If we loved them less

Published November 28, 2021
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.

IN Jane Austen’s 1851 novel, Emma, the eponymous lead character receives some poetic words of assurance. “I cannot make speeches … if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

While the context may have differed, the logic here is painfully clear: some things are so deeply, intrinsically held to the heart that to feel the need to say them feels unnatural. Inauthentic even. One can use words to express the intensity of an emotion, but speeches to state merely that it exists cast a rightful shadow of doubt. For the people of this country though, speeches and doubts are two things we’ve long gotten used to.

Consider the following — ‘Pakistan values the people who laid down their lives for it’. It seems like the kind that would fall neatly into the category of ‘needless to be said’. This is a nation that would have ceased to exist several times over if not for the sacrifices of those who fought and died for it. We remember our martyrs, honour their legacy, sing songs in their praise. Yet there seems to be a visible dichotomy in the way we view these sacrifices, from headlines to news tickers to social media updates — ‘2 soldiers were martyred on the border. 3 policemen were killed in Lahore’.

Both groups heroically laid down their lives protecting this country. Only one of them was posthumously granted the title of ‘shaheed’ by the mass media. It’s a discrepancy that was (and is) rampant throughout national discourse. As if the colour of one’s uniform determines their worth in the eyes of God. As if each addition in an abundant list of martyrs will lower their individual value. As if there’s something gained in ensuring that when the newly orphaned son of a policeman opens the news, he is greeted with the assertion that his father was not deemed valuable enough to deserve the highest rank, even in death.

We excel at words because words are easy.

Is it truly a surprise, though, that a society that would treat you with confusion bordering on contempt in life would act any different in death? If the relationship between the citizen and state is one of love, then it seems to be dreadfully one sided. ‘I’ll give you my best years, cheer my lungs out when you win at cricket, hold back emotions when you lose. I’ll live for you, die for you, and once that’s over with, you can contemplate whether it’s okay to say some nice things about me in the paper.’

In an ideal world, news editors wouldn’t have to bear the burden of making such designations. If we were truly firm in our belief that the shaheed were equal in life and death, we wouldn’t need to impose language to exert it. For now, though, setting the record straight was long overdue. This month the chairman of Pemra’s Council of Complaints, Barrister Muhammad Ahmad Pansota accomplished a rare step in the right direction by directing the use of the word ‘shaheed’ for all officers who die in the line of duty. The harder part — and critically, the one that falls upon the state — is ensuring these words are translated into action.

While linguistic choices may seem subtle, another ‘needless to say’ statement is that language is important. The slightest of variations in nomenclature are at times weaponised to bludgeon dissent, and at others, deputised to conceal indifference. When the APS attack happened, the word ‘shaheed’ was used for the victims by leaders and mass media as a means of consolation, as if it compensated in any way for the loss. The message between the lines was that the victims had given their lives for a greater cause, so their survivors must exercise patience. Recently, as the Supreme Court raised questions about supposed plans to reconcile with those children’s killers, some of the shaheeds’ mothers stood outside the court holding pictures of their loved ones. If you asked them, how do you think they would respond to the conferral of honorific titles? When lip service is weighed against justice, which one do you think they would prefer?

In the seven years since APS, and with every passing day that we wax lyrical about the same people we crush under the weight of our indifference, a deep-rooted hypocrisy unravels. We excel at words because words are easy. But we drag our feet when it comes to following through. That’s not to say we give up on words of assurance — by all means, make no disparity in referring to everyone who gives their life for their country as the martyr they are. But ask yourself as you do so — is that more for them or for us? And if you find that your words provide just enough comfort for you to start turning blind eyes, maybe it’s time to refocus your attention. If that had been done some time in 2014, perhaps the victims of APS might have seen justice. Instead, as we sing songs in their praises and offer amnesties to their murderers, it seems like we’ve become all too comfortable with speeches. Seems, more than anything, like we loved them less, so we talked about them more.

The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.

Twitter: @hkwattoo1

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2021



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