It was a long time ago when at a seminar organised by some society at Punjab University in Lahore, a clearly pessimistic speaker painted a bleak picture of Pakistan and concluded with the warning that if the situation doesn’t change, it will lead to the worst possible consequences and Pakistan will break up.
After him came a wise old professor. He said that he completely agreed with everything his friend had said except for a minor detail. The worst possible consequences for Pakistan, he said, will not be its break up but that it continues being what it is.
It must be 20 years since that seminar and I must have narrated this to hundreds of people since then. In between, so much has happened. Change of governments, military rule, the war on terror, the great Asian earthquake, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, suicide bombings, a civil society movement and now, the floods. But Pakistan, in the words of our professor, has stubbornly continued being what it is, what it always has been.
Not that there haven’t been opportunities for it to change. Forget the political opportunities that were never even recognised before being lost forever to the cussedness of our ruling civil and military elites. There have been several real opportunities.
I remember being huddled around a kerosene lamp in a military camp in Neelum Valley with a group of NGO workers two weeks after the 2005 earthquake. The brigadier in charge of the camp could see how distressed some of the NGO workers were and tried to pep them up.
“Don’t let this situation pull you down,” he said in that typical military motivational style. “Remember, in every disaster, there is an opportunity. The whole world is helping. With all this money coming in, we can rebuild Muzaffarabad and ensure that it is a properly planned city that can become Pakistan’s leading host city for tourists, we can give all of Kashmir a proper infrastructure in terms of roads, communications and hotels that will open up its beautiful Himalayan valleys to tourists from across the world.”
It has been five years since that earthquake. Have you been to Muzaffarabad lately? If not, don’t bother. Nothing has changed.
The floods, too, have brought their own set of vows. Pakistan will rise again, says the president. We will overcome, cries the prime minister. But in the backdrop, there are other voices with disturbingly more real, more believable content.
There is the lingering echo of a mob as it publicly lynches two brothers and then celebrates the event. There is this voice amplified by dozens of megaphones, of a leader who hasn’t set foot in Pakistan for 18 years, calling for martial law. There is a set of frustrated brothers in the Punjab warning the federal government that it should not aim to help the flood victims directly and should instead route its assistance through the Punjab government.
It gives me little comfort to see Newsweek calling us the bravest nation on the planet. This flood has been a viciously discriminating monster. It has hit the poorest of the poor. And the poorest are always the bravest, no matter where you go in the world. They have no choice.
I worry about the ones who do have a choice. The ones in the mob, the ones on the megaphones, the ones who would rather have their voters dead than helped by a government belonging to their rival political party; they are the ones that scare me because they refuse to choose. They refuse to step outside their comfort zones, their instincts bred on long years of self serving pursuits and honed by an exhausting mistrust for everything around them.
Unfortunately for us, our fate is determined by them and not by the ones who make us the bravest nation on the planet.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2010.
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