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The Motorway and the Dark Ages

This past Sunday, the Lahore-Islamabad stretch of the Motorway collapsed. Let me explain.

The Motorway is not just a road. It is a system with a structure, an environment that impacts behaviour and is in turn affected by it. To put it another way, the Motorway is a physical communication system, which allows for uninterrupted, relatively high-speed travel through a number of road safety measures that are both physical (rest areas, eateries, restrooms, petrol pumps, ATMs, a culture of cleanliness) and legal (rules and regulations about speed levels for different vehicles, where and when to stop and rest, lane discipline, road signs, reflectors, mobile workshops, ambulances, et cetera).

The efficient functioning of this system rests on two pillars: normative and coercive. The normative aspect of the Motorway, the internalisation of the culture, has developed to a point where occasional morons are either scoffed at or proactively chided by other commuters. This is complemented by the coercive aspect, i.e., through the enforcement of rules and regulations. The Motorway Police, decidedly the best component of the police force in Pakistan, acts with alacrity, enforces rules and does not like influence peddling. (NB: Sadly, some of their sheen is going but that is another story.)

This is what makes travelling on the Motorway a pleasant and much less tiring experience even though it is a roughly 110-km longer stretch between Lahore and Islamabad than the Grand Trunk Road.

On that fateful day, it being a sunny Sunday, I left Lahore with a book, comfortably ensconced in the back seat, looking forward to a nice, productive four-hour cruise. Instead, my journey became a nearly six-hour harrowing experience home to home. Reason: the Motorway had been assailed by thousands of medieval faithful returning from the Tableeghi Jamaat’s ijtama at Raiwind. They were in trucks, buses, big and small vans, mini-vans, cars, jalopies, jeeps and anything that could move on four wheels. They were sitting inside and on the roofs of the vehicles, with buckets, cooking stoves, utensils, the ubiquitous lotas, bedding, etc. often dangling outside — a hazard to themselves and others.

The vehicles, for the most part, could not have passed the fitness standards required for the Motorway and the manner in which vehicles were packed was against Motorway rules. This was bad enough. Worse, the drivers and the passengers showed no respect for the system’s rules and regulations. They parked on the sides, alighted and loitered around, sat cooking and prayed in collections of 20-25 at various points on the Motorway, throwing safety and security to the wind. They drove their vehicles with no regard for lane discipline, zigzagging and cutting into lanes. I sat in the back, the book forgotten, seething at the ugly spectacle unfolding before me.

This was as far as the road itself was concerned. The other component of the system, the rest areas were also chock-a-block with more of these people sans brains and civic sense. The usually serene and clean places were littered and many faithful spat around, pursing their lips and ejecting spittle with the precision of a guided missile.

Here, too, they sat eating, squatting, performing ablutions, some of them doing it in the open, others in the restrooms, noisily clearing their throats and blowing their noses, putting their feet in the basin to wash off the grime, making the washrooms unusable for all others. It was difficult to figure out whether those doing the ‘needful’ inside were worse than those who sat, often scattered, just off the roadside, squatting and pissing. Micturating in the open is an exercise that requires years of practice and also the ability to squat and bend one leg at a certain obscene angle before (un)doing oneself. And if there is no water, one can do what is known as — though I am sure completely unknown to the 20-something upper-crust urbanites — butwani where the ‘u’ in ‘but’ is to be pronounced as the ‘u’ in ‘put’, thank you.

This incredible exercise in cleaning the musty underpinnings cannot be described here but readers are welcome to make their discreet, individual inquiries. For once, they will find Google at a complete loss!

The Motorway Police were nowhere to be seen. Throughout the agonising journey, I spotted one officer leaning against the median, his patrol car parked on the opposite side, looking on helplessly while a group set out mats to pray by the roadside.

On that day, dear reader, the Motorway was a microcosm of this country. As happens in our beloved country, laws go out the window the moment someone demonstrates piety. And the enforcers tuck tail when those that demonstrate piety descend on civilisation in hordes. This is how states lose their writ and with it their sovereignty. That loss was a fact poking one in the eye that day.

Where were the police? Was there a policy to let the uncouth faithful be, more interested as they are in the life hereafter than civilised, decent behaviour in this world? Did the government tell the police to make themselves scarce or did the police high-ups recommend this strategy to the government? Why was my right to travel safely on the Motorway ignored?

Someone must answer these questions or else I am growing a beard, losing my brains, raising a religious militia and telling the state to piss off.

Will some cleric tell us why piety doesn’t equal civic sense and regard for the laws and why the supposed spirituality of such congregations as the Tableeghi ijtama doesn’t translate into responsible civic behaviour?

Thomas C Schelling wrote in Micromotives and Macrobehavior: “How well each [individual] does for himself in adapting to his social environment is not the same thing as how satisfactory a social environment they collectively create for themselves.” He was talking about us.

Unlettered zealots, lacking the spirit of religion, pushed the Motorway back to the Dark Ages. If we don’t take heed, they will throw this entire country back in time. When that happens, we will end up a monument to oblivion like Ozymandias’ half-sunk, shattered statue.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2012.

Ejaz Haider is a senior Pakistani journalist and has held several editorial positions, including most recently at The Friday Times. He was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and is currently senior adviser, outreach, at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.