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Perils of insensitivity

June 12, 2014


The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

THE government will be in serious trouble if it fails to address the increasing complaints of its insensitivity to the plight of citizens in distress.

The terrorist attack on the Karachi airport kept the whole nation on tenterhooks for more than 24 hours.

Even after the raiders were said to have been killed and tributes rightly paid to the special army units, the Rangers and the Airport Security Force, the loss of the men trapped in the cold storage caused indescribable anguish to the entire community that had helplessly watched delays in rescue operations for a variety of acceptable reasons, an utterly unbearable loss.

For hours on end it seemed that in addition to an apparently powerless chief minister of Sindh only the army was doing its job. After every few minutes, the TV channels would announce that the army chief had taken notice of this problem or that.

The all too frequent instances of government insensitivity can have dangerous repercussions.

It was one of those calamities when the people wish to see the head of their government in action, to hear directly from him of a resolve to defend the citizens under attack and words of comfort for the victims.

This is done by heads of all responsible governments in the world, even in cases of disasters smaller than the Karachi incident of mega-terrorism. It would not be a bad idea if a TV studio is set up at each of the prime minister’s residences so that he can talk to the people when they want to hear him the most.

His non-appearance in public in an hour of grave emergency could be construed as his lack of concern for his flock.

The perils of insensitivity should have been brought home to the government by the affair of the Geo TV channel. If the wrong done to the intelligence agency was a most heinous offence, was the Geo management the only culprit? Why did not Pemra order discontinuance of the telecast? Then who was responsible for keeping the post of the Pemra chairman vacant for an inordinately long period?

Did the acting chairman, appointed in a desperate attempt to contain the snowballing crisis, qualify as an “eminent professional of known integrity and competence having substantial experience in media, business, management, finance, economics or law”?

Within hours of the appointment of the acting chairman, Pemra announced its verdict on the complaint filed by the defence ministry. Apparently the need to keep the complainant in the loop was not heeded and we found the defence minister behaving as if he had been left out of the intra-government consultation.

As a result, the case appears far from settled. It has set a bad precedent — of a media house guillotined under an executive order.

Numerous other instances of the government’s insensitivity to citizens’ concerns can be cited. The All Pakistan Clerks Association has been out in the streets for years on end. They might be making unreasonable demands but there is no evidence of any recent effort by the government to talk to them.

The lady health workers could not get their due till they had been subjected to baton-charge. Now the nurses in Islamabad are running from one authority to another for removal of their grievances.

A good number of poor men employed by mobile companies to guard the fibre link have sent petitions to government leaders and judges in protest against being paid much less than the minimum wage. Nobody is listening to them.

How did the authorities deal with a Baloch young man’s hunger strike in protest against the disappearance of a Balochistan Student Organisation-Azad leader? Except for Dr Abdul Malik’s brief effort to persuade him to give up his fast the government mercilessly left him to risk his life outside the Karachi Press Club.

The civil society actors who finally prevailed and had him admitted to a hospital have no means of fulfilling the responsibility of getting justice done. They have no cure for the insensitivity of the state.

Some instances of the government’s insensitivity are creating long-term problems. The killing of 24 or so pilgrims in Taftan last Sunday was overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the Karachi airport. Again the army provided the helicopters needed for rescue operations. But the government seems to have become so used to the systematic killing of Shia pilgrims that its response lacks any sense of outrage.

A heart surgeon leaves his lucrative practice in the United States and comes to his home in Pakistan to save lives at risk. He is shot dead in a public place and his little son traumatised for life only because of his belief. No government leader has the courage to condemn the dastardly act of naked terrorism.

A Supreme Court lawyer is gunned down in Multan for doing his professional duty. His suspected killers distribute pamphlets among lawyers warning them of a similar fate if they dare to defend anyone condemned by the orthodoxy.

The government does not have the guts to order the police to properly investigate the case or to stop harassing the victim’s associates and clerks. And, of course, such matters are not caught by the judiciary’s suo motu radar.

These instances of insensitivity have extremely dangerous repercussions. When no action is taken against the outfit responsible for the wanton massacre of Shias in Balochistan or Gilgit-Baltistan the state gives it licence to persist in its atrocities.

When the state demonstrates its insensitivity to the killing of doctors and lawyers it emboldens the culprits to continue to play with innocent citizens’ lives and to raise monuments in honour of murderers. Eventually, it undermines the moral basis of its authority that all states need to command citizens’ allegiance.

The people can forgive the rulers who share their pain even if they lack the will and the means to offer redress but they find it had to forget, and harder still to forgive, the rulers that are insensitive to their sorrows and their unmerited suffering.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2014