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Love as a counter

March 14, 2013

THERE are at least 100 Pakistani families who will not be voting in the forthcoming general elections. They no longer have houses that the Election Commission can visit to verify their home addresses; those have been burnt down.

They no longer have any transport of their own to convey them to polling booths; their motorcycles have been incinerated. They do not possess their original national identity cards; those have been reduced to ashes.

These 100 families have joined the swelling ranks of victimised innocent Pakistanis — that include other persecuted Christians and religious minorities.

Slowly, each marginalised segment of our society is finding itself compressed into an overcrowded ghetto, that narrow white rectangle on our national flag which represents our minorities. It is only a matter of time before the majority — the mass of green — begins to quibble over what constitutes the most acceptable shade of green.

At a time when politics overpowers principles, when loss of life has itself lost meaning, when hate rather than love conquers all, it is well to remember that there is no human being anywhere who does not have a neighbour. Every Robinson Crusoe has a Man Friday. Each one of us therefore owes a responsibility to that Man Friday, not only on Fridays.

Responsibility had been defined once by the American writer Ambrose Bierce, as “a detachable burden, easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbour”.

A more serious view has come from a British theologian Dr Jonathan Sacks. “We have grown used to delegating such responsibilities to governments,” he explains, “in return for which we pay taxes — substituting politics for ethics, law for moral obligation, and impersonal agencies for personal involvement. As a result, ethics has turned inward, becoming a matter of personal choice rather than of collective responsibility.”

“There was a time,” he recalls, “when people lived in close, ongoing contact with neighbours, creating networks of shared meaning and reciprocal duty. Nowadays we live anonymously among strangers whose religious, cultural and moral codes are different from ours.”

General elections in any democratic country are the collective test by which communities are allowed to demonstrate that they can coalesce across religious, social and class barriers. The hope inherent in any election is that it will rejuvenate a system of self-governance which will rise above individual ambitions, sectarian prejudices, economic disparities, and religious divides. To adapt Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism about second marriages, elections are a triumph of hope over experience.

Very soon, the present national and provincial assemblies will have been dissolved, interim governments installed, and an election schedule put into place. Hope for the next three months will hold sway over experience. After that, we will know whether experience has vanquished hope.

It is a truism that good fences make good neighbours, within countries and outside them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in inter-state relations, where Berlin Walls keep nations contained and quiescent. We are perhaps the only country on the map of the world that — even after almost 66 years of independence — has four sections of its border still undefined: in the north, Jammu & Kashmir; in the northeast, Aksai-Chin; in the southeast, Sir Creek; in the west, the Durand Line. The only country with whom our border is clearly and unequivocally demarcated is Iran.

That is what makes the sudden resurrection of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, whose groundbreaking ceremony was performed by President Zardari and Dr Mamoud Ahmedinejad at the border point of Charbahar on March 11, 2013, such a significant event. Almost overnight, 20 years of political cowardice have been transformed into an act of political courage.

No project in our history has had such an elephantine gestation and none such a precipitate birth. Conceived in 1994, it has taken two decades for the flags of the two countries to be welded on to a common section of the $7.5 billion dollar pipeline. At a diplomatic level, we have proclaimed that we are determined to be a good neighbour to Iran. What remains conjectural is whether Good Neighbour Sam will allow Iran and Pakistan to become better neighbours.

The decision to go ahead with the controversial pipeline is a master-stroke of opportunism by President Zardari. If he is re-elected by the new assemblies for another term later this year, he can take credit for a daring initiative. If by any happenstance, he should find himself voted out of the presidency, he will leave a problem-child for his successor to rear. It is said that the only two sure things are death and taxes. In Pakistan, the inevitability is not taxes. It is inescapable loadshedding during the punishing summer months. It will take two more harsh summers before the Pakistani public will be able to thank their Iranian neighbours for their gas. Until then, outages will remain on our side of the border, and its relief tantalising on the Iranian side.

Advice from the US is no more acceptable to Iran and Pakistan than a homily from Dr Jonathan Sacks, for he has been the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth. Yet, his advice needs to be heard, especially across every divide that separates neighbours: “The only force equal to the fundamentalism of hate is the counter-fundamentalism of love.”

The writer is an author.