Cell phones as weapons

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

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.

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