How far we have come
Somewhere along the line, in our checkered history of countless trials and tribulations, we have become a nation that thrives on bad news. And let’s be clear – there is plenty of bad news to go around in this country: corrupt governance, impotent opposition, fiscal mismanagement, financial scams, disregard of the law, shortage of electricity and gas, rising unemployment, growing poverty, religious intolerance and multi-headed menace of terrorism. And every day, our print and electronic media scripts these facets into a desolate story of broken nationhood.
While these problems are real and must be highlighted, this rhetoric tends to drown-out the voices of positive change whistling in the backdrop. Positivity speaks in signs and whispers – often unnoticeable in the hue and cry of its counterpart. It doesn’t announce itself with an ambulance siren or the voices of children crying. It doesn’t manifest itself in our living rooms as the absence of electricity, nor can it be seen on the streets as a long queue around the petrol pump. But this week, with the 72nd anniversary of the Lahore Resolution, let’s pause for a moment to notice the seeds of hope sown in our society.
One: Perhaps for the first time in over four decades, the elusive ‘youth’ of our country has been jolted from its slumber of political apathy to once again partake in the debate of shaping our national destiny. The memory of 1960s and 70s – when students flocked to dusty fields across this land, in support of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mujib-ur-Rehaman – had been lost during the silent decades of 80s, 90s and 2000s. Politics had been relegated to being the sole domain of a handful of jagirdaars and generals. And this was manifested in low turnout rates at the polls; sometimes dropping to below 30 percent participation. All that, however, seems to be slowly changing. Seen most clearly in Imran Khan’s campaign trail, it is not simply Khan’s charisma that has brought our youngsters out on the streets once again, but instead a larger desire to be involved in the political process, which was palpably missing over the past some decades. And for now, Imran Khan happens to be the only political force without a track record of disappointments.
Two: Political awareness has started to trickle down to the masses, most of whom (if not all) today hold an opinion on the politicians and political parties. Politicians are no longer faceless individuals, known only within their respective constituency. Thanks to the electronic-media revolution, every comment of Sheikh Raheed, every gaffe of Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and every misstatement of Rana Sanaullah is judged by the rikshaw-drivers and shop-owners all across Pakistan. And irrespective of cash handouts or laptops being distributed by government officials, this political awareness will play a role at the time of casting of the ballots.
Three: All this could not have been possible without the electronic-media revolution. Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court once famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Meaning: shedding light onto something, bringing it out from its darkness into the open where it can be seen and debated, is often sufficient to quarantine the society of its evils. And Pakistani media has performed this function rigorously (sometimes to a fault!).
Four: Our national discourse is slowly shifting to the idea of constitutionalism and fundamental rights. Triggered by the lawyers’ movement in 2007, today (for the first time in a long time) the words ‘legal’ and ‘constitutional’ have become part of our everyday diction. Whether our judiciary is independent or not, whether it is fulfilling the promise of its restoration or not, are still contentious and unanswered questions. What is not contentious, however, is that the courts have become relevant in our national discourse. And human rights, which had been all but forgotten during the 1980s and 1990s, are making a comeback.
Five: The abovementioned factors combined (awareness, free media and activist courts) have helped break, in part, the myth of bureaucratic power. Gone are the days when a police constable could manhandle a citizen in city-centre, or some secretariat officer could dole out money and favors, without fear of consequences. Not that these activities have stopped altogether, but a perpetual sword of media and judiciary hangs over the bureaucratic head now. One misstep, caught on some mobile video that makes it to the 9’o clock news and results in suo motu action, could end bureaucratic careers. Sadly, our khakis are still immune to such reach – as seen in the Rangers’ killing of an innocent boy in Karachi, with no convictions. But positive change, they say, comes in excruciatingly small increments.
These evolutions in our society are irreversible. Because once you have come out of the cave, crossed the field and seen fire, there is no way to go back into the cave again. And while constructive criticism must continue as a process of national catharsis, let us not forget that despite all odds, what began 72-years ago – as an alliance of farmers and workers, of statesmen and students, of mothers and wives, of men and boys – lives still today as Pakistan.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]