Among their many odd obsessions, one that plagues the authorities in Pakistan is the notion that anything useful or even fun should be BANNED. Let us use all this authority, they say, to ban YouTube, sheesha, celebrations, weddings and so on and so forth. Mind you, not all bans are bad, of course, but turning Pakistan into Ban-istan is just not on.
Take the bureaucracy. Too many people obsessed with the idea of saying NO. When Dr Khalid Ranjha became law minister, he would send for his secretary to discuss policy ideas and implementation. These were still early days and, on each occasion, the secretary would arrive and kindly but firmly point out that, under Rule So-and-So, this cannot be done. Finally, one day, the minister sat him down and explained the essence of the ministerial–bureaucracy relationship: look, he said, your job is not to tell me that it cannot be done; your job is to tell me how it can be done.
When former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani appointed me his Special Assistant, I was given an office on the same floor as his. So far, so good, I thought. On my first day, I discovered to my horror that the Prime Minister’s Secretariat had no Wi-Fi. The Internet is, of course, my lifeline – I can live without a shave for forty-eight hours, but any sort of cyber-absence makes life pretty much unbearable. Accordingly, the first thing I did was to ask the administration to install Wi-Fi. My friend Saleem Ranjha, then a deputy secretary, came by the office for a chat and told me (rather crushingly): “Chaudhry sahib, look here. Wi-Fi can be used for spying. So the Intelligence has banned its use in the PM’s Secretariat…”
After the initial shock had worn off, I said that this was ridiculous. If Wi-Fi was so dangerous, how come every nook and cranny of the First World had it? And how did they propose to control “spying” through Wi-Fi when the stuff was ubiquitous? I marched off to the Prime Minister to convey my indignation and found that he barely used email, much less the Internet, and had no desire to test his skills with a computer. However, he took my point and was gracious enough to agree that the Secretariat should be equipped with Wi-Fi. But even his stamp of approval wasn’t enough: in the year or so I remained in his service, I continued, bereft and Wi-Fi-less.
“Wi-Fi can be used for spying. So the Intelligence has banned its use in the PM’s Secretariat”
When Gillani was replaced by Pervez Ashraf, then the Minister for Information Technology, I was reappointed Special Assistant to the PM. I decided to make another heroic attempt at having Wi-Fi installed. The Prime Minister agreed to my proposal and issued the necessary orders. Suffice to say, up until the day we completed our term in office, there was not even the slightest trace of Wi-Fi anywhere in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.
Discussions on the continuing ban on YouTube and on Basant are still rife. Unfortunately, the religious right remains too strong – despite public demand that the ban be lifted – for YouTube to make a grand reappearance any time soon. Many might disagree, but I also oppose the ban on sheesha cafés. In Karachi, one can still get together with one’s mates over sheesha, but this has become impossible in Lahore and Islamabad. Smoking is bad, I hear you pipe up. Look, as they say, all good things in life are immoral, illegal or fattening. One’s mental health is as important as one’s physical wellbeing. And as far as I’m concerned, the chance to sit back with one’s friends over a bit of sheesha, a bit of a chat, a bit of gossip… is just natural.
If you ban all such activities that allow people to let their hair down and vent a little, you end up creating an uneasy, unhappy atmosphere. In the absence of bars and pubs and clubs at this point, let us have our sheesha bars back. Enforce sensible rules, an age limit, if you will – don’t ban it altogether. Think of 14 August. I completely agree that no one has the right to crowd the streets and obstruct traffic, but if the young want to celebrate this or any other day, let them. Banning celebrations isn’t getting us anywhere.
People are responsible for their own good and the government should interfere in their private lives as little as possible. As the French writer Ernest Dimnet observes, “The happiness of most people is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things.” It’s the little things, too, that give pleasure, and to be happy is a fundamental right the government must protect rather than limit unnecessarily.
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