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Losing the plot
Publication Date : 21-01-2013
The term punch-drunk, used particularly with reference to boxing, refers to the confusion and bewilderment, sometimes brain damage, suffered by a person as a consequence of repeated blows to the head.
I found myself thinking of this last week, as I took stock of the range of opinion and analyses offered by various quarters with reference to the events — or perhaps, fortunately, the lack thereof — unfolding in Islamabad’s Blue Area.
From conspiracy theories to wit, from the banal to the patently ridiculous to the potentially sublime, we did the whole round.
And as I analysed these reactions, including my own, it occurred to me that perhaps Pakistanis have suffered so much — been through so many contortions and convolutions and twists and turns of destiny — that we are left, like the dazedly swaying boxer, punch-drunk.
This has left many, if not most, of us unclear about hitherto firm lines and boundaries, unable to think things through properly or decide where we stand.
Consider, for example, my own and many others’ reaction to the fact that while tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated their disillusionment with the way governance is administered, the city remained shut down for all practical purposes for several days.
Schools, colleges, many workplaces, shops and businesses — the doors of all remained shut as life, as Islamabad knew it, ground to a halt. Irate residents did not hesitate to vent their feelings. Is it fair, many of them complained, that the city should be held hostage in this manner at the whim of one man? Initially, I agreed. The city where I live, Karachi, is far more familiar with this scenario than the leafy capital. Total shutdowns as a result of strikes or protests are routine.
Newspapers, particularly those sensitive to business interests, have cause fairly frequently to editorialise upon or simply bemoan the losses caused by such cessation of commercial and trade activities, to say nothing of the disruption caused in the lives of the citizenry — the unexpected closure of educational institutions and workplaces, the sudden unavailability of public transport and so on.
All this damage is often inflicted at the behest of a major political party that, one would have thought, would have the city’s best interests at heart. What right does it have, many ask, to bring about such shutdowns?
But count to 10 and ponder these situations for a minute — step back from the sheer irritation and frustration of not being able to buy that medicine or bank that cheque or be able to sit the exam you’d been preparing for — and the truth becomes clear.
The two sorts of shutdowns described here are not the same. Referring to Islamabad, do people or political parties have the right to protest? Of course they do. Do people or political parties have the right to take to the streets when they are sufficiently angry or saddened about something and will not have the government ignore them again? Of course they do.
Across the world, in all countries that uphold citizens’ and human rights, people have the right to congregate on or take to the streets to press for change. The massive protests a decade ago against the American invasion in Iraq that brought cities around the world to a halt is one example.
(As an aside, after the largest series of demonstrations in February, 2003, a New York Times writer famously said that there were now two superpowers on the planet, the US and public opinion. We know how those anti-war protests swayed governments so … well, so much for that.)
So why might perfectly reasonable Pakistanis who otherwise uphold citizens’ rights feel resentful of the protesters? Particularly when, in terms of last week’s sit-in in Islamabad (leaving aside for the moment the suspicions of political machinations that surround the rise of Dr Qadri), the grievances being talked about touched a generally raw nerve?
The answer is obvious; it just became obfuscated by emotion. People have the right to protest, as long as they do it peacefully. Around the world, citizenries come together to demonstrate and the administration listens — unless there’s violence or the imminent danger of violence.
In Pakistan, by contrast, a protest on any large scale almost inevitably involves violence. Referring to Karachi in particular, this is the reality. And that is why many of us, punch-drunk, can no longer see the picture clearly. Beset by horror from all sides, we’re losing the plot.
Unconsciously or consciously, we remain aware all the time of the imminent possibility of violence, occasionally on a small scale — a bus torched, a couple of shops forced shut — but too often on a mind-numbingly severe scale.
Watching television footage of the mass of humanity at the foot of the Saudi Pak Tower last week, if images of the vicinity’s fate during the ‘protests’ against the mischief-making film were at the front of my mind, much more must they have been in the thoughts of the residents of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
In a similar demonstration of the obfuscation of what ought to be perfectly obvious, I’ve heard the argument often over recent years that if people have the right to choose the political forces and parties of their choice — whosoever that may be — then why does this spirit of accommodation not extend to the quarters from where the demand of a Sharia system is being raised? (Yup, such diatribes usually involve someone being called a liberal fascist.)
These people, otherwise generally perfectly reasonable, are again missing the crucial, central point: choice, which in terms of governance means a vote. The bulk of the quarters that are using the Sharia smokescreen to mask their ugly bid for power clearly do not subscribe to electoral politics.
They subscribe to the tactics of criminality and coercion: guns, bombs, suicide bombings, decapitations, outrage compounded by outrage — the more blood spilled, the better.
Meanwhile, electorally, the religious right has never done well, though not for want of trying.
Pakistan already has lots of point in the “need of the hour” conversations, so I might as well add to the list. Amongst them is the need to keep heads clear and cool.
The writer is a member of staff.