Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The importance of being human

One of my refrains, when dealing with relations between Pakistan and India, is that South Asia – the expanse that lies under the shadows of the Himalayas – is jinxed. There is something terrible about how primitive passions can be aroused in this region, the great carnage that attended the birth of two independent countries in 1947 being an exceptional illustration of this dereliction.

At the same time, there have been times when the people of the two countries that dominate South Asia have fondly embraced each other almost like blood brothers. And the rulers, too, have occasionally taken vows of friendship and have expressed their commitment to the imperative of peace, even calling the process as irreversible.

Well, something like the traumatic Mumbai attack more than two weeks ago could definitely subvert all the hopes that had most recently been raised for improved relations between the two countries. Indeed, when we look at our chequered history, we would be amazed by how this journey has been a real roller coaster. It becomes so easy for hostile and jingoistic feelings to overwhelm the lingering, humanistic craving for peace and progress.

In the immediate context, however, Pakistan has come under pressure because of India’s assertion that the terrorists who wrought havoc in Mumbai were citizens of this country. Fortunately, there is general appreciation that the government of Pakistan was not a sponsor of this incredibly audacious act of terrorism. Still, the complexity of how a country that is itself a major victim of terrorism and is also held responsible for not being able to wipe out terrorists from within its territory is compounded by severe economic, social and political difficulties. Heading of the Fareed Zakaria column in the latest issue of Newsweek is: “End of the Line for Islamabad”.

A weak and inefficient political administration is suddenly burdened with dire challenges, including the ones that emanate from UN Security Council’s resolution to ban four militant organisations. A countrywide crackdown was launched on Thursday against Jamaat-ud-Daawa and in addition to the arrest of many of its activists, Daawa chief Hafiz Saeed was put under house arrest. Pakistan must fulfil its international obligations and abide by the ban that, instructively, is this time backed by China.

Incidentally, the UN ban was announced on Wednesday, December 10 – the Human Rights Day. On the same day, of course, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari received the United Nations Award in the Field of Human Rights that was conferred posthumously on his illustrious mother, Benazir Bhutto. Six other international personalities received this award for promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This was the occasion to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that enshrines the rights and freedoms that the oppressed people of South Asia are still struggling to attain. We know how comprehensive are the rights that are listed in the UN Declaration. And the concept has evolved during the past six decades, with increased emphasis on such ideas as the dignity of human beings, the status of women and the rights of children. We should look at peace and human security as essential prerequisites for the enforcement of fundamental human rights.

In this perspective, the overall deprivations of South Asia mock the wisdom and sagacity of its rulers. We, in Pakistan, lag behind other countries in the region in this context. Our social indicators that are officially tabulated, particularly in the UNDP’s Human Development Index, do not at all match our nuclear status and the strength of our military forces. It is about the same in India, given the obsession that both countries have about the other. But as Pakistanis, we should be more concerned with out own state of affairs.

Surrounded as we seem to be with grave dangers, this may be a good time to think over the wages of our ruling ideas. Would not have we been stronger and more stable as a nation if our people were sufficiently empowered with education, social security and economic development? This question will surely prompt a heated debate on our national sense of direction. And our tragedy is that in public discourse on national security matters and on our relations with India, the liberal – I would say rational – voice remains suppressed.

Because I have had some affiliations with the peace process in South Asia, I can recall occasions when momentum for peace seemed unstoppable. But those interludes, like ‘the days of wine and roses’, were never long. Something would always happen to interrupt the progress that had resulted from prudent and far-sighted initiatives on the part of the political leadership in both countries as well as non-governmental pressures.

Obviously, the potential for animosity and discord is also rooted in our history and there are elements in both countries that have flourished by exploiting these sentiments. That this path has brought us to a dead end is manifest in the present situation, in the wake of the Mumbai tragedy. Hopefully, the realisation that the well-being and even the survival of the multitudes that populate our two nuclear-armed countries depend on peace and prosperity will again assert itself. One only wonders if the possible revival of hope will again be thwarted by dark forces that seem to be afflicted by some kind of a death wish.

We, in Pakistan, have a terrifying crisis on our hands. This crisis has been building up for some time. Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who is now an adviser to US president-elect Barack Obama, has reiterated that Pakistan is the most dangerous place in the world, in an interview published in German magazine Der Spiegel on Thursday. In Pakistan, he said, “international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the threat of nuclear war, drugs, democracy deficit and Islam all come together in an extraordinarily combustible way”.

Hence, what do we need to do to avoid a conflagration, in the face of mounting pressures from different sources? The first thing, perhaps, is to coolly and judiciously review our position in the region and in the world. This should be possible, in spite of the heightened emotions and somewhat chaotic developments. My regret, though, is that our mass media has almost been taken over by right wing, conservative opinions and the liberal and enlightened points of view are pushed into the background.

Arnold Zietlin, a veteran US media professional who reported from Pakistan in early seventies and has numerous friends here, posed this question in an e-mail exchange of views that flowed from his Eid greetings to his friends: “Why has it always been so difficult for progressive thinkers in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world to make their influence for being part of the modern world felt?”.

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