The dirty tricks brigade
IMMEDIATELY following Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination on Dec 27, speculation began on who would head the party. There was barely time to grieve.
Pressures on the party leadership included insistent questioning by journalists, particularly the insatiable 24/7 broadcast media, the forthcoming elections then barely two weeks away, and crucially, the disinformation campaign started by the dirty tricks brigade that is always quick to swing into action.
Some journalists pushed the Fatima Bhutto versus Bilawal Zardari angle. Others pounced on the even younger Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (“Junior”) as the probable head of the party. Some rushed for quotable quotes to Benazir’s disgruntled uncle, Mumtaz Bhutto, known for his running feud with her. Hard-headed reporters, noses to the ground, understood the popular sentiment of the party — whoever next headed the PPP had to be a Bhutto. At the funeral, party workers raised slogans for Sanam Bhutto, Benazir’s last remaining sibling, to lead the party despite Sanam’s clear disinterest in these matters.
Cyberspace and drawing-room chatter, meanwhile, buzzed with the hopeful comments of the intellectual elite in Pakistan and abroad. ‘Civil society’ was excited at the prospect of the PPP finally ‘democratising’ — perhaps now a non-Bhutto would head the party. Perhaps now they would hold intra-party elections. Perhaps now some respected leader like Makhdoom Amin Fahim or, even better, Aitzaz Ahsan would be asked to don the mantle.
Not surprisingly, this well-meaning debate primarily took place among elitist groups who are not party members, and who reviled the PPP for its insistence on electoral politics. The polls boycott lobby held that participating in elections would ‘legitimise’ the Musharraf regime. The boycott move is believed to have originated with the dirty tricks brigade, known for its tactic of initiating “a cute slogan that raises an emotive response” as one political activist put it. Besides the fact that the president in any case claims legitimacy, they were unable to answer the question Benazir Bhutto had raised when pressurised to boycott: “Boycott, and then what?”
These people had also rejected, even vilified, Ms Bhutto for her ‘deal’ with President Gen (as he was then) Musharraf. She saw no way to proceed except through politics and defended herself in an email of Dec 3, 2007, made public after her death: “I still remain committed to the freedom and vitality of democracy, as [sic] the great Quaid-i-Awam had dreamt of. Yes, it is true that you have to deal sometimes with the Devil if you can’t face it, but everything is a means to an end.”
The dirty tricks brigade was quick to capitalise on the elite indignation when the PPP ended speculation with the announcement that Benazir Bhutto had left a will nominating as the party head her husband Asif Ali Zardari, the much maligned ‘Mr 10 per cent’ (a term known to have been coined by the dirty tricks brigade, although there is no shortage of contenders for such labels). There was further indignation at dynastic politics when Zardari was smart enough to pass the PPP’s leadership mantle on to 19-year-old Bilawal.
Why could the party not rise above negative traditions and do the ‘right’ thing? Perhaps its leaders felt constrained by their constituency — which is not the intellectual elite. This constituency of PPP workers was on the whole relieved at the quick decisions announced at the soyem (all of which, incidentally, counter the patriarchal model): Bilawal made the party’s symbolic head; Benazir and Zardari’s children taking on the Bhutto name; Benazir buried by her father’s grave as she had wished; her husband’s stated desire to also be buried there rather than at his own ancestral graveyard. Whatever the motivations behind these steps, their symbolism in perpetuating the ‘Bhutto factor’ and satiating the desire to atone for the martyrdom cannot be underrated.
The dirty tricks brigade, whose efforts to rig the elections Ms Bhutto had been about to reveal, continued undeterred. By Jan 1, in tactics reminiscent of the whispering campaign started against Benazir herself after Murtaza’s murder, a message was being circulated via SMS and on the internet implying that Asif Zardari was behind his wife’s death as the chief beneficiary — “all wealths [sic] of hers and her political power is now in Zardari’s hands”.
The unsigned message demanded that he be interrogated along with Rehman Malik “who used to manage Benazir [sic] foreign investment portfolio”. Those close to Benazir Bhutto scoff at these allegations, noting that she was too intelligent a woman to leave her “wealths” accessible to anyone other than her children.
On Jan 2, an Urdu newspaper in Karachi distributed free supplements with the (false) report that Fatima Bhutto had announced herself as the ‘real Bhutto’, suggesting that she should be leading the party. Such attempts to fan discord are of course not limited to Pakistan. PTI leader Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima Khan, who has developed into a political analyst since returning to the UK, wrote in the Telegraph, “If a Bhutto must run Pakistan, why not Fatima?”
Is Bilawal about to run the country? Aren’t there other more important issues at hand than who heads the PPP? Fatima Bhutto doesn’t even belong to the party. Neither does Ms Khan, although this hasn’t stopped her or others from nominating its leadership. Such presumption when it comes to the PPP is in sharp contrast to the restraint regarding other political parties.
Such efforts to deepen existing rifts are not just dishonest but downright dangerous at this point. The establishment delayed the elections that were to have been held on Jan 8 without taking the major opposition parties into confidence. The interim provides an opportunity for them to further target and weaken the opposition.
Already stunned at the loss of their leader, the PPP is now reeling from the registration of tens of thousands of FIRs against its workers. Its electoral candidates face charges that include attempted murder. All this only contributes towards the existing uncertainty and may generate more violence that could provide the establishment a pretext to further postpone elections. This must not be allowed to happen.
Although some go as far as to say that character assassination is the first step towards physical assassination, it is clear that political engagement and organisation are necessary for change. Those who vilified Ms Bhutto for pursuing these politics are now making her into an icon while continuing to vilify her party. It is time to make some choices: continue perpetuating the vilification campaign or focus on the more fundamental issue of taking politics in Pakistan beyond military interference.
The writer is a journalist and documentary film-maker based in Karachi.
The roots of Swat’s tragedy
THE journey that our serene Swat Valley has made from being a prime tourist attraction to becoming a battlefield is nothing short of tragic. Going back in history, it was the Yousafzai tribe’s migration into the area under Sheikh Malli in the 16th century that further pushed the valley’s original settlers, the Swatis and Dalazak, across the Indus.
Even today the Hazara region has a sizeable population called the Swatis because of its pre-Yousafzai affinities.
With the dawn of the 18th century, Swat emerged as a stateless entity pursuing a nomadic lifestyle as its population moved from one village to another under the administrative arrangement of ‘Wesh’ land distribution. The area’s political evolution was shaped primarily by events that took place around its geographical boundaries, and by the mid-18th century the arrival of the British made the need for a viable state more acute.
Lack of modern education and sociocultural restraints left the Yousafzais of Swat without any political options other than the moral authority exercised by its theocratic leaders. Abdul Ghafoor, locally known as Saidu Baba, was one such spiritual figure and it was on his recommendation that the first ruler, Syed Akbar Shah of Ghali Khay village, was selected. Subsequently the Akhund’s grandson Miangul Abdul Wadood, known as Badshah Sahib and recognised by the British, ascended to the throne as the Wali of Swat.
The mullah phenomenon that we now see in Swat is not entirely new to the area. A case in point is the uprising at the end of the 18th century led by Sartoor Faqir, called the ‘mad mullah’. But the British were astute administrators and countered the threat by taking care of the means and letting the end take care of itself. They not only recognised the new ruler but was also conferred a knighthood on Miangul Abdul Wadood (making him Sir Abdul Wadood) in recognition of his exceptional statesmanship that ensured an arms-free and peaceful Swat.
The Miangul dynasty, though founded on religious grounds, ensured that the state prospered on modern lines with foolproof law and order mechanisms. Its judicial system was fashioned according to local customs and traditions, or ‘Riwaj’, and the subjects ensured that all laws were observed and respected. In case of any violation the culprit was speedily brought to book.
The primary functions of the state were performed competently to protect the life and property of its citizens. This, coupled with the dispensation of speedy justice, created unprecedented economic dividends in the shape of a booming tourism industry. Boulevards, bridges, schools, dispensaries and lush playgrounds came to dot Swat’s landscape. Not only were religious seminaries built under state patronage but missionary schools were also constructed to ensure modern education for all.
There was absolute religious harmony and not a single incident occurred where any tourist felt insecure. Even Queen Elizabeth was impressed with the scale of development in the infant state whose economy was sustained wholly by tourism and forest resources.
The state was generous enough to gift the poorly equipped PAF a fighter named ‘Jehanzeb’ at the time of Pakistan’s independence. But July 28, 1969, when Swat was absorbed and fully integrated into Pakistan, marked a turning point in the area’s history. A supposedly theocratic state that was progressive and democratic, thereby ensuring economic prosperity, became a victim of superficial democratic dispensations that exploited the religious sentiments of the people for personal gain. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arguably the first to advocate Pan-Islamism, primarily to assume an international political stature with Saudi support. It was in 1977 that the Swatis, disillusioned with the new bureaucratic order, demanded the enforcement of Shariah for the first time.
General Ziaul Haq was another who made the people wait indefinitely for his brand of ‘Islamic’ rule of law that would ostensibly guarantee fair play and justice. All this while he flogged political opponents in the name of religion and served as the vanguard of a CIA-sponsored operation against the Soviet Union to prolong his rule. Subsequent democratic governments were extensions of their predecessors in one way or the other.
While political jugglery of the worst kind was de rigueur, Swat underwent systematic deterioration in all areas of its infrastructure. The roads began to disintegrate, the once leafy soccer grounds became deserted, deforestation set in and the emerald river was poisoned by effluent from unplanned hotels along its banks. Swat’s wildlife died out, and so did its art and culture. The corrupt judiciary dragged out day-to-day civil litigation over decades, contributing hugely to the emergence on the political canvas of the mullahs who eventually came to challenge the writ of the state.
Once a tourist haven, Swat today is a militant stronghold and at a virtual standstill. Confused residents are living under traumatic conditions, terrorised both by the mullahs and the military and braving indiscriminate shelling and daily curfews. The presence of some 20,000 army personnel sent to battle militancy in the area is unlikely to achieve lasting peace. The unplanned deployment, marked by operational flaws and an absence of clear objectives, has demoralised the troops who in some cases have surrendered to militants in the absence of logistical support. The subsequent use of excessive firepower, without any accounting for collateral damage or a proper rehabilitation plan for displaced residents, makes the shortcomings of the security ‘strategy’ all the more evident.
It appears that the most workable option would have been to empower residents to clear their own designated areas of militants. The security forces should have concentrated on eliminating militants in the inaccessible Peochar Valley through a simultaneous two-pronged ground assault from Dir and Matta. Unfortunately, the security forces continue to focus on all that is unnecessary, subjecting ordinary residents to the nuisance of checkpoints and hardship of prolonged curfews. All these measures will be counter-productive in the long run.
The extremism espoused by Maulana Sufi Muhammad and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah may be one of the causes of the turmoil in Swat but it is not the sole reason. The incompetence displayed by the state machinery has contributed immensely to the present anarchy. Violence is likely to escalate further if the security forces continue to pursue the flawed strategy of securing areas without winning hearts.
Our embattled media
GEN Pervez Musharraf’s latest address to the nation and his conversation with foreign journalists the next day has revived the question of balance between freedom and responsibility in our media. He seemed to return to the idée fixe of the present regime that Pakistan’s current troubles are mostly caused by irresponsible journalists.
Furthermore, there was the ancient lament that the foreign media ignores the great gap between the developed West and a primitive Pakistan in its reports and comment.
Prominent amongst the images streaming out of Pakistan during an entire year of political protest were those of a protracted tussle between the government on the one hand and the lawyers and journalists on the other. The media people and the legal fraternity had no background of working in tandem and what telescoped them together was the regime’s paranoid reaction to what these two disparate communities perceived were their essential professional responsibilities.
The lawyers claimed they were upholding the national Constitution and the rule of law. The media people were exercising their right to report the unfolding political drama freely. Draconian measures to curb both the groups probably did more harm to Musharraf’s standing than anything else during his long, mostly unquestioned, rule.
Unlike the predictable conflict with the men of law, Musharraf’s quarrel with the media was an unexpected development. No military ruler of Pakistan had ever been as media savvy as Musharraf. On their part, most journalists began by supporting him. He had taken major decisions such as ending the state monopoly on broadcasting that led to a veritable revolution in the dissemination of news and views.
An entire new generation of well-educated young men and women emerged that cherished freedom of expression while continuing the tradition of being patriotic to a fault.
In a recent BBC lecture, the distinguished Cambridge philosopher, Onara O’Neill, built up a case for media responsibility by arguing that any search for truth needs structures and disciplines and that this search is undermined by casual disregard of accuracy or evidence.
In Pakistan’s case, the need for such structures was never an issue as the innate restraint of a conservative Muslim society exerts a normative pressure. Compared to the mass media in the West, the Pakistani media is much less prone to slander and sensationalism. The major newspapers and electronic outlets can be tediously conservative. There is, indeed, considerable room for improvement in the discipline of accuracy and evidence.
There are discernable weaknesses of infrastructure and database, which can only be aggravated by the financial losses that the Pakistan government has imposed on media organisations.
The present travail of the Pakistani media comes largely from the unusual power its electronic component acquired in a society where access to printed information and knowledge is limited.
The regime wanted this power to work exclusively to the government’s advantage which could be done only by massive airbrushing from the picture of grim realities such as violated women, provincial insurgencies, thousands of terrorism-related fatalities including in the armed forces, police atrocities against peaceful demonstrators and, above all, a wanton disregard of the Constitution.
As if this litany of horror was not enough, the year ended with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, an event which sent shock waves across the globe and caused much foreboding about Pakistan’s future.
The Pakistani media has never failed to lend a helping hand wherever something positive could be found. Consider the transformation of public opinion in Pakistan about India. What might have been only a tactical shift in inter-state relations has struck deep roots as the media whole heartedly supported it. It demolished the myth of eternal hostility and enabled General Musharraf to conduct a dialogue with the Indian leadership in a tranquil environment.
In the ‘war on terror’ Musharraf got media support so far as the paradigm of it was concerned. But his regime never succeeded in carrying conviction with the people when it came to details. From the commitments made to the United States in 2001 to the “collateral damage” in Pakistan’s tribal belt, government versions have regularly conflicted with independent reports filed by Pakistani and foreign journalists.
It is often said that all governments are obliged to take liberties with truth for reasons of state. If this is so, they must also accept the fact that in this information age and in this globalised world a counter-narrative would also emerge.
Since the credibility of the regime remained in free fall, the suppression of the mainstream media resulted in a high premium on unconventional information disseminated through the internet and the mobile phone. These new sources of information are subject to no discipline of verification but are often credited with more truth than they carry. During ten weeks of travelling in Europe recently, I was struck by their impact even on professional foreign observers of the Pakistani scene. Between the blogs and the text messages, the official version became almost irrelevant.
Basically, Gen Musharraf fell out with the media because of its coverage of his conflict with the higher judiciary. There is no doubt that real-time coverage made a great difference. Without it, the forced retirement of the judges and the reconstitution of courts might not have become a public issue. Nor would there be internal and external questions about the plan to use democratisation as a means to perpetuate military rule by another name.
Even illiterate Pakistanis say that media curbs continue because the government plans to rig the forthcoming election or not hold it at all.Therein lies the ultimate justification for a complete restoration of media freedom.
Without that freedom democracy would remain devoid of credibility. Without recovering the lost trust no future government will be able to calm Pakistan down. The media must inform the people accurately; the state must treat it with respect. The Pakistani media is perfectly capable of balancing freedom with responsibility. It is time that the executive too learns to tolerate the accountability inherent in a modern democratic state.
A fount of Pakistani culture
AT this age I hate to travel and, therefore, seldom leave Islamabad. But some time ago a family event obliged me to pay a visit to Lahore. As I drove past Alhamra, the impressive Arts Council complex on The Mall, nostalgia compelled me to alight there and go around the place. A flood of memories overwhelmed my senses, heart and mind.
I became officially associated with Alhamra in 1974 when chief minister Haneef Ramay posted me as Punjab’s secretary of information and culture. But that was fortuitous.
My personal relationship with this kind of cultural activity dates back to the time when Alhamra came into being in an evacuee building across the wall that separated it from the office of the public relations department in Nedou’s Hotel where I worked.
Remember Nedou’s Hotel? The sprawling structure was being used by the government partly for some offices (including ours) and partly to accommodate about fifty officers for whom official residences could not be found. Of course Nedou’s is no longer there as it was pulled down and the plot later occupied by the Avari Hotel.
The most pleasing memory of Alhamra was its huge lawn dotted with a couple of pine trees. Pine is not grown in the plains, but there these trees were, adding an element of the picturesque to the scene.
Along the wall a wooden shed had been built to accommodate painters and their paraphernalia.
Young artists sat outside, smoking and drinking innumerable cups of tea and dreaming of greatness. Many of them achieved it and became bright stars on the art firmament of Pakistan, though at that time we lay visitors never thought they were destined for such fame.
Not counting the old open air theatre in Bagh-i-Jinnah, Alhamra gave Lahore its first theatre hall. This was not much of a hall and seated only 120 spectators, and had a narrow stage.
But what a great thing it turned out to be! It introduced the citizens of the so-called cultural capital of Pakistan to the delights of drama and the ways of the theatrical world. It motivated people to write plays. It also spawned a large corps of actors attuned to the special requirements of stage acting and trained artisans in erecting wings and stage props and make-up and other requisites of the dramatic art.
More than anything else it created almost a craze for watching stage plays in Lahore and other large cities of Punjab, a habit that was necessary for the promotion of theatre.
This blossomed into a genuine love of drama and the ultimate performance of plays in proper halls specifically built for the purpose.
I was only an onlooker at that time and had nothing to do with the various arts that flourished in Alhamra. It was some 25 years later that I became officially associated with it. Of that period the red letter day was one morning in 1974 when Haneef Ramay was visiting the premises to see what could be done about having a new building for Alhamra.
As we regretfully know, money has hardly ever been available in plenty for cultural purposes anywhere in Pakistan. The subject has been very low on the priority list of spending by successive governments.
But Haneef Ramay was himself a painter and writer and it was an era when fortuitously the federal government was setting up a multitude of cultural bodies.
Among these the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) occupied pride of place with great Faiz Ahmed Faiz personally heading it. Things had to change. That morning, with one foot on a bench, Haneef Ramay placed the Alhamra file on his knee and sanctioned a crore of rupees for the new building.
Everyone present was left aghast. At that time one crore was a stupendous amount because government in Pakistan and the people themselves still talked in lakhs. The chief secretary looked as if he was about to pass out, while the finance secretary found it difficult to speak. But culture had turned the corner.
Then, on the lines of the PNCA the Punjab Council of Arts came into being through a special law and specialised persons got busy setting up a dance and ballet troupe. They were heady days.
As information secretay I was chairman of the Punjab Council of Arts, the top provincial body for managing and promoting cultural activity in the province. However, the autonomy and distinctive status of Alhamra were not disturbed, and I was just a member of the managing committee under the commissioner of Lahore division who was its chairman.
Well-known people from the artistic and literary fields then set about to draw up building plans for architect Nayyar Ali Dada’s design for the new Alhamra which unfortunately got delayed for a variety of reasons.
I came upon the scene again in the end of 1981 when I was posted as secretary of information and culture for the second time. There was martial law in the country and there was no chief minister. The late General Ghulam Jilani Khan was governor.
Among the other grand projects he had taken in hand, in the manner of Emperor Shah Jehan for having gardens all over Lahore, was the new Alhamra building which was completed at top speed. I found him at the site at odd hours, driving a small car without any attendants, and going into the minutest details of construction and embellishment. A fine man indeed!
The old story ends with the climax of Alhamra not only coming up in all its artistic enterprise but serving till now as an enthusiastic fount of culture.
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008|