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A dehumanised horde

April 26, 2012

HUNDREDS of Pakistani lives have recently been lost in one disaster or another. On almost all such occasions our collective response betrays a persistent failure to learn the appropriate lessons, a stunning lack of concern for human life.

A tendency to look at these events as the work of a cruel fate has become an integral feature of the Pakistani mindset, an utterly unintelligent way of insinuating that the people are in no way responsible, not even indirectly. More than 100 men have been buried alive under a mountain of ice and our hearts are not smitten by remorse that we as a people might have contributed to the turn of events.

True, there is much demonstration of sorrow and solidarity by civil society activists. Amidst a great deal of wailing only a few questions are asked about exposing unsuspecting soldiers to unimaginable hazards. A debate starts on whether Pakistani troops can unilaterally be pulled out of the death trap. Throughout this debate the culprit is the ‘other’.

Moreover, we are at best critical of the latest symptom of security mismanagement, and are palpably afraid of appraising the overall defence strategy which has led to a senseless confrontation. The reason obviously is a desire to avoid conceding that the people are in the final analysis responsible for not breaking away from myths that push many of our defenders to death for causes they cannot understand.

Or take last week’s plane crash. Again, there has been much demonstration of sorrow, with media organisations competing with one another to glamorise private grief. The tendency to identify the demoniacal ‘other’ is abundantly evident. Who allowed a 27-year-old plane to be flown, asked someone, pretending ignorance of old planes being used for years. Did we think of grounding the Fokkers, marvellous vehicles while they were young, before that terrible crash near Multan? Does nobody remember the ban the European authorities placed on our planes on grounds of poor maintenance and unsatisfactory repair?

The authorities’ response to the disaster exposes their habitual reliance on half-measures. Now no private airline will be allowed to operate a plane without a certificate of its air-worthiness. Why planes of private airlines only? Does the new step imply that the policy now being imposed was not in force so far or that it was in force only in theory? One should have thought that the powers that be would not evade the obvious question: how does Pakistan’s experience of plane crashes over the past 50 years — since the PIA plane crash near Cairo in the 1960 — compare with the record of other countries, other national/private carriers?

In all the discussion little attention has been paid to the agency that controls air traffic — the Civil Aviation Authority. It is quite some time since a former CAA head, Aminullah Chaudhry, published an exposé of the moribund organisation, which apparently offers post-retirement sinecures to somebody’s favourites. Nobody has paid heed to his lament that bringing CAA under responsible civilian control seemed as difficult as offering a guarantee against a military coup.

On another level, our insistence on calling man-made debacles tragedies scripted by unidentifiable hands, and this without evidence of any catharsis, indicates a stage in collective brutalisation that generates a mechanical response to the loss of human life. The Shias are butchered in Gilgit-Baltistan? Issue a press statement. The Hazaras are killed in Quetta? Order an inquiry. Targeted killing continues in Karachi? Issue a warning that so and so has taken notice. Headlines are large or small depending on the number or rank of victims.

One misses the pain and anguish that one feels when one’s flesh and blood is torn away. The indifference with which loss of life is treated in Pakistan suggests that it was for people like us that Hobbes wrote: “No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Civilised societies do not ignore the ordinary human being — the basic unit of a social group. An example is the move by four UN special rapporteurs on the killing of HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) activist, Zarteef Afridi, who was gunned down for defending innocent lives against extremist militants.

Zarteef was killed on Dec 8, 2011 and the authorities have forgotten the matter. On Dec 30, four special rapporteurs — on freedom of opinion and expression, on the right to peaceful assembly and association, on human rights defenders, and on extra-judicial executions — addressed a communication to the Pakistan mission at Geneva in which they asked for certain assurances. The letter recalled that three of the special rapporteurs had written to the mission in May 2011 about the killing of two HRCP members, Mr Siddiq Eido and Mr Naeem Sabir, and regretted that “to date no reply to this communication has been transmitted”.

The letter expressed concern “that the killing of Mr Zarteef Afridi may be directly related to his human rights work and in particular his work against terrorism and extremism in Fata. Further concern is expressed for the physical and psychological integrity of members of the HRCP….” The special rapporteurs have argued at length about the responsibility of the Pakistan government and declared their intention to raise the matter at the Human Rights Council. They sought Islamabad’s response within 60 days to four questions. 1. Are the facts alleged in the letter accurate?

2. Please provide the details, and where available the results, of any investigation; and judicial or other inquiries carried out in relation to the killing of Zarteef Afridi. If no inquiries have taken place, or if they have been inconclusive, please explain why.

3. Please provide the full details of any prosecutions which have been undertaken. Have penal, disciplinary or administrative sanctions been imposed on the alleged perpetrators?

4. Please provide details of any protective measures which have been put in place to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of members of HRCP.

The mission at Geneva brought the matter to the notice of the Foreign Office without a day’s delay. Sixty days have passed. The government’s reply is not known.

The issue is not the fate of one human rights defender or another. The measures suggested should be considered mandatory in the case of killing of each Pakistani journalist and any other human rights activist. The key element in the letter is concern for the physical and psychological integrity of the Pakistani community. Their concern for human life inspires the concept of civilised governance.

Unfortunately, we have such a long tradition of mandating the individual human being’s sacrifice for the collective that we have been drained of all feelings of attachment to fellow beings. By doing so, we risk losing the title of a society or a people — in both formations people are bonded together by concern for one another — and falling to the level of a dehumanised horde.

Unless we throw out the gods of national interest from our pantheon and replace puerile slogans like ‘Pakistan First’ with ‘Every Pakistani First’ we will neither be able to remove the fundamental flaw in governance nor acquire the capacity to own responsibility for disasters of our own making.