Tuesday April 16, 2024

Darkness at noon

By Ghazi Salahuddin
January 29, 2023

Every week, in these tumultuous times, there is this fresh onslaught of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in the context of what is happening in this country. Writing a column often poses a Hamletian dilemma: should one recycle the same outrage that flows from an increasingly deteriorating economic and political situation or find some excuse to cheer up for a while to, in a sense, protect one’s sanity?

The general mood, to be sure, remains very depressing. Even in the midst of private celebrations like weddings and birthdays and reunions of old friends, with half of them visiting from abroad, conversation invariably lapses into a kind of ritualistic lamentation. As if a collapse is imminent. But is that really so bad?

Much would depend on the choice of the subject that is sought to be explored. There are certain issues that necessarily inspire anger or anxiety or depression. The human stories of how ordinary people are making ends meet in the face of increasing cost of living are not really being told – and they would be unrelievedly heartbreaking.

Anyhow, I am a bit confused about what subject to choose for my column this week. There is Fawad Chaudhry as the lead of a thrilling political drama. His arrest from his Lahore home in the early hours of Wednesday has apparently activated a new phase of confrontation and more PTI leaders are likely to be taken into custody. There have been some hints that Imran Khan himself could be on this list.

Fawad Chaudhry’s arrest on sedition charges on the complaint of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is becoming a serial in which separate episodes have their own twists and turns. An audio leak of Parvez Elahi, for instance, underlined the kind of black comedy that our politics can become at the same time that it is a Greek tragedy.

Meanwhile, a lot of action is picking up on other fronts. With his gift of grabbing headlines, often by taking U-turns, Imran Khan on Friday claimed that Zardari was behind a new plot to assassinate him. The PTI has gone to the Supreme Court to challenge Mohsin Naqvi’s appointment as Punjab’s caretaker chief minister. The ECP has announced that by-elections for 33 National Assembly seats will be held on March 6, signaling a burst of political campaigns.

Perhaps more gripping a story is the rise and rise of the American dollar in the currency market after the government removed the ‘cap’ to allow market factors to determine the exchange rate. Economy is not my cup of tea but it is obvious that this will have consequences across our lives. It is a mayhem, really.

I am not able to properly interpret the meaning of this spectacular depreciation of the Pakistan rupee in the interbank market. On Friday, it closed at over Rs262 for one dollar, down more than Rs7 from the close on Thursday. But the records were really set on Thursday when the dollar jumped by as much as 10 per cent. In the process, the rupee’s value had an unprecedented decline, reaching the record low of more than 255 for a dollar.

While the falling rupee will have its gains and losses for particular sectors and individuals, the general public will have little appreciation of what is actually happening in the economic domain. Likewise, a very large number of people are losing interest in the political game that is becoming so vicious.

However, it was the country-wide outage of power that began early in the morning on Monday that touched every citizen. Yes, this was not the first time that such a massive breakdown had struck the nation. But this week’s disruption that lasted for more than 20 hours in many places coincided with a very dark disposition at the popular level.

Here was an intimation of things genuinely falling apart. Normally, power breakdowns – or lights going out – are normally visualized as a blackout, with darkness spreading its wings. This outage lasted mostly during the day. But you could say that darkness descended on Pakistan in a metaphorical sense. It showed that the system is broken and can give way at any time.

Now, with all these issues demanding our attention, would there be something else that deserves, say, star billing? Well, I am not sure if everyone would agree but a verdict was announced by a special anti-terrorist court in Karachi on Monday that every concerned citizen of this country should be aware of. And those who sit on the table of authority need to consider the significance of this outcome and question their own culpability in it.

What was that verdict? Simply, a former SSP named Rao Anwar and his 17 subordinates were acquitted in the Naqeebullah Mehsud murder case. Rao Anwar’s exploits are the stuff of a crime thriller that would be worthy of a Hollywood production. Records would confirm that between 2011 and 2018, as many as 444 persons were killed in suspect police ‘encounters’ in which Rao Anwar is said to have been directly or indirectly involved.

Naqeebullah’s murder in a similar ‘encounter’ in January 2018 had led to a surge in Pashtun agitation, led by the Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement (PTM). It has had a national impact. But the protection that Rao Anwar has manifestly enjoyed is more disturbing than any political engineering that was done. It is pointless to even suggest that the higher authorities should look into this matter. All we can do is shed tears over this travesty.

And if you need a pretext to smile in these gloomy circumstances, consider the astounding success of Shah Rukh Khan’s action thriller ‘Pathaan’. It was released in India and abroad, though obviously not in Pakistan, on Wednesday under the shadow of protests by Hindu extremists.

I know about a young woman in Karachi who called her friends in the US to check if ‘Pathaan’ is really a great movie. “Is it worth going to Dubai to see it?”, she wanted to know.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: