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Fayes T Kantawala wrote about the Peshawar attack for an Indian newspaper and got bombarded with hate mail

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After the murderous attack on Peshawar’s schoolchildren, several people I know went onto their Facebook pages and talked about how “There are no words in response to this horror.” That stirring sentiment, however, was often followed by the silent clause “except for these 800 that I just wrote for [insert name of famous international newspaper or blog] and want you to read at once.” I was totally this person last week. Initially of course I had no words. But being a relentless articulator means having to respond all the time, and soon enough the paragraphs were pouring out of me like fresh pints of bile.

I wrote an article for an Indian newspaper. It was mostly harmless, a bit of angsty rumination on the attack and its implications. (I didn’t see the point in writing about it within Pakistan; I hold enough Pakistanis hostage every week with fairly depressing monologues about my own life.) In the wake of the massacre there was a nascent hum-sab-saath-saath-hain mood on social media, what with hash tags of Indians supporting Pakistanis and vice versa. (Admittedly there was more vice than versa from our end but still...) But friendliness between India and Pakistan is like sunshine in London – everyone cries out with joy and rushes to the nearest park, only to go running back inside when the deceptive clouds break. So I tracked the changes in our Indian well-wishers’ mood through comments left under my article. It started out rather well, with lots of loving messages of hope and camaraderie. The day after the piece went up, a Pakistani court released on bail one of the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks of 2009. That was when the Indian reaction to my piece began to change. The comments quickly escalated into all caps (YOU KNOW SOMEONE IS ANGRY WHEN THEY TYPE LIKE THIS) and people began comparing India’s reaction to Peshawar (schools and offices across India silent for 2 minutes) with that of Pakistanis (Musharraf saying RAW did it, the court releasing the one terrorist the Indians wanted in jail, hash-tags against India, and so on).

Eventually the cyber-commentary my piece was spawning had little or nothing to do with what I had written, a fact that some commenters fully acknowledged. One person even left a comment saying he hadn’t read the whole article, but then again why should he? One sane voice among millions of insane ones didn’t change much. Another person wrote that she was devastated when she heard about the attack, but equally saddened to see in its aftermath just how weak and ineffectual vast portions of Pakistan’s state and society appeared to be in tackling the problem of Islamist militancy. I got so depressed reading those comments I didn’t leave my house for two days.

The thing about failing states is that they don’t fail overnight. It’s a protracted process, a dance of disease and disintegration. Slowly, very slowly, you figure out that whole cross-sections of the society – lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors, bankers – are no longer settling in Pakistan if they can help it. With each loss, the public space that a tolerant mind can claim in this country becomes smaller.

For the past two weeks I have been searching for the political leadership of this country, sending out panicked signals and receiving nothing in return. It’s like I’m one of those lunatic Americans who try to make frantic contact with unseen aliens. Frightened, paranoid, anxious and ill-equipped, PM Sharif and his cronies have been conspicuous by their incapacitation. Imran Khan, who just a few weeks ago was the keeper-alive of the oppositional impulse, has all but lost his appetite for protests, which he is either too scared or deluded to direct towards his friends the Taliban. The Army Chief appears to want to take action, but other than executing juveniles and setting up a bunch of “special” (read: dangerously extrajudicial) military courts, has shown us nothing that resembles a solution. In this terrible state of stasis, a man called Jibran Nasir has come forward as the (thus far only) face of liberal-minded opposition and sanity. For the last few weeks he has been publicly and fearlessly standing outside the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, demanding that Maulana Abdul Azia be arrested for inciting murder with his comments. That the 20-something Nasir, who has no political party and is not backed by any state institution, should take on the monster in our midst is a very big deal indeed. Think about it: our judges, generals and politicians haven’t taken on these people, and are in fact more likely to endorse the cleric’s remarks, either out of fear or cynical opportunism, even when they know that the speeches of religious personalities have been responsible for more deaths than we would ever admit.

Just this week, that over-dressed, over-smiling TV atrocity Dr. Amir Liaqat went on air to say how the Muslims of Pakistan should unite against the Ahmadis. Less than three days later, an Ahmadi man was shot dead in Gujranwala. Only a remarkably stupid person would miss the connection between people demonizing a religious sect on national TV and members of that sect being killed on the streets.

The fact is that thousands will attend the funeral of a TTP terrorist, but only hundreds will turn up for a protest against the Lal Masjid. That’s just who we are now, as a country, as a society, as a people. I would love to think that there will be many more people like Jibran Nasir, ordinary citizens who will fight for pluralism and tolerance in this country of ours. But I can’t bring myself to do it.

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