Aug 14 and the perpetually carping brigade

By Ayaz Amir

To whom this nation has given the most, it is usually from among this hallowed lot that arise its most virulent and merciless critics. This is a mild word, denunciators is more like it. More than ingratitude it is an attitude so benighted that it needs the services of a shrink to fully comprehend it.

Ordinary people at the lower rungs of the social order may complain about their lot in life, but they refrain from magnifying their discontent into a wholesale assault on Pakistan. Dysfunctional and meltdown are words alien to their frame of mind. When they see their cricket team in action, especially when (for a change) it is doing well, their our overjoyed. When it plays badly they are downcast. If this is not a sign of nationhood — and active nationhood at that — what else is?

Ordinary folk have no great respect for their leaders and much less for politicians, which is as it should be. A nation in love with its politicians would need to have its head examined. Punjabis have a droll sense of humour, much of it directed against the bombast and self-righteousness of the good and the great.

But ordinary Pakistanis, without going through any elaborate intellectual exercise, usually make a distinction between humbugs in power and their country. Go to any bazaar of any town, large or small, in Pakistan and it will be bustling with life and humour and anger. But what passes for our intelligentsia is mentally constipated. All it can see around it are portents of imminent collapse. Ordinary people never ask why this country was created. The same cannot be said of the intelligentsia.

Part of the problem lies in idleness and underemployment. Many of us in the newspaper or talk-show business have nothing else to do. Many self-appointed pundits are retirees, pensioners or property owners who don’t have anything to do for a living. Is it surprising if they excel at half-baked theories about what afflicts the nation?

If this nation did not have to endure — much against its will and temperament — the rigours of prohibition, if for the embittered of heart or the disappointed in love (or the thwarted of passion) there were places to go to in the evenings and there in some half-lit corner in moderate measure to drown their sorrows, if there were more theatres, even if of the Nargis and Deedar kind, in our towns, we would all be better off, and there would be more employment opportunities for that small but vital class which makes its living from song and dance and, as one is informed, from pastimes related to these activities.

But since, as penance for our many political sins, such enlightened alternatives are denied to us in what we insist on calling our sacred republic, what we are left with is politics. We talk politics morning and evening. We have nothing else to talk about: nothing about the arts or literature or the better aspects of life. Politics and gossip related to politics are the staple of our national conversation.

Since God knows when, and I have been in this business for a long time, we have been saying that this country cannot co-exist with the shenanigans or alleged corruption of this or that political figure — we said this of Benazir, then Nawaz Sharif, now Asif Zardari. But Pakistan has survived the worst predictions and is still there. It will survive the real or alleged misdeeds of the present dispensation.

One thing we can’t seem to get into our heads: Pakistan is bigger and more enduring than the sum of its military or political leaders. It is bigger than its dictators, bigger than its political failures. Our political and military scumbags will come and go but the Himalayas will always be there as will the Arabian Sea and all the land in between.

Bad things have happened to Pakistan and there is no denying this but why do we so resolutely close our eyes to the good things that have also happened?

This was a land which in 1947 fed 35 million souls. Now it sustains a population close to 170 million. Nor can it be said that standards of living have fallen. They haven’t. Pakistanis as a whole — and I am speaking in relative terms — eat better and live longer than they did at the time of Partition. If I speak of my own Chakwal, how dramatically it has changed. It was a backwater all those years ago. Now there are roads connecting most villages and most villages, although sadly not all, are electrified. The great popular demand nowadays is piped gas in every home, a luxury which many parts of Pakistan enjoy but which our cousins in India do not have.

Yes, there is poverty, and there is bureaucracy and the cruelty for many of life’s evil circumstances. But, like it or not, these are aspects of the human condition. You have only to read Dickens to get an idea of the rampant poverty of the lower classes in Victorian England; and only to read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to get an idea of the social dislocation and suffering caused by the Great Depression in the United States.

We have our problems, and may they grow less with the passage of time and the best of our efforts, but if we look around us — whether in the sub–continent, where mass poverty is greater than ours, or at Afghanistan which has been devastated by 30 years of uninterrupted upheaval and warfare, or even further away at the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia — we should count ourselves lucky that while our tribulations, constantly magnified by our ever-expanding tribe of cynics and pundits, have been great, they could have been much worse.

The rentier class — living off its rents and pensions — should be ashamed of itself: living off the fat of this land, yet going on and on about the destruction and perdition lurking around the next corner. I could cite examples, of metaphor piled upon metaphor and no attempt at an argument, but that would get personal, something best avoided.

About closing one’s eyes to something good that may have happened, why, on the part of the pundit class, is there such a deafening silence about the success of our military arms in Swat and Malakand, and the return of the displaced to their homes? Things aren’t wrapped up completely and much remains to be done, and there is still curfew at night in most parts of Swat, but can’t we appreciate what already has been done?

Only in April which is not too long ago, the best of us were saying that the country was in mortal danger from the Taliban. After gaining control of Swat, the Taliban were extending their tentacles into Buner and Dir. In those circumstances the army, left with no other choice and goaded to the limit, started an operation against Fazlullah’s armed followers. From the massed ranks of punditry arose the cry that preparations were inadequate and the displacement of the local population had not been fully catered for.

Yet in a mere matter of three months the tide has turned against the Taliban. While they have not been eliminated from Swat they are on the run, and the displaced have begun to return to their homes. In Waziristan the army, very sensibly, is relying on an indirect approach, launching not a full-fledged assault as in Swat, but throwing a noose around the Taliban and tightening it gradually. Whether Baitullah Mehsud is dead or not, the Taliban for the first time are on the defensive. The army both in Swat and Waziristan has taken heavy hits but it has persevered. Why are we being so squeamish in rendering it our praise and thanks?

We criticise the army, very rightly, for its coups and shall do so again if, God forbid, it repeats its past follies in that direction. But when our soldiers do a good job they deserve to hear of it, without qualification, from our lips. After the 1948 Kashmir war (which gave us what we have of Kashmir) this is the only necessary and useful war the army is fighting and, thanks to the heavens above and its own efforts, it is winning.

So here’s to the army, and air force, and here to the source of all our delights and sorrows o
n this its 62nd birthday. Ah, what’s this? The clink of ice in a crystal glass. On this of all days there should be no sound more welcome than this.

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