A time of reckoning By Ghazi Salahuddin

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There were hardly any signs of cheer in the nation when Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) staged its celebration of three years in power on Thursday. The big show was held in Islamabad and arrangements had been made to relay it on big screens set in other major cities. It was also, of course, telecast live on news channels.

Yet, there is no evidence of it creating much excitement at the popular level. The anniversary actually fell on August 18. Perhaps the function was postponed because of distractions at that time last week. The Taliban fighters had entered Kabul on August 15, and everyone needed time to absorb the meaning of this stunning development.

Even more disturbing was the revelation of sexual assault on a woman by a mob on the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on Independence Day and a traumatized nation’s sense of outrage was just building up. In fact, they took notice of the incident on August 17, when its video went viral.

Anyhow, the day on which the ceremony was held became ominous in another context. Not much time had elapsed after Imran Khan had ended his hour-long speech that the suicide attack outside Kabul airport was reported. And the world changed. More than one hundred persons were killed, including 13 American military personnel.

This massive act of terror, though its threat was projected by America’s intelligence agencies, suddenly altered the Afghan scenario. New uncertainties were injected into an already tenuous situation. While the Taliban are holding the fort, they are still not in power. A power vacuum presently reigns in Kabul.

Expectedly, the responsibility of the attacks was claimed by the Islamic State, or Daesh. US President Biden vowed retaliation: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay”. Does this mean that the US would still have a role to play in Afghanistan? More such noises are likely to be raised when America observes the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 in less than two weeks.

September, for that matter, is promising to be as eventful a month as August. The deadline for the American forces to finally depart from Afghanistan is August 31. This will be a landmark moment and the Taliban will reveal their cards after the Americans have left. Thursday’s deadly blasts are bound to have an impact on the evolving situation. The environment of fear and insecurity among the citizens of Kabul and other cities of the country has deepened.

Naturally, Pakistan will be directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan. One big question relates to the future of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and whether the Afghan Taliban will be able to rein it in. Once again, there may be some talk about the good and the bad Taliban.

While all this will have a bearing on how Pakistan conducts its foreign and domestic affairs, one should not ignore the significance of how the present rulers deal with the various ailments with which Pakistani society is suffering. There are symptoms that we have constantly closed our eyes to, resorting generally to short-term palliative measures. Eventually, the threat to our health and sanity, in a collective sense, is becoming very real.

One reference, as you would have guessed, is the epidemic of sexual harassment of women. It is true that the nation was shocked by the savage attack on a female TikToker by a mob in a public place. But the message has not yet been adequately registered, though there has been a spate of reported incidents of rapes and violence against women.

Incidentally, the focus on rising sex crimes in Pakistan has come at the same time that the status of women in the new Afghanistan, after the triumph of the Taliban, has raised serious concerns. We have seen ample appreciation of how the Taliban have changed in the past twenty years. More striking is how Afghan civil society evolved during this time. Advances made by women in every field were remarkable and inspiring for oppressed women in any traditional society. The thought of all this being reversed is heart-rending.

Equally painful, though the situation here is vastly different, are the barriers that stand in the way of a potentially progressive social change in Pakistan, with emphasis on social justice and empowerment of women. But what is the nature of ‘Naya Pakistan’ that Imran Khan had sought to build? Sadly, the celebration of three years of the PTI provided no clarity in this respect.

Although Imran Khan would be excused for blowing his own and his party’s trumpet on this occasion, a measure of sober reflection on the state of the society under the PTI’s rule would not be out of place. He is the charismatic leader of his party – or one should say that he personifies the party. No one can question his wisdom – or his policy, even if it is variable.

Consider the opinions he has expressed on why rape cases happen. Because of the position he holds, he perhaps has the right to pontificate on any national issue. That he does on a regular basis. For instance, he had some thought-provoking views on education in his speech on Wednesday, stressing that English-medium system was ‘mental slavery’. He wants the revival of indigenous culture, without explaining what it truly is.

Apparently, there was a blueprint for ‘Naya Pakistan’ in the party’s manifesto and the promises made at different stages of the PTI rule. The ceremony on Thursday called for a proper stocktaking of how ‘Naya’ is Pakistan now, compared to three years ago. Observers have noted that the prime minister’s speech was conspicuous for what he did not say.

But beyond speeches, Pakistani society needs urgent clinical attention. The increasing sex crimes may only be the tip of the iceberg. A correct diagnosis becomes difficult when dissenting voices are shut out. And when it comes to ‘insaf’, the judiciary itself seems to be in a crisis. Where are the people who can show us the way forward?