Top central government officials are hardly ever seen at places where there has been a bomb blast, and only seldom visit the hospitals where the injured are left fighting for their lives.
Yet, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quick to announce a visit to those areas of Thar that have been ravaged by a tragic famine.
There is always the danger of another terrorist attack at bomb sites, usually targeted at cops, soldiers and other first responders. So to make sure that the nation does not lose members of the government, government officials stay away.
They are assets of democracy and have to be shielded from what the more throwaway members of the opposition, military, police and civilian communities have been facing for so many years now.
But visiting a famine-hit area is safe. The PM, especially one coming from the very healthy province of Punjab, will never catch starvation, poverty and other such dreadful conditions.
On the contrary, this show of remarkable empathy towards issues that do not bite back can be very good for democracy as well; because it might bag votes for the PNL-N in the Sindh province.
I was searching (online) archives of newspapers and local news channels to see how they had covered the unprecedented outbreaks of dengue fever in the Punjab some years ago and that took the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.
I was impressed. I didn’t find even a hint of the kind of hysteria and shrill outrage that has followed the events in Thar. I guess dying from dengue fever is less tragic than dying from a famine? And even less tragic is dying in a suicide bomb blast.
Otherwise how can one explain an English daily’s decision to side-line any or all columns critical of extremist terror groups (because it was attacked by the extremists), but still find nothing wrong in bludgeoning those who do not bite back?
One can understand the daily’s dilemma and actually sympathise with it for coming under the direct attack of the brutes. But it’s a fair question to ask exactly how much of a right it has left to go after those who are not seen as a threat to its staff?
It’s just like those awful vigilante TV shows on most second-tier channels in which men and women are seen huffing and puffing and running after transvestites, drunken cops, prostitutes and petty criminals, but wouldn’t dare do the same against hardened criminals and terrorists.
Since much of the private electronic media in Pakistan is a reflection of the country’s archetypical middle-class morality, it instinctively comprehends (enough to immediately outrage against) petty social ‘deviances’ and issues that can be used to put down the detested political parties, but when it comes to matters like mass terrorism and extremism, there is confusion.
How often do we hear that the government is confused, the people are confused, the youth are confused, this is confused, that is confused, when it comes to describing their response to an issue that has taken the lives of over 50,000 civilians, cops, soldiers and politicians?
I once asked an acquaintance who (back in 2010) did a few of those foolish vigilante shows for a local TV channel, why didn’t he ever ‘raid’ a controversial madressah to see whether it was imparting hatred and encouraging sectarian violence among its students.
His immediate response: ‘Do you want to get me killed?’
So, basically, what he was saying was that his show only went looking for and chasing ‘deviants’ who do not respond violently. How brave, indeed.
But this kind of one-dimensional morality becomes a lot more disconcerting and more than just silly when in their excitement (read: desperation), some TV personalities actually end up instigating violence against members of certain communities.
In 2007, a famous host of a religious show on one of the country’s largest private news channels was accused of instigating violence against the Ahmadi community when (as an apparent result of one of his shows) four members of the community were shot dead in Lahore.
He wasn’t taken off the air. But when some newspapers began to constantly ask questions in this regard, the host was grudgingly eased out from the channel.
However, lo and behold, he got a heftier job at a competing channel, and after the first channel began to miss the ratings his show had enjoyed, it called him back, now offering him a salary that was many times larger than the one he was receiving when he was asked to leave.
Nevertheless, thus far he has behaved and has been conducting himself in a more composed manner. But since the electronic media in this country is a rather anarchic animal or an animated and chaotic bundle of wayward corporate capitalism, middle-class morality and sudden knee-jerk reactionary outbursts, one would not be surprised if the gentleman goes back to pointing out ‘heretics’ once again.
The common element in this contradictory bundle is cynicism. By this I mean how some TV personalities so casually shift positions just to keep up in the game of TV ratings.
Recently a TV talk show host, who began his career as a level-headed and somewhat liberal anchor, suddenly went ballistic against a yoga institute in Islamabad.
After failing to bag ratings at the small channel he had begun his career from he bounced around a few other channels, posing as a sensible and responsible talk show host.
But he was constantly frustrated by the fact that even after more than five years of hosting political shows, he remained on the fringes of popularity.
Then voila! He got it. It was always in front of him: Outrage against things considered to be ‘immoral’ and ‘sinful’ and then convolutedly give it some weight by tying the crime/sin/deviance to the nation’s favourite paranoia — diabolical conspiracies of enemy agents.
Also, after watching how another mediocre TV anchor (son of a former washed-up film actor) spiced up his shows by constantly inviting two entirely myopic and reactionary mouthpieces, our once soft-spoken anchor began to do the same.
It worked. Finally he began to at least be discussed on social media. But when I asked him (on Twitter) whether (like the mediocre host) he too had adopted one of the reactionary mouthpieces as an uncle, he responded by retweeting a tweet by some rabid troll that went something like this (translation): ‘Yes, Paracha, it’s better than adopting that nigger Obama as your daddy …!’
I burst out laughing. I mean, the mentioned anchor was being criticised for inviting men who were applauding the burning down of a harmless yoga centre in Islamabad (because it was a ‘front for NGOs promoting Hinduism’), but instead of defending his position with a counter-argument, his response was retweeting a comment by a racist.
The sillies who (in a more normal Pakistan) were destined to remain side-lined in the obscure annals of the lunatic fringe, have struck back to become lucrative software for second-tier TV channels. Happy viewing.