Pakistan’s Cruel Paradoxes – A Deluge Of Injustices
The soaring glitzy towers that glance over Abdullah Shah Gazi’s mausoleum; the ill-fated flower vendors displaced from their abode; a de-encroached Empress market that satiates urban dreams of a good-looking Karachi; the countless livelihoods battered by the city’s indifference; the foodies feasting at exquisite eateries; the barefooted child staring at them through “aesthetic” glass windows – the cruelty of paradoxes in Pakistan, this deluge of injustice, is difficult to process. So, let’s lock our eyes away from the child, and distract ourselves. Write a fiery tweet. Or forget. This is how you deal with it.
“Har din eik buri khabbar”
It’s not an easy tale to tell, this one about injustice. I find myself rummaging for specks of originality and hope. In his poem titled “Instisaab”, Faiz Ahmed Faiz calls Pakistan a “dard ki anjuman” – “a gathering of pain” – where the silent sufferings, the loud anguish, the lonely battles, the collective struggles, all pass wilfully unheard into the repository of loss. His words painfully resonate with our times today. Our institutes have metastasized into brutes. Our leaders have stripped democracy of its worth. A callous indifference ingests the seats of power. The “commoner” is a reference evoked to embellish speeches and drawing-room discussions. We scroll through catalogues of torment as they flash on Twitter, clicking likes and dislikes for catharsis, with the fleeting fatigue of familiarly. And yet, try as we might to forget, the anguish lingers on.
This anguish is a constant. My mother says it is immersed in the waves of the Indus that is ruthlessly hollowed as it unites with the Sindh. But ours is a unique and insuperable grief as we reckon that pain does not arise from what we have lost, but what we wait to lose. Such quotidian grief, such certitude of suffering places us in two extremes: a fury that dies out, only to erupt again, or the urge to recline into the shelters of disinterest.
“Kuch tou karna hai”
This exposition is not an emotive howl to get our act together, because sentiments and sublime youthful confidence seldom change things; to get our act together we need to revisit our lofty ambitions of “action.” The narrative of “young people need to act” fashions a sense of heroic urgency, which then lures us into gratifying illusions of the instant fix. Many are smitten by this rush. But there is no fast-track lane to solving deeply set problems. To “engage” with issues is to prepare ourselves for a slow and thankless journey of navigating anatomies of power that permeate our institutions. One could use the words “act” and “engage” interchangeably, but I have found the distinction to be useful. It is one that can push us to courtrooms and case studies for clarity before we stride to courtyards for protests. It is one that makes us recognise why despite copious agreements on paper, we haven’t been able to establish and run a child protection mechanism. And no, the reason is not as simple as corruption. It’s not even the failure of a system. It is, on the contrary, exactly what our systems are designed to do.
Incidents that stir public outrage and make us think about justice tend to contain something repulsive. It’s true: things don’t move us until they terrify us. Seldom do we think of justice until we are confronted by the terror of imagining, “What if this happened to me or to someone I love?” Nearly 40 percent of children under five years of age are stunted in Pakistan. Countless sleep on roads, many of whom do not have citizenship status. A friend of mine recently told me that her organisation was fashioning a Virtual Reality of rape for sensitisation (that’s what’s required?). Much of what we witness day-to-day, and much of what we cannot witness, are infringements of justice; the quiet acceptance of these arrangements is a big problem.
To fight for justice, we need to reimagine it. We need to understand that justice is not simply an absence of visible and gruesome oppression, or a sudden end to isolated incidents which discomfit and trigger. It is rather the ability to enjoy freedoms and live dignified lives. It is embedded in the ways in which institutions function. Incidents that stir political mutter and emotions should spark a series of necessary, even if incendiary, questions about class, law, nationalism, corporate malfeasance, accountability, and inequality, which are at the root of stories that shatter us.
“Sarko pe nikalna hai”
It isn’t surprising that Pakistani youth is so enamoured by revolutions. When I say “youth”, I am mindful of the complex space youth inhabit in this country. My experience, with my foreign education and my DHA-bubble-bound life, is starkly different from my friend’s, who is my age and raising a family in Lyari, juggling the tribulations of the “working-class.” I direct my inquiry more towards the privileged youth who were schooled in an ideology of exclusive nationhood that romanticised revolutions; we were ingrained with truthless ideals about “serving” one’s land without ever really unpacking what “service” means. Our history books excluded women’s struggles and wiped any mention of ethnic minorities (unless they became Prime Minister or were the sister of the Father of the Nation). Student unions and political movements were almost always pitted as coarse revolutionary sentiment. In essence, our education did not equip us to participate or engage with systems; instead, it fastidiously taught us how to sustain business-as-usual. So now when things turn foul, we fire up Twitter, colour the streets with rage, or we donate money, start our NGOs, and so on because that’s how we understand glamorous citizenship. Creating astute hashtags and witty one-liners, what is now called ‘performative activism’ is all part of the thrill. While protests, especially on social media, may have the power to stir certain conversations and frame identities, how often have protest slogans been able to converse with the corridors of power? How often have we been able to remember our grief and sustain this rage? Do we just scream and expect to be heard?
Perhaps, in an ideal world, sure. But certainly not in this.
“Koi faida hi nahi hai”
When movements are ill-advised, they generate disappointment, and, more dangerously, lead to a disinterest in political spaces — the antithesis of democracy. What is meant to be an iterative, long, and relentless journey to bring change becomes a cacophony of more of the same. Indeed, the magnitude of mayhem is overwhelming. One loses hope simply by thinking about it. I think about my student who was forcefully fed cow dung by his “masters” for entertainment; and I think about the child whose village declared him a lunatic because he was deaf; and the woman who boils chilies to feed her starved family of six. Where does one start?
At least to do something, many of us start with charity. Perhaps money is the easiest our privilege can give. In fact, we pride ourselves on being the most charitable nation in the world. But charity alone cannot sustain livelihoods that get crushed at the hands of a predatory system. Someone once told me, “nothing happens in Pakistan unless a powerful person picks the matter up.” None of what is done with noble intentions is a substitute for participating in the realm of politics and power. A realm where youth is largely absent.
One could attribute the lack of youth’s presence to a lack of entry points in, and the distastefulness of, politics in Pakistan. But even if one musters the courage, how do we penetrate the non-democratic cosmos of political parties? The answer is cliched but it’s worth considering: start looking before giving up. Sagacity and reason is a minority in the political sphere, but it does exist. It is something to start with. There are other entry-points: writing, conversing, reading, engaging with the public space through public-private partnerships, encouraging dialogue circles. I sound didactic, and it pains me to be stating the obvious. But young Pakistanis need to reckon with how little we truly know about our history and our systems, and how much we have to unlearn.
This reminds me of the concept of Apognosis – the willing abandonment of knowledge.
Apognosis is a Greek word that roughly translates to the word “despair” or “loss of hope” in English, and broadly implies a willing abandonment of knowledge. My proposition is not for every other young person to become a politician, or a bureaucrat, or some public official. Not everyone can, and not everyone has to. Nor do I mean to insinuate that citizens should stop raising their voices. But we all, by virtue of our privilege, have to go beyond a parochial vision of citizenship and understand how power works, and how change truly happens. We need to reckon with the power of knowledge, and better inform our voice to carry demands with pragmatism. What’s the point of screaming for things that systematically cannot happen? We must understand this so we can stop dreaming of building castles in the sky.
In his book titled How Change Happens, writer Duncan Greene proposes a power and systems approach to change. At the heart of this approach is learning how to “dance with the system” by focusing on the following:
1. Curiosity—study the history; “learn to dance with the system”.
2. Humility—embrace uncertainty/ambiguity.
3. Reflexivity—be conscious of your own role, prejudices, and power.
4. Include multiple perspectives, unusual suspects; be open to different ways of seeing the world.
Greene further proposes a set of questions that prompt us to “look before we leap.” In particular, he suggests activists to look for precedents (positive deviance, history, current political and social tides) and relevant tools for change (traditional project, advocacy, multiple parallel experiments, fast feedback and rapid response).
Another one of Greene’s arguments is regarding the “power within” individuals, especially leaders, to bring change. It is common practice for youth to lambaste leaders, but I am impressed by our leaders’ ability to attend meetings-on-meetings and recycle commitments knowing fully that they will not reflect on the ground. I am in awe of their ability to flourish in inertia. I am fascinated by their ability to stare at people’s misery with dispassion. But more seriously, I am in admiration of the few who deviate, what Greene calls the “positive deviances,” who make compromises on compromises to do just that little bit of good. It shouldn’t be so hard to do the right thing if one is mindful of what one can do – in this country or anywhere.
Young blood must not waste itself screaming at the outskirts of power where screams do not matter. We must infuse ourselves in the system, in our own ways, starting with our own minds. Throwing water at a burning house might save it from burning, but it won’t restore it. We need to start thinking about rebuilding our home.
The author is a Masters candidate in the International Education Development program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has worked in the education sector and helped manage schools in rural Sindh, Malir, and Lyari, for over four years. Currently, she also works as a part-time education consultant.