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The plot: lost apparently

June 25, 2012

THE verdict handed down last week by the Supreme Court, retrospectively unseating prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from his position as head of government, will be debated at length over the coming weeks and months.

As has been pointed out by many a commentator, the full effect and the implications of this development are likely to play themselves out over several years, if not decades. The word of the judiciary is binding — but was this, for Pakistan, the best of the many outcomes possible? The cliché applies: only time will tell.

Being neither a political commentator nor a student of constitutional law, I will leave that discussion to be picked over by minds better qualified. But this ruling and its immediate aftermath have brought to the fore, once again, an intensifying societal trend that, as a student of anthropology, I find very interesting and at the same time deeply worrying.

To be sure, in some quarters we saw a certain degree of grace under pressure, a restrained response that suited the gravity of the situation. Beyond these limited few, though, what we saw as a whole in society’s reaction was a good measure of an emotion that, for want of a more precise word, exemplified vindictiveness, pleasure at the sight of a symbol of power being pulled down.

Beyond the legal aspect of the matter (whether or not justice had been served) what many saw as having been served was comeuppance for — here I’m conjecturing — having been favoured by fortune far more than the bulk of the citizenry is.

I once read somewhere that of the many varieties of fish in the sea that are caught for consumption, crabs are unique in that if there are a number of them in a bucket, you don’t have to cover it up to keep them in. Like all creatures a crab will try to escape confinement — and has a good chance of managing it if it’s on its own. More than one, though, and the others will pull the would-be escapee down.

Does that analogy hold in terms of Pakistan? Do we, as a citizenry, assuage the pain of our wretchedness by pulling back into the bucket anyone that looks like having a chance to escape?

One cannot, of course, argue that Mr Gilani was, by being in a position of high political office, trying to ‘escape’ the swamp in the sense elaborated above. But it has become undeniable that as a people we take more than just a little pleasure in the downfall of others, and concerns of being unkind or indelicate or failing to see the bigger picture simply do not occur to us.

This underlying emotion was demonstrated in the headlines in various newspapers the next day, displaying — though in a delicately restrained fashion — a sort of gleeful excitement (rather than sobering reflection) at the development.

It was demonstrated by a number of published photographs that showed people — in particular workers of a young political party — exchanging sweetmeats and hugs.

It was demonstrated by the manner in which television went after whoever was willing to appear on air and wring from them some sort of damaging admission, an incendiary comment, a potentially divisive statement.

This is far from the first time that we have seen this sort of reaction; the examples are too many to recount, concerning falls both big and small — the execution of an elected prime minister being a case that stands out for its sheer enormity.

If one lets the eye of the imagination zoom out and go beyond the specifics, pull further and further away till the faces and names and forms are blurred, then the situation appears to resemble nothing so much as a pack of hounds whining excitedly, pawing eagerly at their restraints, waiting for a chance.

Do we need reminding that ‘historic’, ‘landmark’ or ‘momentous’ events or developments are not necessarily positive? ‘Game-changers’ are not necessarily deserving of a joyous reception.

The events set in motion by the SC verdict may be all these, but they constitute a sad day for a country which, it seems, resolutely refuses to let any person or institution start digging a tunnel to some degree of freedom.

Instead of prancing in the streets, as television footage showed people in some areas doing, we should have been reflecting upon the sorry pass at which this country finds itself, and pondering how we got here, how each of us contributed in our own way, and what needs to be done to get ourselves out of it.

Instead, we pointed at the figures involved and, like hyenas, laughed. Most recently, we did the same when the Malik Riaz-Arsalan Iftikhar affair raised its head or when ‘memogate’ caused the ‘defrocking’ of an ambassador; there is little doubt that as a society we’ll continue to do this in the future.

The point is not whether any or all involved are heroes or villains — the point is that what all these developments say about the state of Pakistan and its society, and the direction in which they send us, ought to have us hanging our heads in sorrow. Relevant here would be that quote used often by local commentators with reference to Pakistan. You know the one: Khalil Gibran on nations that greet leaders with trumpets and boot them out with hoots — a poem, in fact, that was referred to in the six-page additional note by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa alongside the detailed decision regarding the prime minister’s contempt case in May.

Why do we do this? There can be many potential avenues of explanation and recrimination. But this much is clear: we — Pakistan — do seem to have lost the plot. Do we now simply await the death of Piggy (Lord of the Flies)? That would be anyone’s guess.

The writer is a member of staff.