Another attack on a soft target, another group of civilians dead, another round of meaningless condemnations, and nothing changes. The only variable: This time the location is Bacha Khan University, Charsadda. We are reassured that conditions are safer than ever because, look, no attacks on airports! Don’t mind those dead university students. Label them martyrs and applaud their parents for the sacrifice neither they nor their children were prepared to make.
Listening to some “analysts” on the idiot box in the aftermath it even seemed like what happened is somehow supposed to be taken as a good thing, because, you know … martyrs. Oh, and also, do not forget that there have not been any attacks on critical infrastructure.
Today, our infrastructure, our dams , airports, ports and highways, our politicians and VIPs may be more-or-less secure, but our schools, universities, markets and public places have become frontlines in the war against militancy. According to the Global Terrorism Database (http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/), there have been more than 800 attacks on educational institutions since 2007, in addition to attacks on private citizens, businesses, military, government and police targets. Some of the most likely, declared and most vulnerable targets are the least secure.
The Geneva Convention of 1949 relative to the protection of Civilian Persons, to which Pakistan is a party, and the rules of war as laid down in Islam, both prohibit the killing of non-combatants such as women, children and the elderly, animals and livestock, and even crops and plants. One must wonder what strain of Islam, if any, it is that the TTP and its supporters are supposedly adhering to and defending when most of their recent targets were in fact soft-targets.
And while the armed services seem to be the only ones taking visible action against terrorists, what has been the bureaucracy and government machinery’s contribution in this fight? Security details of even the most insignificant officials are growing as if the future of the republic is staked on their lives — I call it protocol creep. To illustrate the point of how bad the appropriation of state resources has become, a few weeks ago I came across a video showing people being inconvenienced, and being made an easy target to strike, because a “route” had been enforced on Margallah Road in Islamabad for a VIP. The VIP in question? A (probably) inconsequential official of the Islamabad Traffic Police travelling alone in a car.
In 1989 Alfred Herrhausen, a prominent (West) German banker, was assassinated by a roadside bomb. In the coverage that followed, an official made a statement and said that the assassination would not effect any change because the way the German system worked someone else would be appointed in his place and the work would continue. Contrast that view with the indispensability with which so many of our officials must view themselves to justify their extravagant security details.
Whenever we seem to face a challenge, our response seems to be either one of two things:
If you have the requisite power and/or influence, insulate yourself from the problem by creating your own bubble and solve the problem for yourself, often by commandeering public resources. Examples are assigning oneself police/armed forces security details for security, granting oneself the official benefit of having a dual power connection or free-electricity to escape rolling power outages and expensive utility rates, or having a “route” assigned and blocking all traffic on intersections to cut through city traffic congestion, having water delivered to one’s house by a water tanker.
And if you lack the power and influence for that but have money, buy your way out of the problem. Examples are hiring private security, buying a UPS power backup or solar power system to avoid blackouts, buying one or two pickup trucks and loading them with armed men to muscle your way through traffic, illegally installing a water well in your house to counter the water shortage, buying gas in cylinders to deal with gas outages, sending children to private schools or abroad to escape the failing public school system.
And if you lack both influence and money, then you are out of luck and at the mercy of the state, while everyone’s sense of civic responsibility is in a deep slumber. Advocacy to demand of the state to address the root cause of problems is virtually non-existent and activism is restricted to Facebook and social media. What we are seeing is the “bubblification” of our society where everyone is creating their own bubble, as best as they can, without regard to the cost or decline in everyone else’s living conditions that may cause, or any hope of fixing the root problem.
The list of problems include power outages, gas outages, lack of law and order, access to speedy judicial recourse, quality public education, modern mass transit systems on a meaningful scale, road infrastructure, etc. And now, the most recent addition to this list is the vanishing of the expectation of security parents had for their children when sending them to school.
After the attack on the APS Peshawar schools across the country closed for three weeks, and for a time it looked like some meaningful changes would be made to address the question of security of schools. And now we have the attack on Bacha Khan University, Charsadda. Initial reports hint that the Charsadda attackers had the same modus operandi as the APS attackers and exploited the same loophole; a campus boundary wall that was low enough to be easily scaled. What then was the purpose of closing schools and universities for three weeks?
Thirteen months since APS, and the only thing that has changed between then and now is that a few more VIPs have opted to school their children abroad. The condemnations and platitudes from politicians now sound so half-hearted, meaningless and hollow that they are cringe-worthy and embarrassing.
The indifference and incompetence of those in the government that are accountable are soundly asleep at the wheel, for everyone is living in their own bubble, and now that indifference has brought us another dysfunction that is killing our children in another way. But do not expect any accountability, or any heads to roll, or anyone to lose their benefits. How dare we criticise any other countries for treating Pakistanis as second-class citizens, when our own state treats its citizenry as sub-human and the people running the machinery of the state create a reality separate from the reality for the rest?
As long as those responsible for improving present conditions have the luxury of insulating themselves from the pain and suffering (almost) everyone else is living through, few in it will have an incentive to apply themselves to fix the underlying problems. However, this is easier said than done. While it is possible to withdraw some of the “facilities” departments provide their employees that contribute to this insulation, it is not practical to ensure that people just buy their way out of inconveniences, i.e. while it is possible to withdraw electricity subsidy benefits, it would be impractical to ban the use of UPS power backup systems.
But circling back to education, it may be possible to make politicians and government employees to only avail themselves of public sector schools. This approach towards improving public sector schools is not without precedent, and was enacted in one Indian state. Maybe, once our bureaucrats and politicians have a stake in the improvement of the quality (and now security) of public schools, they will have something get done. Am I advocating the end of private schools in the country? Absolutely not. Over the last two decades the lagging public school sector has left a giant void in terms of quality and capacity, and the private schools sector is playing an important role in catering to that demand. Let private schools compete with public schools as they always have, but let us also push public schools to put up a fight.
Recall what happened a few months ago in the Fall, at the beginning of the current academic school year when a cartel of private schools franchises decided to hike their tuition rates by as much as 100 per cent overnight. The influential class got stung, and within a fortnight a few dozen parents with the reach and the voice went up against these schools’ management, knocked on every door they had access to, and within a few weeks the schools were forced to reverse course. That is a recent example of how our government was made to respond. Imagine what might be possible for public schools, when every minister, MNA, senator, MPA and bureaucrats’ children had a stake fixing the dysfunction of public sector schools.
Earlier in January, President Barack Obama spoke about gun violence and gun control measures in the US and said, “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some.” Stripping our thousands of VIPs of their security details and reassigning those same resources to the protection of schools may not be enough to cover all schools, but it too could save some lives and make for a start. It is time to pop some bubbles and end the insulation.