Tuesday May 17, 2022

The landscape of sorrow

January 21, 2018

When we grieve over the death of someone like Munnu Bhai, our thoughts wander across an entire landscape of sorrow. This happens even when you have some personal memories to conjure up a past that now seems so unreal. Ultimately, one is left with just a sense of loss that cannot be adequately spelled out.

Yes, I am alluding to the passing of a precious human being who championed social justice and enlightenment as a poet, a writer and a journalist as only a point of reference. The media has taken care of the obligatory obituaries. We can see that this is no country for the likes of Munnu Bhai and while we may pause to acknowledge the value of the life he had lived, we must quickly move on to more exciting pursuits. There, for instance, are other, incredibly more pompous players on the stage who make bigger headlines almost on a daily basis. Munnu Bhai died in Lahore on Friday but what happened in the city two days earlier, on Wednesday, was the most dominant event of the week. Indeed, it was deemed to be a crucial milestone in the ongoing wrangle between the pretenders to the throne of political power.

Reverberations of the protest that was supposed to launch a movement against the rule of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party are still being felt. All that sound and fury had to signify something, though the message is not so easy to decipher. What is certain is that the show of strength visibly lacked strength. The crowd was thin and numerous chairs spread on the Mall were empty. One remarkable feature of the show was the separate presence of Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari and many see this as Tahirul Qadri’s coup. His was a two-act play. Zardari played the lead in the first act and after his exit came Imran with his entourage. Some opposition leaders attributed poor attendance to this change of scene, suggesting that supporters of one leader abstained from the other’s performance.

But Tahirul Qadri was expected to bring together his own followers, including the staff and students of educational institutions run by his organisation. This in itself should have been a formidable gathering. And Qadri’s following was formidable in previous protests and ‘dharnas’. Irrespective of how Wednesday’s poor show is to be explained, it has surely raised the spirits of Nawaz Sharif’s supporters. Since Nawaz Sharif is seen to be in confrontation with the establishment, any shift in his favour at the popular level should have meaningful consequences in the context of the new order that may emerge later this year, possibly with the holding of the general elections in the coming summer.

Meanwhile, of course, Nawaz Sharif’s pathological adversaries are not expected to back off. On the contrary, the battle is getting a bit more furious. There was a hint of desperation in how Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, described as Imran’s ‘political sidekick’ in one editorial comment, erupted into his ‘laanat’ on parliament and also democracy mode and announced his resignation from the National Assembly.

Not only that, he urged Imran to lead a physical attack on the Jati Umra residence of the Sharifs because, as he roared, they would not be removed with speeches. Imran, as television cameras espied, was very pleased by this and when his turn came, he repeated the ‘laanat’ slur on the National Assembly. This is how the focus shifted on the curse and on Thursday, a resolution was adopted in the National Assembly to condemn Imran Khan and Sheikh Rashid for making, “Intentional attempts to damage the respect and dignity of the constitutional house of which they also happen to be members.” It is interesting that the PPP supported this move. Naturally, the television talk shows were ready to lap it up without forsaking their established biases.

In keeping with the mood set by the demise of Munnu Bhai, I find this level of political discourse utterly depressing. It is a sad reflection on the quality of the existing political class that throws up charlatans like Sheikh Rashid who tend to stand out and often set the tone of a party’s position on particular issues. Unfortunately, the popular media has collaborated in this trivialisation of politics, in keeping with that old dictum that, “The press and the nation rise and fall together”. In our case, the drift is obvious.

It is hard to imagine a political leader who has a good grasp of the overall situation and is intellectually equipped to chart a way out of the present quagmire. Such a leader would also need to be able to soothe the pain of a divided society with the strengthening of democratic values and principles of social justice. It would be nice to have a leader who can inspire the people to have some faith in their future and not agitate their minds to hate and to violate the norms of civilised behaviour.

Among the leaders of our major political parties, Imran Khan is the beneficiary of an excellent liberal education. But how he expresses himself in politics is, in an idiomatic sense, not cricket. There are others who easily lapse into an abusive and crude outburst. There is little scope, in this environment, of a consequential exchange of competing policies and ideas to enlighten the citizens.

A larger problem, perhaps, is the low political culture and the intellectual degradation of the society itself. At the risk of repeating myself, I would say that the crisis of Pakistan is not so much political or economic as it is moral and intellectual. In spite of a constantly growing population and increasing enrolment in colleges and universities, there is no evidence that a sizeable intelligentsia exists in the country.

The manner in which Mashal Khan was lynched by his fellow students on the campus of a university in April last year is an example of the state of mind of our supposedly educated young people. The environment may be a little better on some other campuses but there are no strong cultural and intellectual movements in the offing that would unleash the creative potential of this country. And our political leaders do not seem to understand or care about these deprivations.

Yes, the present government is so proud of the physical infrastructure it has built. But the intellectual infrastructure is just not there. It is natural to mourn the loss of someone like Munnu Bhai but how many more are there to take his place?

The writer is a senior journalist.