THE embers of hate are once again being stoked. To prevent history from being repeated and innocent blood spilled in the name of religion, the government must act urgently and decisively. The PPP’s parliamentary leader in the Senate, Sherry Rehman, sounded the alarm in the upper house on Friday when she brought up the intensifying anti-Shia campaign and described it as “extremely shocking that this issue is not being raised”.
The state’s silence is indeed inexplicable. It appears to have wilfully chosen to close its eyes to this sinister development. Recently in Karachi, three ‘Azmat-i-Sahaba’ rallies were taken out on successive days — the first and second by Deobandi and Barelvi organisations respectively, and the third by the Ahle Hadith.
The first two were mammoth gatherings, underscoring how quickly matters could go out of the authorities’ control if the momentum by ultra right-wing elements is sustained. Takfiri slogans were raised by the crowd at one of the events and an imambargah along the route was reportedly pelted with stones by participants. Emboldened by this unchecked show of extremism, a similar rally in Islamabad on Thursday openly included members of the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat with its leader Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi among the speakers.
Why were gatherings with an obviously sectarian, and thereby inherently violent, agenda allowed in the first place? Why was the leader of a banned group given free rein to address the crowd? Where is the adherence to the National Action Plan with its requirement of dealing firmly with sectarian terrorists and preventing the re-emergence of proscribed organisations? The state has no qualms in cracking down on rights-based protests by health workers, teachers, handicapped people, progressive students, etc. But it appears to lose its nerve when confronted with hate-spewing divisive elements.
Although much progress has been made by Pakistan in dismantling militant organisations and curbing terror financing, rallies by sectarian elements do not make for good optics, nor give the impression of a state in control. Even when they are ‘Pakistan-focused’, violent extremists destabilise society and inevitably create conditions for ‘transnational’ groups to find a foothold. We have been down this road before.
The situation is ominous. While it is difficult to say definitively what has provided the impetus for this renewed sectarian tension, it first manifested itself around the time of the debate over Punjab’s divisive Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam bill. Then during Muharram, blasphemy cases were filed against at least 40 Shias in connection with speeches at their religious gatherings. That, as we well know, leaves them vulnerable to being murdered by vigilantes. Sectarian violence blighted over two decades of this country’s existence, claimed thousands of lives and drove away qualified professionals from Pakistan; around 70 doctors were killed, mainly on sectarian grounds, between 2010 and 2014 alone. The authorities cannot afford to be timorous in their response to the looming threat.
Reviving local film
FINALLY, the big screen is in the picture again. Prime Minister Imran Khan is seeking to revive the local film industry. Special Assistant retired Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa has been working towards this goal for a while. The first emerging details speak of attempts to restore a situation where stakeholders do not have to wait for long to get their share of revenue from the business. The new plan puts emphasis on building new cinema houses in the country after the winds of change swept most of them away. The effects of the nightmare that reduced the number of good old ‘picture houses’ from more than 1,100 at one time to around 30 by the dawn of the 21st century persist in so many ways . Ultimately, these are just a few signs of the demise of an industry that had given people employment and entertainment in an era when cultural expressions were worth investing in, there being always much room for improvement. These old-mould cinema halls are very much a part of the Pakistani romance with film as it once unfolded on the screen. Similarly, low-income audiences who once thronged the most colourfully adorned theatres in the city are integral to the local film nostalgia. The wish for the return of this winning combination of yore, which appears to be part of the cinema revival dream, will have to stand the test of today’s economic realities.
In recent years, multiplexes have tried to woo back and compensate for the old audience as a commercially viable alternative, with crucial conditions attached. These multiplexes are an expensive entertainment option and the screening of Indian films was vital to their business. Covid-19 has dealt another blow to the multiplexes and some of them are said to be on the verge of closing down. If we can’t allow the Indians in, how fast can we produce our own films, of high quality, and have people trickle back to the cinema halls? This is just one of the many issues indicating how tricky this road is. Cinema in the country can only be revived and prosper in conditions that are conducive to creative thinking. Ensuring these conditions will require much more than government support for a few selected ventures. Essentially, we are talking of eliminating taboos that prevent an exploration of the cinema as one of the most powerful and globally popular means of communication.
ON Thursday, the Lahore High Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the complete ban on the manufacturing, sale and use of plastic bags in Punjab; and it gave shop owners 10 days to comply with the order. Earlier, in February, the court had banned the use of polythene and plastic bags at all mega stores in Lahore; the ban was later extended to Gujranwala and Faisalabad. This is not the first time such a ban has been put in place, and like previous attempts, it is just as unlikely to be successful this time around. Each attempt has been met with resistance, or followed briefly, only for shop owners and customers to quickly go back to the old ways of doing business. In 2006, the Sindh government first took the initiative to ban the hazardous material from the province, followed by repeated attempts in 2014, 2018, and then again in October 2019. Federal governments, too, have tried to impose bans on the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. Most recently, the PTI government, which is perhaps ostensibly the most environmentally conscious government in our history, imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags in Islamabad and its surrounding areas on Aug 14, 2019. But this did little to change the reality on ground.
According to estimates, Pakistan consumes between 55bn to 112bn bags each year. There is little doubt about the health and environmental harms of single-use plastics: they clog drains, pollute natural waterways, and make their way into the digestive systems of animals. And yet, despite these periodical bans, the practicality of single-use plastic bags, the lack of availability or awareness of alternatives, the low cost of manufacturing, along with the difficulties in enforcing the law, have made it difficult to discard the hazardous material from our everyday lifestyles. Until practical alternatives can be offered, taking into account the ground realities of people’s lives, all well-meaning attempts to make a long-term impact are bound to fail.