Hail the heroes

January 19, 2020


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

IT took an astute social media observer to point out that the amendment legalising the extension given to the army chief — in theory the principle will apply to all service chiefs — won more votes than even the two-thirds majority won by the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif in 1997.

Hence, the Twitter commentator concluded, the holder of the extended tenure enjoyed more legitimacy and popular support than a former prime minister who was voted in with one of the biggest majorities over the past three and a half decades if not longer.

Although this overwhelming expression of popular will in parliament was a public fact, and there for all to see and acknowledge, what its magnitude implies has not been sufficiently debated either in the print media nor on popular TV ‘talk shows’.

Of course, this is not to mention one particular talk show where it was indeed discussed but in a manner that made most journalists and politicians and, possibly, even the beneficiary and his institution, hang their heads in shame.

Theories, particularly conspiracy theories, abound about why the minister did what he did, ie put a military boot on the table. Given popular support as manifest in the parliamentary votes for the extended tenure, it would be impossible that the minister who is seen as no less than an ‘asset’ would embarrass his patrons.

The much-maligned elected civilian politicians may have a lot to answer for but it is equally true that they were never allowed a free hand.

So, who else could have been in his cross hairs? The incident may have caused a bit of unease among some of the more circumspect PTI politicians but, despite the prime ministerial sanction on the minister, it is also widely known that such tactics usually enjoy the boss’s approval.

Whatever the case, let us now ignore nasty men, whether in the cabinet or outside, and say ‘who cares’ as to whether there was method to the minister’s madness or simply that his vile instinct guided his actions. In the spirit of the times, let’s focus on the positive from here on.

Having a largely dysfunctional system where nothing is institutionalised, you’d be well within your rights to ask, where does our quest for the positive begin? One of the major feel-good factors that is ever effective and never fails, well almost never, is a hero.

For, heroes keep us going through the bleakest of times and renew our faith and hold the promise of a better tomorrow. The unprecedented snowfall this past week in Balochistan produced Suleman Khan. His near-mythical status as a hero owes itself to his humanity.

He is reported to have rescued some 100 people or more stuck on the snowbound Quetta-Zhob Highway, near his hometown Kuchlak, and paid for their food and shelter out of his own pocket. This, apart from his heroic efforts to free vehicles stuck in knee-high snow.

This man apparently thought nothing of helping out travellers on the road stuck in the snow and continued his rescue efforts for three days before some videos of his heroism hit the social media thanks to smartphones.

The credit of bringing Suleman Khan’s Herculean efforts to our knowledge goes to my former colleague Syed Ali Shah, the DawnNews Quetta bureau chief. Khan’s videos and photos reminded me of the undaunted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa polio worker Irfanullah around the same time last year.

It was heart-warming to see Irfanullah walking through snow piled high, carrying an icebox filled with vaccines, to a remote village so the children there could be vaccinated against the polio virus and saved from a life-wrecking infection.

While Irfanullah was one whose dramatic images made it to newspaper front pages and earned him an audience with the prime minister, there are some quarter million polio workers across the length and breadth of the country who have braved prejudices, biases and even bullets to do their duty.

It is not these heroic workers who have let us down as polio infections climb again. It’s the system that has failed our children, a culture of cronyism in appointments to key positions in this crusade that has caused setbacks. Hope a lesson has been learnt and the course corrected.

This past week my young friend, and a legal mind par excellence, Asad Rahim, wrote such a well-reasoned critique of the Ayub era in Dawn that it would put to shame all those who hailed him as a hero when he seized power and even today defy history to fantasise about how great his rule was.

While I can’t add anything to Asad’s piece, what I can add is that the next military ruler who ruled for a similar stretch of time was also lauded as a hero, as a referee, who blew the whistle when an elected government and opposition were supposedly at loggerheads.

But the way religion was used and abused so that he could prolong his personal rule came at an incalculable cost to the nation. The bigotry and intolerance that we have come to live with as a cruel fact of life owes itself to that era as do ethnic strife, drugs and automatic weapons.

The much-maligned elected civilian politician may have a lot to answer for but it is equally true that he/she was never allowed a free hand as the founding fathers of the nation and the authors of the Constitution envisioned.

Even then, course correction did take place particularly in the economic sphere. And constitutional provisions ensured that the federation stayed intact with all four provinces having a sense of participation no matter how inadequate on occasion.

By way of contrast, look at the almost decade-long age of enlightened moderation led by a man who was again greeted as would a hero. During his rule, moderate thought became the biggest casualty of his policies and religiously inspired terrorism started to resemble a mushroom cloud over the entire country.

Ayub, Zia and Musharraf’s claim to legitimacy was at best questionable. Now we have someone steering the hybrid structure that parliament has overwhelmingly endorsed. Can one hope we have finally found a real hero?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020