With so many distractions, including thunder and rain and the prospect of opening up major sectors from tomorrow, it is Beirut that tugs at your heart. And it is Beirut that conveys a cryptic message of what the world is coming to, even though it has no obvious connection with the pandemic or its economic or societal consequences. Yet, there is this global environment of uncertainty and dread against the backdrop of a diabolical ebb and flow of the invisible coronavirus.
In any case, Tuesday’s explosion in a city that has lived with multiple calamities of our times, without forsaking its mystique and its glory, has shaken the entire world. We, in Pakistan, are not so well plugged into international events and issues, thanks to the narrow vision and biases of our popular media. But the graphic visuals that we have witnessed of an unimaginable tragedy should make us more aware of our bondage with all the peoples of the world. In some ways, all of us share our sorrows and our aspirations.
At one level, of course, conflicts and contradictions between and within countries are becoming more deadly. That is how August 5, the first anniversary of India’s annexation of the occupied Jammu and Kashmir, was observed with considerable passion and ceremony. As a certification of Pakistan’s stance, the world is beginning to take notice of the brutal treatment of the Kashmiri people by Narendra Modi’s government.
Modi ‘celebrated’ August 5 by laying the foundation for Ram Mandir in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, in the midst of a Covid surge. Like Kashmir, it is another dispute of history that has impacted Hindu-Muslim relations in India, constitutionally a secular state. When Hindu mobs demolished a medieval mosque on the site, saying it was built on the ruins of a temple for Lord Ram, bloody riots had broken out and there was a violent reaction in Pakistan.
This is how India and Pakistan have betrayed their own people by investing their political attention and material resources in animosity and confrontation. The question that comes to mind now is whether the Covid crisis that brings into focus the protection of lives and livelihoods will have an impact on their national priorities.
Incidentally, August is an appropriate month to reflect on these issues. I have made a reference to August 5 that is the latest red-letter day in South Asian history. Shortly, the two countries will celebrate their independence days – a great moment of history split on two days. In Pakistan, August 11 has its own significance, though the liberals and the rightists wrangle over its relevance for the country’s ideological moorings. Sadly, the present government is surreptitiously giving in to orthodox and obscurantist forces. It has already become a place that Jinnah would want to disown.
So who does Pakistan belong to in a real sense? A rhetorical question it appears to be but it demands serious reflection, particularly at a time when there is this sense of being on the cusp of history. In many societies, the Covid-19 experience, somehow, has served as a catalyst. Great upheavals are in the making. People are now expected to be more assertive, demanding economic rights and social justice. Or would this situation bolster repressive regimes and extremist narratives?
I have two references that I would cite very briefly to try to understand the national drift. On July 21, leading journalist Matiullah Jan, an intrepid critic of the ruling establishment, was abducted from outside a school in Islamabad and the incident was captured on the school’s CCTV. This could provide ample evidence about who his abductors were, a few of them wearing police uniforms. He was released late in the evening, after a strong protest by the civil society and human rights defenders.
On July 22, when Matiullah Jan was to appear before the Supreme Court for a contempt of court hearing, the Supreme Court ordered the Inspector General of Islamabad to submit a report on the incident. This report was presented on Wednesday and it said, two weeks after the incident, that the police were still waiting for replies from different departments. On Thursday, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure at the performance of the Islamabad police and directed the officers to visit the relevant departments instead of writing letters. The hearing was adjourned for four weeks.
On July 29, an elderly man accused of blasphemy was shot dead by a young man in a courtroom of the Judicial Complex in Peshawar. That young man, though arrested, was treated like a hero. It did not seem to matter much that he was able to carry his gun into the high-security zone. Incidentally, a man entered the Red Zone in Islamabad on Wednesday and started firing a submachine gun in front of the Supreme Court. He was arrested as he chanted a religious slogan. He had brought his weapon from Hangu, using public transport, and was able to hide it until his arrest.
I will say no more about the state of affairs in Pakistan. As it is, the explosion in Beirut was my starting point. It touches us because it feeds our vulnerabilities in these uncertain days. A lapse on the part of the port authorities who let 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate dumped at an unsafe place, it was still an accident. But we have to see what its consequences can be. Apparently, the people are angry and demanding justice and answers.
Meanwhile, the world is tottering on the brink of some monumental changes. Look at what is happening to the most powerful country of the world. It has been brought to its knees because its leadership has bungled in its handling of the pandemic. In short, America has been defeated by Covid-19.
Above all this – and also taking Beirut into account – the unbearable hardships that the ordinary people have to suffer must dictate a revolutionary transformation in our societies. But who will chart the course for this change in our priorities?