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April 22, 2017

States cannot absolve themselves


April 22, 2017

In countries such as India and Pakistan, one often hears nuggets of wisdom from state employees. For example, “The state can’t take care of everything”. “If a rowdy mob kills innocent people, the state cannot be blamed”. “If people themselves are irresponsible, what can the state do?”. “People are so corrupt, they try to cheat the state”, “Society has become so intolerant, the state can’t protect everyone everywhere”. “The state itself is a victim of terrorism”. “If people keep throwing garbage on the streets, the state cannot be held responsible for cleanliness”. “If professionals such as doctors and lawyers fleece people, how can the state be held responsible?”.

Is that so? And what is this state that we are talking about? By state here we mean all those in power: the political leaders who come and go and the civil and military bureaucracy – permanent state employees who remain there. We are talking about the state machinery that prides itself in ‘selection’ rather than ‘election’. The selection process that makes sure the recruits are of a certain mindset reinforcing the existing paradigm and the paradigm that perpetuates decades old prejudices and paranoia. No, states cannot absolve themselves.

Helpless passengers are beaten black and blue by FIA personnel and their accomplices bar other passengers from intervening; high officials call it a one-off incident to trivialise the torture and just a suspension from duties is awarded to the culprits. What kind of training are state institutions providing to their employees and who teaches them to direct their ire at the public? How superior do they consider themselves to those who are actually their paymasters? Who develops the curriculum for the FIA recruits and how skilled are they at teaching lessons to whoever slightly triggers their anger? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

If intolerance is inculcated in the minds of the people through skewed narratives of history against the minorities decade after decade, vulnerable segments are bound to be targeted. When state-approved textbooks are full of venom, you can’t expect students to read them and not become hostile to anyone differing from the dominant ideas. Building cadet colleges and cantonments, and stifling funding for colleges of art and culture, and then lamenting that people are more pugnacious than cultured is like training people to fight and then expecting them to sing. No, states cannot absolve themselves.

When hotbeds of hatred keep thriving and nurseries of nonsense keep sprouting, can we reap a harvest of tolerance? With self-righteousness on the rise and self-applaud deafening your ears, can you expect to hear a voice of sanity? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

When the state fails to educate pupils about how to live a decent life, can it hope to nurture responsible citizens? When teachers and lecturers in public educational institutions – that are an integral part of the state machinery – can shirk their duties and feed their students with a steady stream of illiberal ideas, can we see a generation of liberal youth coming up? When liberalism itself is turned into a swear word by both the state-sponsored and non-state actors, can we hope to a see a liberal and progressive Pakistan our prime minister talks about? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

If popular political leaders are killed and buried in broad daylight and their family members are not even allowed to attend the funeral prayers (remember Bhutto and Bugti?) while religious fanatics are eulogised and their death anniversaries celebrated on the streets, can we tell people that the state is neutral? People are dependent on avaricious lawyers when the police and the judiciary – both elements of a state mechanism – fail to investigate properly and announce judicious verdicts. Cases linger in courts for years and generations, while speedy trials by state and non-state actors award capital punishments without a modicum of judicial decorum, can we blame the people? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

When public hospitals lack basic facilities and pregnant women are forced to deliver babies on hospital staircases or in vehicles since the roads are blocked for a VIP movement, can we tell patients not to go the private hospitals? If health officials – again part of the state – indulge in corruption in the procurement of drugs and patients die with low-grade stents that were not even needed, who is to blame? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

Provision of clean water and proper sanitation is the state’s responsibility. When officials in the water and sanitation departments make money from legal and illegal hydrants in collusion with other state institutions, are the people to blame? When multinationals make billions by selling us our own water, and we are forced to purchase transparent bottles that in most cases contain substandard quality of water, can the state be excused? No, states cannot absolve themselves.

Power generators clutter streets and spout toxic fumes in the air because the state cannot supply uninterrupted electricity. In the 21st century, power supply is a dream for a major part of society that burns cow dung or cuts trees for cooking and heating. For miles, dust bins are absent even in big cities and garbage stinks for weeks in simmering hot weather. Can we blame common people for that? Should they keep piles of trash at home? No, I am sorry, states cannot absolve themselves.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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