COMMENT: Where is our Martin Luther King? —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, January 31, 2011

The rich and poor divide, which could be normative in most South Asian countries, attains a dastardly touch to it when hope takes leave of the people. We in Pakistan are victims of this great tragedy

In my article, ‘Pakistan’s strategic roadmap’ (January 17, 2011) on these pages, I had suggested that terrorism and its various manifestations, including extremism and militancy, the economy, Pakistan’s stance on the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and societal dissent in the aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s murder, will impose themselves as Pakistan’s compulsive strategic agenda in the near-term. A failure or success in treating each of these at their respective levels of existence will determine to a very large extent the Pakistan that we might have after these processes have played themselves out. Except for the nuclear-related FMCT pressures that Pakistan is likely to face with increasing persistence, the remaining three have common roots.

The antithesis of life is absence of hope. The Urdu word for it is even more encompassing, mayoosi. Where all has the Pakistani nation lost hope? In its leadership? In its effort to survive in both a physical and economic sense? In hoping for hope — the biggest killer? That is what societies are meant to do — keep hope alive, in the famous words of Martin Luther King. People agree to live together in an accepted arrangement of rights and duties — the most fundamental charter of human existence, because they gain assurance on their right to life, food and survival. They also accept responsibilities: to choose leadership, to follow the law that those leaders will make as an enjoined responsibility, and to contribute to the health of society in making it sustainable and resilient.

The more modern equivalent of the fundamental human charter is an individual’s right to opportunity enabled by the leadership structure to better himself with equal stakes in all facets that will constitute progress in a society. Societies in turn progress on the back of sound economies, freedom to think and create, equal opportunity to education, sciences and arts, and the right to associate with freedom with social and cultural activities. Societies need progress for its members to keep their hope in the system that they are a part of. When that does not happen and societies regress, all aspirations of hope for the better evaporate. Not only that such a society crumbles, it takes along with it the refuge and shelter, both psychological and material, that societies offer to their members. There is not a bigger dampener of hope.

Not all societies, or nations in their political manifestation, can grow exceptionally well all the time. Difficulties abound. That is the nature of the modern nation-state and the conflicts that it will need to navigate through in a competitive world. But nations are seen to be fighting, inching forward in the face of great adversity — howsoever slowly — but inch forward, not regress. Nation-states will endeavour to recover and recoup through a collective mindset of tenacity and belief in their ability to overcome. Churchill as a leader stood apart among leaders of his time when in a thoroughly bombed London, he stood amidst the ruins and waste of his beloved London and declared that England was not out. Its courts function and the nation will stand forth against any test to defeat the enemy. Londoners gathered themselves behind their leader and put forth the stout defence that characterises the English will in adversity. England ultimately prevailed.

The seclusion that African Americans faced in the US, more so in the South, is a dark chapter in the world’s history. They were treated poorly, they were perpetually poor, and had a worse social recognition than domesticated pets. Yet, they hauled weight, pulled chores, and served their masters, because one man, Martin Luther King spoke to them and weighed in with them for their cause. They believed in him when he promised them ‘a city on the hill’ that will soon be theirs. They believed in him when he asked them to just keep with him and trudge along despite the arduousness of their daily lives, and he will deliver them from the yoke of the white master’s tyranny. His message to them at all times was ‘to keep hope alive’, for he knew as long as hope sustained he had their collective strength to turn their lives around. Hope sustained and African Americans kept their hopes in Martin Luther King’s ability to provide them their share of justice, peace and opportunity from life and from society. Martin Luther King kept his people out of despair and moved the cycle of time forward for his people. He may have died early but he had formed the critical mass, which subsequently could not be stopped. African Americans got their rights and today can proudly boast of owning the White House.

How does the situation in Pakistan compare? Pakistan has been in difficult conditions, politically and economically. It is staying afloat with handouts from multi-national donors and is mired in a most intractable societal conflict deciding its future. In a stagnated economy, hope tends to evaporate. What may have been only 30 percent of Pakistan below the nominal $ 2 a day poverty datum a couple of years back by some accounts is now at 51 percent according to a recent Oxford survey. At less than $ 2 a day, 75 percent of Pakistanis survive on mere subsistence. In such situations even faith cannot sustain. Or, faith used to exploit tends to wrangle the right to life away from the impoverished. So if we were to only revisit two of the strategic challenges, extremism leading to militancy, which morphs into terrorism, and the societal divide it creates, the largest gaping gash today in society. The rich and poor divide, which could be normative in most South Asian countries, attains a dastardly touch to it when hope takes leave of the people. We in Pakistan are victims of this great tragedy.

Are we as bad as bombed out Londoners, or the Blacks of America? Perhaps not. But the rot is setting in fast. At such times the need is for a Churchill or a Martin Luther who could just shout out to his fellow countrymen to ‘keep hope alive’, for across on the other side of the hill lies in Reagan’s words, ‘a city upon the hill’. Leaders are not meant to manage alone — that systems do — they only ensure fulfilling their enjoined responsibility to provide an enabling environment to their followers to seek from among the common resource of opportunity and empowerment their due right to life, progress and prosperity. Sometimes it is only the hope that if not today, tomorrow will be a better day. But if tomorrow is destined to be worse, the ranks of those who walk across the divide are bolstered and societies decay.

The mother of Pakistan’s ailments is its impoverished economy for which none but the leaders of the day will bear the cross. Just across the border, in India, the poverty figures are equally dismal, somewhere in the 40s percentage points, but what keeps the poor labouring is that great story of how India has revamped itself into an economic powerhouse. They surely hope, if not them their children will soon have a better life. That keeps society more or less integrated. With hope and pride, adversity can be conquered. But where are our Churchills and Martin Luthers?

The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador

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