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A walk in the park in Pakistan

Saturday June 18, 2011 09:29:33 AM, Aijaz Zaka Syed

Killing somebody, it seems, is like taking a walk in the park in Pakistan. The casual execution of Sarfaraz Shah by the paramilitary Rangers in Karachi last week has shaken a nation used to the daily drill of drone strikes and suicide bombings.

The 17-year-old was nervously walking up and down trying to assure the Rangers of his innocence when he was shot point blank — without a warning and without batting an eyelid. Just like that. Cold-blooded, mater-of-fact and absolutely chilling, the Rangers' action, captured by an unobtrusive television camera, has set the cyberspace on fire.

Who are these people? Are they totally devoid of humanity, if not the fear of God? Is this really the land of the pure, the Utopia founded in the name of Islam? How could you just shoot someone who is not obviously armed and poses no threat to the well being of the heavily armed group of Rangers like that? Sarfaraz begged for his life literally as he lay there on the ground writhing bleeding to death: “Haspatal pahoncha dey yaar! Mujhay haspatal toe pahoncha dey'' (Please take me to hospital, my friend! At least take me to hospital).

Of course, no one came forward. No one heeded a dying man's desperate pleas for help. His killers dispassionately watched the 17-year-old die, as if he was a slaughtered animal. No one from among the bystanders coolly watching from a safe distance offered help either. After all, it was a public park and they were there to take a stroll and have a good time. Finally, Sarfaraz was taken to a nearby hospital. He died minutes after arrival, having lost every drop of lifeblood as he had.

I couldn't sleep the whole night after watching the video of the cold-blooded killing, forwarded to me by a distant friend. Nor could I sleep or eat the next day. I kept thinking and thinking of the utter helplessness of the teenager and the way he crumpled in a heap. It was hardly like a dramatic scene from a Hollywood thriller. Life in its reality is often more prosaic and ordinary than the imagination of a filmmaker or storyteller.

I kept thinking of the clinical, all-in-a-day's-work ruthlessness of the killers in uniform. This studied, devil-may-care barbarity was chillingly familiar. Where had I seen it before? In the murderous ruthlessness of the Israeli soldiers across the occupied and enslaved Palestine? In the scenic killing fields of Kashmir? In the drone strikes and bombing of funerals and wedding parties in Afghanistan or the obscenity of Abu Ghraib and Iraq?

HOW is all this different from what the guardians and defenders of law are doing in the Land of the Pure? How's the heart-wrenching tragedy of Sarfaraz different from the gunning down of the 12-year- old Palestinian boy, Muhammad Al Durra, in Gaza by Israeli troops even as he was desperately being shielded by his father? There's a difference though. Unlike the Palestinian father-son duo who expected and got no mercy from their killers, Sarfaraz thought he was among friends!

Is this really Quaid-e-Azam's Pakistan? Whatever happened to the blessed citadel of Islam and the model, progressive Muslim state that Pakistan was supposed to be? Who's responsible for this mess and how did Mohammad Ali Jinnah's baby end up here? More to the point, where does Pakistan go from here? These are questions that must be confronted not just by the country's fractious politicians and self-serving elites but everyone who cares for the well being and future of the South Asian nation.

The tragedy of Sarfaraz Shah is the loudest wake-up call Pakistanis could have got. Pakistan is a nation “in the midst of a nervous breakdown,” as Pakistani artist and blogger Bina Shah tweeted after the incident. There's no time to heal; it's a body blow after devastating body blow, with every fresh wound draining the precious lifeblood.

Most Pakistani intellectuals have convinced themselves their young country is dying a slow and painful death — just as Sarfaraz died last week. I am not so pessimistic. But even for a distant observer like me writing on the wall is ominous and hard to miss.

Pakistan may indeed be negotiating the most critical point in its eventful history. This is an existential crisis perhaps more critical than the one it faced in 1971 when its other half broke up with it to declare itself Bangladesh.

What happened in Karachi last week was anything but routine police violence or highhandedness for which the subcontinent's security forces are notorious. Custodial killings happen all too often next door in India as well. However, they do not take place in broad daylight, in full view of the whole world. And in most cases, such highhandedness seldom goes unpunished.

THIS is what is so disturbing and scaring about this whole business. It's as though the Rangers have a license to kill — literally — and they aren't afraid to flaunt and use it, at the slightest provocation — or not.

This is not just about one innocent man getting killed by a trigger-happy cop in a big, Third World metropolis. It's about the collapse of all that is sacred and sacrosanct and binds and holds a society and a nation together. It's about the unraveling of institutions and crumbling of a social order. Call it the rule of law, social contract, social fabric or whatever. The contempt with which the Rangers disposed of Sarfaraz wasn't merely for a helpless man. The disdain was reserved for the social contract, civil society and the idea of Pakistan.

Something is terribly wrong with Pakistan. This is what its legion of detractors has been shouting about ad nauseam for years and decades. And now it's increasingly difficult to deny this even for the sincerest friends and well wishers of the country.

This killing holds up a mirror to Pakistani society and nation and Pakistanis should be horrified and outraged by what they see. I do not even want to get into the pointless, depressing debate about the myriad woes Pakistan faces and what or who is responsible for turning Jinnah's dream into an endless nightmare.

Petty games of big powers; stranglehold of the omnipotent and omnipresent army; hopelessly corrupt and feudal nature of Pakistani politics and of course, and the scourge of extremism — each one of them or all of them may be responsible for the present state of the Islamic republic. We know the drill.

The question is, what are the Pakistanis going to do to about it. What can they do to stop the freefall of their amazing country? How long will they helplessly watch while their young nation is ripped apart by the vultures of all colors and kinds? And the less is said of the political lot the better. They are part of the curse haunting Pakistan.

What Pakistan badly needs is a bold, grassroots movement for change. A people's revolt, if you will, against all that is wrong, corrupt and unjust. A revolt against the forces of status quo and a return to the basics. Pakistan needs to rediscover the dream, vision and faith that created it. It probably needs an Arab Spring to clean out the dirt, cobwebs and skeletons accumulated over the past six decades.


Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published commentator. Write him at

This article first appeared in Arab News







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