyone else put down their instruments.

“First they warned us of dire consequences if we continued to attend the music classes,” said Khan, who was later severely beaten by the Taliban militants for refusing to give up the guitar. “They said it is haram for a Muslim to hear or sing music.”

Khan, his newfound optimism shattered, said that learning to play music had brought a significant and positive change to his life, both mentally and physically.

 “This was like fresh air for me and my colleagues who did not want to be involved in prison fights or future criminal plans,” he said, adding that the music helped him to quit smoking as well. “It really brought a difference to the life of prison.”

The classes were organized on the recommendation of a Jail Reforms Committee set up by the government to find ways of encouraging prisoners, especially younger prisoners, to stay away from religious extremism and other criminal activity.

Similar classes were planned for other jails in the country as well, including the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa, which borders war-wracked Afghanistan and the heartland of militancy.

But those too were suspended following pressure from the thousands of Taliban inmates that now crowd prisons throughout Pakistan.

The Karachi jail hired a music teacher to introduce a mixture of local and Western instruments to the first batch of prisoners last year. But the Taliban quickly ransacked the class and destroyed all the guitars, keyboards, sitars and other instruments.

Fearing for his safety, the teacher left the job soon after the attack.

“When we did not listen to their threats and continued to attend classes, they beat us up and destroyed the instruments before the security staff arrived to save us,” said Sabir Ali, 26, who had cuts and bruises across his face. Ali is in prison for larceny. “We lodged complaints against this vandalism but the jail authorities appeared to be helpless.”

Taliban inmates have successfully asserted their authority over many prisons in Pakistan, turning some jails into de-facto Taliban strongholds. Jail authorities said they fear that mingling the Taliban with other prisoners could be a major security risk as the former are sure to influence the latter by preaching their rigid ideology.

“There should be a separate jail for such prisoners,” said Nusrat Mangan, warden for Karachi central prison, one of the largest prisons in Pakistan. “If we keep them together with common prisoners, it will be troublesome in many ways.”

Although Mangan said the Taliban inmates at Karachi are theoretically separated from other inmates, the prison is so overcrowded it is nearly impossible to enforce the Taliban’s isolation. Karachi prison houses 3,800 people, well over its capacity of 1,800.

Many Taliban prisoners are able to operate from their cells freely, officials and inmates said. Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant with close links to the Taliban who was sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, was caught by Pakistani intelligence authorities devising a campaign from his cell on death row to bring about tension between Pakistan and India using a smuggled mobile phone.

Intelligence officials, in fact, said poor security and corruption within the prison system allows jailed Taliban militants the freedom to be fully in touch with their aides on the outside. Authorities occasionally launch sweeps to confiscate mobile phones but to get a new one is not difficult for a prisoner with a few thousand rupees to spend.

Mangan said the scrapped music program is just one example of the kind of influence the Taliban wields inside Pakistan’s prison system.

“It was the first-ever music learning program introduced in a prison in Pakistan. It really went well for four or five months and we were expecting more and more enrollment,” he said. “It was not only the violence that crippled our plans but the Taliban prisoners destroyed almost all the musical instruments, which were donated by some philanthropists.”

There is no money to buy new instruments, he said, and finding a donor can be a lengthy process.

“The government is fully supporting us in arranging such programs but there is no allocation of funds,” he said.

Still, Mangan has no intention of giving up and plans to resume the classes as soon as he can find a new set of instruments.

The warden at the provincial prison in Sindh, Muzaffer Shujra, said he also planned to resume music classes in August.

“We will not bow to the extremists,” he said. “Extremists will not be allowed to establish a state within a state. Whoever wants to learn music, he will have the freedom to do that.”