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A matter of perception

October 28, 2013

MILITARY history and tactics’ enthusiasts often refer to battle as the theatre of war, but sometimes this can cut too close to the bone.

Last weekend, a cast of thousands came together at Leipzig to re-enact a battle that rates as amongst the more significant in Europe’s history, the Battle of the Nations, or the Battle of Leipzig.

Amongst the bloodiest fights in German history, this occurred in 1813 when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by joint forces from Russia, Austria and Prussia, and is considered by many as the starting point of the domino cascade that resulted in the reorganisation of Europe.

History is an odd thing; some people or civilisations seem to have more of it, others less. One reason for this impression can be found in considering how alien, how remote certain facets of history feel to the descendants of those that actually witnessed the events.

Europe’s last major war is just about within living memory. The carnage that took place at the Battle of Leipzig, a mere 200 years ago, feels distant enough to people to be turned into a game of sorts, with costumes and gunfire and small children waving flags.

It is a live re-enactment of a moment that shaped the way their lives are lived today, but one that belongs to a faraway past that is another landscape altogether. War, for the young and even the middle-aged of Europe now, is a distant memory.

Not so in our little nook of the world, unfortunately. Looking back over the past 150-odd years, and even more, the people who occupy what now constitutes Pakistan cannot say that any amongst their generations were alien to war, that it feels in any way remote.

And today, if Pakistanis want their children to have a glimpse of what war looks like, sadly, all they have to do is point out the window.

One of the aspects I found quite remarkable about the re-enactment in Germany was the reaction of some of the spectators, who became very agitated by the smoke and noise, distressed at the looming suggestion of death. Several ended up having to see medical staff.

How far is that from the realities of Pakistan, where everyday life is so distressing that in the interests of staying sane, those who have the luxury of doing so have had to develop around themselves a carapace of unfeelingness and self-interest that keeps reality at bay and allows them to function in an approximation of normality?

Indeed, everywhere one looks, the disjunctions of Pakistan with even comparable parts of the world become glaringly apparent.

Last week, I mentioned in this space that in this country, education for all is still a contestable matter. Well, so it is in India, too.

Regardless of the picture that our neighbour projects to the world, for millions in India (as in Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries around the world) reality is still a matter of grinding poverty, life under conditions that resemble slavery, ignorance and discrimination.

And yet, on Nov 5, India hopes to launch its $73 million Mars Orbiter Mission, the main political goal of which, according to several observers, is simply to prove that it can.

Mars has been called the Mount Everest of the solar system, and more than half of all the missions to it have failed. The US, Russia and Europe constitute an exclusive club that has conquered our planetary neighbour.

The challenge lies, of course, in not just sending a probe up successfully but also making sure that the electronics and hardware continue to function reliably in Mars’ radiation and temperature conditions.

(India’s lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, was launched in 2008 and sent down some data but died over a year before its expected lifespan because its electronics failed under the heat radiation.)

Still, India is taking a shot at Mars, now.

The disparities between Pakistan and the developed countries are so stark that they don’t merit taking up here. This is why I use the example of India, since that is a country that is comparable in many living-standard indicators and is also one that occupies quite a large portion of the imagination of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

This article will no doubt net a fair number of angry emails accusing me of reinforcing the world’s prejudices against my country. So, let me put it simply: citizens’ emotions towards their homeland are based not just on social-success indicators — what the country gives or can give them: healthcare, education, security, a stable economy that provides jobs and so on.

Loyalty, nationalism, pride of citizenship — call it what you will — is also based in large part upon the perceptions of potential, the calculations of hope. People can tolerate poverty, for example, if they also see their country making a sustained effort to combat it; crime can be dealt with if it is seen as the aberration rather than the norm, if the state is seen as putting in its best effort; embarrassing realities can be faced if there also exist areas where shining success can be cited.

The trouble with Pakistan is that many feel stripped of reasons to believe that the future could be different. This canker is eating up our collective soul from within, growing a little every time a new hope is felt to have been in vain.

It’s all a matter of perceptions, and here we are losing; for while there have been notable gains amongst the losses of our age, they have not been meaningfully inserted into the narrative of popular perception. Are any of those in charge thinking about this?

The writer is a member of staff.