Islamabad Diary: Dealing with pygmies, yearning for heroes

Ayaz Amir

Grave as our situation is—giving rise, in the process, to a cottage industry devoted day and night to lamenting the national condition—it is nowhere as serious as Turkey’s at the end of the First World War. As a defeated combatant, crippling terms were imposed on Turkey by the Western powers. Greece, with the active support of Britain and France, sent an expeditionary force against it.

If it had not been for Mustafa Kemal—unsmiling, drinking, womanizing Mustafa Kamal—Turkey would have been humiliated more than it had already been and the European part of Turkey, including Constantinople, would have been lost to it.

Pakistan has not been defeated in any world war. No foreign army has landed on its soil. True, the Americans are war-gaming our western frontier. But it is a threat, or a problem, which with deft handling can be managed, and even turned to our advantage if only we learn to be friends with America, not its unthinking bag-carrier, as we’ve been with so much enthusiasm during the Musharraf years.

But our psychological condition, the state of national morale, is more abysmal than Turkey’s post-1918. There was no shortage of Turks ready to die for their country. Mustafa Kemal, the hero of the hour, harnessed this feeling. He did not invent it. But in Pakistan today our mental condition, to put it mildly, is strange. Even as the sounds of lamentation about the dangers facing the country get louder there is no corresponding urgency about the need to do something to meet this challenge.

Turkey at the moment of its greatest peril had Kemal. We have a band of jokers masquerading as leaders. Getting to watch them, and their antics, can Pakistanis be blamed for feeling low and dispirited? The best known circus in Pakistan is the Lucky Irani Circus. It has one or two clowns, maybe three. In our corridors of power is to be found an army of clowns, provoking the nation to tears rather than to laughter.

After the elections, when emotions were raw and hope still filled the air, they made you weep. Not any more. Their antics are past joy and sorrow, now just leaving indifference behind. Which is a curse come to think of it: seeing something grim or dreadful and instead of being moved to anger taking refuge in cynicism or indifference. Imagine if this had been Turkey’s condition in 1918. Britain, France and Greece would have sat at its table and, with knife and fork, carved up its territories.

The supreme irony of course is that the performance we are getting to watch, and now testing the nation’s patience, is a gift not of dictatorship but of the greatest exercise in ballot-box democracy since 1970 when the people of Pakistan cast their ballots in a general election for the first time. Under the quartet of our military rulers—Ayub, Yahya, Zia and now Musharraf, each more limited than the other—we had come to think that dictatorship alone sowed despondency. But the present apathy is a gift—imagine how hard it is to get the words out—of democracy.

The people of Pakistan thought they were reaching for the stars on February 18. If only they had known the ditch they were falling into. But let’s not blame the heavens. When all you have is a pack of pygmies (no disrespect meant to actual pygmies), however much the cards are shuffled you’ll still get pygmies. This was the real tragedy of the Feb 18 elections. No Mustafa Kemal was on offer.

The mood in Pakistan brings Yeats to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst…Are full of passionate intensity.”

In dispirited Pakistan today the only people ready to die for what they believe in—and we can argue all night long whether their beliefs are right or wrong—are the Taliban and others like them inspired by visions of jihad. Mainstream political life in Pakistan is strangely de-enthused and de-energized as if all the fire and intensity has been appropriated by those seeing themselves as God’s holy warriors.

There is also a feeling of decadence in the air. I hasten to add this is only true of those who can afford the luxury of this feeling. The poor, or under-privileged as we like to call them, find it hard to make both ends meet. Not for them any experience as heady as this.

John Reed—in his Ten Days that Shook the World—writes of the mood in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. The theatres were full, as were the cafes and restaurants, and well-dressed men and women of the upper classes strolled on the boulevards.

There are no boulevards to stroll on here—well-dressed gents used to stroll on the Mall in Lahore but that was in days gone by, much before the appearance of the Taliban on our western marches, before General Zia, and, indeed, before the joys of prohibition set their stamp upon the land—and no theatres to go to. Pakistani decadence has a different quality to it altogether, finding its best and highest expression in the frantic race to cut deals and make money as if there was no tomorrow.

The Taliban may be at the gates, Baitullah Mehsud and Mangal Bagh and his ilk may be the new names to conjure with, but inside the citadel the danger seems far away. True, there is an inkling of danger, a feeling that all is not well. But the party goes on.

The outskirts of Peshawar are not too distant from the power corridors of Islamabad. But in terms of what they represent they could be worlds apart. The way, say, Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, chooses to dress is highly symbolic. Like him many of his cabinet ministers look over-dressed at least when set against the harsh and unforgiving conditions in which the majority of Pakistanis live. And then they expect to be taken seriously: past-the-hill, gigolo-look-alikes expected to lead the Islamic Republic in battle against the austere Taliban.

Even the army has its work cut out for it. Under Musharraf the army acquired new weapons but lost morale and spirit. It is a moot point whether senior ranks are more familiar with the finer points of real estate management than the art or the principles of war. While officers need houses on retirement, and no one begrudges them that, what the army command has done over the years is to turn a need into a scandal.

The present army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, is trying to improve matters. Let him give thought to this: anyone dying in battle, jawan or officer, his sons and daughters should automatically be admitted at state expense to the best institutions, Hasanabdal, etc. And any jawan or subedar dying in battle, his heirs should automatically get a piece of land in a defence housing authority. Defence housing colonies can serve no higher purpose than this.

And the practice of doling out agricultural land in Bahawalpur to senior ranks should end immediately. Cato the Elder said that the perfect farm size was eleven acres, land that a farmer could till himself. Let agricultural gifts to army personnel be limited to this size but let this gift be bestowed only on those, whether officers or men, who die in battle. High time the unconscionable pampering of senior ranks came to an end.

Pakistan will not be able to meet the challenges it faces unless the breach, made wide open under Musharraf, between army and the people closes. Both must be together, yoked to a common cause, fighting the same battle. But this won’t happen unless the army heals its own split personality: one dispensation for the lords of the castle, another for the peasant bulk making up the rank-and-file. A more egalitarian army can then set an example for a more egalitarian Pakistan—a Pakistan better able to face internal discontent and external enemies.


Source: The News, 25/7/2008

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