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Progressive regression


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“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.

Comments (16) Closed

ACFP Sep 10, 2012 06:07pm
Qaid-e-Azam never said such things. Thse chants came from Liaqat Ali Khan and his Mullah backers who induces objective resolution in to Pakistan. By the way it is easy to say things like what you say sitting safely in Canad. Try to live as one of minority in Pakistan.
sri1ram Sep 11, 2012 04:55am
Beautifully put, Andleeb. People, this is exactly the kind of viewpoint that is pushing a nation with great potential and talented people, to the edge of the cliff. Till the main-stream realizes that those "pseudo-intellectuals" have it 200% right, there is no hope for this land of the pure.
Sauron Sep 10, 2012 01:35pm
Yep.. Sacrificing your comforts in Canada...
kbkalee Sep 11, 2012 03:18pm
Dear Ms Hajrah Mumtaz, Your extremely well-written & well-meaning article "Progressive Regression" touched me to the depth of my core. Bravo But then I thought: as long as it has columnists like you who write so fearlessly on right issues and there are readers who want to read such articles, Pakistan can't be dismissed as a "has-been" nation. Pl carry on the good work you are doing. Sometimes I feel that by continuing to indulge in a military warfare that it can't afford and making compromises to fund it with clergy on one hand, with its sovereignty on the other hand & simultaneous courtship with nations that are poles apart like US & China (and now Russia). Will Pakistani leadership never learn? Only "born again" Nawaz Sharif seems like a good statesman! Warm regards, K B Kale, Jakarta
Falcon Sep 10, 2012 04:59am
@author - I agree, but have you ever wondered the hopelessness articles like this create for the youth of this country? It is as if people are explicating something we don't know already. At least for once, talk about solutions & hope. Believe me, it is really really tiring to see that the best of this country have given up already in their minds, the people we could look up to.
sri1ram Sep 10, 2012 05:16am
The main issue is that rationals like you are a rare minority nowadays. I doubt if such practical sentiments are ever expressed so succinctly in mainstream Urdu newspapers. And if someone dares to go out of the way to translate such thoughts to Urdu, he or she can easily be silenced.
Shiv Kumar Sep 10, 2012 06:12am
yes it is sad but was expected. hate for the other begets hate only , it cannot be other wise. First it was hindus and Sikhs at partition.after they had been dealt with then it was the ahmadis,then shias,then hazaras,then barelvis and then.........
andleeb (canada) Sep 10, 2012 06:21am
Your article reeks of anti-Islam. Even Jinnah said "The meaning of Pakistan is Ya Illaha Il Allah." Pseudo-Intellectuals do not realize the sacrifices made to make Pakistan an Islamic Republic. Shame on you. Today the entire Islamic world looks upon Pakistan as the leader and saviour of Islam. Many of us are sacrificing our comforts to keep that leadership in the Islamic world.
Cyrus Howell Sep 10, 2012 06:48am
"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." -- Plato
Dr.S.F.Haq Sep 10, 2012 08:07am
It is the duty of religious Scholars and Ulemas to come forward against injustice and in favor of minorities if they want to show the real picture of Islam.
NDChawla Sep 10, 2012 08:57am
Dear Dr. Haq, All the sects have their scholars. The problem is created by their misunderstanding or mis-interpetation of religion. The government has to intervene and at least ensure that they do not resort to violence or take law into their hands.
Humaira Sep 10, 2012 11:53am
The author is missing a key point. Our nation was founded on a religious basis and to be a beacon of Islam. Our models rightfully are a caliphate for the ummah and sharia as the leading light. So, the westernized revelry of the 1960s were the abherration not the progressive move towards Islam in the post-Zia. One must credit Zia for correcting a nation which had lost its way,
Leo Sep 10, 2012 03:17pm
What are you doing in Canada?
Sandip Sep 10, 2012 02:23pm
Problem is never the religion. Problem is common sense which is not so common any more.
nayani Sep 10, 2012 04:06am
It must be pretty tough not to have freedom of expression. But All these things will pass and the nation will realise the collective follies and I am sure that the Pakisthanis will bring hope, happiness and satisfaction themselves.
MilesToGo Sep 10, 2012 04:07am
Its not late yet. Think of Iraq and Iran and then think of Turkey. Pakistan has one last opportunity before it crosses the point of no return in next decade or so.