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January 15, 2021

Islands of pain

Opinion

January 15, 2021

Although we have dozens of television channels and podcasts available over social media, which provide all kinds of news and news headlines, an astonishing number of people remain unaware of the reality of their country.

Even an extremely brief and sporadic survey carried out last Friday, as the Hazaras continued to sit for the sixth day in Quetta with the coffins of the young men who had been killed at Mach, indicated that many people know very little about the Hazara community or even that the killings had taken place or for what reason all this had occurred.

This is not really an anomaly. In the event of other tragedies, the same has happened. People simply remain oblivious to the events taking place around them, except of course for the small coterie of activists, sometimes linked to political parties or to human rights groups, who collected at various places in Lahore, Karachi, on GT Road, in Islamabad, in Multan, and elsewhere. These people, of course, knew. Some who passed them complained that they were blocking traffic but asked no questions about their purpose or motive. Unlike the prime minister, the protesters appear to understand at least some of the pain of the Hazaras. But they made up only a small minority during the days following the massacre.

This is obviously extremely sad. It shows a nation in which people have been isolated from each other in many ways, and unable to comprehend the reality of the lives that others live. While communities may be aware of their own problems, they neither know nor care much for the difficulties of others. Some of this is inherent no doubt in the kind of education children and students receive at schools, colleges and universities. It may also be inherent in an increasingly localised media which focuses on a single city or at best a single province rather than the country as a whole. It would be difficult, for example, to find people who are aware of who the Kalash of Chitral are or why they face a special kind of hardship, a special burden.

There are islands of pain everywhere. Some of the islands, like a Venn diagram, interlock. At the present moment, almost everyone in the country feels the suffering inflicted by the inflation in the prices of vital food items and utility bills. They know that they can never meet household budgets and some simply survive on far too little food to sustain themselves or their children. This for them is a fact of life. They feel there is no solution.

But more specific areas of difficulty, the kind of suffering, the kind of misogyny women suffer as they go about their daily life is not understood by men, or even by other women who may spend most of their lives within their homes, or else choose to ignore the misery that so many women put up with. Many simply scoff when women ask for basic rights and talk about the almost constant harassment they face in one way or the other when they venture out into the streets in larger cities.

No one who is not a woman can understand the kind of suffering or feeling of discomfort that can be caused by the manner in which men look at women, talk about them, or comment on what they are wearing. Some insist this is their right. They argue women should cloud themselves behind 'burqas'. Of course, this makes no difference at all, as surveys have shown, with women who are veiled facing almost as much harassment as those who are not.

There are other islands of all kinds of suffering spread across the country, living in tiny groups, and unable to really interact with each other because of the kind of society we have created. The media does not help by bringing stories across territories and uniting people; instead, it continues to remain narrow-visioned. The situation of the fisherfolk who have lost their livelihoods due to the pollution of lakes, rivers and the sea is not understood by many. It is not understood, in fact, by anyone except the fisherfolk themselves. Their attempts to tell their tale have been ignored again and again. There are many other communities that could say the same.

Somehow these islands of suffering need to be linked together. The jigsaw puzzles need to be fitted into place so that we can create a wider picture of the country that we live in, the country we have become, and the plight of people living within it. There are those who claim they have no idea that Hindus even live in Pakistan. There are others who have very little knowledge of other minority communities who form a part of the country or those who live lives that are less conventional than the majority. These people have little to no idea of the persecution faced by minority communities in the country, like Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis – or even ethnic minorities who remain marginalised.

These include the Kihal, riverine people, who live off the Indus River and other rivers and follow their own set of rules and regulations. They have been virtually eliminated over the years, as more and more of the land they occupy has been taken away from them. A sharing in suffering brings nations together. It should indeed bring the world together as well. Only when we all learn to understand and accept each other better can we build a different kind of future for our children, and the generations that are still to come.

The indifference to the ‘other’ is extremely obvious. It influences the way we think and the way we interact. In many ways, those who belong to one group think of the other as inferior or attempt to find faults of one kind or the other, in their way of thinking or in their actions. This, of course, is partially a result of the loss of tolerance we have suffered. The persecution faced by the Ahmadis is a good example.

We need to bring people together. We need to build bridges which can unite the islands. Only then will we become one nation. It is shocking to see how few know what is happening elsewhere in the country. And this is a massive flaw which cannot be allowed to continue forever. The need for unity and cohesion is immense. So far, building it has alluded us.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

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