Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From Orchards to Killing Fields


Growing up in Quetta in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we all knew the name Yazdan Khan High School. Boasting a predominantly Hazara population, it was the pride of Quetta. It was an academically competitive school, but it was truly beloved for its marching band. With bright red and white uniforms and amazing musicality, these children served as our representatives. Whether welcoming visiting dignitaries or performing during cricket matches at Ayub Stadium, the Yazdan Khan High School Band was always front and center, always flawless. This school, once the proud ambassador of Quetta, was on Alamdar Road, the site of the January 10th bombing.

In a soul-shaking demand for justice, the Hazara community decided to not bury their dead and are sitting out in the cold, alongside what remains of their loved ones. The leaders of the community have given a written list of demands asking that the perpetrators be apprehended and that the Hazara community be protected from further violence, that they be allowed to live their lives in peace. Reading the list brings tears to my eyes when I realize that all they are asking for is justice and freedom -- fundamental rights that should have been awarded indiscriminately to all citizens under the Constitution. This list of demands should never have been needed.

Forget about freedom and justice. Our government is barely acknowledging the loss of lives that the Hazara community, and the human race as a whole, have suffered. The entire world has felt the jarring jolt of this tragedy. People from every nation and every ethnicity are voicing their anguish at the needless loss of innocent lives and the absolute apathy of the governing bodies. But, while the provincial capital is reeling after the massacre, the Chief Minister is enjoying a vacation abroad. The death of over a hundred people was not enough reason for him to cut short his beach time, come back home, and face his responsibility. I hope he has a good reason because, short of being on his deathbed, I can’t fathom any justification for his absence at a time when his presence is needed the most. Or maybe I am expecting too much from an elected official.

This is a time when humanity should have trumped politics, but it is proven to us once again that we, the people, are in no way equal to elected office. The population of Pakistan has risen and is standing with the Hazara community both within the nation and abroad, but the political leaders are cautious in their statements. Even at a time like this, they remain consummate politicians, ever careful not to step on any toes and, God forbid, lose an influential supporter. Their affiliations are dictating their level of outrage, which is muted at best, and their lack of support compounds on an already overwhelming assault.

When will we feel truly protected by the people we elect and the police force that swear to protect us? How long will our children be fed the contorted gospel of “might is right”? We fought against the mightiest powers and carved a country for ourselves so that all religions could live free and without the fear of persecution -- we even declare it to the world by having a white band on our flag. When our brothers and sisters refuse to bury their dead until they get justice, we have to ask ourselves: if not now, then when?

Democracy: nothing but a politicians catch phrase.

Our world today seems to be in a constant state of revolution. Somehow, revolution brings a romanticized solution to all that is wrong with a corrupt bureaucracy.  Whoever promises the most drastic changes, the most extreme improvements, the most cacophonous, clamorous, and deafening rhetoric, is guaranteed a captive audience and an avid following. One thing that these masters of spin can count on is the common man's desperate desire for a better life, their despairing hope that the world has something finer to offer -- if only they can find a charismatic, catalytic leader to make change happen for them.

We, the man on the street, also known as the citizen and the unit most in need of the aforementioned “better life”, are the most vocal advocates for a revolution. According to public opinion, revolution will bring democracy, and with democracy will come peace, lawfulness, good fortune and prosperity.  What we fail to realize in our desperation is that a government of the people and for the people does not begin and end with democratically-held elections, but must continue on as democratic governance. These are assignments of accountability, not appointments of entitlement.

In our hunger for change we listen for the word “democracy,” which has become nothing more than the politician’s catch phrase, a perfunctory buzzword, a siren song. We fail to realize that democracy is a form of government for the people—and people are different in every country. Thus, by default, the democracy of each country must be tailor-made for its population and not the copy of another countries’ governance. Laws necessary and successful in one thriving democracy might prove to be abject failures in another. This could be due to differences in culture, history, religion, and other myriad possibilities.

We have to study our chronicles, the good along with the bad. We have to analyze what worked and what failed miserably within our own country to see what we want and what we desperately need. When we look democracy through a theoretical paradigm invented by the West, we see something that we yearn for, but which might not be the solution for us. Our form of governance has to be as unique as our nation.

Instead of looking for a leader from among us, we look outward and upward for guidance, and so we have become a nation of followers. We will willingly march behind anyone who peddles a dream, but we never feel worthy enough to form a movement around our own dreams. So we pin our hopes and our hearts on anyone who is willing to lead us, never questioning loyalties, agendas, or ulterior motives. As a result, we are either left heartbroken and bitter, or continue fiercely loyal and blind to the obvious charade.

A revolution has to come from within the masses. We have to push away from the wall against which our backs have rested for the longest time. The elite lack the will to recast a state that seems to be working well for them. They may start the journey with an honest enthusiasm, but lose their convictions somewhere along the way. Leaders have to come up from within us, from our roots, our kin. Until then, we will continue to be the fodder for another’s revolution.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

If human lives were quantifiable.....

If alien beings from outer space  were to travel to our neck of the woods and form an opinion about our priorities, they would surely conclude that the most worthless and expendable commodity is the human life.

A question like “what is a human life worth?” seems more of a philosophical query, inviting a vigorous debate, rather than a mathematical problem followed by a calculation and a dollar amount. But, believe it or not, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget puts the value of a human life in the range of $7 million to $9 million or around $8 million, if we are talking averages. I am not qualified enough to wade into the quagmire of economic parameters and channel my inner Adam Smith for an explanation but I will pose this question: If people were required to pay this amount for every life they were responsible for terminating, would they be so disregardful of their actions?

What is a human life worth? I posed this question to a friend of mine who is a very passionate pacifist and a humanitarian. She said, without any hesitation, that the worth of one human life is the same as the worth of all mankind. That is a mind blowing amount if we look at it numerically. It means that we would have to multiply $5 million by the number of people ever born and those that will ever be born. By these specific guidelines the human life is priceless.

Everyday we come across accounts of neglect, atrocity and pure greed which result in the loss of life. This is only if we are very lucky. Some among us actually experience these events first hand. We hear of hundreds burned in a preventable factory fires, scores killed in sectarian, bigoted violence, thousands of lives cancelled because their thought was different, they looked different, they were different...

One wonders how much fire alarms and proper fire safety measures would have cost in the ill-fated garment factories. If the factory owners were liable to pay for each life lost due to their greed and neglect, would they have been so careless with hazard-proofing their workplaces? What would it be worth to have a visible police force that actually serves and protects? Would it be outside the realm of imagination to ask for public servants that actually serve the public?

Maybe the problem is that there is no accountability for the elite class and no one to pay heed, let alone take any action, in response to the pleas and cries of the working class. How else could a society explain the ruthless beating of a young man just because he denied a “begum sahib” some baked goods. How could the murder of a Swedish missionary, working only for the well-being of the needy, be justified?  Most of these are not spur of the moment emotionally fueled incidences. Rather they are planned and dramatic measures to instill fear and discourage any others who might want to stand up to an oppressive elite. But if these “untouchables” had to pay  for every person they roughed up or, worse still, killed, would they be so gung-ho about it?

Entire sub-nationalities are staked out to be massacred. Religious sects are marked for death because they have a different ideology and mass murder is validated and justified by closed-minded men with personal agendas. And then there are those who take up the savage war-cry , without any question or thought as to the cogency or the repercussions of their actions, and cut down lives with the abandon of an unholy crusader high on crack. The Grim Reaper would cringe in fear and loathing at such wanton waste because even he has rules. Nobody pays for these innumerable lost lives: lost in the name of profit, in the name of power and the most vile category for justifying gratuitous killings--in the name of God.
It has been said that those who stop fearing God, fear nothing else. Maybe that is the problem. God has become nothing more that a word, an abstract idea that can justify all misguided agendas. Everyone believes that they wield the sword of the Almighty, but whose side is Allah really on?