A PLANE crash will become a tragedy and a controversy anywhere in the world. Pakistan is no different though it wasn’t long before a heartbreaking moment turned into a mess.
Barely had the people come to terms with the tragedy of lives lost and families devastated that the government broke the news of a dysfunctional industry which was afflicted with a serious problem — pilots with fake or questionable licences. Whether or not anyone in PIA took notice, the rest of the world did.
Before long, PIA flights to Europe were suspended and many Pakistani pilots working elsewhere in the world were reported to have been stopped from flying till their licences had been verified. And obviously, the coming days may bring more such news.
There was a flood of criticism on the thoughtlessness of the government, which is known for shooting from the hip. (It appears as if this phrase was invented just for some of those in power at the moment.)
The pilot debate reminds one of a different controversy where similar arguments were witnessed.
There were, however, a few voices, mostly of those close to the government, who tried to argue that the recent crashes in Pakistan pointed towards serious problems within our air industry — just consider the number of air crashes in the past decade — and if this was linked to allegedly shady licences or questionable training of pilots then is it not better to address the problem than keep it under wraps as has been our wont. However, keeping the polarisation in politics in mind, most people stuck to their arguments and sides.
The incident reminded one of a different controversy where a similar division and similar arguments were witnessed. Or if this may prove too offensive to the polarised views within us, it can be said that an analogy can be drawn to a past controversy.
Before the 2018 elections, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had given an interview to this paper in which he spoke of the Mumbai attacks. He asked if “non-state actors” should be allowed “to cross the border and kill 150 people”. He then asked why Pakistan could not complete the trial (of those allegedly involved in the attacks who were being tried on this side of the border).
The short, few sentences kicked up quite a storm. He was criticised for what he said and what it implied about Pakistan and its relationship with militant organisations.
Then too the debate, which was heated and emotional, seemed roughly divided between those who felt that such statements, especially from former prime ministers, did nothing but bring embarrassment to the country. And how this caused the country problems internationally. The other side of the argument focused on accepting the harsh reality of how Pakistan was perceived internationally and why it was necessary to ask how we got here, why this was so and how to address it rather than simply not speak about the issue.
The pilots’ controversy is similar. In some ways, it is old news, which like all else, keeps reverberating in our news cycle. Back in the winter of 2018-2019, PIA had suspended as well as fired pilots among other staff members over the issue of questionable degrees.
Earlier than that, the issue of the educational qualifications of pilots and other staff of airlines was of interest to the then chief justice Saqib Nisar who called in all the relevant people to throw light on the issue. At one hearing the Supreme Court was told that 12 pilots — news stories on the issue report conflicting numbers varying from 7 to 12 — and around 70 others had fake degrees. The decision had to be later defended in front of parliamentarians, where the PIA CEO is quoted as saying, “I explained to the Supreme Court of the matter of life and death of passengers. If we did not take stern actions on merit, there will be no end to such inductions.”
This was reported widely — and beyond the national borders too — but obviously the impact was far greater when a federal minister spoke on the issue, after a horrific plane crash.
Similarly, it can be argued that there was nothing new in what Nawaz Sharif said; but with a former prime minister saying it, at a time he had been forced to leave office after his clash with the establishment, the words took on a significance.
As a result, they were noticed and commented upon at length, as are the words of Sarwar Khan highlighting an issue already in the public domain.
And each time, the statements were followed by a flurry of activity aimed at damage control. At the moment, PIA as well as the Foreign Office are busy trying to assuage the concerns in the European Union, which has suspended PIA flights. Back then, there was a national security meeting followed by a press conference by then prime minister Shahid Abbasi, who then tried to clarify what the National Security Committee had said. With the passage of time, it is now hard to remember how chaotic it seemed back then. Memories have a way of fading, lending a hue of stability to days passed.
Tragically, there is more in common between the two stories.
Neither one seemed to have any well-thought-out strategy or plan for why they said what they said. It is hard to read minds but if one had to hazard a guess, it appears that neither the minister nor the former prime minister had worked out as to what their statements would achieve except perhaps to cause embarrassment to the ‘other’.
For Sarwar Khan (and the rest of his party), there is little strategy but to show how poorly Pakistan had been governed in the past thanks to the PPP and PML-N. Nawaz Sharif too may have had similar thoughts about embarrassing the ‘other’ side.
But no more. What would happen after the statements? What would they help achieve?
We don’t ask these questions it seems.
We are fuelled — always — by anger without realising that it rarely proves constructive. It does not fix problems and frequently prevents us from looking ahead.
The writer is a journalist.