One big hospital ward

15 Dec 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THERE is no doubt that you are at your most vulnerable when ill and confined to a hospital bed as you have to rely entirely on the sense of duty or the kindness and compassion of someone for the very basic of needs.

Having experienced this myself this summer when an accident left me needing surgery and immobilised for a period of time, I was so, so grateful for my incredible wife and daughters. Equally, the commitment and compassion of the nursing staff makes me misty-eyed on reflection.

If I’d have had to brave a full-fledged riot in that helpless state, with some of the rioters liberally using sticks, stones and bricks and, as in one photographed instance, even a pistol, I doubt I would have survived.

Ergo, I can’t even begin to imagine what the patients and their family/friends went through at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology this week when the men in black let loose their fury at the hospital in Lahore. Imagine the fear, the grave anxiety gripping the heart already weakened by disease.

Not too many have focused on the abject, miserable failure that is the Punjab government.

A lot has been written, but surely still not enough about how barbaric and shameful the marauding lawyers were. Many demands have been made that those involved must face the harshest possible sanction under the law. But the dead can’t be resurrected.

The pain, anguish and fear of those who were forced to brave the nightmare, while grappling with cardiac disorders, may resurface with each hospital visit and, heaven forbid, should they need hospitalisation again. Post-traumatic stress is very real.

How can any ‘punishment’ be enough, or even be quantified, for those responsible?

However, let’s not be naïve. The lawyers whose audacity and criminal behaviour was the subject of live telecasts on multiple channels deserved every bit of the opprobrium they got. But not too many focused on the abject, miserable failure that is the Punjab government.

The tragic episode, by my reckoning the first of its kind in Pakistan in which a hospital was attacked, was the culmination of a running feud between two groups of professionals ie the lawyers on the one side and the PIC doctors and paramedical staff on the other.

For several days, the administration remained paralysed and took no action to defuse the situation by enforcing the law. Then finally on that day of shame, the charged, vociferous lawyers walked more than five kilometres from the courts unimpeded to the PIC; the administration did nothing.

Let me tell you why this happened. Since the day of its inauguration, the government from the prime minister down to the lowliest minions of the governing PTI have had one priority: the hunting and hounding of their political opponents.

This seems to have affected the orientation of the law-enforcement agencies from the paramilitary forces to police to the country’s multi-organisation, intelligence setup. So, was it a surprise that when an occasion arose warranting robust policing, those responsible were found wanting?

The multifaceted law-enforcement machinery is not inefficient. Its full, ‘efficient’ wrath is unleashed to telling effect against political opponents and dissidents. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. Just go to Twitter and search for ‘Okara lawyer’ for evidence.

You will see a one-minute video on the enforced disappearance of lawyer Ahmad Shafiq on Dec 10. This is the second time he has been kidnapped. He is also facing a case (placing anti-state material on social media) by the FIA under the cybercrime law, enacted so stubbornly by PML-N minister Anushey Rehman’s overruling many voices of sanity.

In the CCTV video, the impunity and efficiency of the state agencies are on full display —from start to finish when a white Toyota corolla car comes to a halt and a couple of masked men alight, to the time these two and some three to four of their accomplices grab and shove the brave lawyer into the car and drive away.

I say brave because a quick look at his Twitter timeline demonstrates what sort of (in the FIA’s view) ‘anti-state’ content he was putting out on social media. His crime was no more than yours or mine: believing some policies of our state are not in the national interest. Expressing dissent. That’s all.

The state was clinical in the disappearance of human rights activist Idris Khattak, who disappeared without trace a few weeks ago and is still to be found. These were people who raised conscientious objections to the state’s unlawful actions but were citizens like you and me.

Look at what happened to Rana Sanaullah Khan, the PML-N MNA, whose National Assembly performance caused so much discomfort to the hybrid regime that he was arrested from the Faisalabad-Lahore motorway. Some 15 kilograms of heroin were allegedly recovered from him.

It was another matter that the Lahore Safe City Cameras recorded important segments of the episode and it turns out that timeline of the case, filed and prosecuted by the military-led ANF, was all over the place, casting serious doubts about the charges.

One can go on endlessly about how efficient the state is whether in the case of locking up former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi or former finance minister Dr Miftah Ismail after the two reportedly spurned overtures by powerful quarters to assist the PTI government.

Grateful for small mercies even then are we. The four Baloch women who were arrested in Awaran for carting ‘arms and ammunition’ for anti-state ‘terrorists’ were released at the intervention of former Balochistan chief minister Akhtar Mengal, currently an MNA. His party provides vital numerical support to sustain the PTI government in Islamabad.

In the absence of the rule of law, people seek safety in numbers and resort to tribalism. What else would prompt two of my favourite public figures, lawyers Raza Rabbani and Ali Ahmad Kurd, to say there might be justification for the PIC attack? There isn’t one.

Those of us without the safety net of such tribalism can be likened to patients in a huge hospital ward, bereft of compassion and at the mercy of the next marauder.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2019