Humour in uniform

Published September 7, 2007

THINGS are becoming topsy-turvy, the abnormal and bizarre becoming everyday reality. Our nuke capability was supposed to be the ultimate deterrent. It is turning into our biggest liability, we being put to the necessity, at every turn, of assuring both ourselves and the world that it is “in safe hands”.

Who is the most threatened person in Pakistan today, who should be feeling the safest but is not? Why, the chief of army staff, also doubling as the president, who has more layers of security around him than any Third World ‘strongman’ coming readily to mind.

The army operation in the two Waziristans is becoming a joke. Army units there dare not move out of their fixed positions for fear of being kidnapped by tribal militants. One day we hear of 10 captured, the next day 19, a few days later a mind-boggling 150 (the militants say 300).

I suppose every military convoy rash enough to move in Waziristan will need an additional convoy to guard its flanks and a fleet of Cobra helicopters to provide it with air cover. Baitullah Mehsud is one of the leading commanders of the Waziristan militants. He must be laughing up his sleeve. His major problem these days seems not to be about how best to resist the army but how to arrange adequate prison space.

How to guard the guardians? That seems to be our foremost problem at present. Not since the fall of Dhaka — and this is not said lightly — when our Eastern Command led by the heroic Gen Niazi set a new world record in meek surrender, has the army faced such embarrassment.

But the army command has different priorities, the foremost being how to get its chief ‘elected’ president for another five years. Commander Baitullah Mehsud can run as many circles as he wants around our troops in Waziristan. Mortar and rocket attacks can take place almost every day in different parts of Balochistan. Terror bombings can occur in the very heart of Rawalpindi Cantonment. But top of the national agenda is the president’s ‘reelection’.

I am putting commas around ‘reelected’ because when was he ever elected? Unless the referendum and the Seventeenth Amendment are to pass for a legit election.

Because of these pressing political preoccupations small wonder that the ISI chief, Lt Gen Kayani, instead of being distracted by Waziristan and sundry acts of sabotage is busy negotiating a deal with Benazir Bhutto.

There was a report in an English newspaper a few days ago that Kayani was among the hopefuls aspiring to become the next army chief. At least he will bring negotiating skills to the job, the post of army chief now more a political than a military position in our country.

The eastern front — with India, that is — has been pacified with Kashmir now the subject for the odd seminar (although even on the seminar circuit it is disappearing as a serious subject of discussion) rather an anguished point of dispute between our two countries. Posturing and muscle-flexing will not disappear and tall, mustachioed, and well-turned out Rangers at Wagah will continue to stomp their feet in an impressive manner. But we shouldn’t be misled by appearances.

Thanks to American tutelage, and American largesse whose lure our so-called establishment has always found hard to resist, the axis of the army now runs westwards, towards the treacherous hills and valleys of our tribal areas.

Besides Kayani, the other army chief-hopeful figuring in press reports is the 10 Corps Commander, Lt Gen Majeed, said to be close to Gen Musharraf, which I suppose should clinch the matter.

Anyhow, 2007 is proving to be a seminal year for Pakistan, with new vistas opening up and new winds blowing across the horizon. Regardless of Musharraf’s political fortunes, whether he manages to get ‘reelected’ or is dealt cruelly by the fates which monitor earthly happenings, a few things have already changed.

The Supreme Court has come into its own, now assuming the constitutional and guardianship role (relating to the rights of the people) it was always meant to play. The lawyers’ community has turned into a potent force for the rule of law. Just as it led the struggle after March 9, it is in the forefront of the effort to block the farce of Musharraf’s ‘reelection’ at the hands of the present assemblies. The media also has become a force to be reckoned with. The March 9 struggle would have turned out differently but for the (strategic) support provided by the media.

There is disorder across the land but this is a good thing because in our given conditions only from the womb of turmoil and disorder can anything good arise. The anguish of the Q League as Musharraf seeks an understanding with the PPP, the PPP’s opportunism as Benazir Bhutto seeks what crumbs of comfort she can get from Musharraf’s table, and the presidency’s increasingly chaotic and directionless attempts to master the present political crisis are all symptoms of the pains Pakistan is undergoing as it moves from the old to the new.

Musharraf is trying to save himself, little realising that the tidal waves buffeting him represent something greater than his person. The people of Pakistan have received an important education. They no longer have any patience for military democracy, the variety we have known all these years, or for palace intrigues, conducted here or in exotic climes, aimed at perpetuating the present order, now in the last throes of its existence.

A consensus is building up around several interwoven themes. There is a palpable yearning for the rule of law, the supremacy of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary. And there is a popular groundswell against Pakistan’s American alliance which has succeeded only in lining the pockets of the rich and in opening up a gulf between the army and the people of Pakistan.

There is nothing negative about this discontent. It is not tinged with despair. The hopelessness and cynicism which used to be features of the Pakistani political scene have been replaced by hope and expectation, all because of the movement for the rule of law sparked by the events of March 9.

Looking to what the Supreme Court has done and is doing, people now expect a change for the better in their collective lives. These expectations are unrealistic and in the nature of things cannot be met. The Supreme Court by itself cannot perform all the labours of Hercules. But it is showing the way and it has put dictatorship on the retreat. These are not mean achievements.

When the curtains finally come down on the Musharraf order, as soon they must (this being a play whose time has run out), anyone coming to power will have to contend with this new optimism running across Pakistan. Benazir is firmly in the American orbit. Her ambition is to be Pakistan’s Nuri Al-Maliki or Hamid Karzai, her desperation to be rid of the corruption cases she faces leaving her with few other options.

But even Nawaz Sharif will have to be more fully in accord with the nation’s new mood, and he will have to leave some of his past behind, if he is to play a meaningful and enduring role in the trying times that lie ahead.

Excoriating Musharraf is not enough. It is also not enough to mouth the standard clichés all too familiar in our discourse about the evils of military authoritarianism. The people of Pakistan want substance not rhetoric of which they have had enough. And they want concrete models of action on the lines of the example set by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and, subsequently, the rest of the Supreme Court. Empty sloganeering just won’t do.

Tailpiece: On Wednesday in the Express an absolutely brilliant piece by Zahida Hina on the immortal Quratulain Hyder. Moving and beautifully done. Unfamiliar with Hyder myself, I felt small after reading Hina’s account. In the schools we went to, Urdu literature passed us by, or we were ignorant of its riches, part of our national problem being the impoverishment of what we know as Pakistani culture.

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