In-Depth On The Cover

Person of the year

Published Mar 23, 2015 06:10pm

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It is known as the Butterfly Effect. A small occurrence snowballs into something big — a fraction of a second too soon or too late, a route altered, a signal missed, and lives are indelibly changed. On the cold morning of January 6, 2014, 15-year-old Aitzaz Hasan was late to school. That tardiness ended up saving the lives of hundreds of his schoolfellows.

At the close of the year, Pakistan was struck by a great national tragedy and was left mourning, wounded, maimed. There was no Hasan to stop the terrorists when they came for the schoolchildren in Peshawar on December 16, 2014 — the attack resulted in the killing of 151 people, mostly young children. Many more were injured. For many Pakistanis, it was a moment of terrible realisation: The same could have happened in Hangu if Hasan had not thwarted the attackers’ plans by sacrificing his own life.

Illustration by Sana Nasir
Illustration by Sana Nasir

Our Person of the Year poll had closed before the Army Public School in Peshawar came under attack — at which point, Hasan was already leading. A large portion of the participants in our polling knew, and acknowledged, what he stood for and what his sacrifice meant for the country — that we need to save education from the onslaught of terrorism and that anyone who stands for that cause is our hero.

The polling process started with a panel of 10 distinguished Pakistanis selecting the Herald’s Person of the Year 2014. They come from different walks of life – literature, art, judiciary, technocracy, civic activism, government service – and probably cast their ballots under similar considerations that the Herald had in mind while choosing the nominees; that there exists a Pakistan where people continue to make life better for their fellow citizens, investing their own time and money – as is the case with those who made the global odyssey of Lyari footballers possible – and sometimes risking, and sacrificing, their own lives, as is the case with the likes of Hasan, Rashid Rehman, Mama Qadeer and Malala Yousafzai. Three votes each from this panel of judges went to the Lyari footballers and Rehman, one each to Qadeer, Malala, Hasan and Imran Khan.

The next round, an online poll, brought forward a different set of front runners: Hasan and Khan. In one of the largest internet turnouts that a Herald poll has ever attracted, almost 40,000 votes were cast — an overwhelming 83 per cent of which went to only these two. Hasan, however, led Khan by a razor-thin margin, with only 0.83 per cent votes separating them. Meanwhile, Rehman and Qadeer were the only other contenders who received over a 1,000 votes.

It was the same case with the postal ballots. In the end, Hasan was ahead of Khan by just 10 votes. The voters threw up a few surprises in this round. Malala, whose global reception has elicited a lot of negative response for her here at home, won the third-highest number of postal ballots. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif was fourth.

That the debut directors received the lowest amount of votes in each category – giving them a grand total of 0.8 per cent – does not say much about the public’s faith in our film industry. Suggestions about the revival of cinema, it seems, are finding only few takers.

Looking at the list of the nominees, the final result is rather unexpected. Given that Hasan lost his life almost a year ago seemed to give an automatic edge to those who continued making headlines throughout the year. Khan, Qadeer and Malala all remained under varying degrees of limelight and have generated heated debates – for or against themselves – with their acts of omission and commission. Cricketer Younis Khan was also in the news for the most part of 2014, especially its latter half when he responded to the downgrading of his contract and omission from the one-day squad with a series of record-breaking centuries.

Initially, some respondents struggled with even recognising Hasan. Many may also have expressed bewilderment over how Aitzaz Ahsan came to win, requiring clarifications of which Aitzaz we had nominated. Despite this, the boy had somehow topped Pakistan’s defining poll of 2014.

One of the hardest things to explain about the Herald’s Person of the Year poll is that it is not meant to be a judgement on how good or bad an individual or institution has been, in a given year, but rather, what the extent of their impact has been. A closer scrutiny of our current list of nominees will reveal candidates who are definitely newsworthy, but not every one of them is praiseworthy.

Imagine squeezing the entire year, with all its record-breaking highs and deadly lows, to fit into one list that defines Pakistan in 2014. The mammoth task took many editorial meetings and heated debates to accomplish. Some people were such perennial newsmakers in 2014 that they automatically qualified: the politician who took over the capital, the youngest ever Nobel laureate and the injured news anchor whose case inadvertently shed light onto the darkest corners of the media industry in Pakistan. The rest had to fight for their place.

The final list, we hope, offers a broad-spectrum reflection of the country in the last 12 months. For some, it did not. Architect, analyst and writer Fakir Aijazuddin – whom we approached to join the panel of judges – chose to “take refuge in the latest inclusion in the Indian electoral options — none of the above”. Actor, activist and writer Feryal Gauhar expressed her disillusionment with the whole idea of the Person of the Year poll. (She was on the panel of judges for the Herald Person of the year 2013 and had voted for the Hazara community, who eventually lost to Khan’s relentless online following.) “The honest truth is that awards and prizes do not necessarily mean anything when the greatest people have usually been passed by,” Gauhar wrote in an email to the Herald. She would have chosen Hasan but, she said, this amplified the failure to acknowledge his sacrifice right after his death — “a year too late in my opinion”.

As Person of the Year lists go, they can never capture the complexity of a nation. There are always people and developments which cannot be included in these lists because there are only limited slots available. This limitation leads to difficult choices. What, for instance, was Pakistan’s most defining moment in sports in 2014? There were lofty achievements and controversies (not necessarily unique to the outgoing year) and some of these stood out more than others. A team of rehabilitated street children from various neighbourhoods of Karachi – not just Lyari, as the media has erroneously put it – made their way to the Street Child World Cup in Brazil. Cricket was also under the spotlight as it always has been in the country. Our most successful bowler, Saeed Ajmal, was controversially banned for illegal bowling action. Mohammed Hafeez who, until recently, was the world’s number one all-rounder for one-day internationals, faced the same fate. On the plus side, the women’s cricket team won a gold medal at the Asian Games and Younis Khan now has more Test centuries under his belt than any other Pakistani cricketer.

The military’s predominance of polity poses a similar problem of choice. Should a general get a nomination for the Person of the Year for doing exactly what he is paid for — fighting enemies of the state in North Waziristan and elsewhere? Should the military top brass be lauded or condemned for whatever alleged role they have had in the tumultuous political events since August 2014 (and even earlier)? In the event, COAS Raheel Sharif made it to the list, simply because his, and the military’s, footprint in 2014 has been too big to overlook.

Other choices posed other questions. Can Qadeer alone symbolise the plight of the missing Baloch? Is it okay to not include Lateef Jauhar, who went on a hunger strike for weeks to raise his voice for the missing, or Farzana Baloch who defied gender stereotyping of Baloch women to set up a protest camp against the disappearance of her brother. Rehman, the Multan-based lawyer who was killed because he refused to back down from representing a blasphemy accused, was perhaps an easy choice — until a mob in a central Punjab town burnt alive a Christian couple on the allegations of blasphemy.

And then there was Hasan. The boy whom we wish could have been on the list as our living hero.