Living with the verdict
THE worst organized elections of the last two decades. Voters’ lists were not available at accessible places. When people went to vote they discovered that their names were not recorded. Numbers of ID cards and names did not match. There were too many restrictions on electioneering.
Apart from talking about level playing fields, criticizing Musharraf’s constitutional arrangements — which are of course open to criticism, and lamenting the fact that Mr Nawaz Sharif and Ms Bhutto were not allowed to participate, no further enlightenment was provided: at least it has not been provided so far. There has been a lot of criticism about the lost decade of the nineties when Pakistan practically headed the list of corrupt countries. Why so much breast-beating because such leaders of the 1990s were prevented from participating in the elections? One would certainly not like a repeat of the experience.
There is little doubt that judging from the current standards prevailing in Westminster, the powers of the prime minister have been curtailed. The inclusion of the military in the highest decision making body, the National Security Council, has rendered the Constitution technically undemocratic.
The Chief Election Commissioner has not inspired much confidence in the public, mainly because of his conduct of the referendum. The turn-out in the general elections was fairly low as witnessed widely in the urban areas. The Commission has tried to cover itself by claiming that the turn-out in the rural areas was much better. Who knows? As usual there must have been some selective rigging. There is not any evidence of large-scale “dhandli” (cheating). So, to that extent the elections were not entirely bogus.
Rigging is perhaps a strong word. All the elections between 1988 and 1997 were managed. The only difference was that they did not have Generals Hamid Gul and Durrani managing them. These two generals should set up a consultancy for election management. Before one of these elections a US ambassador is supposed to have remarked that this time “we” are bringing Benazir as prime minister. The story may be pure fabrication but the regular succession of the PML by the PPP did make one think. Things got out of hand when Mr Sharif received a two-thirds majority in the 1997 election.
This time round the results were rather less predictable except that the PML(Q) did manage to emerge as the largest party. The PPP was expected to do reasonably well and as expected the PML(N) has been successfully annihilated, at least for the time being. Mr Sharif got his revenge by getting Mian Azhar defeated. The joker in the pack was the MMA. According to Benazir Bhutto, this has been done deliberately by the “agencies.”
The London Economist has echoed these views, but in a somewhat diluted fashion. Whether the agencies did or did not have this as an objective,it does represent an obstacle to the development of Pakistan towards a more liberal and relaxed society. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that it represents a protest vote against the US action in Afghanistan and the tribal areas.
The Newsweek carried a rather vivid description of the behaviour of a detachment of the 82nd airborne division as witnessed by some US special forces personnel. Throwing men on the ground to intimidate, and bursting into the women’s quarters is hardly going to endear such US intervention to the Pakhtoons. It is essentially a Pakhtoon backlash, but also expresses some wider resentment about US policy in the Middle East, and the general humiliation of the Arabs by Israel.
There is no difference between the Taliban and the rural Pakhtoon’s attitude to women. Kabul was very different. The whole gender issue surfaced with the capture of Kabul. The Taliban had practically succeeded in overpowering the Northern Alliance and were about to administer the coup de grace after the successful assassination of Ahmed Shah Masoud. Then 9/11 happened and the US president for want of any better target decided on Osama bin Laden as the chosen enemy. Osama does represent extreme Arab resentment against US partiality towards Israel. The daisy cutters, coupled with the supply of fresh arms to the Northern Alliance, put paid to the Taliban. They were promptly replaced by the evicted warlords who were waiting in the wings to make a comeback.
Now the Americans are busy in a clean-up operation of rounding up the Taliban, little realizing that it is almost impossible to distinguish a Taliban activist from an ordinary Pakhtoon, unless it is a Taliban leader against whom the local Pakhtoon bear a special grudge. Under these circumstances any personal enemy can be fingered as a Taliban militant. They have simply scattered and merged with the population and in any case are one of them.
To distinguish between a Taliban activist and an ordinary Pakhtoon is like distinguishing one grain of sand from another. it is better for the US to ignore the problem. The only alternative is to build a network of informers, to enable them to prevent an impending attack on a target which they would like to protect. However, it may be possible to winkle out the non-Pakhtoons on the presumption that they represent Al Qaeda, or whatever. When all is said and done Pakistan is left with the MMA or a fundamentalist problem. It is the first time that they have tasted (political) blood. How do we deal with it when our aim is to create a relatively liberal and relaxed society. Musharraf has already compromised on the blasphemy law and the Ahmadi issue. Obviously he has some concerns within his own constituency. There are fundamentalists in every religion. There are Christian fundamentalists in the US Bible belt. There are Jewish fundamentalists — one of them assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. There are Hindu fundamentalists at present in control of the Indian government. The only dangerous and reprehensible fundamentalists are Muslims.
Professor Samuel Huntington has already made a pronouncement on the clash of civilizations which has the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He might just as well have called his book the Clash of Colours. Conflict between Christianity and Islam is grounded in history. Islam expanded westward along the Mediterranean coast of Africa and then crossed over into Spain most of which they conquered by the end of the eighth century AD. They suffered a setback at Poitiers at the end of this period and never ventured further north thereafter.
The peculiarity of Muslim empires was their tolerance of other religions. Not that the conquerors did not oppress the conquered people but there was little or no forcible conversion. The same was true of the Turks, who reached their apogee with the siege of Vienna towards the end of the 17th century. Whatever their shortcomings on gentleness towards the conquered, apart from a few encroachments like Saint Sophia, they generally left Christians and Jews alone. The same can be said of the last Moghul empire in India, which was finally destroyed in 1739 by Nadir Shah the Persian.
This may be contrasted with the behaviour of Ferdinand and Isabella when they finally dismantled the Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492. Contrary to their given word, they ordered all Muslims and Jews to be converted, deported or be executed.
The odd thing is that while Muslims have generally stood by the injunction in the Quran that there is no compulsion in religion, they have compensated themselves by oppressing their own women. Apart from the Chinese foot-binding of women, Muslim societies have been singular in their keenness to confine the movement of women and, as far as possible, to protect them from the gaze of other men. The Prophet’s pronouncement that they were entitled to inherit property and had rights was not taken in good spirit by the Arab tribes, and Muslim jurists over the ages, like good male chauvinists, have tried to interpret the law in a generally misogynistic fashion. Muslim women scholars are now beginning to challenge this.
There are existing models on how to deal with mullah rule. The first is the one pressed on the Algerians by the French. It was a disaster and led to enormous bloodshed. Egypt has been slightly better managed but the country remains a dictatorship. Kamal Ataturk committed the error of taking western dress for modernity. In spite of his exalted position in the Turkish pantheon, his pronouncements still present a problem for the Turkish military. According to the latest biography of Mustafa Kamal by Andrew Mango, his chief lieutenant, Ismat Inonu, always carried a copy of the Quran in his pocket.
Saudi Arabia is most accommodating to the fundamentalists, but then that is what we are trying to avoid. The only interesting development is Iran where they have formal cleric ascendancy, which is being challenged by more forward-looking Iranis. The Baathists are essentially secular but the examples of Syria and Iraq can hardly be recommended.
In our case, we have no choice but to work out our own destiny. Both with respect to religious tolerance and the advancement of democracy, our politicians have failed us in he past and may continue to fail us in the future. The only thing gained so far is relative freedom of speech. We still need a respected and independent judiciary, a competent and politically neutral administrative machinery and some sort of process leading to improvement in accountability. Transparency would certainly improve this and the new law in this respect would help.
Mourners for a democracy which never existed should stop wasting everyone’s time with polemics and come up with specific criticisms of bad or questionable decisions and air their views on possible improvement. Democracy is a process of evolution. Revolutionary fervour generally retards the process.
The puppets and the puppeteers
BACK-SEAT driving, anyone will tell you, is dangerous. It confuses the driver and can cause accident. Even then, the worst that can happen is a few mangled bodies and the destruction of the vehicle.
But back-seat driving in governance is a disaster. It can ruin the country because those who try to guide the rulers from outside have their own line to follow. They do not realize that they can make the ones in the gaddi go wrong. The RSS should face this fact when it seeks to have a defined role.
Already it has its imprint on the working of the BJP. Whether ministers or party functionaries, they are conscious of what they are expected to do. Must they rub their noses on the ground every now and then to assure the RSS of their servility?
The agreement that has emerged at the meeting between the prime minister and the RSS leaders reportedly says that decisions on all “national issues” would be after consultations between the government and the RSS and its non-political affiliates, including the aggressive Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This makes the parivar an extra- constitutional authority.
Things may not have yet reached the stage of Sanjay Gandhi’s extra-constitutional rule during the emergency. But they are undoubtedly moving towards that direction. If the parivar is allowed to have its way there will be a parallel authority working behind the scenes.
If such an arrangement is accepted, it would mean that the real rulers will not be those whom the people elect but those who sit behind the walls in Delhi’s Jhandewalan or at the headquarters in Nagpur where the RSS and its parivar confabulate. Why don’t they come out in the open and fight the elections so that the voters know who they are?
What the RSS wants is to arrogate to itself the power, which belongs to the representatives of the people, without facing the polls. It wants to be a third chamber. Already one can see how a particular RSS line comes to be the BJP’s viewpoint. Gujarat is a recent example. The BJP initially felt unhappy and embarrassed. But once the RSS said that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ was because of the Godhra train incident, the BJP began to say the same thing. There is none who has not condemned Godhra. But does it justify the planned, systematic killings at the connivance, if not the command, of the BJP government?
There was a time when the BJP, on the PM’s suggestion, was inclined to get rid of Narendra Modi. But the RSS had its way at the BJP’s conclave at Goa. Although the PM does not meet him, the RSS has seen to it that Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani receives him in Delhi and that their meeting is shown on the hapless Doordarshan. Advani has already announced Modi as the state’s chief minister after the election even before a single vote has been cast.
Take another example. The VHP has announced that it will not accept the court verdict on the Ayodhya case. The BJP’s opinion is contrary. My fear is that the RSS, without consulting which the VHP would not have made the statement, will come into the picture to see that the court decision is bypassed. If that happens it will be a sad day for the country. For, it will set a dangerous trend that will have far-reaching implications.
In the coalition at the centre, home, finance, external affairs, human resource development are with the BJP. Both the prime minister and deputy prime minister are from that party. These are top positions. By wanting to guide governance from outside, the RSS, which has in its parivar the bigoted VHP and the militant Bajrang Dal, may harass the ministers still further. They are already watching their steps, so much so they come out of their office to receive even a petty Sangh pracharak. Many BJP ministers say in private that they function in fear because they do not know if they will rub a Sangh parivar member on the wrong side by mistake.
Whatever the facade, the RSS is not the party in power. The government and the BJP can act differently. The latter has the authority to advise or even issue fiats because both are the warp and woof of the same outfit. But how can a body, which masquerades as a cultural organization, become a politically interested lobby? And how will it fit into the system where authority goes with responsibility? No one has raised these pertinent questions in a big way — neither the politicians nor the media.
It is the BJP in parliament or in the state legislature, which faces the music for the acts of omission and commission, and not the RSS and its parivar. This is no “communication gap” as the RSS spokesman said after his last meeting with the prime minister. What it boils down to is that the RSS is keen to rule without having any responsibility. It wants the shield to continue while it shoots from outside.
In the case of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the RSS clothes have always ill-fitted him. Its ideologue once described him as a mukhauta (mask) which hides the real face of the RSS. Vajpayee said a few days ago that there would never be a Gujarat again and that the murder of five dalits in the Haryana village showed the arrogance of the upper caste, which masterminded the killing. There was a ring of honesty in what he said.
The RSS parivar seldom accosts Vajpayee directly because it knows that his liberal image has brought the BJP to the point where it has won governance at the centre. But it is an open secret that the RSS is not completely comfortable with him because unlike Advani, Vajpayee often goes out of step at times.
The attack on Brajesh Mishra, prime minister’s principal secretary, is one way of telling Vajpayee that the RSS does not like the irreverence that he shows towards the parivar. Only a few months ago there was a meeting at the prime minister’s residence to iron out differences. The RSS dropped its insistence on Vajpayee consulting it regularly when he threatened to quit. If he has caved in now, it is because of his new thinking not to fight since he does not want to be PM after the tenure of current Lok Sabha.
One does not see the non-BJP ministers in the coalition even voicing their protest against the dictation by the RSS, much less submitting their resignation. Still they should ponder over the new situation. They came to an understanding with the BJP, not the RSS. An agreed agenda was accepted. The RSS wants to change it. Certain points on the agreed agenda, an RSS spokesman has said, are irritants to the parivar. Reportedly, one is the building of Ram temple on the place where the Babri masjid stood before its demolition.
The tragedy with the non-BJP constituents — even the humiliated National Conference — is that they have become so greedy for power. They have got so used to it that they cannot do without it any more. Railway Minister Nitish Kumar, the Samata Party leader, has admitted this at a recent meeting held in Patna in connection with JP’s birth centenary. He said that he for one should be written off because he could not wrest himself from the sinews of power. That is where his qualms of conscience ended. People like George Fernandes and Sharad Pawar do not go even that far.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in New Delhi.
I hate Saddam
I have a confession to make. I hate Saddam Hussein. I hate him more than anyone in the world.
I hate him even more than Washington does.
It was a shock to read in Newsweek that Washington didn’t always hate Saddam Hussein.
According to State Department reports just released, a secretary of defense, who shall remain nameless, went over to Baghdad as a special envoy in 1983 for President Reagan. His mission was to sell Saddam biological weapons so Iraq could poison the hell out of Iran, which at that time was America’s worst enemy.
The secretary persuaded Saddam to buy 2,200 gallons of anthrax spores, which were shipped from Manassas, Va.; 5,300 gallons of deadly botulinum, which could be loaded into warheads; and hundreds of gallons of germs that could be used to make gas gangrene.
When Saddam was losing the war against Iran, the U.S. also supplied him with tanks, helicopters and other military equipment.
I played no part in any of this. Unlike Washington, I hated Saddam long before he got into a war with Iran. I didn’t come late into the Hating Game, because every time I saw him on TV, I suspected him of one day turning against us.
The other day a diplomat friend defended the secretary for not hating Saddam at that time, and even for shaking Saddam’s hand in the Iraqi capital. He said, “It’s one thing to hate a dictator all the time, but it’s another if you’re trying to help one dictator to beat another dictator.”
He said, “The fact that you support one side one day and the other side the next day is what real diplomacy is all about. That was Henry Kissinger’s specialty. Suppose Iran had defeated Iraq? Don’t you think the Iranians would try to build weapons of mass destruction?”
I said, “But what about all the tanks, helicopters and missiles we gave Iraq? Won’t they be used against us if we go to war now?”
“If they dare use that equipment, they will get a bloody nose from the secretary of defense. It’s hard for him to explain to the Pentagon why he had his picture taken in 1983 with Saddam Hussein.”
My diplomat friend said, “This isn’t the first time the Americans have changed enemies. Stalin was our friend during World War II, and after the war he became our mortal enemy.
“After we beat Germany and Japan, we gave them all the equipment needed to make automobiles. And even now we’re urging American tourists to go to Vietnam.”
“So what do we do now?” I asked.
He said, “Our plan is to bomb Baghdad in a preemptive strike and force Iraq to surrender. But after the war we’re not going to help them make automobiles. The United States is no longer going to be known as Mr. Nice Guy.”—Dawn/Tribune Media Services
The experience at Raiwind
I HAVE never been to the Ijtima at Raiwind before. I had always regarded it as something pedestrian, something others did. I had resisted going to this annual gathering of the faithful, said to be the largest congregation of Muslims after Hajj, partly out of indolence, of condescension, and if I am honest, a fear of self-consciousness, of being stared at as a shaven Muslim in a tangle of bushy beards, just as a hairless Sikh might feel out of place amongst a jatha of hirsute Sikhs. This year, I decided to take my own advice and attended the Ijtima’s final day, last Sunday.
My driver — a northerner from Kohat — and I left home at 4.30 am. We drove along the Canal to Thokar Niaz Beg, and took the turning eastwards on the dual carriageway to Raiwind. Even at that hour of the unlit morning, traffic had begun to stir. Cars of every make, from straining Suzukis to luxurious Land Cruisers, sped in the same direction, overtaking slower vehicles, motorcycles and the occasional line of ice-cream vendors, pedalling vigorously in single file. The road signs at regular intervals alerting us that the Ijtima was now ten kilometers away, now five, were in a sense superfluous for there was no mistaking our destination. One could see in the pre-dawn darkness its glow rising like a premature sunrise above the distant fields.
Parking space was nowhere to be had — every demarcated parking area had already been occupied by trucks, buses and wagons. The owners of private motor cars defied the police and left their vehicles wherever they could along the road. We parked before the policeman could stop us, noted its location and then, passing through makeshift stalls offering varieties of breakfast, we entered the congregational area.
Nothing had prepared me for a sight of over a million and a half humans, accommodated under one vast open, makeshift tent. Its roof consisted of unending waves of white unbleached cotton looped over bamboo crossbeams held up by upright bamboo poles, each carrying an identifying number. The site had been demarcated in a systematic grid, separated by marked pathways. From the map that I bought at the corner makeshift maktab, I learned that the entire area had been divided (as Moses must have once allocated space to the twelve tribes of Israel during the Exodus) into suburbs according to ethnicity and geography.
Lahore and Sheikhupura were neighbours; Multan, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan, Leiah, Rajanpur, Khanewal and Vehari were in row 5; Sargodha, Khushab, Bhakkar, and Mianwali were side by side in row 14; Karachi, Lasbela, Makran, Turbat and Gwadur in row 11. My driver would not have to search for his Kohati compatriots; he knew he would find them in row 15.
We arrived just in time for the early morning Fajr prayers. As the azan ended, the entire congregation of a million and half Muslims rose to a man, for there were only men, with not one woman of any age anywhere in sight. Most of the people I noticed had brought prayer mats or sheets.
I regretted having forgotten mine. Suddenly, the stranger next to me took off his cotton shawl, spread it over the dried rushes strewn on the dusty earth, not only in front of himself but extending it as far as it would go, to accommodate me, my driver and the unknown man standing next to him. A gap appeared in the line ahead. My host moved forward, leaving his shawl behind, beneath our feet. In that one singular, spontaneous and unselfish gesture, he taught me more about the values enjoined by Islam than shelves of books on religion have done.
The prayers ended, and the congregation dissolved into local groupings once again. As there was another four hours’ wait before the scheduled time of the dua, I decided to amble through the participants, some squatting cross-legged, some reclining against the bolsters of their overnight bedding, others whiling away the time by knotting skeins of rushes into twine, twisting the strands with gnarled practised hands.
Tiptoeing through the groups, I felt I was traversing a map of Pakistan. I passed through regions, through communities. I could distinguish local dialects, dress, and demeanour. The foreign participants (two of whom were English doctors who had converted to Islam and sported chestnut beards) had been segregated in a separate enclosure, sandwiched for reasons better known to the organizers between contingents from Mardan and from Dara Adam Khel and Thal.
A ceaseless stream of pedestrian traffic flowed up and down the main intersections, the young and the old, the healthy and the maimed, each moving with considerate ease. One of them — a young armless man on a bicycle — manoeuvred himself with unbelievable dexterity, using straps wound around his shoulders and connected to the handlebars, and when he wanted to turn around, he simply shifted his body weight, raised the bicycle on to its rear wheel and did a 180 degree spin. The public was monitored rather than controlled by young volunteers distinguishable by their badge of authority — a long wooden staff. That was in fact the only manifestation of authority that I did notice.
Apart from them, throughout the seven hours that I spent at the Ijtima, I never saw any administrator or functionary or organizer as such. As dawn slowly illuminated the vast tent, as if from nowhere, a team came and began detaching and putting away the tube lights. Another came minutes later and removed the labels marking the intersections. And that was all. If there was management, it was by a control too remote to be visible.
For me personally, the most disconcerting feature of the Ijtima initially was the absence of any focal point. It seemed like a pilgrimage without a shrine. There was no epicentre to the concourse, no clergy, no ritual, no visible imam. A mimber or pulpit had been marked on the map but it was so far ahead and away from everyone that it hardly mattered.
The only contact between the multitude and its preacher was through the loud speakers. Many of these were not working, causing people to bunch around those that were.
A sole, rasping, breathless voice (I am told it was Maulana Abdul Wahab, who suffered from a heart condition) intoned for half an hour, then an hour and finally for almost two hours. His message, haltingly delivered, often barely audible, spoke in almost simplistic terms about humanity, the virtues enjoined by Islam, and the need to understand one’s religion before attempting to become a tablighi. His heart condition notwithstanding, he was prepared to continue even longer had not someone, sensing the restive mood of the congregation, taken his microphone away. At precisely twelve-o’clock a cleric, again invisible, spoke, after which dua was called. This was the moment that the crowd, swelled by now even further by local day-trippers, had been waiting for.
In response to the call from the disembodied voice from the loudspeaker, simultaneously almost two million pairs of hands were raised in unison while the invisible imam articulated common hopes and aspirations, weaving them with individual entreaties into a single communal prayer. I have stood in the courtyard at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and along with thousands of Catholics received the papal blessing. I have attended with Anglicans a service at the Lahore Cathedral conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have offered my Eid prayers lost in the concourse of a crowded Badshahi Masjid. I have circumambulated the Ka’aba, performed Umrah and submerged myself into the sea of believers that crossed every ocean on earth to stand and prostrate itself before a common God. I have never before felt the force of so many human souls coalesced into such an absolute, complete, and silent communion.
The Dua finished, and for a few moments that special aura, the atmospheric residue of something special having just occurred, hovered over the congregation. Then, suddenly the million or so pilgrims relapsed into errant human beings. They jostled and barged their way out of the tented area, determined to leave the site as speedily as their feet could carry them towards the waiting buses chartered in Swat, Peshawar, Multan and Chiniot.
Empty wagons touted for business. Motorcyclists wove heedlessly through the gridlock of vehicles, and car owners found themselves being cajoled into giving a lift back to Lahore. It became an Eden after the expulsion, irredeemably fallible. When a heavily burdened pedestrian had been refused a place by a succession of car-owners, he reminded them of something they ought not to have forgotten so soon: ‘Brothers, I too am a Muslim.’
As we drove home, I asked the two young doctors from the Army Medical College in Rawalpindi whom we were giving a lift back into town the question I had asked many others that morning: What brought you to the Ijtima? Their reply was no different from what I heard from numerous others earlier: ‘I am not sure. Except that I have felt the need, and that I am leaving it a better Muslim than when I came.’
Could any pilgrim hope for more from a God who has reconciled Himself to expect less from Man?