Two news headlines flashed across the TV screen one after the other. The first one was about a blast in Afghanistan targeting Muslim scholars who had gathered to discuss peace efforts. The second news story was about the possible rise in fuel prices to be decided by the caretaker government. Interestingly, the fuel story felt worse than the blast in Afghanistan. Not because it is a country we do not live in or because fuel prices hit us directly rather than a blast in Afghanistan, which is a thing of routine. It felt worse because in Afghanistan, there is a hope that this would all be over one day. Just like the Brits and the Soviets left after being defeated in a humiliating way, the Americans would leave too. That hope never ceases to exist. In oil prices case, there is no such thing.
In Pakistan, the media might show a bunch of rickshaw and taxi drivers complain about the rising fuel prices followed by an obscene ad claiming to bring happiness in life by buying the product. The bad part is that only the poor in the country complain because they are hit the most. The rich continue to drive their gas-guzzling vehicles. What’s worse is that policymakers don’t make policies keeping those rickshaw and taxi drivers in mind, let alone care about them. And the worst part is that the rickshaw and taxi drivers and pretty much the rest of us have passively accepted the reality that the status quo wouldn’t change. It is so deeply internalised that the politicians will do bad things to us and we will stay quiet because that is how things are.
When a society is filled with people who have made peace with the status quo, which says that public servants will live in air-conditioned houses while the poor lot will continue to starve and die of heatstrokes, that people’s life and liberty are expendable while public servants should continue to revel in excesses, then democracy becomes a futile exercise at the ballot. When private citizens’ privacy is compromised while public servants’ activities are a top secret, it goes against the norms embedded in our language. There is a reason why citizens are called private citizens while elected officials are called public servants. When the hope that this bad situation would all be over one day is gone, then there is nothing really left. When people internalise the concept that their fate is beyond their control and is actually in the hands of a system and individuals whose efficiency is super limited but its corruption is not, and that there’s nothing they can do to change it because that’s how things are in the land of the pure. Then, honestly that feeling is the last nail in the coffin in bringing change in society.
A few years ago, I argued with a manager of a departmental store in Islamabad over their malfunctioning credit card machine. He asked me if I had come from abroad. For a brief moment I thought he was some kind of an undercover agent spying on me. But then he told me that in his work experience he had observed that it was always someone who had spent time abroad who always argued for their rights. He said, “No locals ever do that.” Perhaps if we told the people that fight for rights was like driving on Pakistani roads, they might start fiercely fighting for it. They will never accept being left behind and never yield to anyone.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2018.