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January 29, 2015

Plunge into the darkness

Opinion

January 29, 2015

There are certain events that stand as broader metaphors. One of these came this weekend, when a fault in the National Transportation and Distribution Company plunged some 80 percent of the country into pitch darkness.
This is not an entirely unprecedented event. We have faced similar blackouts before. But in so many ways this plunge into darkness symbolises the kind of anarchy we live in: an anarchy where nothing is certain, where little is known and where life moves forward in staggering steps as people attempt to cope with the daily demands of life lived in these circumstances.
We have seen the chaos created as the petrol stations ran dry in Punjab for almost a week, forcing people to queue hour after hour in the hope of obtaining a single litre of fuel, or else turn to the black market out of a desperate need to reach workplaces, schools or tackle emergencies. The petrol shortfall, a result of gross mismanagement, joined forces with the ongoing shortage of natural gas and power which has through the winter crippled Punjab and also affected other provinces. The effort to cope consumes enormous energy for almost all citizens.
Life has in so many ways been crippled. Even the fog enveloping Lahore and creating pandemonium at airports was a part of the wider state of disorder. Poor management of flight delays added to turmoil; the fog in turn has been created by an inability to manage pollution created by man-made factors. It is a cycle that goes on and on, its many spokes locking together to create a whirr which leaves many bewildered and distressed. Indeed the ability of citizens to carry on in these conditions, to cope with the kind of fear created by the threat to schools and then pushed forward on the wing of rumour, simply reflects the degree of resilience we have acquired – or been forced to acquire.
For the majority there is really no choice. Those able to do so have in a huge number of cases already left the country; others now talk more

earnestly than ever, notably in the wake of the Peshawar school attack, of doing the same and every year we of course have tens of thousands who leave illegally, some making it to other shores, others falling into the hands of the ruthless agents who traffic people willing to give all they have for the sake of a better future for themselves, and for their families.
Of course all these realities are genuine. They constitute very real problems; the stuff that makes up life and what it is all about for people everywhere in the country. But in other ways, all that we see when we gaze into the blackness are symptoms of a far bigger crisis. A crisis of misgovernance, of mismanagement, of deceit and of a desire to delude ourselves into believing in mirages.
The real issue is that our government, the one in place now and the ones that have come in the past, whether led by men in uniform or those in civilian clothes have failed to function. The result is before us. It intertwines with a lack of commitment, and this is the factor that seems to prevent us from making any genuine effort to take on terrorism, militancy, extremism and the other enormous threats our country faces.
Yes, these days, we are making the right noises. Since the Peshawar school attack which shook the nation, the government under the National Action Plan has pledged to crack down against hate speech and terrorist outfits. But what has it really done to achieve this? It has arrested a few lower level clerics. It has confiscated mosque loudspeakers. It says, with some ambiguity, that it has closed down the bank accounts of banned organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Haqqani Network. But the time that has gone into taking this decision and the confusion that still persists makes one wonder if the said outfits have had time to transfer their funds and make other arrangements to ensure they remain operational.
We have no explanation why the 95 banned outfits the interior ministry says operate in the Punjab have been permitted to do so year after year. There is clearly something very wrong and it does not seem that much is being done in actual, concrete terms to tackle it.
We have before us a whole host of disquieting facts. It is reported that government lawyers are unwilling to move ahead in the case against Mumtaz Qadri, the man who shot dead former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011. There seems to be little doubt fear plays a factor in this. Qadri enjoys the status of a hero at Adiala Jail where he is held, and where he a few months ago convinced a guard to shoot dead one blasphemy accused and injure another who had been found to be suffering mental sickness.
Elsewhere in the country, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric of Lal Masjid, remains at liberty to do what he does despite warrants issued against him. We have no answers why this is so and the news and rumours we are getting from Islamabad are alarming. How this could happen before the eyes of a wakeful government is an open question. We have no answers.
The feeling is very strong that all this is an effort to placate people and show them that something is being done. Perhaps the leaders wished to delude themselves into thinking this too. After all, the only concrete that has happened is that much power has been relinquished to the military.
To keep themselves busy, the leaders then call meetings – such as the one chaired by the prime minister which proposed that the gap between education imparted at madressah schools and higher profile private institutions be narrowed. There seems to be much doubt as to how this task is to be achieved – too little focus on the more urgent business of providing an education to all through the public sector schools which have over the decades been allowed to collapse.
Other meetings have been even more ludicrous. There has been a suggestion that mosque prayer leaders be tested as to their line of thinking. How this is to be managed in practical terms remains a major question and of course there is no guarantee that these clerics will tell the truth when it is asked of them.
What we need is a cohesive plan. These problems are not disconnected. They go together. They fit into each other like jigsaw puzzles. The solution too then has to be holistic.
We essentially need far better governance and an ability to examine the ills of our country as a whole rather than treating them in a piecemeal fashion so that the entire spectrum of difficulties that we encounter can be tackled as part of a strategy that aims at empowering people and bettering the equality of life rather than looking at each problem as an individual one not connected to the others. The dots have to be connected; the entire map drawn up and then followed.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
Email: [email protected]