One picture did for me what weeks and months of printed reports, blogged rants and clipped videos couldn’t. It slipped past my cynicism about the exaggerated sighs bemoaning Pakistan’s ‘slide’, and got me by the short-and-curly. It was a picture of 20-foot steel containers running a continuous, impenetrable ring around the President’s House in Islamabad. It wasn’t a great shot at all — it was matter-of-fact reportage, from a distance. But it did it for me.
On the one hand, it portrayed the helplessness of the state in ensuring order and safety. (‘Container democracy’, screamed a newspaper front page.) And, on the other, it underlined the fact that one could not take any chances in Pakistan. Anything is possible, anyone is game.
But wait a minute. Who were the authorities guarding against? Well, there you have the supreme irony. It was not just a posse of lawyers and belligerent Nawaz Sharif supporters marching towards President Asif Zardari’s abode. That’s possibly how the security forces saw it. But those being kept out also happened to be citizens marching in support of a more accountable democracy, for an unfettered judiciary — and against the so-called slide into chaos. There aren’t too many occasions like this, ones that force us to pause and think about the basics of democracy and nationhood.
Ah, now you probably can see me sighing deeply. Just as well.