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Bottom of the class

There months ago, when I accepted an invitation to join a panel discussion organised by London’s Democracy Forum, I had no idea it was a very pro-India outfit.

The subject was — what else? — terrorism in Pakistan. But when I saw Dr Christine Fair’s name on the list of panellists, I had a fair idea of what to expect. An associate professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, she has made a name for herself for her sharp critique of the Pakistan Army and our intelligence agencies, and their allegedly active support for jihadi militants.

Some of us in Pakistan have argued along the same lines, but Dr Fair has consistently got under the establishment’s skin as she publishes in the United States, and often speaks at high- level forums there. In a recent article by her (‘Pakistan’s unending war on civil society’ in the webzine ‘War on the Rocks’) she wrote that the security apparatus provides state support to militant groups banned by the UN, the US and others.

Our politicians are not known for decisive action. “The US needs to hold this state accountable. It should apply sanctions, deny security assistance payments, and limit the provision of military equipment and training … while offering Islamabad no advantages in its incessant warmongering towards India,” she wrote.

Being familiar with Dr Fair’s views, I found little that was new in her tirade delivered via Skype. But there was one section of her talk made me sit up and take notice: basically, she made the point that the Pakistani state had failed to act seriously against the terrorist threat because few of the victims were from the elites.

I have often wondered why successive governments have been so slack in cracking down on the jihadi militias that have been rampaging on our soil for decades now. I know one reason is the support many of them receive from our intelligence agencies. But why have civilian leaders not acted against the hard-line madressahs, or stopped hate speech in mosques and TV chat shows, or, indeed, cleaned our school and college curricula of their extremist content?

It’s true that our politicians are not known for decisive action, just as our bureaucracy has not set any records for rapid implementation. But had a majority of the 60,000 or so of the victims of terrorism been members of the upper echelons of society, I’m sure the state’s response would have been very different.

As an example, look at what happened in the aftermath of the two attempts on Musharraf’s life in December 2003: the suspects were rapidly tried, found guilty and executed. And it took a major Taliban attack on a Peshawar army school to get a consensus on military action, and the approval of the National Action Plan. Had the over 140 victims been from a Peshawar slum, I doubt very much that such a determined response would have been crafted by our leadership.

This attitude merely reflects other aspects of life in Pakistan. Our state hospitals and schools are in a shambles because our elites use private facilities. Quacks and madressahs thrive in the vacuum created by the state’s abdication of its responsibilities. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that an educated and healthy population is essential for any nation’s progress.

Yet we continue to ignore these basic needs because our children don’t have to go to schools where little education is imparted. Or, if they are sick, don’t have to go to hospitals where they would have to wait endlessly to receive third-rate care.

It’s the same depressing story for clean drinking water and sanitation. Again, these problems don’t exist for our entitled ruling classes. Bot­tled water and tan­kers for the lawns and swimming pools of the rich are the order of the day. And yet, waterborne diseases and poor sanitation account for the vast majority of diseases afflicting millions of Pakistanis.

Everybody is aware of these issues, and yet government after government has refused to tackle them. Punjab has done a bit better than the other provinces, but the Sharif family’s preoccupation with their ‘mega projects’ has diverted attention and resources from more pressing needs.

One excuse is that the security forces have siphoned off a large chunk of the funds available, leaving little for the citizenry. While this may be true, it is not the whole truth: year after year, millions of rupees allocated to education and health in the budget are surrendered because our bureaucracy was unable to spend them within the financial year.

The reality is that the military, the bureaucracy, the political class, feudals and businessmen all grab the state’s resources and deprive the poor of their share. As long as this loot continues, expect to see Pakistan at the bottom of the table for human development.


Irfan Husain, "Bottom of the class," Dawn. 2017-01-28.
Keywords: Political science , Democracy Forum , Corruption , Pakistan army , Intelligence agencies , Jihadi militants , Civil society , Bureaucracy , Terrorism , Taliban attack , Military action , National action plan , Peshawar slum , Waterborne diseases , Mega projects , Financial year , United States , Pakistan