Monday, December 10, 2007

May More Birds Sing

By: Shaheryar Akbar

“That light which shines only in palaces
Burns up the joy of the people in the shadows
Derives its strength from others weakness
That kind of system, a lightless dawn
I do not acknowledge; I do not accept”
-- Habib Jalib

A time of crisis is always a time for introspection. It is also a time of self-discovery. It is only when we overcome the hurdles of life that we discover our endurance, our strength, our greatness. By pushing against imaginary walls of fatalism erected by those fearful of an aware society, we realize our fundamental right to shape our destiny. History teaches us that no power has been able to suppress the will of the people if the people have categorically willed to rise. This will, however, cannot be born of the suppression, thereby becoming dependent on the very thing it wishes to destroy. It cannot be a reactive force to an external stimulus, but instead, it must be a vibrant force created by an inherent conscience. We cannot be part-time citizens. We will need to continue playing an active, responsible, and committed role in the shaping of the future of our country if we wish to realize our dreams and aspirations. While this emergency is a catalyst to action, it cannot be our inspiration. A year from now, maybe two or five, if the emergency is lifted, the Constitution restored, and democracy established will we go our separate ways? Will we return to who we were prior to November 3rd – apolitical, apathetic, disinterested. Or will we, instead, realize that November 3rd was a moment that changed us all forever, for it introduced us to a new “we”. A “we” aware of its power and ability to affect change; a “we” committed to justice, freedom, equality, respect, and truth. A “we” eloquent in expressing its sentiments and establishing its claims; a “we” willing to organize and sacrifice for peace and justice in the land of its people. A new “we”. A historic “we”. A beautiful “we”.

The creative, idealistic, and passionate student voices that echo in the vacuum of a suspended Constitution is the clearest indication that more and more youths must enlist in the process of determining the future course of Pakistan. While the tribulations of life have turned our parents into cynics and fatalists, the fires that burn in our hearts and the dreams that twinkle in our eyes are precisely what are needed to lift Pakistan from the ashes to a brighter tomorrow. History unravels itself only upon those people capable of rising to historic challenges. Pakistan is at a unique crossroads, and that we are in a position to witness history and alter its course requires deep reflection. Why has history chosen us? Will we respond? And, if so how?

Musharraf justified his imposition of martial law by resorting to flimsy nationalistic sentiments, restating the clichéd doctrine of necessity. He believes that only he is capable of bringing democracy to Pakistan and that his actions will prevent the country from committing suicide. Most of the country disagrees with him. So while Musharraf continues to believe that his actions were in the best interest of Pakistan, the people continue to argue that his actions will be detrimental for the nation. It is obvious than that Musharraf’s understanding of Pakistan is different from that of the peoples’. Therefore, what we confront today is a clash of definitions; of perceptions, and it is precisely this clash that has been at the heart of Pakistan’s struggles and tribulations. The renowned Pakistani thinker, Eqbal Ahmed, once wrote, “At the heart of this crisis has been our collective failure to resolve the central issue of the nature of the Pakistani state, and the sources of laws which govern it.” The present turmoil within our country is also an occasion for us to rise to the historic challenge of searching deep within and coming up with a comprehensive idea of Pakistan. We have been given a chance, once again, to articulate who we are as a people. What is Pakistan, what is its nature? What are our dreams, our aspirations? We cannot, we must not remain idle in the face of such redemption.

In order for any movement, any form of resistance to succeed, it must be guided by a vision; a vision not simply rooted in abstract principles, but fused with concrete steps and strategies. People often idealize revolutions, not realizing the serious, significant, and at times dangerous consequences of mass revolts. Democracy is not a panacea for our problems. Neither is any single individual. The upliftment of a society is a collective struggle that cannot fade away. That political leaders failed us in the past had more to do with the political system than the individuals themselves. The reason democracy has been able to flourish in other countries is not because they are endowed with inherently good natured leaders as opposed to our corrupt politicians. A stable structure with checks and balances, respect for justice, and ultimately based on the will of the people has ensured that these political figures remain accountable for their actions. Malcolm X once said, “Power never takes a back step — only in the face of more power.” Therefore, our inability to present a united front expressing our opposition to government policies led to the continuation of these policies detrimental to Pakistan and its people. We are now in a position to change the system. To ensure that checks and balances remain intact, that justice reigns supreme, and the will of the people is never compromised. However, this requires a deep analysis of the current system, identifying its faults, and presenting a new system based on the specific Pakistani context, taking into account possible future consequences. A successful movement, must therefore, possess binary vision – the ability to concentrate on short-term demands, while being aware of the larger purpose, the ultimate goal. And the ultimate goal of our movement has to be the restructuring of the political system within Pakistan and a clear elucidation of the nature of the state.

The primary short term goals have to be free and fair elections, resignation of Musharraf, end to martial law, and reinstatement of all suspended judges. However, under the current conditions most, if not all, seem impossible. It is clear that Musharraf must quit all together; he is unacceptable as a president irrespective of its civilian or military description. Therefore, I believe that the elections should be boycotted categorically if Musharraf does not quit and the emergency is not lifted. Any elections held under Musharraf’s supervision will be a mockery of and an insult to the intelligence and will of the Pakistani people. Three of the most important institutes within a society; the very lifeblood of a living nation are currently opposed to Musharraf: judiciary, media, and intelligentsia. If these three vibrant forces are able to combine their human potential they can seriously alter the outcome of events in the next couple of months. The government of Pakistan and all political parties willing to participate in the January 8 elections need to be told that the elections will only maintain a status quo that is now, simply, unacceptable. We also need to inform people internationally, thereby shaping world opinion in our favor, obtaining global solidarity, and hence imposing significant pressure on the government and the parties concerned. That the Harvard Law School Association has decided to give Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry a Medal of Freedom, and that Mazhar Abbas of ARY One World has also been recognized for his struggles is a testimony to the power of individual acts and our ability to be recognized and supported worldwide.

Educational institutes within Pakistan and Pakistani students studying abroad must continue their opposition and struggle. We should continue writing to the international media expressing our concerns, voicing our opinions, and stating our demands: that Musharraf must quit, that emergency must be lifted, that the suspended judges should be reinstated, and that free and fair elections should be held. Any other proposal will further destabilize the country, jeopardize the current movement, and fail in its attempt to answer the historic question of Pakistan’s nature and destiny. I also think that students within Pakistan and abroad should use hunger strikes similar to those witnessed at LUMS as an effective tool to be heard. We should continue using conventional methods to raise our voices and exert our demands, and, only as a last resort, begin a collective hunger strike if the government and political parties show an unwillingness to listen to our demands. We need to direct the world’s attention towards our cause and gain its support if we wish to be successful. The next two months are critical, and our actions today, in the current fiasco, will have repercussions for decades to come. We must decide wisely.

Eqbal Ahmed, in a profound article once wrote, “Gramsci draws three fundamental conclusions: (i) When civil society (which includes professional, literary and artistic institutions and associations) conforms uncritically or is coerced by the state into silence, totalitarianism prevails. (ii) When civil society enjoys a lively network of institutions and associations, and these maintain critical links with state institutions, then democracy prevails. (iii) When state and society are structurally and culturally antagonistic to each other, then conditions of civil war and anarchy obtain, and a society evades either fate only when its intelligentsia forges and popularities a program for reform or revolution. In all three situations the choices artists and intellectuals make affect not only their own but their society's destiny.”

These are difficult times that require deep thought and complex solutions. No one individual can provide all the answers. It is my hope that people sincere to this cause will be galvanized to come up with creative, bold, and innovative plans for addressing the issues confronting our country. There is much reason to be optimistic despite the atmosphere that surrounds Pakistan. The way people have responded, stood up, united, and opposed in the past few weeks is a testimony to a living conscience. Tyranny can take away our rights, our freedom, our speech. It can attempt to imprison us within walls of fear and oppression, but it can never extinguish our humanity; our passionate, inherent belief in truth and justice. A living conscience can never be suppressed; it can only overcome.

Ayesha Siddiqa wrote, “Societies have to find their own strength to win their battles.” People often find strength in poets. They offer hope to the rest of humanity, because they understand the complexity of human emotions, the depth of human experiences, and the value of human life. Who better to turn to in these times than the great poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz? His experiences living in Pakistan several decades back were sadly not so different from what we confront today. And in the darkness of his prison cell fighting against tyranny, he left us these immortal words to inspire all those committed to the principles of liberty, justice, equality, and respect. As autumn’s wings envelop our beautiful country, Faiz’s words could never have been so pertinent:

This is the way that autumn came to the trees: it stripped them down to the skin, left their ebony bodies naked. It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves, scattered them over the ground. Anyone could trample them out of shape undisturbed by a single moan of protest. The birds that herald dreams were exiled from their song, each voice torn out of its throat. They dropped into the dust even before the hunter strung his bow. Oh, God of May have mercy. Bless these withered bodies with the passion of your resurrection; make their dead veins flow with blood again. Give some tree the gift of green again. Let one bird sing.

May God guide us in our struggles.

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