As the sand continues to slip

January 18, 2015

Freedom, liberty and children’s dreams… there is no guarantee in Pakistan

As the sand continues to slip

We know now what we never realised before -- maybe because it has never been this personal. The loss of liberty and freedom occurs in a fleeting way. It is similar to sand slipping through your fingers; you see and know that it is happening and yet you cannot do anything to stop it.

As I sat in the Lahore High Court on Thursday, a young lawyer argued a ‘public interest’ petition focusing on safety and security of children going to school across the Punjab. The Honorable Court had, of course, a difficult job in the circumstances: it is not an expert on security matters but, and this is of no small value, it is the principal forum of dialogue between the state and its citizens. So, it had to act to get answers to some pressing questions.

The Home Secretary, the city’s top cop, among others, appeared before the Honorable Court and argued that schools should remain open. There was talk of ‘SOPs’ and ‘priorities’, of earnest efforts, of ‘sending the right message’ and yet a certain helplessness permeated every answer -- there are no guarantees.

This is not the Pakistan that I grew up in but it is one that I must live in. And I, like you, have seen it getting worse every year as far as personal security is concerned. All around us we see parents of school going children spending sleepless nights. No one should become a hero by virtue of sending children to school but millions did. That is life in Pakistan now: going about your life normally, even the most mundane things, makes you a hero.

And yet there have always been different Pakistans.

As I have written before, children have been deliberately attacked and killed before -- but they were lesser Pakistanis. Then there have been constant bombings of schools in KPK but most of Pakistan (particularly Punjab) saw it as terrorism too remote to take seriously. When Malala was shot, even her being a child and being asked for by name by the shooter could not keep away the conspiracy theorists. She was dubbed an agent of the CIA, a puppet controlled by ‘the West’ (a term as reductionist as ‘the Muslim world’). The fact that she had a bullet lodged in her head was a secondary issue. When ANP workers were killed by the hundreds in KPK, the blame was laid on the then provincial and Federal government’s policy -- the PTI painted the TTP as victims of an unthinking war; people reacting to violence through violence.

No one should become a hero by virtue of sending children to school but millions did. That is life in Pakistan now.

And yet all of this was eating away at Pakistan’s concept of freedom and liberty. When we concede the argument that people aggrieved of actions they deem unjust have the right to kill in cold blood, we cede significant areas of personal and collective freedom. We became the guarantors of the very thing that we are now trying to protect our children from: cold-blooded violence. We continued to underwrite violence.

Then Peshawar happened. Malcolm Gladwell would term it a ‘tipping point’; there can be no objectively clear explanation for what caused the subsequent reaction, but the talk of ‘enough is enough’ started doing the rounds.

And then it began sinking in slowly -- there are no guarantees.

We saw the salvos being fired about taking the terrorists to task, of zero tolerance, of sparing no one. But when Pakistan sat down after huffing and puffing with nationalistic rage, it realised that there are no guarantees.

Now there is a National Action Plan. There is the talk that we are all in this together, that we will not rest till this or that happens. And yet no one, not one of us, deserves an existence as uncertain as the one we currently have. You cannot raise children on the promise of fighting for a country when for decades that country has done most things within its capacity to destroy the world inhabited by those children.

Maybe it is too late. Maybe we are too weak. And this did not happen overnight. It was happening for years -- all those years when our security establishment, mainstream thought leaders, opinion makers, politicians, journalists tried to explain away murderous violence in the name of religion. The sand continued to slip. And when we opened our palms we realised that our hands have not just remnants of sand but the blood of thousands of fellow Pakistanis.

This is a ‘Naya Pakistan’ -- the irony of this fact should not be lost on those of my generation. The Pakistan that we grew up in allowed you to have memories free of the fear of violence. Not always but often. It allowed you to think of places and loved ones without being paralysed by fear. Not anymore. And maybe it was a bubble but even that bubble was precious. It was worth fighting for. Not just for ourselves but for those who will never know such security, i.e. our children.

We grew up in a Pakistan where our cricket stadiums roared with passion, where trips to darbars, cinemas and other public places meant uninhibited excitement and not an exercise in survival. That Pakistan is gone now. And it is not coming back -- not during my lifetime at least.

I am not saying that we will lose to the terrorists. We should win -- and I say this from an objective standpoint. There will be blood, gore, casualties of people, limbs and ideals but we should win. Most organised states do. But winning a war is not the point. It never is if your focus is your children and the lives they deserve to build.

The loss of freedom, liberty and the loss of dreams our children could have had is the point.

For a parent there can be nothing sadder than burying the dreams that their children never had, yet could have had.

Let us lay out the coffins, sprinkle them with rose petals and let us support each other as we walk forward: the funeral of the dreams of our children, and the lives that we have known, the lives that our children deserved to know beckons us.

We must all participate. It is, after all, a ‘national’ cause.

As the sand continues to slip