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Progressive regression

September 10, 2012


“IT’S funny in a non-haha way” a friend remarked, “our parents had the sixties; we grew up with Zia; and our children have the Taliban.”

For Pakistan, the dawn of the 21st century has meant mainly a surfeit of horror, a backwards journey into the dark tunnel instead of out of it. Progressively, we are regressing.

Hankering after the past is a familiar lament, one that afflicts most people and most societies at several points of existence. But in Pakistan, it takes on a greater significance because it is unarguable that in numerous ways, the past was a different, and better, country. We don’t often have cause to dwell upon it, but there is no better place to lead your mind along this direction than the library of a newspaper that documents the journey from there to here.

Newspapers from half a century ago tell us about balls, cabaret performances and dances. Karachi hosted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the early 1970s while they were on a tour of South Asia, and old photographs show an excited throng of hundreds of people greeting them at Karachi airport.

Would we see a similar scene if such celebrities decided to visit the country today? Certainly there would be a lot more beards and turbans, a bagful of security threats, and little chance for admirers to actually catch a glimpse of the men who made history as they sped past in their heavily guarded motorcades.

For the children of Zia, such a Pakistan is distant, a romanticised landscape that can’t possibly gel with reality as they know it. How will it be for the children of the Taliban, who are growing up with daily news about suicide bombings and kidnappings, and who must grapple with the question of why?

On a trip to Larkana a few years ago, an elderly waiter at a hotel run by the Tourism Development Corporation of Pakistan brought out an old photograph album. The pictures showed groups of people lounging by the hotel pool — in 2007 a dank hole in the ground with broken tiles covered in slime.

There was one of Z.A. Bhutto laughing with some women in sundresses and parasols. That, the waiter said, was taken when the then prime minister brought a group of Hollywood stars to visit his hometown.

I have not been able to verify whether or not the people in the picture were associated with Hollywood, or whether Bhutto was the prime minister at the time, but it hardly matters.

Certainly, they were visiting a Pakistan that was an entirely different place than it is today. And how ironic that the man in that picture was catapulted to power (in the 1970 elections, in Punjab) on the basis of brilliant oratory rooted in jingoistic notions of revolution and nationalism in the wake of the 1965 war — a mindset that is part of the reason why we are where we are today.

When you put together all the projections for the country in another 20 years, when the generation held hostage by the Pakistan of the new millennium will be taking over the reins, the picture that emerges is nothing short of awful.

Consider: a population heavily skewed towards the young; literacy rates that are not keeping pace with that youth bulge; and standards of education such that they are hardly worth the honorific; consequently shrinking employment options; a radicalisation in thought and deed that is evident across class and economic-power barriers, and so on, and tell me what it adds up to.

Is the tragedy greater for those who could once cherish hopes of an inclusive Pakistan and then saw it die, or for those that find such aspirations impossible to imagine given the here and the now?

How insidious the prejudice is against anyone who constitutes the ‘other’ is encapsulated in the heartbreak of the three-year-old in an English-medium school, who was told to sit and watch while the rest of the students made Eid cards for their parents, because he, being Christian, could not be included in the activity.

What makes you the ‘other’ is in modern Pakistan a constantly expanding list. As a citizenry, we could sit down and talk about it, debate what the problems are and where the solutions lie. But many in the country are having to ask themselves, what good is debate when the other side is using bullets?

It takes two to debate. It must of course be argued that those that still have the ability to speak from a sane perspective should continue to fight by raising their voice against injustice and intolerance. But as we have been forced to learn, speaking up is a dangerous exercise.

Most people who can speak of sanity in Pakistan have been silenced already. The environment in which we operate is such that when a prominent cleric spoke out in support of the young girl who has recently been granted bail in a blasphemy case, many reacted as though it was help from unexpected quarters — which, sad to say, it was. Expecting the rational in today’s society is too often to expect too much.

Those who work in the realm where ideas are for public knowledge — writers, journalists, artists, and so on — already find themselves reviewing every thought and every sentence on the basis of what reprisal they may invoke.

There are too many topics that one has to refrain from speaking one’s mind on, and the list is growing longer. As public discourse over the troubles facing this country shrinks to a vanishing point, where are we left?

The writer is a member of staff.