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September 22, 2019

‘I want you to panic’


September 22, 2019

We are familiar with the drill that is promptly set off by an incident or crime that is shocking and diabolical in its nature, such as the recovery of the bodies of three minors from a desolate place near Chunian on Tuesday.

High functionaries, down from the prime minister, ‘take notice’ of the event. A few senior police officers are suspended or transferred. A lot of activity is in evidence to arrest the killers and often a substantial head money is announced. There is always the option of instituting a judicial inquiry. We experience a national outrage and the coverage in the media serves to enhance the emotional distress of ordinary citizens. And so on.

But then? Take the case of the horrifying Chunian tragedy. We were reminded this week of what has happened in the same area in recent years with reference to multiple incidents of kidnapping, rape and murder of children. There was that dreadful murder of six-year-old Zainab early last year. It had shaken the nation and we were assured that nothing like this would ever be allowed to happen.

We also remember that Zainab’s murder – she was found dead in a heap of garbage five days after she went missing – was only one of about a dozen such incidents that had taken place in Kasur and its adjoining areas in a year’s time. One is constrained to go even farther back. A massive child pornography ring was busted in a Kasur village in 2015, the details of which are an indictment of the degenerated state of our society that we are unwilling to accept. For that matter, we had serial killer Javed Iqbal 20 years ago who was found guilty of the sexual abuse and murder of 100 boys. In a way, he has found his place in the history of human aberrations.

My intention here is not to focus only on the prevalence of child abuse in our country, though I may just mention one newspaper headline this Friday: “Seven children are abused daily in Pakistan: report”. The point I want to make is that we seem to be lacking in our capacity to respond to and deal effectively with many tragedies that we have suffered. Where is the trigger that would bring about a drastic, revolutionary change in our lives and in the system that governs us?

Apparently, nothing changes and after a brief interval of sound and fury, it is business as usual. Essentially, what may be defined as our ruling ideas need to change. But change is also initiated from down below. That would be a social revolution, a change that should be distinguished from chaos and anarchy.

I may only be looking at the surface of things and what I see is a society that is not being able to creatively respond to the challenges that it is now confronted with. At another level, we tend to lack the intellectual and civilisational capacity to grasp the impact of what is happening to us.

Yes, one has some inkling of Toynbee’s concept of ‘challenge and response’. His study of history has ascertained that civilisations came to birth in environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy. A challenge, thus, becomes a stimulus for a proper response. Hence, the challenges that we face can be put to use, if we have the capacity to respond.

They also talk about the tipping point, when a series of incidents become significant enough to cause a major change. In very recent memory, there is that example of a fruit vendor setting himself on fire in Tunisia to become the trigger for what is known as the Arab Spring. It was a mass awakening in a number of Arab countries – and dictatorships were overthrown. What happened after that is another matter.

Why did Pakistan not change in some meaningful ways after the massacre of our schoolchildren in the Army Public School of Peshawar now about five years ago? It was surely a traumatic moment in our history and it led to some far-reaching measures. There was a National Action Plan to deal with the causes of terrorism, violent extremism and intolerance. But can we say that Pakistan is not now what it was before that fateful date in December 2014?

A different kind of example, mainly of our apathy and insensitivity towards human values and social justice, is provided by the proceedings this week in the Baldia factory fire case. What is being revealed in the antiterrorism court case is sensational. But I want to refer to the fire incident itself in which more than 250 workers of a garment factory in Karachi were burnt to death.

Read that again. Two hundred and fifty human beings were killed in a crime that also had political implications. How did the authorities and also the civil society react to this horrendous incident that took place on another fateful day – September 11 – seven years ago? What has substantively changed in the aftermath of the Baldia fire in the context of security and legal measures for our industrial labour?

A similar fire in a garment factory in New York, way back in March 1911, had killed 146 garment workers, mostly women. Literally, it changed New York. Known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it has been the subject of documentaries, plays, novels and music compositions even in the present times. One book, titled ‘The Fire That Changed America’, was published in 2003.

The crucial difference here is that almost the entire population of New York had lined up in the streets for the funeral procession of the victims. That high-rise building in which the factory was located is a National Historic Landmark. And how have we commemorated the massive loss of life in the Baldia fire that was certainly a greater tragedy than the Triangle fire of New York for many reasons?

As for the imperative for change, we also share the global emergency regarding climate change and our cities had joined the Climate March on Friday. I want to quote a remark made by Greta Thunberg, the climate activist who is a teenager and has emerged as the Malala of climate change with her global recognition.

Greta Thunberg said: “Our house is on fire. I want you to panic”. For us in Pakistan, this scare has more than meteorological implications.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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