Smog and confusion

We always talk about tolerance but we must also talk about intolerance

Sarwar Bari February 24, 2018
The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation and is chairperson of FAFEN. He can be reached at

Thick smog takes away our visibility; and a profound confusion blinds our mental faculty to differentiate between wrong and right. Pakistan is facing both. While the rate of accidents go up due to fog and vultures snatch away belongings of the dead, the corrupt and influential elite take full advantage of the confusion that is being created. Like smog, confusion too is an outcome of evil actions and hurts almost everyone. The current widespread uncertainty in the country is the manifestation of an overwhelming confusion. Note: rumour-mongering and fake news are the best tools.

For instance, when Dr Shahid Masood ‘revealed’ that Zainab’s killer has dozens of bank accounts and a federal minister was behind him, almost all TV channels spread the news without fact-checking. Also most people, including the informed ones, could be found believing in rumours about CPEC such as “Chinese are taking over the country. They will be the worst imperialist, etc.”

Everyone also seems to believe that the general election will not take place on time and a technocrat government will be formed for an indefinite period. Though the prime minister said in Davos — “democracy is flourishing in the country and the election will take place on time.” His own party leader has been saying completely the opposite and repeatedly. No wonder, then, people are confused. Its best manifestation is to having multiple opinions on an issue. Hence, for them separating the right from the wrong or vice versa has become almost impossible.

Recently, I had an opportunity to moderate a meeting of 50-plus leaders of civil society organisations (CSO). I asked each one to enlist at least one positive and one negative development in the country.

First, the positives. About 20 of them seemed to believe that democracy structures were deepening their roots in the country — in their own words. “Civilian governments have completed their tenures; democracy is thriving and sustaining; earlier generals would overthrow elected governments, now they can’t; everyone thinks that the vote can bring political change.”

Ten people appreciated the on-going accountability process of the powerful and corrupt people. They observed that the “accountability mechanism and processes have strengthened; transparency is taking roots, and accountability of the super-rich will impact the election outcome, too.” Some argued that accountability of the rich was the result of an independent judiciary, a competitive media, enactment of right to information laws, mushrooming of social media and a vibrant civil society and CSOs’ networks. Others mentioned youth activism and questioning of every powerful as signs of democratic development.

A female participant said though radicalisation was spreading, diversity has also become a norm — holding of fashion shows and dharnas by extremists was taking place simultaneously.

Still, I am reluctant to draw any conclusions without stating the negative points. “Democracy, as we know, is as fragile as an infant and political parties are largely responsible for this. Democracy is also in serious danger, as it is not delivering. The dictatorial tendencies are still strong. Political leaders deny their workers internal democracy.” Someone pointed out that the political change in Balochistan was an outcome of political engineering. Many said corruption was widespread and accountability of the rich and powerful has not been done, the media channels are partisan and tend to sensationalise issues in order to increase their ratings.

Many participants criticised the government for causing harm to NGOs whose work is helping the government to achieve its development goals, while claiming that extremists have been paid tens of millions of rupees for committing crimes and undermining the writ of the government. Some said most policy reforms and piece of legislation remained on paper. For instance, pro-women laws and mechanisms did not improve the situation of women in the country. Violence against girls/women and extrajudicial killings were on the rise. Others mentioned failure of the RTI mechanism to making governance more transparent and accountable.

Many participants angrily mentioned failure of the government to reduce poverty, inequality and unemployment. Some said provincial governments have failed to implement minimum wage rates and labour laws. Some also talked about exploitation of farm labourers by large landlords and small farmers by owners of sugar mills. Some argued this was happening due to enforcement of neo-liberal policies and rule of the 1% super-rich. Others warned about a severe impact of rising foreign and internal debt on the poor.

A female participant from Sindh said that her province lacked all kinds of facilities, political interference was rampant in the state affairs and because of that merit and rule of law suffer terribly. A female participant from K-P talked about the humanitarian crisis due to displacement. A participant said the military establishment and the government were not on one page. Minority communities are treated shabbily.

Some participants also raised the denial of equal status to G-B and Fata and rights to its people, appeasement policy towards religious bigots, including gaddi nasheens, both by the establishment and so-called liberal parties.

Attitudinal issues also surfaced during the discussion. A female participant said mistrust and egotistic attitude was widespread and people didn’t like to work together. Lack of conviction in values and principles, and reluctance of civil society actors in asserting their agency was also debated.

It was an amazing learning experience. They together sketched a sociopolitical picture of the country that was hazy. Hence, appears to be difficult to generalise. A person is either sick or healthy. He can’t be both, even if he is recovering. In other words, he is in a transitory phase and leading towards full recovery.

Recall the positive and negative statements. Many participants who had said during the ‘positive round’ that democracy was flourishing in the country, they said democracy was still fragile, not delivering, hence under serious threat during the ‘negative round’. Similarly on media, judiciary, governance and accountability, their positions altered. They can’t be blamed. We, the workers of CSOs, are basically implementers and community mobilisers, not scholars. Therefore, we tend to see our environs as they appear. We don’t go beyond the happening of things. Perhaps our sector lacks philosophy. We are not alone; except those who are intentionally spreading confusion every one of us has lost the ability to separate fiction from fact. It is not healthy at all and must end.

So what is Pakistan? Is the country going through a transitory phase, if yes, towards which direction? Will democratic development accelerate? Will good governance and rule of law flourish? Will the powerful and corrupt fear of the judiciary, public rage and media? Or the country is trapped in a transitory quagmire? In my humble opinion, the country seems to be coming out of the swamp. And in order to consolidate that the intelligentsia must help end the prevailing confusion, set the direction and join hands with one another and be part of social movements. The workers of CSOs must come out of the project rut; use their mobilisation and advocacy skills in order to isolate the ‘drivers of confusion’. We always talk about tolerance but we must also talk about intolerance — zero tolerance against the powerful, corrupt and those who violate our rights.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2018.

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