Acts of desperation

January 11, 2020

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ON Wednesday, Mir Hasan set himself on fire inside his home in Karachi. A few days before, his son had asked him for warm clothes to wear to school since an unusually cold winter spell has gripped the city. Unable to fulfil his son’s simple request, and fed up of his poverty, the father of four took his own life in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. Incurring burns all over his body, he passed away on a hospital bed the following day. According to his family, the scrap dealer had been struggling to find employment for some time now. His tragic death once again highlights the psychological toll that desperate poverty takes on so many citizens of this country — around a third of the country’s total population is estimated to live below the poverty line — but will it jolt our leaders to action? After all, this is not the first incident of its kind in the country. In 2018, a rickshaw driver named Muhammad Khalid set himself on fire near a police station in Karachi to protest against traffic police extorting money from him on a near daily basis. A few months earlier, Shafi Muhammad set himself alight after being handed an electricity bill of over Rs150,000. And, in Islamabad in 2011, 35-year-old Raja Khan immolated himself in front of parliament. Sustaining 90pc burns on his body, the unemployed labourer from Sindh died inside a hospital, having left behind a letter beseeching the government to provide for his children. A similar letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan is said to have been sent by Mir Hasan, requesting housing and employment.

Nine years ago, horror over a street vendor’s self-immolation sparked an uprising that led to the ouster of a 24-year-long dictatorship in Tunisia, and ignited revolutionary fervour throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Despite so many similar examples in Pakistan, it is disturbing how deep the apathy and indifference to the pain of others runs in our society.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2020