Though book launchings do sometimes bring together a sizeable group of the literati, the publication of Ikram Sehgal’s account of his escape from an Indian camp for prisoners of war in the aftermath of Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971 was celebrated with a really grand affair. A major attraction, of course, was the presence of Imran Khan as the chief guest.
On Wednesday, PC in Karachi was the venue for the event hosted by Ameena Saiyid of the Oxford University Press, publisher of “Escape from Oblivion: The Story of a Pakistani Prisoner of War in India”. The guest list also included the glitterati of the city.
But it must have been a highly gratifying occasion for the audience because the distinguished speakers, in addition to applauding the thrilling account of a brave venture, were able to explore some salient features of the fateful events of 1971. And how timely it all was against the backdrop of what is happening in this country that has already suffered a break-up.
On Thursday, the Urdu version of the book titled ‘Azadi’ was launched at the Karachi Press Club, with Mustafa Kamal of the MQM as the chief guest. Once again, the underlying theme was the imperative of learning our lessons from the events of 1971. Coincidentally, the day was marked by some exceptional atrocities and violence in different parts of the country and this naturally lent a sense of urgency to the proceedings.
Since both functions have adequately been covered in the media, I am not referring to specific remarks made by the speakers. Let me just say that this opportunity to recall the circumstances in which we lost East Pakistan would tend to enhance a sense of bewilderment about how our rulers – and ruling ideas – have confronted challenges that are posed by contemporary history. Once again, I wonder if we have the moral and intellectuals resources to be able to deal effectively with the current national crisis.
Yes, we should be thankful to Ikram Sehgal for recording his personal encounter with history, without complaining that he has taken such a long time in doing so. His book is a welcome addition to the recent corpus of memoirs and interpretations of history by high officials and scholars. Many of these books have been published by Oxford University Press.
My lament, however, is that all this published material has apparently not been able to influence the quality and depth of the national discourse. Nor is there enough evidence to show that these books have prompted any excited discussions on the campuses of our leading universities. I am sure that a tally of how many copies of these books are actually sold will paint a depressing picture, given the population of the country and even accounting for its poor literary and low level of college education.
The point I am trying to make is that in spite of this fervent chorus on the need to learn from history, no serious effort has been made to come to terms with, say, the loss of East Pakistan. Our popular media, in its rush to cater to the lowest common denominator, has failed to engage the intelligentsia in any meaningful debate on national issues. The talk-shows are fixated on politics and even in this sphere, discussions held are generally superficial. It is sad that with all the power that is at its disposal, the electronic media has not been able to raise the consciousness of its viewers or listeners.
Much more alarming is the virtual exclusion of the great historical event of the loss of East Pakistan from the curricula of our schools and colleges. The students are not required to learn the details of what had happened. An exercise to evaluate different points of view and form an opinion on the basis of available literature is something that cannot even be imagined. Incredible it is that most of our universities do not even have a department of history.
A proper content analysis of the popular media is likely to uncover some astonishing biases that are being cultivated. Astrologers, soothsayers, and faith healers are increasingly featured in television programmes, particularly in morning shows. Scenes that belong in horror movies are re-enacted at prime time. Crime stories are the staple of many of these presentations.
It is interesting to see that in a show that partly delves into serious social issues and seeks advice from trained experts, there may be a long segment in which some astrologer – and attractive young women have emerged in this cadre – offers instant predictions about the future of the invited guests. At different levels, superstitious and fatalistic attitudes are nurtured to facilitate an escape from reality.
In any case, the reality itself is becoming unreal in its vicious and evil connotations. This has particularly been a week of some monstrous events. For instance, nine trainee policemen of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prisons Department were gunned down in Lahore on Thursday morning. Reports said that around ten terrorists attacked their hostel in Samanabad. Eight others were injured.
On the same day, the police recovered the bodies of seven coalmine workers from the Degari area in Balochistan. They had been kidnapped about a week ago. The same evening, eight more coalmine workers were reported to have been kidnapped.
Early on Friday, there was a bomb blast in Quetta’s Kuchlak area where a rally was being held by the Awami National Party. Five persons including an ANP leader were killed. This incident expectedly led to strike and protest and more disturbances in a province that predominantly inspires a reference to the tragedy of 1971.
Some idea of how bad the situation is may be gathered from a statement issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on Wednesday, taking note of increasing incidents of wanton violence and bloodshed across the country, including the recent killing of at least 18 people in Dasht, this week’s attack on an army camp in Gujrat and the daily killings in Karachi.
The statement added: “All these incidents have two things in common: one, that the attackers are never apprehended and this emboldens them and others to continue; and second, that the entire country is overcome by a propensity for violence to the extent that a reasoned and peaceful discourse has become all but extinct. The discourse in parliament and in the media betrays increasingly bellicose tendencies. The most worrying thing is that nothing is being done to address either of these reasons, which cannot be addressed by the police or Rangers alone”.
Ah, but they still have to decide if the prime minister will write that letter to the Swiss authorities or face “appropriate action” on July 25.
The writer is a staff member. Email: email@example.com