There is too much sadness in our country. Of course, it is not something that can be seen or heard as a physical reality. But we can sense it in far too many places, and it has come to envelop us as a nation, increasingly defining how we live, what we think and what factors drive our lives.
Sadness is a constant presence in the house of Mashal Khan, whose parents marked what should have been his birthday at the end of March. In less than two weeks, they will be marking his death anniversary. Mashal should have lived many years more. But what is truly terrifying is that even after the case which temporarily moved the nation, there is every possibility that more similar deaths will take place.
The murder of Professor Khalid Hameed by a student at a government college in Bahawalpur where the professor taught is one example of the manner in which extremism and violence have taken away joy from lives. Of course, the professor is a victim. But so too is the student himself and his peers, some of whom believed that a welcome party bringing together boys and girls was not permissible by religion. The reports circulating that the student had links with a leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan add a further, sinister edge to the sadness.
In the home of teenage sisters Reena and Raveena, from Ghotki in Sindh, there is also a lingering sadness and uncertainty. According to their family, the girls were abducted, forced to convert to Islam like so many Hindu girls before them, and married to older men. The sisters are currently at a shelter in Islamabad on court orders. Their fate is awaited. For other Hindu girls kidnapped before them, it has been decided. While there have been few efforts outside the Hindu community to follow up on these girls, it is known that many are extremely badly treated by the men they are married to.
There are so many other kinds of sadness and grief and ignorance that they are difficult to enumerate. The brutal questioning of the woman in Lahore who complained to the police about torture by her husband is an example of the hardened society we live in. Inevitably, Asma’s own character is being questioned and she was asked on one TV channel if she would once again love her husband if he apologized to her in court.
The inanity of this is difficult to understand; as is the lack of sensitivity. And of course, there are many other stories. Stories of rape by brothers or close family members, stories of honour killings and stories of child abuse or physical punishment at schools. Behind each of these, there is a sense of loss and of betrayal and this collective sorrow has its impact on us all and the society we live in.
The question is: why do we permit this narrative of darkness to continue? Why have we been unable to alter it despite repeated promises and efforts? Following the APS massacre in Peshawar in December 2014, we had sworn to do away with militancy and terrorism. The reality is that the threat of violence rooted in extremist thought continues. This is largely a result of a policy failure.
Beginning at schools and continuing into our colleges and universities, we teach students not to question but simply to accept what is contained within their textbooks. As has been highlighted again and again, many of these facts are inaccurate. But this remains unknown to the young people who emerge with certificates, diplomas or degrees.
A particular view of religion and the supremacy of one faith over the others is deeply embedded within our learning system and also echoed in other places. The media promotes much the same view, while political leaders have been known to follow down the same path. This is at so many levels a dangerous way to live.
For seven decades after Independence, we have failed to provide for the 220 million people in Pakistan a safe place to live and a safe environment in which to express their ideas and thoughts or a secure existence. As a consequence, too many continue to live in poverty and without even preliminary education. In the midst of this ignorance, we churned out slogans and mantras and catchphrases with mock zest and zeal.
Even as March 23, Pakistan Day, was marked this year, a TV crew found that almost all those interviewed in a major city had no real idea of what the day meant or why it was celebrated. Again, perhaps it is our education system which is to blame; perhaps it is the failure to develop the need to think and to inquire. The death of thinking has in many ways destroyed us.
The intolerance we see everywhere, over the electronic media, on social media and in other forums, is an outcome of this. Because we do not rationalize, reason or question, we are unwilling to accept views other than our own. Perhaps we do not have the capacity to accept that there is not just one opinion which is right, a diversity of opinions is in fact essential to democracy and to the life of any piece of territory which calls itself a nation.
The attempt to impose a particular kind of uniformity across it further stifles diversity and dissent. This too does not make for happiness or satisfaction. Instead, it gives rise to further violent trends and the use of weapons rather than words in too many cases where disagreement of any kind has occurred.
Change of course will not come instantly. We will live with the sadness we see now for a long time ahead. But one day, it has to be swept away if a healthy nation is to grow and develop to its full capacity. This can happen only in the right environment and the right setting. The systems currently in place – which repel all efforts to think freely, to express points of view which diverge from the mainstream or to live in a manner that can enable each citizen to reach their full potential – will need to change. They will in fact need to be brought down piece by piece. Only once this happens can a different system be put in place. We see no signs that this is happening at the present moment.
Surely, not long down the line, we will realize it is essential that change be created. The collective will to do so has to be found. The loss of student and labour unions, alongside so many other forums from which thinking and leadership emerged, hinders this effort. But regardless of the hurdle, the effort continues to be made by at least some groups and individuals in our major cities and many of our towns.
More need to join up in this drive and provide it the momentum it needs to cross the walls set up in the way and enable a nation to emerge in which there is less grieving and greater reason to celebrate life, achievement and all that this brings with it.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.