A VIDEO of a group of PIA passengers that forced MNA Ramesh Kumar and former interior minister Senator Rehman Malik to disembark from PK-370 after they held up the flight for two hours by arriving late went viral this week.

This happened just as word went around about the alleged price tag of the prime minister’s scheduled trip of a few days to New York: a whopping $400,000 of taxpayers’ money.

This incident comes on the heels of several allegations of power abuse by the ruling elite which have been circulating amongst the populace.

The public has been pressured beyond the tipping point.
It should enrage us that an MNA and a former bureaucrat could ostensibly force 250 people to wait for them for two hours. Some deemed the passengers’ act of defiance as the beginning of a newfound show of daring among the public.

Others have expressed anxiety at the way Ramesh Kumar and Rehman Malik were hounded out of the plane, and consider these to be acts of mob vigilantism and hence illegal.

As the debate rages on about the impropriety of the tactics adopted by the passengers, some are wondering how one can advocate breaking some laws while obeying others.

It is pertinent to remember here that the MNA, and the former interior minister, who are either guardians of the law or closely associated with those who are, were blatantly bending the rules to suit themselves in this instance. These defiant responses are being openly lauded because they come at a time when the public has been pressured just beyond the tipping point.

The question is whether we should chastise the law-breaking passengers. Morality trumps the law in the face of a bad administrative system, which is abused by the very people who are expected to guard it.

It is telling that several in the public strongly feel that they have no choice, but to act in a manner that is morally justifiable, even though it may be of questionable legality.

The seething anger behind such brazen acts is palpable amongst a populace that has been witness to years of abuse of the system by Pakistan’s ruling elite. It stems from years of silently watching officials regularly use legal jargon to justify the abuse of public rights, interest and safety. It stems from waiting endlessly in traffic jams that occur when public roads are blocked to allow for VIP movement, on the pretext of security threats.

On the other hand, an ordinary citizen cannot dare to come near the home or offices of the powers-that-be. Electricity and gas tariffs continue to be hiked for the average consumer, while unpaid utility bills of government offices reach billions of rupees. Add to that the cost of the outright theft of electricity and gas, that is passed on to a bill-paying consumer in the form of ‘line losses’ or ‘unaccounted for gas’ and you have just begun to prise open Pakistan’s Pandora’s box that is overflowing with blatant instances of the abuse of power.

While hounding politicians off an aeroplane may be a questionable action, the truth is that that like the passengers of flight PK-370, many Pakistanis are in no mood to put up with the highhandedness that seems to be part and parcel of a Pakistani politician’s persona. The message is clear: in a country where the public is awakening to its power, the abuse of power by politicians has to stop.

The speed with which the Rehman Malik/Ramesh Kumar video was circulated and made its way to the electronic media indicates two things. Nothing can be hidden in an age when mobile phone cameras are ubiquitous and at the ready to record all events; and secondly, most politicians would be hard-pressed to find someone from amongst the public who is on their side on this issue.

It is time for the government to remind itself that small acts of defiance by ordinary citizens can become the trigger for big changes in countries where people are bitterly frustrated with their fabulously inept and corrupt rulers.

It took a relatively minor act of humiliation by a policewoman, for a Tunisian fruit seller to commit suicide and set off the Tunisian revolution, which eventually triggered the Arab Spring.

It took a small stone to start the Palestinian Intifada. And it took a rebellious Rosa Parks to defiantly dig in her heels and refuse to budge on the bus home, to set off the civil rights movement in the US and to change the face of American society.

Unless the ruling elite sit up and take this week’s act of defiance seriously, chances are that incidents such as the passenger’s revolt on PK-370 could soon snowball and create a situation that is far beyond anyone’s control.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


Published in Dawn, September 21th, 2014