Feb 10, 2009

Pakistani Underclass

Pakistan is not a single nation. It is many; a kaleidoscope of ethnic and lingual colours. We rejoice in these divisions and deem them to be a source of strength and renewal. Yet, there is another sort of division that afflicts our society. It is nefarious, shameful, divisive and potentially fatal to our viability as a nation. The vast majority of Pakistanis are an 'underclass' - people who are not quite full citizens. This underclass is poor, and usually, but not always, illiterate. They are the people who work in the fields and factories of Pakistan. They are construction labourers, and rickshaw drivers. They are our household help and those who clean our streets. Their clothing is frayed and basic but their hearts are, more often than not, of pure gold. They are those whom we address as 'tu' or 'tum'. Their access to civic amenities - health care, education, security, sanitation, and housing - is non-existent or severely limited. Those who are lucky enough to have a job can be dismissed on a whim. They live in shanty towns, victims of hunger and despair. Self anointed 'sahebs' and 'sahebas' treat this huge underclass with contempt. It is as though they were objects, material possessions without hearts or feelings; slaves with no rights or recourse or dignity. Their sahebs have no compunction in subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse at the slightest infraction. Wrongdoing that is perceived to be more serious invites a visit by the police, and a merciless beating. There is no presumption of innocence, or, God forbid, right to any kind of defense. The 'sahebs' are not congenitally uncouth. People of culture, education and merit will talk to you (another saheb) with a tongue of milk and honey. A moment later the same people will turn to a driver, or gardener or a maid, with a tongue laced with venom. It is as though the mere sight of these people brings on an uncontrolled Pavlov like response. The King of Saudi Arabia sits in the car alongside his driver in the front seat. Yet a minor saheb in Pakistan would never deign to sit with his driver in the same row. If the driver drives the saheb sits in the back seat. If the saheb should choose to drive he has the driver sit in the back seat. Human societies are not immune from class divisions. But ours is not the usual class division that exists amongst most societies. In the West there are class divisions; rich and poor, blue collar and white, country yokels and city elite. Yet, all people are 'equal' and have equal rights and privileges. In the Arab world there are the very rich and the very poor. But when the 'Sheikh' sits down to dinner all the household help sits down with him at the same 'maida'. The class divide that we have here in Pakistan is unique and uniquely repugnant. If we are to survive as a nation it must end. But any effective remedy demands some understanding of the causes of the ailment. Our particular ailment - this malicious class divide - has its roots in colonialism and feudalism. This is not to blame these twin scourges. The blame clearly lies with us - you and me - for not 'curing' this disease 60 years into our nationhood. Feudalism first: The 'chaudhry' would stand tall, chest inflated, look with disdain at his vassals and treat them with scorn and derision. To the vassals it must have seemed that the way to get respect was to treat people like dirt. This attitude, over time, seems to have become part of our psyche; whoever fortune favoured, with even a minor advantage of position or wealth, felt that he could now treat those below him, whose company he had just departed, as lesser beings. It is a characteristic of the process of fermentation that the scum always rises to the surface. Colonialism was much the same. It has always stretched the imagination to see a single white man control an army of subservient natives with nothing more than a stick in his hand. The only way it could have worked was to convince the natives that he - the white man - was indeed superior. He had to behave as a saheb and this meant - even if he did not want to - treating the natives like dirt. This is history. Colonialism has long departed. Feudalism has been weakened but not eliminated. Yet the malignancy of their collective mindsets still rages unchecked in Pakistani society. Cancer kills. And this one is no different. Either we get it, or it - sooner or later - will get us. That some of us should systematically treat some of our compatriots as dirt is clearly repulsive and unacceptable. But why should it be a threat to our viability as a nation? A nation is a state of mind more than it is a physical space. It is an abstract, an idea, an emotion -call it what you will - that is dear to all who would call it theirs. We belong to it not because we have to, but because we want to. Take away this desire to belong and the concept of 'nation' disappears into thin air. And this why the existence of an underclass is fatal. Pakistan cannot be just for some of us. It must be for all of us. And this means that all of us, every single person, man, woman or child must be treated with respect and dignity. Nations succeed when they engender and preserve this sense of belonging and ownership in all of their people. It is only when this sense is created in our hearts that we become ready to put the interests of nation above our personal interests. It is only then that we become prepared to put in the hard work and make the sacrifices necessary to build and preserve. Bear in mind also that success in today's world depends on the ability to build and motivate organizations. The day of the individual has yielded to the day of the team. Look at any field of human endeavour - politics, business, education, research and development, sports - and it becomes clear that world beating success is a function of teamwork. You can have the best and brightest but, if they cannot work together as a team they are useless. The existence of an underclass interdicts us from coming together as a single people with common objectives and interests. The mindset of the underclass spawns - as it were - a subtle, perhaps more insidious consequence. What starts as a perception of social superiority results, ultimately, in a perception of intellectual sufficiency. So the 'chaudhry' now believes he knows, and the others do not, he alone is right and the others are wrong. As before, ordinary people think this is a quality worth emulating. Before long you have an army of ignoramuses who think they know it all. Ignorance alone is dangerous. Combine it with an ersatz sense of intelligence and it becomes incurable and hence lethal. Many years ago I remember a friend who used to run a textile mill in Karachi complain to me about the difficulty of training labour in Pakistan. Probed a little, he responded in exasperation, with a comment that has stuck in my mind. The problem, he said, is that every (expletive deleted) rickshaw driver in Pakistan thinks that he is a PhD! I thought that summarized our problem rather well. And it is a problem. If people think they know it all, when in fact they know nothing, they cannot be taught anything. What can be done? Can we break the barriers that history has set up between our peoples? Can the underclass be liberated, empowered and transformed in to a powerful nation building force. The answer is an unqualified yes. Sometimes the most powerful step is the easiest to take. We have to remove the pronouns 'tu' and 'tum' from our vocabulary. The only permissible use should be for endearment - between close friends and relatives. "Aap" must become the mandatory pronoun. This may seem a trivial matter. In fact it lies at the core of the divide that separates the underclass from 'normal' people. Talk to them with respect and you immediately elevate them to equals. I was told the story of the Saudi trader who built one of the biggest and most successful business houses in Saudi Arabia. The late Sheikh Juffali was well mannered and invariably soft spoken and polite. It is said that he would speak to the Chairman of IBM in exactly the same way as he would to his driver - a Pakistani. Would any minor Pakistani Saheb treat his driver with this kind of respect? Change also needs to come from the top. Look at our leaders. There they sit on a stage, or in an expensively furnished office or sitting room, in immaculately tailored western suits and ties. Is this attire consistent with what the majority of their people wear? Can there be a moral justification for this attire when the cost of a single suit exceeds the annual income of many poor families? Look at the cars in which they drive around. Or the style with which their movements around town are orchestrated - roads blocked, traffic hastily cleared away, outriders, sirens. All this while citizens who they are supposed to serve sit trapped in their cars and buses. Let them - the leaders - set the right example. We call them to moderation, humility, simplicity, decency and honesty. The people of Pakistan - all of us - will follow.

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