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September 12, 2014

The timeless fatalism of the Subcontinent

Opinion

September 12, 2014

Islamabad diary
Real leaders, as opposed to the tinsel variety, don’t go for photo ops – where sympathy is faked and sentiment is manufactured. They see to it that things happen, which after all is their real job instead of grandstanding for the cameras.
They set things in motion, use their boots to kick backsides…they storm and they rage and catch errant or sleeping officials by the scruffs of their necks. They don’t pose Mussolini-like, arms on hips, in knee-deep water…for the benefit of the cameras. They ask themselves what preparations were made for a calamity that visits the lands we inhabit every year.
To stop the Mongols Chinese emperors built the Great Wall. Mongol incursions were to the Chinese of those days what floods are to us. In Japan planning for earthquakes is a national priority…because earthquakes are to them what floods are to us. But we don’t plan for floods. Our approach is piecemeal and ad hoc, and full of hypocrisy. A calamity occurs and fake sentiment takes over, rulers putting on masks of anguish and officialdom, trained by tradition in such hypocrisy, putting up a false show for them, medicine stalls and the like abandoned and looking forlorn the moment the VIP, shedding crocodile tears, departs.
Some things never change. Our routines on such occasions are the same, repeated year after year. When the waters recede and the TV cameras are on to something else, it is back to business as usual, the floods forgotten and not to be heard of until their arrival, as sure as the wind and the rain, the following year.
In the planning halls what then will be the priorities? It will be back to some metro-bus service, some flyover or underpass, anything that glitters and can be cited as evidence of development or an example of ‘good governance’ – a phrase which by now makes me reach for my stick.
Such attitudes were not born yesterday. They have been honed over the centuries and are an ingrained part of our

culture. Rulers behave in a certain fashion and the masses respond not with anger or rebellion, as might be expected in a slightly different climate, but with a profound sense of fatalism – what will be will be. What has happened was bound to happen, written in the stars. The will of God: that explains everything.
This mood or rather this attitude is best captured by our mystic poets. When Shah Hussain sings, “Maye nee mein kenoon akhaan dard wichoray da haal neen”…he is crying not only about the pain of separation or the loss of the beloved – this would be too narrow an interpretation of this immortal verse. He is crying of the pain and affliction of the down and out, the wayfarer and the straggler left behind by the march of time. Of a general, historical, timeless condition he is speaking. And if the voice is Hamid Ali Bela’s or Pathanay Khan’s – no, Hamid Ali Bela in this particular song comes closest to transcribing its pain – then no rural audience in Sindh and Punjab can remain unmoved, for the audience identifies with the words.
Why do rulers even bother about their fake flood routines? It would be far better to just play Shah Hussain in Bela’s voice on Radio Pakistan.
With Russian help Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser tamed the waters of the River Nile. Without the Nile Egypt would be a dead country. Without the Indus and the two rivers that remain to us, the Jhelum and the Chenab, what would become of our land? Field Marshal Ayub Khan did not sell off the Ravi and the Sutlej. Under the prevailing circumstances – circumstances that remain valid even today – the Indus Basin Waters Treaty was the best arrangement for sharing the waters of the five rivers. And despite so much else happening between India and Pakistan this treaty has held over the years.
The Pakistani mind should wake up to some basic facts. India is not stealing our waters. India is not trying to destroy us, or wreck our agriculture, through manipulating the Jhelum and the Chenab. It is only managing its share of the waters far better than us. Why aren’t we building the dams that India is building on these rivers?
Under the terms of the Indus treaty we could have pre-empted much of what India is doing, or has already done. But we were into other things, like liberating Kashmir by force and establishing influence in Afghanistan. On the question of the waters India stole a march on us…and the situation now, with the building of more dams on the other side, is working to our disadvantage.
More than Indian conspiracy, our neglect is responsible for this state of affairs. Will anyone accept this, assume responsibility and plan for the future? Perish the thought. The flavour of the season is Chinese investment or Chinese loans for private coal-fired plants…plants that China itself is offloading, or reducing dependence on, because pollution now is a serious thing over there. We don’t know the details, and the government will never fully inform us because governments consider it best to operate in the dark.
How can we get the bigger picture right when small things are seemingly beyond our capacity? Take the plastic shopping bag, now a bigger danger to our future wellbeing than Islamic radicalism. Go to any village, any water channel, any municipal dump and pride of place will be taken by this pestilence. Nothing that RAW can do to Pakistan equals the havoc being wrought by this idea of the devil. But we remain unmoved or sublimely indifferent. How do we plan for things slightly bigger like the annual inundation caused by our overflowing rivers?
Every economist who inflicts his views on a country largely ignorant of economics is at pains to emphasise the necessity of export-led growth. We should ask these worthies what precisely we should be exporting. Textiles once were our staple export. In that field even Bangladesh has beaten us, producing better quality finished textile goods than our Chinioti Sheikhs and Faisalabad geniuses put together.
Jihad for some time had become our leading export, far outstripping textiles. But the market for that has shrunk. Or it has been overtaken by other entrepreneurs, such as the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
What dragon’s teeth have not our American friends sown? Their invasion of Iraq, likely to rank as one of the great blunders of recent history, is directly responsible for the mess we now see in the region. And now they are agonising over the fires they themselves helped ignite. American malevolence is easily understood and guarded against. American good intentions constitute the shortest road to hell.
But I digress. We don’t seem to have a sense of direction. Beyond clichés and platitudes, what do we want to do this with this country? How do we set our priorities? On what goals should the limited sum of our resources and energies be concentrated? A national consensus on this does not exist. Nor is there a leadership that can rise to the challenge.
No wonder, people go to the tombs of long-dead saints and figures of mythology to ease their pain and seek comfort and solace. It seems a good idea too. Far better to choose the dead, who even if they do no good can do no harm, over humbugs who can only add salt to your wounds or insult what remains of your intelligence.
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