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September 15, 2019

Prisoners of security


September 15, 2019

During our WhatsApp conversation on Monday morning, my elder daughter, who lives in southern California, told me about the Muharram procession she had attended in downtown Los Angeles earlier in the day, on Sunday. I could imagine what it would be like because I have had that experience some years ago.

This, of course, is something that is possible in the United States and no doubt there would have been other such processions in other big cities. I saw this week a video of a rather large Muharram procession in Manchester. Religious ceremonies and rituals are an integral part of our social fabric and are observed in all societies with great passion and devoutness. Yet, there are certain things that are not possible in some countries.

In any case, my reference here is the observance of Ashura in Pakistan early this week. We are familiar with the massive arrangements that are made for the processions that are particularly taken out on the ninth and tenth of Muharram. It is an operation that involves almost the entire personnel of our law-enforcement agencies. And there is usually a sense of relief when the event concludes without any incident.

In recent years, the security drill in our major cities has really been very extensive. We have a history of terror attacks and sectarian violence on such occasions. Ten years ago, Karachi was deeply wounded by a huge blast on the Ashura procession. Quetta has particularly been a casualty in this sectarian conflict. In a larger perspective, Pakistan stands out as a country that has suffered widespread terror.

This means that there is ample justification for all the security measures that are taken at Ashura time. But I have a little quarrel with the extent to which this security is enforced. I am a witness to how they do it in Karachi and feel that it somehow undermines the spirit of a popular religious ceremony and the overall social life of the city.

The point I am trying to make is that it has become very stringent. We know the details of how ‘double-sawari’ on motor cycles is banned for two or three days and cell-phone services are blocked in many areas for an entire day. The route of the procession is sealed with containers, blocking entry from side-lanes and streets. Thousands of policemen and Rangers personnel are deployed to watch the crowd, including on the roofs of tall buildings along the path. And high functionaries observe the scene from a helicopter.

I have no idea if all this is indispensible or necessary. Certainly, no risks can be taken and security is a prime concern and responsibility of the administration. Perhaps my qualms about this level of security are unjustified. But I am worried about what it means for social coherence and sectarian harmony. There are messages that this restrictive security conveys which need to be interpreted by our planners.

In the first place, we are constantly reminded that our national campaign against terrorism and violent extremism has been victorious and there is evidence that certifies this claim, though the vile forces of intolerance and extremism have not totally been routed. We must recognise the role that our military has played in this campaign against terrorism and militancy.

But if the situation has improved, it should also reflect in how, for instance, the security plans for Ashura are executed. One would think that they should gradually be less intrusive and more open in terms of the ease with which the common citizens are able to join the ceremonies and rituals. I know little about these matters but think that it should be more discreet. Unlike justice, it may not all be seen to be done.

One major reason why I find this so-called ‘foolproof’ security a bit disturbing is that I have fond memories of how Muharram was observed in another world that, alas, is now dead. I was young in a Karachi where the night of the ninth Muharram in the old town presented the spectacle of sectarian togetherness. It used to be something that warms my heart in its recollection even now.

And this was not unusual in other cities and other places in South Asia. I also remember the Ashura procession of those times, when participation in it was a communal experience. There was this sense of freedom and liberation. We talk a lot, in Karachi, about reclaiming public spaces to bring citizens together and foster civic values. Muharram is one such occasion. Even if the past cannot be recaptured, we must sincerely aim to create a sense of peace and amity in the observance of our religious festivals.

Now, when I talk about the possible impact of such a show of force and authority in putting Muharram security together, I also have the everyday situation in mind. The thought that we have become a security rather than a welfare state has other implications. But security, in its more tangible form, is a problem that does not seem to concern our rulers.

Irrespective of what the threat perception may be, the security that ordinary citizens have to bear with is also very stringent and obstructive. And I am not talking about the security checks you have to go through when entering restricted or sensitive areas. I am referring to the security that creates a distance between the people and the rulers.

All you need to do is to go around the city and see how many uniformed and armed persons are guarding not places but people. This must be very unnerving for all sensible and sensitive citizens who are deprived of this protection. What I find ironic is that all senior police officers, who lead an outfit that is mean to protect the people, are accompanied by multiple mobiles of armed police guards. Private security is one growth industry that the government may claim credit for.

But what does the presence of so many armed guards, some of them not even in any uniform, out on the streets really mean? I leave this question for those in authority to ponder. Experts would tell you that it means more insecurity in society. Look at it as a sign that the rulers are losing their authority and their ability to govern. It should add to popular discontent and a sense of helplessness.

Finally, one should worry about the possession of weapons by so many low-paid functionaries in a society that is losing its equilibrium. Hence, the task of building peace and harmony in society is more urgent than any other.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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