Mar 29, 2009

To live our dreams

Unlikely though it may seem, an American president has sought to weave the interests and aspirations of Pakistan's people into his country's grim encounter with the terrorist elements that operate in our tribal belt. When President Barack Obama unveiled his country's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, there was a general sense of approval from the official circles. We surely did not respond to him in the same cynical way that Bush would always provoke. And Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan is so much better. So, how does this relate to the assertion made by so many of our political leaders and media critics that Pakistan has unwisely plugged itself into a war that is exclusively America's? Incidentally, on the same day – a nine-hour time difference notwithstanding – that Obama was addressing the world in Washington D.C. we had a terrifying suicide attack on a mosque on Peshawar-Torkham Highway, killing more than 75 'namazis' and injuring more than one hundred. Saturday's newspapers, thus, had a choice in deciding their banner headlines. We did not need this reminder of what suicide bombers are doing to us and not just in the regions that border Afghanistan. The very thought that a Friday congregation that included security personnel would be the target of a terrorist is unbearable. But we have, unfortunately, been witness to a string of such mind-boggling atrocities. As for what Obama has said about Pakistan, leaving aside his pronouncements about the situation in Afghanistan and the measures that America is initiating on that front, let me quote these words: "The people of Pakistan want the same things that we want: an end to terror, access to basic services, the opportunity to live their dreams, and the security that can only come with the rule of law". In a sense, there is nothing profound in this observation. These aspirations have always been present to us and have been repeatedly expressed at different levels. The real issue is: what are we doing about it? Obama also said: "Make no mistake: Al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within." Well, this point may be a little harder to digest for many of us. Yet, the fact that our polity is afflicted with predicaments that have put our survival at stake is incontrovertible. Indeed, the cancer of religious extremism and terrorism is not the only disease with which we suffer. Our crises are manifold. To be able to understand these crises and to devise a proper strategy to deal with them is the big challenge. Yes, the inspiring victory of the lawyers' movement, with its somewhat ambivalent political and 'ideological' undertones, has provided us with a silver lining in these dark times. But the challenges that we face are surging like a storm and our capacity to deal with them, irrespective of the waywardness of the present government, seems very limited. Again, the American example of how it reviewed its strategy relating to its war against terrorism in this region can be instructive. Whether or not this new strategy explores any new grounds or projects any creative ideas, the point is that the exercise was thorough and painstaking. Conclusions were drawn from an intensive debate that involved high functionaries and area experts and think tanks. When have we been so serious and sincere about an issue that we need to resolve?I have drifted in this direction because initially I was aiming to write my column on an apparently minor incident, an incident that should not surprise us in terms of our knowledge of what is almost a matter of routine in our society. And what is that incident?On Thursday, a Geo reporting team, along with a team of the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi, raided an unauthorised examination centre where students were found cheating in their Matric examination with the help of their teachers and parents. You would say: what is so surprising about it because we have always known that this happens, and at all levels of our educational system. Our provincial governments, education being their domain, have known about it. Our educational authorities, even when not directly involved, have always condoned this practice. (Do I need to mention the case of the daughter of a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in this context?) Finally, the parents seem to be widely implicated in this practice. Should one call it unIslamic, like suicide bombings? Well, these and similar practices that betray our lack of morality and principles do constitute a kind of suicide bombing. What we are killing are not human beings, with blood splashed all over. We are killing their minds and their dreams. We are killing the future of this country. If this continues, even the billions that we can get from the Americans and the west and even the armed forces that we can bolster with the latest technologies will not matter. So, the big question is: what can our governments achieve in terms of our larger strategic goals when they do not appear to be able to provide basic education to all our children and conduct examinations that are honest and credible? We know how coercive our governments can be when, for instance, they want to prevent the lawyers or the civil society activist to stage a peaceful demonstration. We know about the incredible power that some political outfits have acquired to deal with their adversaries. But nobody has the ability or will to stop cheating in our examinations. Obviously, they don't genuinely understand the priorities of a nation that is struggling for its survival. Every one talks about education being a high priority. Or health. Or employment. What it is like on the ground is so heartbreaking that perhaps it is their defence against insanity that they don't want to look at it. This may be one reason our high functionaries keep the windows of their shining Land Cruisers shaded. This is not to question the commitment of a large number of citizens who, either in their official or private capacities, are striving to improve the delivery of educational and health services. We do have, in our society, an impetus for change and social renewal. That is why the lawyers' movement was a watershed in our lives. It was founded on morality and on the concept of rule of law. By the way, even the Charter of Democracy talks about the induction of merit in our system. To conclude, let me repeat my lament about the de-intellectualisation of the Pakistani society. We are not building our moral and intellectual resources to be able to even begin our journey for progress and prosperity. Our economic crisis may be averted with generous foreign assistance, but what about this intellectual meltdown?By Ghazi Salahuddin

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