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A talent for flogging dead horses

December 06, 2002


For 24 years after partition vice and virtue coexisted happily in what were then the two wings of Pakistan. There was of course no shortage of devout people who grew beards and zealously observed all the rituals of the faith. But in those days (how distant they seem) even the very religious wore their religion lightly without making too great a fuss over it.

At the same time, if you had the money and were so inclined, you could spend your evenings in a club or tavern without arousing the wrath of any self-appointed defenders of the faith. Strange as it may sound in these more bleak times, Pakistan then was a remarkably tolerant and easygoing place.

The ulema and mashaikh kept to their pulpits or dargahs. Of the religious parties the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam had a limited political presence but if their voices were heard it was because they spoke in concert with other political parties opposed to the Ayub dictatorship. For the rest, the clergy went about its business without intruding too much into the secular or political sphere. The rulers of the day too felt no need to cosy up to the mullas.

The crisis that erupted in East Pakistan changed many of Pakistan's easy-going ways. The army which was then ruling the country (as it is doing today) used such organizations as Al Shams and Al Badr which owed allegiance to the Jamaat-i-Islami against the people of East Pakistan. This was the first army-mulla alliance in the nation's history, later to be replicated under General Zia during the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan.

Defeat and surrender in East Pakistan should have led to some close soul-searching. Where did we go wrong? How had we managed to make enemies of our brothers and sisters in East Pakistan? But there was no introspection of this sort, just a rush to find convenient scapegoats.

One culprit was 'General' Rani, the colourful lady who was said to show ladies of a patriotic bent of mind the way to General Yahya's bedroom. Newspapers were suddenly full of her exploits after the war. As long as Yahya remained in power these same newspapers said not a word about the goings-on in his darbar. The Supreme Court's attitude was much the same. In a famous judgment it declared Yahya Khan a usurper. This ringing judgment was delivered when he was no longer in power.

The other culprit was drink. Yahya and his cronies drank to excess. It was because they had strayed from the true path of Islam that the army faced defeat in the East. The army chief after Yahya was Gul Hasan but he soon fell out with Bhutto and was removed from his post. The next chief was Tikka Khan. One of his first acts was to order an end to drinking in army clubs and messes.

This order had no effect on the rest of Pakistan because in the Bhutto years drinking was very much a part of the social scene. For those in public life it was considered cool to drink. Then came the anti-Bhutto agitation following the 1977 elections. Spearheaded by the right-wing Pakistan National Alliance - which included the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan - its principal demand was the enforcement of Nizam-i-Mustafa or Islamic rule.

Bhutto tried force, conciliation and every other tactic to derail the agitation. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, in a desperate gamble and acting upon the advice of Maulana Kausar Niazi, his religious affairs minister, he announced a ban on drinking and gambling and declared Friday to be the weekly holiday. This, he was sure, would take the wind out of the opposition's sails. Nothing of the sort happened. Seeing Bhutto on the run, the PNA parties only felt more emboldened.

Then came General Zia who after reneging on his promise to hold elections in 90 days, proclaimed Islamization as his goal. What did elections matter when the goal was so much higher. As part of his Islamization drive, the ban on drinking was further reinforced by the Hudood ordinances issued in 1979. Bars in the bigger hotels were closed as were the few wine shops which until then were still open.

As far as the naked eye could see, the nation's morals did not improve. If anything, hypocrisy and the art of doing things on the quiet received a major boost. Bootlegging became big business, the dons engaged in it making huge profits, the story of Al Capone all over again.

Those who couldn't afford the new prices turned to cheaper alternatives. Heroin addiction was unknown in Pakistan before. Now its use became a serious problem. The Kalashnikov was the second gift Pakistan received because of its involvement in the Afghan jihad. From the effects of both these gifts Pakistan has yet to recover.

Pakistan's democratic interlude, 1988-99, should have helped reverse this state of affairs. But it did nothing of the kind because the army would not relax its grip on the three pillars of national security - Kashmir, Afghanistan and the bomb - which underpinned the closed vision of those years.

The so-called liberal, newspaper-reading classes welcomed the Musharraf coup because they thought a Pakistani Ataturk had come to judgment. In some respects Musharraf has lived up to expectations. He has presided over a relaxed and easygoing dictatorship with none of the heavy-handed repression which was a hallmark of the Zia years. A great deal of press, and lately TV, freedom has been tolerated.

But in some respects this has been a wasted opportunity. Far from securing a new political path, something the general promised when he seized power, the country's political institutions and its much-abused Constitution have been further squeezed and twisted in order to secure Musharraf's future.

There's been a failure of vision as well. Musharraf's obsession to curtail the space around the two mainstream parties, the PML-N and the PPP, has unwittingly helped the clerical armies of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal to fill the resulting vacuum.

Musharraf alone is not to blame for this outcome. Our American friends also have a hand in it. The first American-led jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets gave birth to the phenomenon of Osama bin Laden and bequeathed Pakistan the twin gifts of guns and drugs. The second American-led jihad in Afghanistan, this time against the Taliban, has handed Pakistan's mullas their greatest political victory in the nation's history. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

The first thing the mullas do when they acquire the keys of power in the Frontier province is to announce a fresh ban on drinking and gambling, a ban on music in buses, and their intention to construct separate enclosures for women at bus stops across the province. In Balochistan the new chief minister - a King's party man but supported by the mullas - also announces a fresh ban on drinking.

After his parleys with the mullas the new prime minister, Mir Zafarullah Jamali, who is having a hard time shedding his image of a dummy, mumbles something about declaring Friday as the weekly holiday. About the only good thing Nawaz Sharif did as prime minister was to make Sunday the weekly holiday. This the clerics now want to change.

Drinking thus stands thrice-banned in Pakistan: first by Bhutto's decree, then Zia's and now the pronouncements of the mullas who hold power in Peshawar and share it in Quetta. Devout Pakistanis will welcome this fresh expression of zeal because drink is abhorrent in our religion. But outsiders, often ignorant about our affairs, are apt to wonder whether we have nothing better to do.

Drink stands already banned. Why not leave it at that and move on to other things? Or is it that tackling other things is difficult and getting passionate about cosmetic issues a far easier undertaking? There is nothing new in this. We have always been good at evading real issues and getting worked up about trifles. The triumph of rhetoric over substance: in this lies our greatest talent.