Agreements that are not

Published November 6, 2020
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

AN epidemic has taken the country in its grip. It is a strange epidemic, stranger than those we braved earlier.

Under the spell of this affliction, a group of protesters gathers at some prominent square in a big city. These demonstrators chant slogans over and over again, before there is an opening in the sense of indifference and contempt that envelops them, and an official arrives on the scene.

This sequence can take time to play out. The protesters could well be required to spend a few sleepless nights on the pavement. A few vicious police sticks and some teargas shells might be thrown to make the event — and the eventual sarkari intervention — more dramatic. Indeed, a few injuries may be caused and dignity insulted. But that’s the less worrying part. The worst comes after the negotiations have been held — successfully, we are told by the officials with typical finality. The matter has been resolved, just as the federal minister for something Ali Mohammad Khan declared after he made the Herculean effort of going down to have a talk with the Lady Health Workers (LHWs) who had besieged the capital some time ago.

The trend reminds me of the peace activist in a hurry who was so fond of wrapping up his arguments in the people-to-people dialogue sessions between Pakistanis and Indians. He would chip in with his trademark clinching line, “Yaar ho gaya naan ... Choro yeh baat taey ho gayee hai”, which is the Urdu equivalent of disposing of all thorny issues with pure good intentions.

It was almost sacrilegious to see these tillers of the earth having to demonstrate for their rights in public view.

Or take Chaudhry Shujaat. With his infinite ability to reconcile the oddest material in his hands the politician has been trumped by more powerful people above him after he believed he had struck deals to get out of the trickiest of situations. Lal Masjid was the prime example but there were other instances as well.

Yes, people in the past would fail after they thought they had succeeded in mediating an agreement. It’s not something to be embarrassed about but making a habit out of reneging on your vows with a distressed group is a bit too much in this modern world of quick and easy interaction between the government and the governed.

There must be problems easier to resolve than the feud between Pakistan and India. Problems which a government emissary would be empowered to resolve on the spot after negotiations with distraught Pakistanis who have been forced to take to the streets to press for their demands. The mini messiahs who could announce on-the-spot relief for protesters are sorely missing.

Actually there’s a little twist in the story here which brings us face to face with the epidemic. The formula in the recent past has been that a government rep is shown holding negotiations with protesters following which some kind of accord is announced, only for the demonstration leaders to deny there has been any agreement between them and the authorities.

This is what happened after Ali Mohammad Khan had made his successful tour of the LHW camp in Islamabad that day. And this has been happening repeatedly as the Punjab government essays the fine art of negotiating service terms with the forever unhappy young doctors in Lahore and elsewhere in the province.

This situation where an official announcement of resolution was made and a stern denial by the aggrieved offered was repeated when Baloch students came knocking on the doors of the powerful in the Punjab capital. They were encamped on The Mall for many days and subjected to the usual false reprieve before they got a more believable promise from the benevolent rulers and decided to leave.

The place of these Baloch students who were looking for restoration of their scholarships in Punjab universities has been taken by students from the old Fata. They have been there for a few days already and those tired and outraged by the sad routine are hoping they can skip the early mundane rounds that protesters with similar causes go through.

These Fata students would be lucky if they can find the fast lane to an audience with someone who is actually empowered to address their problem — again scholarship quotas. Given their ‘negligible’ numbers, early redressal of their complaint would be miraculous; far bigger collections of protesters have struggled to escape the set pattern.

The farmers came to Lahore this week looking, among other things, for a better price for wheat — sons of the soil, the poor country cousins who must inspire feelings of compassion and patronage in city dwellers suffering from an urban superiority complex.

The city opened its arms to greet them, as the needy would be greeted by the philanthropist. It was almost sacrilegious to see these tillers of the earth having to demonstrate for their rights in public view. It was shameful for anyone to see these true providers of life, these true representatives of nature, having to travel to the wasteful city with a request in hand.

The kisan is worshipped for his powers to feed and clothe and cultivate. He is pitied as an outsider having to make the journey in the lorry to the nearby town to find the right babu to deal with to resolve his everyday issues. But as a seeker of favours in the big city, he like all others must undergo the drill.

The comparatively higher numbers and high tempers among the protesting farmers at the demo in Lahore on Wednesday led to rare police steps, such as the use of water cannons and lathi-charge. Then as the pictures of the ‘poor’ ‘helpless’ farmers coming under the police’s charge were flashed, the familiar, officially well-rehearsed scene of a troubleshooter placating the protesters was re-enacted. An agreement was announced. Only for the kisan leaders to issue a denial within hours.

This is madness. This is how you get your own people, your own emissaries, discredited. The kind of bad name their patrons are intent on giving them, we could soon have a rally of official negotiators shouting for a little bit of empowerment and respect.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2020

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