To be silent, now? - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, February 06, 2011

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When William Butler Yeats was asked to write a war poem during the First World War, he excused himself. But he did so in verse. He gave it the title: ‘A reason for keeping silent’. Later, it was published as ‘On being asked to write a war poem’.

And why wouldn’t Yeats write a war poem? Let me quote the first three lines of a composition of only six: “I think it better that in times like these / A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right”.

A newspaper scribe is, of course, not a poet and does not have the luxury of keeping silent at a given time when he or she has to make a living by pontificating on current events, mostly in a rather crude and prosaic idiom. I also know that there are some commentators and media pundits who pretend to have a gift “to set a statesman right”, though our politicians can hardly be elevated to the level of statesmanship.

After all, not just our newspapers but all our news channels are inundated with seemingly authoritative commentary and a torrent of unsolicited advice for our rulers. Every political, economic or social development is readily deciphered and debated by the ‘usual suspects’. This is so in times when, for instance, this newspaper had this headline on Thursday: “PPP does not care about newspaper headlines: Zardari”.

So, when I invoke Yeats and feel overwhelmed by this urge to keep silent, the problem is not that there is a serious paucity of thoughts that are generally recycled in weekly columns. As usual, headlines that may serve as a peg are not in short supply. Egypt is one example of why journalism is considered a first rough draft of history. That we have little sense of history and how it is shaped is something else.

To some extent, this feeling that it is not really possible to be candid about some of the most crucial issues that plague our society has always been there. In addition, one is always conscious of the fact that not many people read newspapers or have the capacity to participate in any informed discourse on national affairs. Again, one reason to keep on writing is that it is very much a professional responsibility. At times, you meet someone who has read your columns and that almost becomes a reason to be living.

Still, this surge of depression that I need to share with my readers is different and very recent. In fact, it largely proceeds from the shameful manner in which the PPP has disowned Salmaan Taseer and how the non-religious and relatively secular political parties that are in power – the ANP and the MQM being the other two - have effectively lost their bearings by not being able to re-define the terms of a debate that is still being conducted on terms that are dictated by religious militants.

I did write about this betrayal by the ruling and supposedly liberal parties two weeks ago (Anatomy of fear, Jan 23, 2011), lamenting the fact that a civil society group found it difficult to even get a premises in Karachi to hold a memorial reference for Salmaan Taseer. I had quoted Franklin Roosevelt and I am tempted to repeat those words: He had said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.

During the past two weeks, the inability of the PPP to protect its potential supporters from the onslaught of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” has become more evident. There may be some pretext for the PPP to not care about newspaper headlines but what does it really care about? We can see that it is in power but it is not able to govern. Salmaan Taseer’s assassination may serve as a metaphor for the demise of rule of law.

While my dejection is primarily rooted in the aftermath of that killing in Islamabad, there is so much more that is extremely disturbing. The writing on the wall, for those who can see it, is scarier than the headlines in a newspaper. But the writing on the wall is something you cannot write in a newspaper or say on television. It is becoming more and more difficult to express your thoughts or even report what you learn from credible sources.

I have always been intrigued by the fact that while conversations that take place in late evening sessions in Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi, where newsmen mingle with notable politicians and deal makers, are studded with juicy information, nothing much gets on record. It would be interesting to look at the apparently unchecked freedom of the media in the context of what the media cannot or does not report.

Incidentally, I was able to gather a good sense of the deepening crisis of Pakistan by attending a consultation held in Islamabad on Wednesday under the auspices of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat). A distinguished group representing various disciplines discussed specific items of an agenda that related to governance challenges facing Pakistan with reference to “growing corruption, weakening writ of the state, economic crisis and law and order scenario”.

Without going into any details about that intense and wide-ranging discussion, I can only say that I found it very educative and dispassionately candid about the crisis of the Pakistan. I got some useful insights into, for instance, the state of the economy, the nature of our structural problems, the imperative for changing our strategic paradigm to make the country governable, the predicament of internal security as well as terrorism and, significantly, the dehumanisation of the Pakistani society.

A lot of thought was devoted to whether there is a real danger that the military may intervene “if the current real or perceived slide in the performance of the government continues”. There was the expected consensus that the military has no business meddling in political affairs. However, there was also this question: what happens if there is a collapse or a total breakdown in law and order? It was somewhat reassuring that a plea was also made for looking at the positive aspects of the present situation.

Now, to return to what I said at the outset, what do you do when things begin to fall apart and you feel gagged and intimidated by forces of extremism and intolerance? The space for social action that the intelligentsia may have had is shrinking. What we understand as the freedom of speech is severely restricted. Hence, another quotation from Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

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