I GOT the headline of my piece last week seriously wrong. Instead of “Not quite our finest hour” as I had written, it should have been “Nation’s finest hour, alas not the government’s”. But I didn’t and for this I’ve received my share of kicks. That’s as it should be: you do something wrong and you are punished for it.

There is a strong case for “retiring criticism” — as my cyber pal from afar, Bill Selman from Tulsa, Oklahoma — passionately suggests. There is a time for doing and a time for indulging in the blame or criticism game. This is a time for doing. And the Pakistani nation, as we all know, has risen magnificently to the occasion and helped with the relief effort. In fact private individuals were the first to be in the disaster-hit areas even as it was taking time for government and army to get out of their collective trance.

But if things are kept in perspective, the sharp media criticism that came the government’s way initially did its share of good. Far from dampening national morale, it proved a spur to action. The television pictures sent an electric shock throughout the country and Pakistanis — in their thousands, their millions — were quick to respond.

Bear in mind, please, that people out in the cold on the stricken mountainsides are not waiting breathlessly for what guys like me write. Media or rather press chattering is an exercise for the political or the newspaper-reading class which in this country of around 150 million does not exceed a million or, stretching it generously, a million and a half people.

This relatively minuscule class in an over-populated country should have stronger nerves than to feel that the national sense of compassion is somehow dishonoured or challenged if in a crisis official shortcomings are pointed out. Of course instead of sitting in our armchairs, we should all do more. But this shouldn’t mean the press abdicating its function of looking at things with a censorious, even jaundiced, eye.

Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi does charity and he does it better than anyone else (I wish we had the sense to make him chief relief commissioner). The Jamaat-i-Islami’s relief arm, Al Khidmat, has distinguished itself in this disaster. Imran Khan does charity, so do many other people. As this greatest of testing times has amply demonstrated, there is no shortage of good Samaritans in Pakistan. In fact the best Samaritans have been the thousands upon thousands of everyday people who, mistrustful of governmental efficiency, set off on their own, with whatever they could gather, to the stricken areas.

The press should promote good causes. Of heroes and heroines it should sing. Those doing a good job of relief should have their efforts applauded. But it is equally true the press can’t deliver charity as well, say, as Edhi. To each his own. At its best, the job of the media is to report and analyze, thereby hopefully providing some compass for action.

This task need not nullify compassion. In fact, the two can march hand in hand. And please remember, merely verbal compassion, at which we journalists are rather good, does not reach cold-hit and wind-swept mountainsides.

Another thing to remember, painful though it is: just as there is ‘donor fatigue’, there is also ‘compassion fatigue’. There are so many people who have made one trip to the disaster areas, somewhat fewer who have been there twice and, I suspect, fewer still who would have gone there a third time. This is not an observation on the human race, it is just human nature: our inability to remain coiled in a state of tension or high endeavour for long periods of time.

This is where the spirit of ‘65 when Pakistan was at war with India and the entire nation rallied to the cause of national defence becomes relevant. The parallel between now and then is striking not only for what it says but for what it leaves unsaid. How long did that spirit last? The war itself was a 17-day affair. And as soon as it was over the people of Pakistan woke up to the reality that the nation hadn’t won the signal victory which Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s propaganda machine — led ably by his information secretary, Altaf Gauhar — had led it to believe.

It didn’t take long for euphoria to turn into disillusionment. The Tashkent agreement was no sellout — it merely reflected the no-win no-lose situation on the battlefield — but a nation fed on false expectations considered it a sellout, a feeling which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who soon fell out with his mentor, Ayub Khan, did his best to inflame.

The quake is a natural disaster, not a man-made battlefield. But the central problem remains the same: how to keep the fires of national enthusiasm burning. Already, and this in just a matter of days, the destruction wrought by the quake has receded from BBC and CNN headlines. There are other stories to cover. But we for our part don’t have the luxury of disengagement. We have to live with the effects of this disaster for years to come. So, while writing soppy editorials and columns is useful, the more important thing is to ensure that the feeling of common nationhood aroused by this disaster doesn’t prove as short-lived as the spirit of ‘65.

This requires leadership and steps stirring enough to catch the popular imagination. A tent village near the Khan Research Laboratories, where we nourish some of our nuclear secrets, has been ruled out on security grounds. Understandable but then how about turning the vast acres of the Defence Housing Authority, starting from Rawalpindi and going all the way to Rewat, into a temporary housing colony for displaced Kashmiris and Hazarawals?

It is getting cold up there and there are not enough tents to go around. Well, if there are problems getting relief up the mountains, the mountains can come down to the plains. The country opened its arms to refugees from India in 1947 and to Afghans after the Soviet invasion. The Kashmiris are our brethren. We owe no less to them. Defence Housing Authority in Islamabad turned into a Kashmir village: the spirit which led to the birth of Pakistan aroused all over again.

Our purported lawmakers — purported because real lawmaking is done somewhere else — can make an easy sacrifice by vacating the parliamentary lodges and turning them into temporary homes for children who have lost their parents.

The presidency is an empty place because the president prefers the security of Army House in Rawalpindi. Why not turn it, temporarily, into a rehabilitation home for the injured? Just these three steps and see the spirit of the nation touching the skies.

There must be an immediate ban on useless construction throughout the country, to begin with in Islamabad where a lot of money is spent on useless embellishments. There is a highway planned, work on which is soon set to start, between somewhere near Army House and the airport, to facilitate presidential travelling to and fro. Shouldn’t this idea be scrapped immediately and the money so saved (if memory serves, in excess of Rs 70 crore) diverted to Kashmir relief?

In this gravest of emergencies we also need to ask ourselves whether we need to spend about three billion dollars on F-16s. Do we need them? A retired colonel of the US air force who had served in Pakistan back in the sixties wrote to me recently saying “...you need F-16s like you need a hole through your collective head”. It would be an act of sanity if this idea was given up and the saved money put at the service of the children of Kashmir and Hazara.

In the midst of this disaster nothing more, stands fully revealed than the futility of the Kashmir dispute. Let us stick to our theoretical positions whatever they are, but for heaven’s sake let us turn the Line of Control into a soft border and let’s get our troops out of Siachen. Why is India dragging its feet over this last issue?

Turning grief into strength is a wonderful sound bite but it is easier said than done. The people have shown their mettle. It is now for the leadership to ensure that this moment is not lost and the history of ‘65 not repeated.



Updated 19 May, 2022

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