Americans voted for Barack Hussein Obama, the rulers in Pakistan appointed Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as ministers.

Our patch of darkness
Sunday, November 09, 2008
by Ghazi Salahuddin

At a time when the world is illuminated by the miracle of democracy, manifested in the election of an Afro-American as president of the United States of America, we remain imprisoned in our own patch of darkness. And a fresh reminder of this bondage was quite timely. One day before Americans voted for Barack Hussein Obama, the rulers in Pakistan expanded the federal cabinet and appointed, among others, Israrullah Zehri and Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani as ministers.

The contrast in the two unconnected events – one a monumental shift in global history and the other a typical aberration in an unfortunate land of sorrow – is remarkable. “Change we need” was the slogan of Obama’s campaign. “Yes, we can,” was its inspiring refrain. Obama has personified the realisation of a dream that had yet seemed impossible. In its time of troubles, America has been gifted with a charismatic leader who signifies hope in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

In our case, the rulers have effectively extinguished the hope that had heralded their assumption of power. In some ways, the yearning for change has been countered with a partial reassertion of primitive, tribal and feudal values. That is how the presence of someone like Israrullah Zehri in the cabinet becomes symbolic. What is truly incredible is that this choice has been made by the leadership of a party that had initially promised progressive social change and empowerment of the oppressed people of Pakistan.

Zehri, a senator from Balochistan, hit headlines some weeks ago when he defended the honour killing of women in his province. It related to an incident in which three women were reported to have been buried, either alive or after being killed, in the name of honour. Zehri had argued that “these are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them.” Irrespective of how such remarks can be explained, brutal killings of young women who cross boundaries that primitive customs have set for them remain frequent in the domain of the tribal and feudal lords who make it to the federal and provincial legislatures on tickets awarded by our major political parties.

There has been considerable comment this week on the expansion of the cabinet – 40 of them in one go – at a time when the country is in dire straits financially. Zehri’s inclusion has rightly angered our social activists. One does not know if all this criticism can ruffle a few feathers in the corridors of power. Still, it is not possible that at least some stalwarts in the Pakistan People’s Party, with their professed commitment to liberal and progressive values, are not privately troubled by these developments.

The party has a number of women leaders who have struggled for the emancipation of women and against such practices as honour killing. Why are they not able to raise their voice and defend the image that their party has had? This, perhaps, is another tragedy of how party politics has evolved in our present circumstances. It was also sad to see Makhdoom Amin Fahim finally falling in line, though he too belongs to the feudal sphere of the party’s influence.

Now, the choice of Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, PPP MNA from Jacobabad, as the Minister of Education also deserves attention. It goes to Hamid Mir’s credit that he highlighted the incongruity of this appointment in Geo’s “Capital Talk” on Thursday. It so happens that Bijarani was allegedly involved in a jirga decision to hand over five minor girls to settle an old dispute. This issue, if you remember, was heard last year by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and he had ordered Bijarani’s arrest.

Irrespective of the details of that case, and even if we accept Bijarani’s argument that he had been cleared by a lower court, the fact that a feudal leader should be assigned to steer the educational policies of this government is in itself very instructive. Education, we know, is the seed of social change. It has been certified that educating the girls is the most effective and fruitful strategy for modernising a society.

Consider, also, how we are caught in a pincer movement from the religious militants on one side and the tribal and feudal leaders on the other. As a consequence, the majority of women in our country are generally considered less than human. This is a tragedy that our rulers are apparently not able to even comprehend. The irony is that the PPP is the only national party we would expect to make some decisive moves in this respect. Incidentally, a symbiotic relationship between suppression of old customs and the expansion of literacy and education was properly underlined in Thursday’s “Capital Talk.”

I suggest that the PPP should conduct an objective analysis of what its elected members have done in their own constituencies to promote education, social awareness and enforcement of human rights. If the level of corruption in the education departments of Sindh and Balochistan is any measure, the findings of this study should be unbearable for any leader who has a conscience and a sense of responsibility.

With this focus on how our present mode of governance is unmindful of the imperative for social change, I have been distracted from celebrating the phenomenal triumph of Barack Obama. We were lucky to be able to witness this emotionally overpowering event. Let me confess that I was almost in tears when I watched Obama making that acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park in front of hundreds of thousands of his jubilant supporters. It had come after a sleepless night when results from different states built up a scintillating climax.

It should take some time for us to fully absorb the significance and the meaning of the historic transformation that democracy has made possible in America. One point that I want to stress is that in a deep crisis, the task of a leader is to inspire hope. This is only possible when the people from across the national spectrum, particularly the young, are mobilised into social action, to participate in the political process.

Can this irrationally bloated federal cabinet of ours generate hope and confidence in our people? Alas, the state of affairs is so grim that our loss of hope is deepening by the day. Every conversation you make with friends or acquaintances – or even with complete strangers in the bazaar or a restaurant – is infused with deep anxiety and apprehension. On the face of it, the challenges that we face are also an opportunity for our rulers, if only they have the courage to creatively respond to the needs and aspirations of our people. And they can begin with decisive action against primitive, inhuman customs that have suppressed our women.

The writer is a staff member. Email: