Wednesday August 17, 2022

Not in a good place

December 05, 2021

When times are out of joint and a pall of gloom hangs over the entire landscape of your mind, very much like the smog in Lahore, it becomes hard to bear the sting of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. And so, this week, I grieve for the loss of Ziauddin, an old friend and the prominent journalist who was the conscience of his profession.

As a punishment for living a long life, this is what I have suffered repeatedly – saying farewell to someone with whom I had shared a treasure of memories. This has happened at a quicker pace in recent months and my feelings have certainly been affected by the death of three siblings in three weeks in June at the hands of this vile pandemic that, incidentally, is now reinforced with a new variant.

There is a reason I am invoking the overall national mood in the context of my thoughts about Ziauddin. He was one of those liberal intellectuals and analysts who could decipher the national drift and see what was coming. Not only that, he had the courage to speak truth to power, as independent journalists are proverbially required to do.

Now, there is surely a sense of deja vu in what happened in Sialkot on Friday. Yes, the fact that the victim this time was a foreigner, a Sri Lankan, would make it a global headline. At a time when our researchers are being advised to study the harmful effects of Western culture on our family structure, the world has to try to make some sense of why primitive, medieval passions are so easily ignited in this country.

How come something like this takes place repeatedly? Every time, of course, the high authorities readily come into action. A ‘notice’ is taken of the atrocity at the highest level and orders are issued for a report to be filed in, say, 24 or 48 hours. But no serious effort is made to explore the reasons for this insanity and review the ruling ideas that have shaped the collective mindset.

On the other hand, we have helplessly witnessed how the government surrenders to the purveyors of violent extremism. That is how an agreement was reached with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the details of which were kept from the public and even from members of the federal cabinet. The very thought that an outfit like the TLP, which had brazenly indulged in violence, is being mainstreamed in politics is terrifying.

There is another dimension to the gloom that I am talking about. It is the economy – and the ‘bloodbath’ that happened at the Karachi Stock Exchange on Thursday rang alarm bells. I noticed that economic experts were generally speaking in the idiom of the political observers, portraying a scenario of doom and gloom.

We have this surge in national distress, prompted particularly by the ignominy of Sialkot, but things are likely to get back to normal after some time. However severe the administration is with the fanatics who went berserk in Sialkot, the fundamental policies are not about to change.

This is what we have been through in the past. There are not one or two but numerous instances of how the enraged mobs have violated the writ of the state. We have suffered all kinds of tragedies and mind-boggling brutalities submissively, without responding to the questions they raised.

We have now stepped into December and in eleven days, we will observe concurrent anniversaries on the same date of two of the most painful events of our history. But we have lived through those tragedies to quietly return to what I would call business as usual – the normal state of how we function.

But what we see as normal is in fact abnormal. We live in a state of fear, surrounded by dark forces of intolerance and religious extremism. Add to this the vagaries of an oppressive state that has persistently suppressed the liberal voice and an open debate on crucial national issues.

It is in this environment that our journalists and our social activists strive to enforce values of truth and justice. Ziauddin pursued his mission with integrity, professional excellence and the courage of his convictions. We were friends since the last days of Bhutto and the advent of Zia’s martial law, when he was based in Karachi. But we remained constantly in touch, meeting occasionally.

Ziauddin breathed his last on Monday morning, at the outset of this week. Since then, there has been a steady flow of epitaphic appreciation of his stature in Pakistan’s journalism in the print, broadcast and social media. There is a touch of feeling in how he is being mourned. As his friend and colleague in the many battles that have been fought for freedom and for upholding the ethical and professional standards of journalism, I find it reassuring that Ziauddin has been, so to say, in the news.

Fortunately, Kamal Siddiqi, with Mahim Maher, had recently done a biographical sketch of Ziauddin, “a life in journalism”, and had released it on social media. It is an excellent document that summarises Ziauddin’s life and career in a graphic manner.

Let me quote its ‘intro’: “In this age of ‘fake’ news, unverified reporting and slippery ethics, it is worth examining the career of Muhammad Ziauddin, one of Pakistan’s most respected names in journalism”. This undertaking of examining an exceptional career in our journalism has acquired an urgency with the demise of Ziauddin. Kamal Siddiqi, himself a distinguished journalist of the succeeding generation, has facilitated this assignment and I detected its reflections in a number of obituaries.

Finally, what is happening around us has deepened our grief for the loss of the leading light of Pakistan’s journalism. There are stories about him that we may share with common friends. I can vouch for his ability to judiciously interpret the existing political situation, with his expertise in economic affairs. Usually, we tended to agree that we were not in a good place – and not going anywhere.

The writer is a senior journalist.