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May 19, 2019

The inheritance of loss


May 19, 2019

In March 1947, Mountbatten took charge as the last viceroy of the British Empire in India from Wavell. He subsequently reported Wavell as saying: “I am sorry for you. You have been given an impossible job. I have tried everything I know to solve the problem of handing over India to its people; and I can see no light”.

My excuse for quoting this observation of Wavell, who was a celebrated military leader and exceptionally erudite, is to underline the ignominy of being part of a legacy of some kind of a civilizational failure. More than 70 years after the Subcontinent won its independence and Pakistan came into being, this jinxed region still seems beyond redemption. And we, as a nation, are becoming an example of this letdown.

Well, I agree that this is perhaps not the right beginning for a rather mundane and passing review of the present state of social, political and economic affairs of Pakistan. Wavell’s words would be relevant in a larger, historical perspective of an academic nature. But every time I try to understand the reasons for our people’s monumental deprivations, I am reminded of this South Asian bondage and the importance of learning from our historical experience, 1947 as well as 1971.

At another level, the dark passions and animosities that have infected our South Asian societies have cast their shadows on all our social and political developments. Pakistan, in this respect, has suffered more than other countries in this region. The point here is that we should be aware of the path that we have travelled to arrive at this really critical juncture in our life as a nation. Our survival would depend on our capacity to learn our lessons and, finally, take corrective actions.

But before I come to the present scare that is created by our escalating economic breakdown, I am tempted to mention an anecdote from the review of a biography of the brilliant and flamboyant US diplomat Richard Holbrooke that I read a few days ago in the New York Times. Holbrooke was special US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – and I do this to again show how we are judged by the world.

When Holbrooke collapsed in a US State Department meeting and was brought to a hospital, the doctor told him to relax. “I can’t relax”, he replied. “I am in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Three days later he died on December 13, 2010.

So, is there any reason for those who are genuinely in charge of Pakistan – its rulers – to have relaxed all these years? We do not know if they had been fully conscious of the crisis that was building up since a very long time ago and there certainly were those, generally spurned by the ruling elite, who could see it coming. It is possible that a number of people who reside in the citadel of power are still not willing to look out of the window and notice, in an idiomatic sense, the barbarians at the gate.

Incredibly, I have met a few of them who tend to laugh at my pessimistic prognoses and argue that there is no serious threat to the present arrangement. I find it difficult to argue with them, particularly not in the comfort of somewhat posh surroundings where they are safely lodged. The facts I cite do not matter. Obviously, they feel that they can survive this phases, with their privileges intact.

However, the fear, I can see, is beginning to spread across all social classes. I wonder if any one of those who had ushered Imran Khan to his seat of power had whispered in his ears: “I am sorry for you”. Yes, the Insafians of the Murad Saeed or Faisal Vawda category were too engrossed in beating their drums of victory to look at the realities that exist on the ground.

These realities are now staring us in the face. On the surface, it is the economy. Not enough attention is still being paid to the fault in our stars and the effort that was necessary to redefine and re-imagine our destiny and to renounce our malevolent inheritance. Is that possible even at this stage in our evolution as a nation? Can our rulers look at Pakistan in its totality in a brutally candid and objective manner and accept their responsibility of leading us to this impasse?

As I said, the focus at this moment is on the economic crisis. In this context, the hardships that the ordinary people have to bear are becoming unbearable. Economists have their explanations for what has gone wrong. While there may be disagreements about the quality of the economic management of Imran Khan’s government and its glaring lapses, they all agree that it is going to get worse.

Some respected economists have an apocalyptic view of the emerging scenario. Is a meltdown in the offing? Are there any intimations of a collapse? Would the demons that lie dormant in our impoverished and intolerant society rise again, as they have periodically in this region?

These are scary questions. Politicians, of course, speak in a different language. They are bracing for agitation against the present government after Eid. It is assumed that when people are not able to live with the misery that is heaped upon them, they will have no option but to come out on the streets. The stage appears set for the launching of a national protest. That is why all the opposition parties are beginning to come together.

I have desisted from going into any economic or political details that figure in the media headlines. My contention is that even when the poor people you encounter in the streets – a territory out of bounds for the elite – have to suffer additional pain with rising prices and unemployment, it is their congenital deprivation and wretchedness that actually matters.

It is, irrespective of what happens on a daily basis, a broken society. There is always a threat of breakdown of law and order. While South Asia is the most deprived region of the world, Pakistan is lagging behind other countries of the region in the social sector. It is apparently the defence mechanism of our rulers that they do not acknowledge the absolutely hopeless conditions in which the ordinary people survive in this country. There is a total loss of hope at that level.

Reinforced by worsening economic conditions, the utter degradation of the people of this country is bound to reach a lower depth. We do not know what its consequences are likely to be.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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