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Fatima’s election

July 12, 2019

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

THERE is an election happening in this country in a few short days, and an extremely historic one at that. The people of the region formerly known as Fata will go to the polls for the very first time since formal integration into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. After more than seven decades, the more than three million people of the tribal regions are finally being given a modicum of democratic rights, the barely disguised colonial statute known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation, or FCR, finally being thrown into the dustbin of history.  

There is no direct link but the impending electoral exercise in the ex-Fata districts takes me back to the 1965 presidential election, which, in many ways, was similarly historic. In recent days, many people have commemorated the death anniversary of one of the participants in the 1965 contest, Fatima Jinnah (July 9). Effusive praise for the Madar-i-Millat has emanated from the highest quarters of Pakistani officialdom too, an irony of history that surely cannot go unnoticed.

After all, back in 1965, Ms Jinnah was hardly a darling of the establishment or mainstream intellectual and media circles. Her opponent in the election, incumbent ruler Gen Ayub Khan — who preferred to go by the far more lofty title of ‘Field Marshal’ — pilloried Ms Jinnah no end. The latter had been a political nonentity since soon after her brother’s death, but after seven years of dictatorship the seeds of popular discontent were brewing, encouraging Ms Jinnah to try her hand at dislodging the dictator.

Back in 1965, Ms Jinnah was hardly a darling of the establishment.

What I want to call attention to is the language used by Gen Ayub Khan and his propagandists against Fatima Jinnah. In one pamphlet that I recently came across, Ms Jinnah was accused of conspiring against Pakistan alongside Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan by trying to establish Pashtunistan. Perhaps the tone and tenor of Ayub Khan’s vitriol indicated how panicked the regime was by Fatima Jinnah’s election campaign. She did not mince her words about the underhanded tactics being used by the government and also made clear that parliamentary democracy had to be restored for Pakistan and its people to survive and prosper.

Ayub Khan was of course at the time trumpeting his so-called Basic Democracies scheme, a blatant initiative to instal loyalists willing to vote for him in an indirect presidential election. Eighty thousand Basic Democrats constituted the electoral college for the election; most had been bought over long before the actual voting exercise took place. Yet Ms Jinnah generated massive crowds during her campaign, particularly in East Pakistan, and some historians argue that she actually won the election in the country’s two biggest cities of Karachi and Dhaka despite all the pre-poll rigging.

Today, a region and its people who have suffered from decades of war and intrigue, and whose rights and welfare have been denied in the name of the state’s strategic interests should be enjoying their moment in history. But they too, like Fatima Jinnah and the countless millions to whom she tried to give voice in 1965, are having to accede to a charade instead.

To date, most of us ordinary Pakistanis are unaware of what is happening in the ex-Fata districts. Media coverage of electoral campaigning — to whatever extent it is actually happening — is virtually non-existent. The Electoral Commission at least announced a few days ago that Section 144 was being lifted in all districts in which elections are set to take place, but by most accounts it appears as if there is anything but a level playing ground for all candidates.

It has been said before but it merits repetition: the establishment does not learn from its mistakes. It appears, in fact, as if the preferred option is to doctor history and pretend as if figures like Fatima Jinnah were always revered, whereas in fact they were subject to the same character assassinations and accusations of conspiracy that progressive and democratic forces continue to be subjected to today.

It is worth bearing in mind that the bourgeois democratic project that has been so enfeebled in Pakistan since the very beginning is far from a cherished ideal. Our mainstream political parties are anything but paragons of political virtue and defenders of citizens’ basic freedoms. But this fact is overemphasised in prototypical analyses of our dire status quo.

Just like her brother, Fatima Jinnah was exposed to a tradition of politics that was anything but democratic. Theirs was a colonial inheritance, and the messiness of democratic political processes rankled with them. Yet by 1965, Ms Jinnah clearly recognised that name-calling, manipulation and coercion by the unelected apparatus of the state would lead Pakistan to a dead end. More than 50 years later, little has changed. And little will change until the people of this country are recognised as the genuine fountainhead of power.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019