In their hour of need Pakistanis unite

Gulf News, October 26, 2005

Pakistanis have responded in an unprecedented manner to the tragic earthquake that killed tens of thousands of their countrymen and made over 2.5 million homeless.

Thousands of civilians mobilised to lend a helping hand in relief efforts, digging victims out of the rubble with bare hands.
Hundreds of doctors, both inside the country and abroad, left their lucrative practices to volunteer medical care in makeshift hospitals. Contributions worth millions of dollars have flown in from better off Pakistanis around the world.

Children handed in their small savings to help their less fortunate counterparts in the earthquake affected areas. Human chains moved goods and people across mountains.

Islamist and secular NGOs, as well as individuals with divergent religious, political and ethnic backgrounds set aside their differences in extending humanitarian assistance. In terms of national unity and caring for fellow citizens, this may be Pakistan’s finest hour.

Pakistanis have seldom failed to demonstrate national unity in the face of adversity. At the time of the nation’s Caesarian birth in 1947 and again at the time of the 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s civil society rose to show its potential for dealing with misfortunes. In the present tragedy as well as in the case of those two earlier occasions, Pakistan’s professional soldiers also demonstrated their mettle.

One must acknowledge the dedication of army aviation helicopter pilots for running humanitarian sorties notwithstanding exhaustion and bad weather. Hardworking officers and army jawans have also made an immense contribution in digging out the dead and helping the survivors.

Moments of national unity brought about by shared hardship should also serve as occasions to assess a nation’s institutions. If Pakistan’s leaders and thinkers had reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of previous moments of togetherness in the country’s history, the trajectory of Pakistan’s evolution would have been different. The country could have learnt from the events of partition and the pitfall of religious frenzy.

The nation’s willingness in 1965 to sacrifice to defend their frontiers would not have given way to regional rivalries soon thereafter if the people had been told the truth about the war from the beginning.

In 1965, it was Pakistan’s government and the permanent State (which is not the same thing as the Pakistani nation) that let Pakistan down following a moment of unprecedented national unity and unselfishness. To avoid a similar let down, it is important to take stock of the State machinery’s attitude and performance.

It must be stated clearly that no government could be prepared for a natural disaster of this magnitude and, therefore, the government of General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz cannot be faulted for lack of preparation. That said, there is also no doubt that for at least four days after the October 8 earthquake, official Pakistan showed little imagination in dealing with the crisis on its hands.

On October 17, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald quoted “officials linked to Pakistan’s army” as saying that “some [army] units paid more attention to restoring the country’s frontline defences against India after last weekend’s earthquake than to rescuing trapped civilians”.

The report cited a Pakistani military official as saying, “Although the Government knew that India would not attack the country, in the first few days they used every resource to restore its defence line because they never wanted to leave it vulnerable.”

General Sultan’s response, which should be taught in public relations courses as an example of the kind of thing that should never be said, was, “The people are traumatised and this is all a reaction to the trauma.”

The haughtiness of Pakistan’s State functionaries coupled with their traditional political predilections, remained evident even as the nation’s men, women and children rallied to alleviate their compatriots’ suffering. Debate continues to rage over Musharraf’s original decision to turn down India’s offer of helicopters at a time of dire need and when the two countries are ostensibly engaged in a peace process. Stories abound of government officials trying to upstage NGOs, of relief items donated in the US not leaving JFK Airport and of the bureaucracy trying to control the availability of tents for the homeless.

The government also rebuffed the parliamentary opposition by refusing to brief them about relief efforts at the National Assembly. The silly argument that the opposition should come to the GHQ for the briefing exposed the government’s desire to score points, rather than secure every Pakistan’s support in attending to the problem.

Indeed, if Musharraf wanted to seize this moment for national reconciliation, he should have asked Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to tour the world for fund raising. The two would certainly have obliged and it is unlikely that they would have asked for political favours in return. They would not have endeared themselves to the people if they had asked for political concessions at this juncture.