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August 22, 2017

As dark as the inside of a needle


August 22, 2017

The celebrations began two nights before Independence Day and were much the same as they have been for a decade now in Islamabad. Draped in green and white, pillion-riding motorcyclists and flag-mounted cars arrived in hordes from Rawalpindi, their passengers perched precariously outside car windows or swinging dangerously from iron grills mounted behind transport vans.

Passengers aboard these vans were seen shouting, whistling, hooting and gyrating to azadi songs that blared and crackled through cheap speakers unable to sustain treble or bass, their tunes rendered further discordant against the din of booming horns, screeching tyres and the blasts of firecrackers chucked surreptitiously on the road. Cars, motorcycles, buses and pedestrians coalesced into an unending, thick, pulsing torrent of jarring noise, neon lights and hysteria that rose to a crescendo. They eventually choked the main arteries of traffic in the capital on the muggy August evening of our 70th year of Independence.

Pakistan 70 years on. Independence celebrations may remain the same, but one wonders: what has changed? If you live here, then you’re probably less concerned about the evolution of the country’s sociological and political character or its economic indicators and more interested in the jubilation of ousting Nawaz Sharif from his prime ministerial office and his rally along GT Road to Lahore. A time of reckoning most say, a final moment, a watershed event, the end to corruption and the historic rounding of a corner to emerge into a glittering tomorrow.

Except that we’ve been rounding corners for 70 years. And thanks to the culture of the 24-hour news cycle, we now round them every week. Through 70 years of military coups, ousted prime ministers, humiliated dictators, jubilant chief justices, leaked memos, assassinations, dharnas and long marches, Pakistan has always been poised to arrive, yet it never really does.

But a history lesson is not the purpose of this article. And for all that we’ve gained – motorways, metros, nuclear bombs, strategic depth and what not – there are a few other things that we can include in the calculus of our losses, past and present.

The loss of decency is one. We’ve finally abandoned all pretense for the need of it – whether in public or private discourse. Coached for a decade now by an unfettered electronic media – that runs on ad money and employs uncouth chat show anchors who are paid by their masters to sit on live television every evening to engage in vulgar calumny, concoct conspiracy theories, lower the standard of public discourse to mimicry and lampooning of public officials and whip up public sentiment into a frenzy – we have arrived at a moment in our history when the only apparent solution to differences of public opinion is the waging of a zero-sum ‘us vs them’ war of attrition that is without rules. As a consequence, our polarised civil society is convinced that principles are dispensable and that every standard of decorum that was once sacred, is now profane.

The institutionalisation of misogyny is another thing we can include among our losses. It is clear from recent experiences, which happen to become the subject of debate in the public domain, that women are accepted in our patriarchal order as mute subjects of ridicule, violence and exclusion, with their chastity determined through a licence issued by male members of society, who further reserve the right to violate that chastity – verbally or physically – with impunity.

Should a woman dare to step out of these well-demarcated boundaries, should she dare to question the power structures that reside within this patriarchal order, she will be hounded into silence and submission (if not killed), with the morality of her lineal ascendants and descendants being called up to public scrutiny. That we indulge in public displays of misogyny to celebrate our machismo was ruefully displayed first in the shocking live interrogations and dismissals that Ayesha Gulalai was subjected to on private channels the night after her press conference and then during her national assembly speech, that was barely audible among the jeers, catcalls and insults from the gallery.

Similarly, Asma Jahangir was chastised across the expanse of social and electronic media for raising questions about the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan. Imran Khan is innocent until proven otherwise and you may choose to disagree with Asma Jahangir’s view. But both women’s fundamental right to freedom of speech is protected under the constitution and our national response is, therefore, abysmal.

This brings me to the character of our elite. It is often glibly professed by the affluent members of our society that “awaam hai jaahil” (the masses are uneducated). Following on from this declaration, a bizarre critique of democracy is presented, which strips the right of the people to vote until each person has perhaps secured a Bachelor’s degree from Punjab University or, better yet, passed their Senior Cambridge examinations. Till then, it is declared that they have no intelligence or basic understanding of right and wrong and will only choose the worst among them to lead. Well sir, we must ask: what about the intelligence and wisdom of the educated elite among us?

The members of this elite club – many of whom are scions of the feudal and industrial elite – is the class that is possibly the most literate, if not educated, in our polity, and are today the flag-bearers of the PTI and the politics of ‘change’. Till a few weeks ago, they were recommending the formulation of a jirga – a tribal court of elders – to prosecute Ayesha Gulalai.

Do we really need that kind of literacy masquerading as education? Are we to salute their wisdom for the hate and anger that this class has introduced into politics, their display of populism and fascism and their lack of political maturity as they vilify and deride any and all political opponents? Moreover, this elite club has supported every military coup and every unconstitutional move by dictators – from Ayub Khan and Zia to Musharraf – as long as their business interests and their wealth are protected. So, should they alone have the right to vote and, if so, what kind of leaders will they elect? If great change is to come from above, we are in deep trouble.

Finally, we must recognise the failure of democratic politics. For a party, which has been elected twice with a heavy mandate, to squander the chances of bringing about positive change the second time in a row, is just bad comedy. Today, our political scene is riven with animosity and the promise of mature politics envisaged under the Charter of Democracy is as much in tatters as the document itself.

If we are back to the mudslinging of the 1980s and the 1990s and if the blueprint of a democracy includes zero legislation and shoddy governance – not to mention the Achilles heel of the Panama Papers – then is it any surprise that the hawks and vultures that seek to undo the democratic project will swoop in for the kill? Seventy years on, on a wing and a prayer, we can only hope that our future is not, in the words of the poet Joseph Brodsky, “as dark as the inside of a needle”.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir