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December 15, 2019

We had it coming


December 15, 2019

We had it coming. Yes, what we saw live on news channels on Wednesday certainly took our breath away. It was a spectacle for the world to watch in awe and disbelief.

In a sense, it was an action thriller, staged for the camera – the script ensuring that the most inhumane acts would be allowed to happen without any intervention.

The rest may also have been a part of the story. The nation would express its outrage. The authorities would initiate the drill of arresting the agitators and registering the cases. The leaders would make their statements. High-level meetings would be held and spokespersons would speak. Television talk shows would bubble over with anger and indignation. The sides that are taken would be taken.

At the heart of it all is the question: how can the lawyers, all dressed up for the occasion, come marching on the main streets of a city like Lahore, and attack a leading hospital for heart patients? Were they playing the role of revolutionaries storming the Bastille?

We now know a lot about this ignominy. There are details of how the trigger was a previous encounter between the lawyers and the young doctors of the hospital. What has shocked us all is that the arena of conflict was a hospital with so many patients in critical condition. One comment that reverberated was that hospitals are not attacked even during an actual war.

We have witnessed a war that was waged by our trained professionals. But, as I said, we had it coming. What has happened is a genuine reflection of what we have made of our society. This is how our rulers and the ideas that have dominated our polity have nurtured our collective behaviour. Violence is the air we breathe.

So, we repeatedly and constantly have to bear this almost ritualistic ordeal of expressing our shock over something that is diabolical in nature. We have been conditioned to do this without actually finding courage or competence to change our national priorities and policies.

One aspect of the emerging decline of democratic and even civilisational values is that the offenders, who generally come from the educated middle-class, remain unrepentant. This has happened in the case of the lawyers, supposedly trained to uphold the principles of law and justice.

How the leadership has behaved, as demonstrated by the justification for the lawyers’ country-wide strike by the Supreme Court Bar Association, is very instructive. In many ways, it is the ultimate evidence of how violence – an antithesis of reason and civility – has infected our collective behaviour. We have seen how the highly educated can behave like an enraged mob on the street.

We have the example of the clash between two groups at the campus of the International Islamic University Islamabad on Thursday night. One student died and many were injured. We need not go into any details. For many, this would not be shocking or a big story.

This state of affairs has persisted for a long time. Our political idiom is replete with references to vengeful, brutal chastisement of opponents. ‘Phansi do’ is the easiest slogan. Readily, many examples of which leader had said what about which adversary would come to mind.

Unfortunately, Imran Khan, supposedly the leader of a new generation of youth that seeks a ‘Naya Pakistan’, has fostered this trend with a vengeance. Apparently, it is a well-considered policy of the party to divert the attention of the public to the corruption of certain leaders and parties and prescribe ‘exemplary’ punishments for them.

This simplistic belief that a selective and ruthless process of what they like to call accountability would be an ideal therapy for our society is potentially very dangerous. Take the example of one federal minister suggesting that if five thousand people were hanged, after they are dragged on the streets, things would be all right.

He was not reprimanded by the party leadership for such a statement and he remains a federal minister. Who knows, he may have gained some bonus points for his belligerence. As for his level of understanding the objective reality, he is the one who, not many months ago, had promised more jobs than there are applicants in a matter of weeks.

The point here is that our system, presided over by a powerful administration, is subverting the growth of rational and human ideas and behavior. Look at how consistently they suppress voices that are raised for progressive and liberal causes and for fundamental democratic freedoms. In this respect, restrictions imposed on the media constitute the foundation of whatever doctrine the rulers may have formulated.

Consider the irony of the registration of cases of sedition against the organisers and participants of a peaceful march of progressive students by those who have systematically nurtured extremism and orthodoxy. Now the rulers have to bear the cost of their own long-standing policies.

If economy is the key to the survival of the present arrangement, we had a reference to its linkage with religious extremism this week in The New York Times in an article by Atif Mian. This name should ring a bell, even an alarm to underline our vulnerability as a civilised and modern country.

Leaving that sad allusion aside, economist Atif Mian, has suggested a prescription on ‘How to Fix Pakistan’s Crashing Economy’. To change course, he argues, the country’s leaders must take on the moneyed elite and religious extremism.

What he tells us is simple and obvious. Of the two primary forces of the status quo he has identified, I am concerned here with religious extremism. He has written: “Decades of patronage by successive military and civilian governments for promoters of religious hate has created a culture of institutionalised intolerance. The result has been devastating for society”.

For sure, that institutionalised intolerance now guides the behavior of almost all segments in our society. It has also polluted the mind of our rulers. Does it mean that they are becoming incapable of thinking a way out of this condition?

The writer is a senior journalist.

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