A season of regrets

Apr 16 2020

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE people of Pakistan are living in a season of regrets. Regrets that the failure of the state to do in the past what needed to be done is hampering the campaign to meet the grave threat of the coronavirus to the lives of the people and the national economy.

At the top of the lament is regret and anger at having ignored the urgency of developing a reasonable health cover for the people, at curtailing the health services the colonial rulers had developed, and at making access to medical care dependent on the size of one’s pocket. This is so despite public protests against the non-inclusion of health in the list of fundamental rights and the mention of ‘medical relief’ in the Principles of Policy only with reference to “such citizens as are unable to earn their livelihood on account of infirmity, sickness or unemployment”. (Article 38 (d)). And despite growing demands, year after year and decade after decade, for raising the allocation for health from less than one per cent.

Early this year, the National Commission for Human Rights issued a study that called for a recognition of the people’s access to medical care as a right. Did the custodians of power find time to even look at it? Is there any guarantee that once the pandemic threat is over the creation of a health cover, at least for the largest number of people possible, will be taken up in earnest? The excuse that the state lacks resources is not wholly valid because the costs can be shared with the people through compulsory health insurance and social security schemes.

There is considerable anxiety over the refusal by a large number of Muslims to accept restrictions on congregations in mosques. Not all of these dissidents are fatalists. Since every victim of Covid-19 is to be accepted as a shaheed many people do not wish to be deprived of the singular distinction. Besides, we are paying for the idea of dual sovereignty planted in the minds of the faithful by the Objectives Resolution.

Do ordinary Pakistanis not behave as responsible citizens because they aren’t treated as citizens?

According to this resolution, made an integral part of the Constitution by Gen Ziaul Haq, sovereignty belongs to Allah and He has delegated it to the people to be exercised within the limits prescribed by Him. It can be argued that the state represents delegatees whose writ cannot override the will of the real Sovereign. Ask any Muslim citizen about his duty in the event of a conflict between Allah’s command and a state law or directive and everybody knows the answer.

Further, in the eyes of the faithful, the state is not fulfilling its duties assigned to it on behalf of the delegates, ie the people. The people are represented by parliament and not by ministers especially when they act without parliament’s specific authorisation. But where is parliament? Those who claim to follow religious injunctions do not accept any temporal authority whose waywardness is pointed out daily by professional conscience keepers.

This situation is peculiar to Pakistan as other Muslim countries have no concept of dual sovereignty. How can we deal with this situation without respecting the place of reason in matters of belief and returning to the secular spirit of Islam as the late Justice Dr Javid Iqbal put it?

Strangely enough, some matters that should be regretted are apparently being glossed over. A good number of doctors, nurses and paramedics have been infected by the virus obviously because they were not given proper personal protective equipment. No sign of regret anywhere. And certainly no sign of regret at the filthy expletives ministers are hurling at each other and the possible crucifixion of Dr Zafar Mirza!

A major cause of regret and embarrassment is the unacceptable conduct of a fairly large number of people. They include ‘agents’ who have been taking a cut from the recipients of Ehsaas cash grants, those who are overcharging helpless patients at hospitals, and those who are selling food packets received or stolen by them.

The middle-class monopolists of wisdom have been dismissing them as primitive and characterless criminals. They are not a new crop as they have been found to have been active after each disaster, natural or man-made. Blankets, clothes, cooking oil, dry foodstuffs supposed to be distributed among the people uprooted by floods and earthquakes have been sold not in isolated corners of the country but in the markets of Islamabad, right under the nose of the masters of ordinary people’s destiny. Has any government investigated why a large number of people do not behave as responsible citizens?

It seems necessary to find out whether ordinary Pakistanis do not behave as responsible citizens because they are not treated as citizens. Or is it possible that they have difficulty in owning a state that they are told is still in the old colonial mould, whose SHOs and other factotums behave as they did during the colonial period? Or do those who indulge in stealing and cheating believe they are doing what is done to them all the time?

The failure of the state to reconstruct the social order to suit democratic aspirations of the people and the pretences of the elite and create a nation of citizens with equal rights and entitlements causes the greatest regret in times of trial such as the present one.

Tailpiece: The slender hope of the government’s coming to the aid of the tottering Fourth Estate seems to have been dashed by Shahbaz Sharif’s rash decision to plead its cause. How can a proud and self-righteous authority listen to an opposition leader it has been demonising day in and day out? Impossible.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2020