Booting the messenger

Posted on October 17, 2016

The story of our policy foibles was summed up decades ago in a skit by a famous sketch comedy show. A man driving a car is pulled over for the security check. The security staff turns the car inside out and asks frivolous questions about children’s toys. Finally, the car is allowed to move forward. Camera zooms out and as the car resumes its journey we see that on its roof lies a big cannon thoroughly ignored by the security. Penny wise, pound foolish.

Ignorance and arrogance when combined make a lethal mix. And our part feudal, part tribal culture struggling to modernise ensures that the two must combine wherever power resides. And power in Pakistan exists in more places than Lord Voldermort’s horcruxes. In past one decade I have witnessed my own industry going to dogs. Truth is bent every day, alternative universes created to match the one-size-fits-all conspiracy theories. And the shouting matches on our television screens. Lord, what a mess. But the funny thing is this theatre of the absurd continues without any intervention from the state. Even when politicians are projected as thieves, elected premiers are abused in no hidden words and relatively enlightened dissenters are called traitors. No reckoning.

When Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched things were in a shambles. Terrorists could pick and kill anyone at will. The state had lost many soldiers, including a few high ranking officers, leading politicians, judges, media men, various other office-bearers and common men on the street to the waves of violent extremism. When the operation was launched one thought that the thinly veiled narrative of denial and terror apologist conspiracy theories would come to an abrupt stop. It did not. Media now spent countless hours discussing how this operation was started by men in khaki without permission from civvies. Golden chance to dismantle latent network of radical sympathies squandered.

It gets better. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri staged four-month-long sit-in. The unadulterated footage of their speeches is a treasure trove of their views about this country. Every private channel in this country aired these speeches day in and day out as the two gentleman took potshots at every institution, yes every institution, in this country. No reckoning, no remorse. It all ended in tears when terrorists butchered our children in Peshawar. Touch your heart and let it sink in.

Fighting terrorism and long-term reform as per the National Action Plan followed. The world sees it. Yes, there is the omnipresent concern about the Pakistani state not moving fast enough against India-specific non-state actors and the Haqqani network. And the explanations are there. All in good time. You can’t take them all out at once for the fear of a blowback. And so on. Does it sell? Only barely. But still it does. And it cannot go on forever.

Enter India, the perpetual critic with immense soft power. Throughout painful 15 years of fighting terror we got wounded and India got all the sympathies. In New Delhi’s imaginarium it is the sole victim and the tragic hero. And it sells this image well.

Recently two incidents were godsent for Modi-fied India. Pathankot. And Uri. Pakistan committed to cooperating in Pathankot probe. But Uri sounded implausible. We dug in our heels. Then India made a joke of itself by claiming it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control. It was surprised to see we were not rattled. Finally, we had power over India. The world could see the difference.

And all of that changed with one story. Two denials and a high-profile meeting later the government decided to put Cyril Almeida’s name on the Exit Control List. Astonishingly far more devastating statements were issued by right-wing organisations in the aftermath of Pathankot. No reprimand. A liberal writes a story and he can’t travel abroad? We are told the government needs Cyril’s testimony to prove its innocence. In what the world I ask you does an elected government have to spend its entire time in office proving innocence? Trouble is we are seriously on the mend. But this pettiness, penny wise, pound foolish attitude has to go. Selective amnesia, selective accountability need to be abandoned. Do that and you are doing better than India. Fail and you are toast. Finally, please do something about the mess you have created.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 15th, 2016.

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