Lessons from History

By Anjum Altaf

Some lessons are very hard-earned and stand out for their stark truth and searing honesty.

Ivan Klima, a well-known Czech novelist, was transported to a concentration camp at the age of ten and was there for four years till the end of WWII in 1945. Many who accompanied him did not survive their internment.

In a deeply-felt memoir of that experience (“A Childhood in Terezin”), Klima recalls two lessons that stayed with him. First, that “Every society that is founded on dishonesty and tolerates crime as an aspect of normal behaviour, be it only among a handful of the elect, while depriving another group, no matter how small, of its honour and even its right to life, condemns itself to moral degeneration and, ultimately, to collapse.”

And, second, “that often it is not the forces of good and evil that do battle with each other, but merely two different evils, in competition for control of the world.”

These lessons came to mind after the recent elections. It has become an aspect of normal behaviour for us to accept whoever is placed on the pedestal unmindful of the path to that place of honour. The pragmatic attitude is to give the beneficiary a chance to prove his or her worth. This largesse extends even to those who foist themselves on the pinnacle by trampling over the Constitution. It is enough that they are seen as sweeping aside others whom they vilified as incompetent and corrupt.  

Klima disabuses us of the notion that something positive can come of acts founded on dishonesty and warns that societies condoning such practices ultimately collapse. And, indeed, Pakistan is evidence of that — it did collapse and is now half the size it was when it started out and falling progressively behind the half it shed.

We don’t have access to our own literature anymore otherwise we would not need Klima to warn us of this truth. Sheikh Saadi said the same many hundred years earlier:

Khisht-e awwal chun nahad miimar kaj
Taa surayya mee rawad miinar kaj

If the first brick is laid crooked by the architect
The minaret will stay crooked even if it reaches the stars

Pakistan is a rare country where we have gotten ourselves into this mode of acceptance of all fait accompli with such lack of concern for the implications. Probing deeper into this phenomenon one finds distinct reasons among different segments in society. For many ordinary citizens it reflects a helplessness in their lack of choice. Almost everyone concedes that elections are not contested on a level playing field and, given that, all they can do is to pray for the best possible outcome under the circumstances. You still root for your team when the captain is appointed unfairly.

There is an indifferent middle but amongst many of the extraordinary citizens, there is evident an unseemly hurry to move on and claim a stake in the largesse that is to be redistributed. The crush of jobseekers standing on their toes raising their hands to be noticed is a sorry sight to behold.

And here Klima’s second lesson, that there is no force of good, only two different evils battling for control of the pie, is sobering. Look at the names that have emerged in the key decision-making positions. It is virtually Musharraf redux. What expectations can one have from people who, when it suits them, have no compunctions serving under a dictator and re-emerge as champions of a new Pakistan when the tide runs?

If we aspire to a democracy we must aim for a level of integrity in our political process. The onus of choosing who is to represent them should rest on the electorate as should the responsibility of replacing those they deem to be incompetent or dishonest or both. The Hand of God is not needed to nudge the wise choices that ignorant voters are unable to see are in their own best interest.

It is true that we are far from conditions postulated for an ideal democracy — individual voters able and free to vote their consciences. Many are constrained to vote otherwise for a host of socioeconomic realities — need for protection, goodwill of patriarchs, family obligations, fear of hellfire, etc. But we accepted a representative system based on universal suffrage knowing all these constraints. The verdict of the electorate has to be accepted notwithstanding all these limitations — after all, our claim to nationhood rests on the electoral verdict of 1946. External interference in this process is a negation of democracy and the kind of dishonesty of which Klima has warned.

If the people are not to be trusted, we should be honest enough to drop the facade of democracy and replace it with a system in which some chosen few are given the right to anoint whomsoever they please in the interest of the nation.  

This opinion was published in Dawn on September 2, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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