Well, a poor scribe may not be entitled to what is recognised as writer’s block but I am finding it hard to write this column. Given the overall state of affairs in this country, this journalistic task is even otherwise not a very exciting experience. However, things go awry when a certain mood assails your senses just when the deadline looms.
What is really making me anxious is that I am unable to deal adequately with any of the many matters that I find relevant this week. For instance, I am mindful of the fact this column is being published on a fourth of April. It is a date that is etched in blood in Pakistan’s history.
Because I am old enough to have lived through that time as a journalist when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed (assassinated?), I tend to relate personally to a national tragedy that has a bearing on the present tensions within the power structure. During that dark night of Gen Zia’s martial law, I was writing a weekly column in Dawn and struggling to chronicle the surge of popular emotions in the midst of distress and defiance.
Remembering Bhutto and the revolutionary impact he had had on our politics is more than a ritual at this time when the party he had founded is confronted with large questions that would test its foundational impulse of being with the people – the awaam – and challenging the powers that be. The injury that has been done to the opposition’s alliance, irrespective of how it is explained by respective parties, should be carefully explored.
But I am totally distracted by the death on Friday of Kamran Arif, one of Pakistan’s leading campaigners for human rights and social justice. It has happened so suddenly that I cannot collect my thoughts. We were together in the Council of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) for more than two decades and I was associated with him for some time in Foundation Open Society Institute of Pakistan (FOSIP).
There is this rush of memories in which the small number of distinguished defenders of human rights is also featured. Kamran was an exceptional human being and we shared our interests in literature and movies and other intellectual pursuits. He was an avid photographer, with a professional touch. We had travelled together in groups to numerous cities and regions on fact finding missions and for meetings.
When I think of Kamran, what flashes in my mind as a halo is the face of Asma Jahangir because we used to be in her company on numerous occasions. This makes the loss of Kamran to Covid so much more painful. Human rights defenders are becoming an endangered species in a country where liberal and democratic elements are increasingly under attack.
An additional distraction for me this week was a detailed investigative feature published in the New York Times Magazine on Wednesday. It totally ruined my Thursday when I read it. Incidentally, it becomes a link in the PPP chain because it constitutes a comment on how Bhutto’s party has governed Sindh over the years.
The feature, with graphic and haunting photographs, is titled: ‘The city losing its children to H.I.V.’ The subtitle is: ‘A pathetic outbreak in a remote Pakistani city shows the urgency of global health after Covid’. The story is about Ratodero, in Larkana – the heart of the Bhutto constituency. It is true that it has been told before, though briefly, but this account is expansive and incisive.
It so happens that a version of the story on ‘The sick children of Ratodero’ was scheduled to be published today in the Sunday Magazine of the newspaper which surely is one of the best in the world. I do now know if they have timed it with Bhutto’s death anniversary.
Anyhow, I was emotionally shattered by the comments I read in the web edition of The New York Times. These comments would fill an entire page of a newspaper. Again and again, the readers return to this word: heartbreaking. “Oh my God!”, said one comment, “this is the first time that I can’t think of anything that could possibly help the situation here because there are so many contributing factors to this tragedy in Pakistan”.
And yes, the tragedy of Pakistan that is reflected in the performance of Imran Khan’s government is also heartbreaking. If a government could melt in shame, there was more than sufficient incentive for it during this week. Today, the fourth of April, is an appropriate day to observe that with all his charisma, Imran Khan is no Bhutto.
But who Bhutto was is not something that can be summarised here. As a journalist, I have been a witness to what has happened since his execution. I had once written that he was a thread of scarlet in the drab fabric of Pakistan’s politics. To be sure, he was a flawed leader. But Pakistan’s politics was changed forever after he awakened the people during his campaign in the late sixties. The courage with which he faced death is unmatched in our history. He stood firmly on a high moral ground.
The question I have today is: what does his party intend to do with this legacy? One does not know if the members of its Central Executive Committee, when they meet, will be candid in their presentations and if they will, in their mind’s eye, see Bhutto looking over the proceedings. Can the PPP go back to its beginning, leaping across its Zardari interlude, and step up to a high moral ground?
Regrettably, we seem destined to be perpetually disillusioned with almost all our parties and leaders. Yet, we saw hope when a tide rose in Punjab and were waiting to see if democratic forces would take it at the flood. That is why the formation of an alliance of the opposition was celebrated, particularly because a new generation was seen at the helm.
We now see cracks in that alliance. And, again, it is heartbreaking.