Cell phones as weapons
ONCE the initial withdrawal symptoms have faded away, being without mobile phones is really quite relaxing. It takes one back in time, remembering how life was once lived – laughing at young ones astonished by the lack of messaging services available on landlines and their handsets, dusted and brought out to see if they actually still worked. Perhaps the good Rehman Malik, with his strange ideas about how to punish the innocent in order to halt the guilty, should be requested to periodically turn off cellular phone services so that we can all de-stress. This is badly needed in a country that must rank as among the most highly stressed in the world – given the violence and general insanity we live with and encounter from one day to the next.
But putting humour aside, the mobile phone ban is, of course, no fun at all – inconveniencing many and in some cases posing a real threat to lives. After each such period of silence we hear of people unable to summon emergency help. A gynaecologist in Karachi has already gone to court over the communication shut-downs over the fact that when they occur her patients cannot reach her. This is obviously a nightmare scenario. As a next step, as he goes about the banning business, the interior minister should perhaps simply consider banning people from stepping out of their homes to prevent muggings and other street crime. This would certainly bring down the crime rate, and the resultant figures could be hailed as a triumph by the interior ministry. Perhaps they could even consider banning people all together.
It should be noted that the mobile phone shutdown, and bike-use restrictions in Karachi did nothing to vanquish fear within the people. The fear lived on everywhere, amongst those participating in Muharram processions and those who chose to stay away, too afraid to participate in a religious ritual that has continued for centuries. Bans on mobile devices will of course not drive away this fear, or end the unease amongst the Shia community – considered infidels by extremists. Many have already fled the country. The tolerance we once knew has given way to sectarian intolerance that continues to spread like a wildfire, with the peaceful, low-key Bohra community also recently coming under attack. We do not know who will be next. But what we do need is a ban on intolerance, hatred and extremist forces, rather than on objects such as communication devices or vehicles. Putting an end to the hatred we are surrounded by is far tougher than ordering companies to turn off their services. This would mean actually going after the forces that promote hatred, cracking down on outfits that remain under an inexplicable protection from unknown agents and dealing with the thousands of madrassahs that seem to have cropped up everywhere across the country, partly in response to an education system that does not provide learning of any quality to ordinary people. It appears to be beyond the capacity of the government to take on this far more arduous task, which is why it resorts to ludicrous bans on services, treating mobile phones as if they themselves were the culprits rather than targeting those who use them to create havoc.
Indeed, cell phones appear to have become something to be regarded with much suspicion. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), which also seems to have an expanding fondness for shutting down or banning things – such as YouTube and websites run by Baloch and Sindhi nationalist groups among others – has said in an extraordinary statement that it has ordered all licensed mobile phone service providers in the country to stop offering ‘night time’ packages. These packages allow people to make calls at low rates during hours when phone lines are less busy.
The PTA has deemed that ‘immoral’ activities take place as a result of these packages. It is uncertain how it has reached this bizarre conclusion. After all, ‘immoral’ conversations – whatever that means – can take place during daylight hours as well. The night time ban will only hinder those who wish to keep in touch with family members or friends without paying huge bills. Besides, there is also the question of whether any authority has the right to police what people talk about or deem what falls within the ‘social norms’ of the country.