The Pakistani Rosa Park moment occurred on September 16th when Arjumand Azhar and fellow passengers on the PIA flight from Karachi to Islamabad threw out a VIP from entering the airplane. The follow up story with Rosa Parks losing her job is also happening with Gerry’s firing of Arjumand. When I first saw the video, I was struck by the overt use of people’s power and was fearful of other consequences this could have. However, after seeing for the past two weeks the indignant reaction of lawmakers – for themselves— I have come to realize this was an event in the making in which the middle classes have come to assert themselves not only against the continual abuse of power and station by the ‘VIPs’ in the country, but also because of the unlearning and disconnect from reality the lawmakers have about themselves. Is it an interesting coincidence that Senator Akram Wali Mohammad is the owner of Gerry’s?

When Rosa Parks on the 1st of December, 1955, refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of the bus to a white person, it started a process that led the civil rights movement to the day when the Blacks in the US got their identity and dignity. When asked why she did this she said, “I was tired of giving in… the more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.” While the laws passed in late 19th century in the US had accorded blacks a ‘separate but equal’ status, in practice the ‘Jim Crow laws’ meant that racial segregation was pervasive, blacks’ voting rights were limited and segregation was ingrained in all public facilities such as schools and buses. Rosa Parks acted as a catalyst in the civil disobedience movement in the US which ultimately led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She also lost her job in the process.

On a recent trip to Karachi, I was sitting on a flight where the air conditioning was not working well, during the short time before taking off. Naturally, the air became extremely stuffy and oppressive - I can imagine the frustration the passengers must have felt, after sitting and waiting in a hot airplane for almost two hours, waiting for VIPs to join them. Hence, their tempers flared and they stood up for themselves against the conditions which hitherto they had patiently accepted as part and parcel of the package of living in Pakistan.

This event is just one more sign of the middle classes of Pakistan having had enough of the misgovernance of the country by the rulers. Rulers who lead different lives; rulers who never pay their taxes and yet have enough money to send their children to elite institutions of this country and abroad, who never have to go to public hospitals, who use government resources to ensure their own security and who never know what it means for electricity to go out and having to sit around for hours in the dark.

In comparison, the middle classes who are mostly salaried employees, get tax automatically deducted from their salaries, have low incomes, suffer from inflationary prices in food and transportation, get bad public services; both schools and education, due to which they have to pay for everything out of their own pockets. And the life of the poor in Pakistan is not even described here for whose lives there is only one Hobbesian description: ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’

Times have changed, in many parts of the country we are no longer the traditional society bound by social norms of kowtowing to masters. Pakistan is South Asia’s most urbanized country with over 50 percent of the people living in towns and cities; eight cities with a population of over 1 million people and Karachi in the top five most populated cities of the world. Along with urbanization, comes the breakdown of earlier economic and social structures of master and serf relationships. It is no surprise that the passengers on flight PK 370 were coming from Karachi; a mega city of a population of over 20 million. Furthermore, in today’s media age where people get to see what is happening elsewhere in the world – how people are living, in particular in the last two years alone, the various flower revolutions that have occurred in the global world as people have fought for their rights and overcome authoritarian governments- it is no wonder that Pakistanis are also waking up to the fact that they can make a difference.

It is time our leaders woke and smelled the coffee and realized, “It’s the people, stupid!” For the rest of us, we need to boycott Gerry’s. Large corporate clients and in particular embassies using it for visa processing such as the British High Commission, need to remove it from its list of vendors. In this day and age, it is not acceptable that individuals are punished in such a fashion by the confluence of politico-commercial interests.

 Najma Minhas is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.

np@gapa.com.pk

@GapaAdvisors