Watching the news from Pakistan has become increasingly painful. All the more so this Eid when so many Pakistanis remain in distress. But this Eid the broadcasts on just about all news channels also had a vulgarity that made one cringe in distaste. On newscast after newscast, in news clip after news clip, there was a cartoonish parade of one ‘leader’ after the other giving ‘Eidee’ to and ‘spending Eid’ with flood victims. It was not just the artificiality of these clips — each of which seemed to be an exact copy of the other — that was nauseating, it was the realisation that neither the leaders nor the newsfolks who were covering it understood or cared for the effect that this “manufactured news” has on the flood victims or on the national morale. For one it was another political photo-op and for the other, just another way to fill airtime.
The script for these merchants of misery — politicians as well as media — was entirely predictable. Start with the most depressing picture of flood victims you can find. Show politician surrounded by a coterie of hangers-on, distributing boxes of goodies (often with their own pictures and political slogs printed on the boxes). Cut to reporter who informs you that the politician has fulfilled his ‘promise’ of spending Eid with flood victims but also that there was discontent in the camp immediately after the leader left. Cut to a victim claiming that he or she got nothing. Cut back to reporter who theatrically highlights grievances old and new, real and imagined, feeds and fuels more bitterness.
Both politician and reporter, it seems, leaves happy. The politician can claim that he is benevolent (you can be sure that they will tell the nation every detail in that evenings talk shows, and in some cases on their twitter feeds); the reporter can claim how they ‘exposed’ the truth (that the truth was manufactured for their convenience matters not). The vulgarity of the feudal mindset — barra sahib, the chaudhry, the wadera, the sardar, will help out of the “kindness of his heart” and then, for all times to come, you will owe him for that benevolence — is what this was about. “Here is your gift. Remember very clearly who the gift is from. Just read the bold print on the box!”
This is not a display of citizens getting the assistance from their state, their society, and their institutions. This is serfs being reminded of who they owe their allegiance to. And the media remains a willing accomplice — captives of their own narratives and forever chasing misery and grievance for a good story.
At the very point when the flood victim’s biggest loss is their loss of dignity — that is what homelessness and helplessness is really about — we choose to put their indignity on display in this most vulgar manner. Indeed, we add to that indignity by turning what were self-respecting citizens till a few weeks ago into images of groveling serfs and beggars. Yes, aid provisions can come from charitable motivations. But the provision of aid must never be at the cost of the dignity of those we are aiding. These are people who have lost everything already. Let us not rob them of their dignity too.
They are not beggars and they must not be made to feel like beggars. These are citizens. They were the pillars of your economy yesterday, and they will define your future tomorrow. In a society where entitlement is already a disease of the powerful, let us not make begging the affliction of the weak.
The story we need to be writing today is the story of institutions of state and society fulfilling their duty to the displaced. The story that the children of these flood victims need to tell to their own children tomorrow is a story told by citizens of how state and society rose up for them in their time of need. Instead we (leaders, media and individuals alike) are writing a story of vulgar benevolence and entrenched grievance. A story that will be told in the language of servitude, in the language of abandonment by state and society, in the language of beggars. No nation can survive that story.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2010.