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We have failed to handle power, says Abida Hussain

February 09, 2015


Syeda Abida Hussain. — Photo courtesy: Ishaque Chaudhry
Syeda Abida Hussain. — Photo courtesy: Ishaque Chaudhry

KARACHI: “The story of Pakistan is [one] of the failure of exercise of power. We have done well in many areas. But somehow we have failed to get our act together as we don’t know how to handle power.”

Veteran politician Syeda Abida Hussain said this here on Sunday at the Karachi Literature Festival when asked in a session on her book why she had named it Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman. The session was moderated by writer and barrister Irshad Abdul Kadir and scholar Dr Hamida Khuhro.

Giving a brief biographical sketch of the writer, Mr Abdul Kadir said that Benazir Bhutto had once described Ms Hussain and her husband, former National Assembly speaker Syed Fakhar Imam, as an “ideal couple in public life.” She had joined the PPP in the 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was leading the party. When ZAB asked her how a Westernised person like her could survive in Jhang’s [her native town] cultural milieu, Abida Hussain told him that her education allowed her to become more adaptable, and that she loved her land.

It was also mentioned that she was the first directly elected woman to get into power and that she had played a role in favour of democracy despite being a member of various political parties.

Asked what motivated her to join politics, Abida Hussain said that being the only child of her father, “I wanted to do all the things my father did. I had very supportive parents. Politics came after my father’s death. I felt he left his work unfinished. I have tried. It’s a long story, it’s had its ups and downs.”

As for why she joined so many parties, Ms Hussain said, “I have a set of political values. I believe in the democratic construct. If a party has a liberal orientation and a democratic record I will join it.” She added that she left the PPP in 1977 when Mr Bhutto denied her a ticket for a general seat.

Hamida Khuhro asked her that since she was opposed to authoritarianism, how did she get along with ZAB, who could have an authoritarian streak. “ZAB had a charming side and a rough side. I fortunately encountered the charming side. I interacted with him four times and each time he was kind,” replied Ms Hussain.

About her time as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington DC, Abida Hussain recounted stories of her meetings with then president Bill Clinton, vice-president Al Gore as well as senior American politicians. However, though she said that most of these encounters were cordial, “every single American official asked us to roll back our nuclear programme”.

When a questioner asked her about sectarian tensions in Jhang, Abida Hussain said that while there had been a violent incident in the town during Ayub Khan’s rule, which could be considered as the origin of sectarian trouble, things cooled down during the 1970s. However, “in 1986 Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan was created and planted here [Jhang].”

The Indus saga

In an earlier session, veteran lawyer and politician Aitzaz Ahsan spoke to Dr Hamida Khuhro about his book The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan, which has been translated into Urdu as Sindh Sagar aur Qayam-i-Pakistan.

Mr Ahsan pointed out that Dr Khuhro was “helping rewrite books at the basic, children’s level, [undoing] the damage done to the curriculum in the 1980s.” He said there was a new method to teach history to children in the Zia era, when symbols of violence and militarism were included in the curriculum, and Islamic history was being taught as the history of Pakistan.

When asked by Mr Ahsan how important it was to write history, Dr Khuhro said “it is extremely important. I have come across kids who have no idea who Akbar was. There was a crisis in identity in children. They had no idea beyond the Muslim conquest [of the subcontinent]. They had no idea that for a thousand years Sindh was a Buddhist country. This was a glaring omission. Coming generations would be lost. I was asking them ‘who you are, where did you come from?’ ”

Relating his own experience, Aitzaz Ahsan recalled that while studying at Cambridge, he was invited by a friend to his home for Christmas. When the friend’s mother, over dinner, asked him where he was from and he answered Pakistan, he had a hard time explaining to her about the country and its origins. “That prompted me to ask who we [Pakistanis] were. I was [later] thrown in jail by the Zia regime. In jail you have plenty of time. That’s when I started to read and write. That is where I discovered that apart from religion, what divides communities the most is deserts and rivers. They sustain different civilisations. But difference does not mean hostile.”

He added that “while we have a lot in common with India, we have an internal unity between Sindhis, Punjabis, the Pakhtuns and the Baloch” formed before Islam came to the subcontinent. “I felt Pakistan has existed from primordial history, prior to the message of Islam. I tried to discover that identity.”

Aitzaz Ahsan said it was a “myth” that Central Asian invaders only fought Hindus, as Mehmood Ghaznavi “had destroyed the Muslim states of Mansoura and Khusab” while Babar had defeated Ibrahim Lodhi. He said another myth was that Muslims in the subcontinent were defeated due to conspiracies. “The English conquered us due to science and technology. We depended on superstition, the English depended on technology.”

Published in Dawn February 9th , 2015

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