If there is one defining characteristic of us as a people, at least what prime time television would have us believe, it is our “ghairat”, our sense of honour; one may go so far as saying “superiority”. The intended and unintended consequences of this are that we are “outraged” when “sovereignty” is breached, when outsiders offer help and tell us what to do. We hate strings, and it seems that we are not particularly fond of dollars. However, recently we have discovered that our aversion does not extend to all foreign currency, say for example riyals. Finance Minister Mr Ishaq Dar has tried his hand at dark comedy by trying to keep the identity of the mystery donor of $1.5 billion a secret. Well, not for long — it is our Saudi brethren who feel our pain again. Our “ghairat” in international affairs is as myopic as it is in our social domestic affairs. At home, the only time “ghairat” makes an appearance is when it involves the subjugation of women in some manner, and in foreign policy, when it involves, what is vaguely termed the “West”.
Let us jog our memories a bit and recall the Kerry-Lugar aid bill, and the affront that was caused to our national pride. We had questions and wanted answers. The media was on overdrive, the ISPR aghast, the patriots preferred starvation to largesse from the infidels, particularly largesse which had preconditions. That was then. All is quiet along all fronts now. No talk of imperialism, certainly none of being a client-state; what is $1.5 billion between brothers. It is futile to have an equivalence of the two aids. However, there is one governing principle: transparency. Why did our Saudi benefactors decide to open their deep coffers for us? No, the gift and ‘personal’ guarantee explanation is not meant to be taken seriously.
Imperialism is a real question of our times, and so is unconditional obedience to the United States. Yet, we also know the Saudis to ask for services in return for their money. There is a global sectarian conflict going on. More significantly, we have reached the proverbial crossroads for the nth time, and the decision of Pakistan’s soul vis-a-vis the TTP will have to be made sooner rather than later. We have gotten the Imperialism question wrong almost from the beginning, and it went hideously south in 1979 and continued on this trajectory.
Problem: Punjab does not care about any of this. Not the poor people of Punjab, who are on most occasions as powerless in relation to the state as their compatriots from other provinces. It is that the federal government and perhaps the state that have an ethnicity and it is Punjabi (northern and central Punjab). And they just do not care. The argument in Punjab is about metro buses, flyovers, world records of 1,600 people fitting in yellow cabs, etc. The cost of keeping Punjab safe is “negotiation”. The price of the metro bus running is to turn a blind eye when the sectarian outfits have headquarters here, up to the point that they do not act within the territorial limits of the Al-Bunjab. Our “estranged” brothers know this all too well now. Their objectives, ideological and physical, are tolerable as long as they do not cross the lines. And if and when they do, “consensus” might not remain this big a problem. Of course, there are breaches here and there, however, nothing that a slap on the wrist and a word of caution will not solve. As you might have noticed, even tomcats, when they step out of bounds and eat beloved peacocks, are dealt with iron hands: although whereas we might be peacocks, the adversaries are no tomcats. As someone whose primary and proud identity is Punjabi, one is unnerved to see an inordinate number of palm trees and Al-Bakistan license plates in my city, Lahore.
All of this sounds very, very callous and far be it for one to impute a conscious strategy on the part of the federal government in these terms. Yet, the fact remains that Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif now knows that winning Punjab (completely) brings him Pakistan, and more significantly, the Premiership. This is the sort of a thing, which once learnt is extremely hard to unlearn. Punjab has been built up as the representative of the State (goodbye Federation?). Hence, the custodian of the national “ghairat”, unity, patriotism and other fun stuff. So, the Baloch marchers walk alone in Punjab. The missing person protest camps remain deserted. So, the proposal of handing over Fata to the TTP is not really that appalling. Hence, Punjab recently and momentarily discovered that there is abject poverty in Thar: Thar which is in Sindh, a deep, dark feudal serfdom.
Bigger problem: The war will come to Punjab. The flyovers are a two-way street and the day that our angry brethren decide to go rogue, the horror scenario is a thoroughly unprepared Punjab. Not necessarily or only in terms of physical capacity but more importantly, in the war of narrative. Xenophobia has more traction in Punjab since the state roots itself here, and hence, it is the “us” and in the “us versus them” games. The story of the TTP being patriots has currency since distance gives the luxury of contemplation and reaching the conclusion, which are most palatable.
The really disturbing bit is that it is not only the officialdom of Punjab now that laps up the Saudi religious narrative, and the arrogant posturing in relation to the rest of the Federation; it was bound to seep into society. Urban Sindh (basically really Karachi) and Punjab is what the audience for the prime time television is, and the free press has decided to feed selective apologia and xenophobia. The demand will inevitably grow since nothing else is on offer.
To end on a note of caution is this excerpt from Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B:
“If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2014.