Reported by Ghazi Salahuddin for The News International
We, in Pakistan, have rang out 2010 with a general strike and noisy rallies by religious elements in defence of the blasphemy law. We also rang out the year with a massive increase in petroleum products. And these spiritually and economically debilitating influences were certainly a distraction in our celebration of the biggest night of the year.
Today, on Sunday, the New Year is more than a day old. After spending the last few days of the departed year in taking stock of 2010, we are more inclined to look ahead and wonder what the coming year is going to be like. The general mood, certainly, is depressing. The past year was the year of floods, and Wikileaks, and drone attacks and social as well as political disarray. At the same time, it was also a year of hope – of Aman ki Asha – and of some intimations of how we, as a nation, still possess a conspicuous potential for survival.
In a sense, the attempt that so many ordinary citizens desperately made to celebrate the New Year in a communal spirit of joy was a genuine reflection of the life-force of a society that yearns for peace and happiness. In Karachi, the authorities made a concerted effort to subvert the inherent desire of the people to have a good time, as they always do. Roads leading to the Sea View promenade were blocked and eating places in the area were not allowed to do business.
It is besides the point that the young were still able to put up their show and the New Year was greeted with song and dance. Yes, the more privileged were able to celebrate the occasion in their private premises. But the point here is that public expression of any social or cultural vitality is increasingly being suppressed at the same time that the obscurantist elements are openly able to project their narrow outlook. What makes this dereliction more ominous is the government’s policy of appeasement and, even, surrender when it comes to dealing with the rise of intolerance and prejudice in our society.
It would be instructive to compare the rallies that were taken out in the late afternoon on Friday and the celebrations that were held a few hours later. I had an occasion to see the main procession that was taken out in Karachi and let me confess that it left me in a depressed state of mind. I simply could not identify with that crowd and the slogans it was raising. When I returned home at six, Sydney was greeting the New Year with its spectacular fireworks.
So, where do we, as a nation, belong in this world that is forever changing and embracing new technologies and new ideas? And it is in this context that I would like to return to the inspiration that we may draw from Aman ki Asha, the campaign launched by The Times of India Group and the Jang Group one year ago to promote peace between India and Pakistan.
Since yesterday was the first anniversary of this remarkable initiative, this newspaper has already underlined its main features and the success that it has achieved in the face of the raw winds of suspicion and animosity that have for long been blowing across this region. There was an editorial on this subject and a special edition. It was very encouraging to see the piece especially written for Aman ki Asha by Karen Armstrong, the celebrated religious historian.
Hence, I would not want to replicate the points that have been made. Still, I think that the public opinion poll conducted on the first anniversary of the project deserves to be carefully analysed. Here is a message that should not be overlooked when we interpret the social and political character of our society. It is true that the results of the survey are not at all surprising for those of us who have always believed in the overwhelming imperative of peace in not just our relations with India but also in a domestic context.
Now, the survey that was independently conducted by credible professionals, has certified that 70 per cent of Pakistanis and 74 per cent of Indians want peaceful relations between the two countries. What is crucial and meaningful here is that there has been a marked increase in the popular support for peace during the year that the largest media groups in India and Pakistan had conducted their varied and well-designed programmes under the umbrella of Aman ki Asha.
At a time when there is so much confusion about the role and the impact of the media, particularly the broadcast media, here is evidence that it can make a positive difference in shaping popular opinion when its message is in harmony with the natural aspirations of the people. This should make us realise that the media also has the power to sabotage the interests of the people when it is allowed to be manipulated by vested interests and when its expression is suppressed through intolerance and mindless chauvinism.
In many ways, the rise of extremism and militancy can be attributed to conflicts that are allowed to fester, distracting the attention and the resources of the nation from attending to the economic, social, and cultural needs of the people. Nothing undermines our national security more than rampant poverty and injustice and other deprivations of our people.
Indeed, the logic for normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan is rooted in the immortal desire of the people of both countries for social justice and for progress. In fact, Aman ki Asha should be seen in a larger context. Our need for peace transcends the otherwise fundamental issue of how our national security policies have remained India-centric.
Take, for instance, the official response to the rise of religious extremism in the country. Even when there is growing awareness that the threats we confront internally are very severe and could even jeopardise the very survival of the nation, the rulers do not seem to have the time or the intellectual ability to rethink and revise their national security formulations.
Meanwhile, of course, the people are ready and eager for what may be described as a paradigm shift. Initiatives like Aman ki Asha are necessary to set the stage for change and promote an environment in which an honorable and durable peace is possible.
When Aman ki Asha was launched one year ago, it affirmed that “peace between Pakistan and India is an idea whose time has come”. It also said that “it is daybreak for the people of the two countries who have languished in the twilight of mutual animosity and distrust for over six decades”. How long would it take for the rulers in the two countries to accept this self-evident truth?
The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail .com