WE have seen some tough times in Pakistan. Numerous martial laws, two wars, the trauma of the war in East Pakistan, severe tensions with India, repeated post-nuclear tests sanctions, the terror campaigns of various groups, and economic crises that seem to keep getting worse provide a disturbing yet incomplete list.
But, and this might just be the effect of being in the moment, I do not think that I have ever seen and felt people to be as despondent as they are right now. Economic conditions are tough but we have seen tougher times before. Dollars are expensive and hard to get but the State Bank has not taken over dollar accounts as it did in the past. We still do not have rationing of food and clothing as we had up to the 1970s. Imports have been restricted but not as much as in the past. So, where is the despondency coming from?
People seem to have lost hope in the future of the country and it is largely the last couple of years that have been responsible for this loss of hope. Many people, especially in the middle class and amongst the younger people, had a lot of hopes pinned on Imran Khan and his anticipated performance. Some got disillusioned by the poor performance of the government and the rest lost hope when his government lost the establishment’s support and was eventually done away with. The PDM’s poor performance has also been a factor but a more important one seems to have been the coalition’s active support for the ‘hybrid’ system. The way that PDM supported anti-people and anti-freedom legislation, through parliament, will be talked about for some time to come.
The way the establishment has taken back power has made many lose hope about the future of the country. Contracting space for freedom of speech, lack of tolerance, religious repression, suppression of freedom of press, abduction of journalists, making people disappear, abducting people for a few hours to a few days as a way of putting pressure on them, disrupting jobs and businesses of opposition members, and the use of the law to register many cases against a person so that he/she gets entangled in just dealing with courts and prison are but some examples.
From ‘zindabad’ to ‘zinda bhaag’ — what is the root of this despondency?
Nothing erodes hope like injustice. And what has happened and is happening since the excesses of May 9 has been nothing short of injustice. Where a few hundred or a few thousand people might have been involved in the actual vandalism on May 9, arrests were made at a much broader and deeper level. If people happened to be on the streets that day, or were protesting the arrest of Imran Khan peacefully, they were still picked up. Party workers have been picked up irrespective of whether or not they were involved in the vandalism. Some who were supporting the party on social media have also been picked up or harassed. Others, who just happened to be in the vicinity of the installations that were vandalised, have become victims of the ‘net’ that the state has cast. In cases where the prime suspect could not be apprehended, family members have been arrested or harassed.
The way the PTI has been put under pressure also shows this high-handedness and injustice. People were forced to leave the party. They were arrested and kept in jail till they held a press conference to denounce their party affiliation. They were then let out. Family members were arrested, threatened or harassed to make people leave. Nothing erodes hope like injustice!
A friend’s cook was picked up as his number was identified as a result of geo-fencing. But the gentleman lives in the area, so how could his number not have come up? He stayed in jail for 45 days or so before being bailed out. The family had to spend a fair bit in engaging a lawyer and paying off the police station and jail staff to ensure access to some basic comforts for the gentleman and he still has to fight a case. The gentleman was a PML-N voter/supporter. Now he and his family are livid and want nothing to do with Pakistani politics.
Another gentleman, a doctor, was picked up because he was a relative of someone the police wanted to put pressure on. He had his connections so he stayed in the thana for only two days. But he is now planning to move abroad along with his family. He has absolutely no trust left in any local institution.
We have recently heard about the 10-year-old who was kept in the thana for 22 hours or so. His ‘crime’ was that he was walking around with a PTI flag. How many videos have we seen of police harassing or beating PTI flag carriers on the streets?
We have also heard about the 13-/14-year-old boy who was arrested for his alleged involvement in the May 9 incident. He was allegedly framed. But this child stayed in jail for more than a month. His sisters have also been, again allegedly, harassed by the police. His father died after their home was raided by the police to rearrest the child after he had just returned on bail. The police are denying any wrongdoing, of course. But, unless there is a credible inquiry, what should we believe? Do we not know our police? Nothing erodes hope like injustice!
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Remember this quote from Martin Luther King Jr as we move forward. These are dark times and if it is thought that repression will lighten the darkness, it is not going to happen. If only the establishment would understand.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2023