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Injury, fine, but why the insult?

January 28, 2005

Staging the kind of farce which goes by the name of democracy in Pakistan is an injury to the Pakistani people. In my lifetime I don’t see this state of affairs improving, the army giving few signs of vacating the political heights it has conquered.

Fine, when you accept the inevitable you’re well on your way to wisdom. If there is going to be no democracy, and ISI and MI are to constitute the real election commission of Pakistan, no point in ceaselessly fretting. The next time I think of standing for elections, I’ll first seek an appointment with MI chief. That’s it, my communist manifesto.

But denying social freedoms, which is also something we’ve managed to do with some aplomb in Pakistan, is adding insult to injury. If we are incapable of working democracy, and we’ve proved over the last 57 years that we are, subjecting the sorely-tried people of Pakistan to ceaseless doses of morality, amounts to giving them the worst of all possible worlds: no representative government and no cakes and ale.

The denial of democracy is enough. Why must it be supplemented with turning Pakistan into a Sahara of the spirit?

There are other climes and countries where generals have called the shots, whole swathes of Latin America, for example. Many of the conquering Latino generals committed horrendous human rights abuses, in Chile, Argentina, etc. But even when the worst of this repression was going on, no one banned the tango in Rio or ordered bars and clubs to shut down. When dictatorship ruled the roost, you were all right and could do what you pleased, as long as you kept your distance from politics.

Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro has been lord of Cuba since 1959, which must be some kind of a world record. But despite the cult of the revolution and the existence of a one-party state with zero tolerance for dissent, Cuba is one of the great fun-places of the world. If I had the money, which I don’t, I’d choose Havana over Las Vegas as a holiday destination any time. Love among the sugarcane fields. I know what one of my biggest regrets will be when the shadows of eternal evening close in: not to have visited Cuba.

Castro’s compact with the people of Cuba is this: follow the flag of the revolution and the state will educate you from kindergarten to university and take care of you if you fall sick. Education and health care are totally for free. You pay not a penny and you get services that rival the best in the world. And there is social freedom.

It was like this in the old communist bloc as well. No political freedom and no criticism of the ruling party but all the fun you could rake in. When I was in Moscow 1974-77, Pravda, the organ of the communist party, was the most turgid newspaper human ingenuity could produce. But seeing Muscovites letting their hair down in the evenings, filling the city’s countless cafes, restaurants and hotels, showing their passionate dedication to the national drink, vodka, and dancing the evening hours away, was a delight to watch. Unless you were a born sourpuss, you also followed the example.

In short, under the hammer and sickle, the people of all the Russias had no political freedom. They still don’t, not in the accepted John Stuart Mill sense of the word. But by God what fun they had.

Consider our plight in the light of these examples: no head for democracy, and little taste or zest for pleasure. Of all the bargains in the world, this is about the worst.

Why do Pakistanis flock to Dubai? Not because of Dubai’s famous political freedoms but by way of sampling some of the good things of life. Things denied them at home they seek abroad.

Was Pakistan always so discontented? You bet your life it wasnt. Dubai was a fishing village when Karachi was one of the great, fun-filled cities of the East, rivaling in splendour Bombay and Singapore. As for Lahore, it was a magnet attracting people from all over Punjab, rich and not-so-rich.

I am not saying it was a fleshpot or a modern Babylon, just a great place to burn some money in, offering something to suit every taste and pocket. A village or small-town chaudri spending a few days in Lahore returned home refreshed and invigorated.

Then to our lasting ill-luck occurred the Puritan Revolution which changed the country’s face, putting false pontiffs in charge of the nation’s affairs, from whose lips poured forth a spurious morality. Lahore and Karachi were never the same again.

Hatched in the throes of the anti-Bhutto movement of 1977, this reactionary movement is now in its 28th year. Can you imagine? Nearly three decades of concentrated falsehood. It would cripple far stronger nations and if Pakistan has withstood the ravages of this tide, it says something for the resilience of its people.

But the price of withstanding has been heavy. Discontent sits at the heart of the Pakistani psyche. We arent a normal people any more, our collective condition like that of the village damsel said to be afflicted with djinns. When she is married off, the djinns miraculously disappear.

Get rid of the social and moral dictatorship that holds Pakistan in its grip and the djinns giving the country a headache will go away.

We don’t have to invent a new liberation. The seedbeds of liberation are there, buried under the moral rubble of the last 30 years. Remove the rubble and if nothing else happens, Pakistan at least will become a more cheerful place.

Our historical point of reference has always been the Mughal Empire and, rightly or wrongly, we flatter ourselves that we are the descendants of that empire. That this optimism may be misplaced is beside the point. The Mughals did not rule India for over two hundred years through zealotry and bigotry. When they practised tolerance, they drew within the folds of their empire all the races and nationalities of India. When they forgot the lessons of Akbar and turned to evangelism, their empire fell on evil days.

There were other causes for the decline and fall of the Mughals but this — a turn towards a harsher interpretation of religion under the last of the great emperors, Aurangzeb — was one of them.

For all its sins, Pakistan did not deserve General Ziaul Haq and his fake Islamization. Every symptom that distinguishes the country’s present psychological profile can be traced to his rule and the hypocrisy in the name of Islam it spawned.

But the past is done and over with and there is no point in excoriating Zia if we are not willing to dismantle his legacy. The prescription is not all that complicated. All we have to do is agree upon a single-item agenda: do away, expunge from the law books, all of Zia’s decrees and ordinances.

Just that and nothing more, no other act of liberation or redemption, turning the clock back and returning to the true spirit, the native genius, of the Pakistani people. Just this and the dirt covering the nations face, the false makeup giving it such an unwholesome appearance, will be washed away.

Simple yet to all appearances so much beyond our reach. Gen Musharraf could have done this in the first flush of his coup when a good section of the Pakistani people looked upon him as a deliverer. (One of the symptoms of the Pakistani condition: look upon everyone who slips in through the back door as a deliverer.) But he missed his moment and got embroiled in other things.

Even so, the social liberation of Pakistan, the breaking of the self-imposed taboos that shackle its spirit, must be the nations first order of business. Afterwards who knows, the search for constitutionalism may prove less elusive than it has been these past 57 years.