Periods of national unrest have not been uncommon or unfamiliar occurrences in the history of Pakistan. But the political and economic turbulence the country is facing today is bound to come as a shock to any visitor who has been away from the country for even a couple of years. It is as if all the contradictions that were being nurtured within the institutional structure of the state since the creation of the country have suddenly come to a head, threatening to spell the collapse of the entire edifice.
“How does Pakistan look to you today?” was the question most frequently asked, with some variation, everywhere I went this time, whether it was a meeting with old students, colleagues and political comrades in Lahore, a chat at the “tea” before or after a talk I was invited to give somewhere, a social meeting in Islamabad, or a gathering of close relatives in Multan.
Pakistan’s existential situation of course does not look very good today and everyone in the country knows this. The question being asked was perhaps more of an expression of common anxiety about what is happening in the country, a subterfuge rather than a real question.
The problems behind Pakistan’s latest crisis are not really new. But the one that is being most palpably felt is that of religious extremism accompanied by unprecedented acts of terrorism. Bombs planted or carried on the person of suicidal individuals went off almost every day in some part of the country when I was there, killing and maiming their hapless victims. The biggest carnage took place in the heart of Peshawar on Dec. 5 when a powerful bomb went off in the Qisa Khwani bazar crowded with Eid shoppers, killing scores of women and children and lighting up a huge fire. It was intended to destroy a shia imambara. These acts of terror are being committed by Islamic extremists, gnerally known as Pakistani Taliban, who are most active in the seven agencies of the Federally Administered Areas (FATA) and also control a substantial part of the northerly settled districts of NWFP province, renamed Pakhtunkhwa.
The leaders of the Awami National Party (ANP) which heads the provincial government and their relatives are the latest individual targets of terrorist killings (ostensibly for hobnobbing with Afghanistan’s president, Karzai). The national chairman of the party, Isfandyar Wali, survived a murderous attack on October 2, which killed four of his companions. Peshawar, the seat of provincial government, is virtually a war zone. Neither the once formidable Frontier Corps nor the Pakistan army seem to be able to establish the writ of the government over vast northerly tracts of the province. It has also become impossible for the Pakistani truck convoys to carry supplies for the NATO troops in Afghanistan from the Karachi port through the Peshawar terminals.
The operations of Pakistan army in trying to restore governmental control in FATA and adjoining settled districts of Pakhtunkhwa are neither effective nor hold much credibility in the eyes of the people, despite heavy casualties suffered by soldiers in fighting with the Islamic militants. Many questions are being raised regarding the involvement of the armed forces on the northwestern front. Are they serious in eradicating the menace of Islamic terrorists inside Pakistan? Is the army rank and file willing to kill their Muslim brothers while for decades they have been regimented to fight “Hindu India?” What role did the army and its intelligence services play in creating and nurturing the Islamic insurgents or jihadis as a foreign policy tool in the first place? Whose “war on terror” is the Pakistan army fighting any way? Is it serving the imperial interests of the United States on the northwestern front? and so on go the questions.
In October 2008 the newly elected government decided to hold an in-camera session of the national parliament under tight security to get “everyone on board” on the rationale of fighting the menace of “extremism, militancy and terrorism.” After two weeks of deliberations and extensive briefings on the situation provided by the army High Command, the parliament passed a resolution hailed as representing the consensus of its members. Somewhere in this resolution it was written down that the “nation stands united to combat this growing menace” by addressing its “root causes.”
It appeared that addressing the root causes of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan would be a great opportunity for the elected representatives of the people to face the truth and make a beginning to move towards establishing a new political culture of peace and tolerance. But when I reached Pakistan in November, everyone was talking about the menace of terrorism and religious extremism but there was no sign anywhere of addressing its root causes.
I brought this issue to the first of the talks I was invited to give at the Lahore School of Economics. Any honest attempt to trace the roots of religious extremism and associated terrorism would inevitably lead to two interrelated fundamentals of state policy that have been pursued by every Pakistani government, which has ruled the country since independence, I said. One of these fundamentals is the Islamisation of Pakistani state and society while the other is catering to the global strategic interests of the Unites States of America.
Moves to Islamise the state of Pakistan began as the first order of business for the founding fathers of Pakistan (the worthy exception being Muhammad Ali Jinnah) whatever their political motives, and they were certainly not spiritual. Assembled in the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, these men came up with a document known as the Objectives Resolution in 1949, which declared that “Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the state of Pakistan . . .” It further proclaimed that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” With these beginnings, all subsequent rulers of Pakistan made their own contributions to inject Islam into the affairs of the state, thereby empowering a parasitic and rabidly patriarchal class of mullahs. It was however left to General Zia-ul-Haq to effectively demonstrate what it meant for the Muslims of Pakistan to order their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam after his coup d’etat in 1977.
Islamisation of the Pakistani state and political culture was also a useful asset for the United States to exploit in its aim to keep the country tied to its Cold War military alliances against Soviet communism. Ultimately, with Zia the most ardently Islamist dictator in power, the United States was able to mobilize Pakistan army, intelligence services and Islamist parties to launch its proxy war, designed as Jihad, to overthrow the infant Marxist government of Afghanistan backed by the Soviet Union. This was the critical event which, through various political turns and twists unfolded into today’s global terrorism with Pakistan as its epicentre.
Thus it is reasonable to conclude that the mess that Pakistan is currently in is of its own making, with the opportunistic backing of the United States, I said in my submission to the small professorial circle that had gathered to hear me in the brightly lit library of Lahore School of Economics. How to get out of this mess? The only logical course that I could see was the reversal by the state of its Islamisation, and Americanisation policies.
On the sunny morning of November 21, I was sitting among a hall full of students at the campus of the newly established University of Gujarat. I was invited to speak on the current political and economic crisis, but my mind was picturing the young men and women siting in front of me as little playful toddlers when Gen. Zia had let lose an orgy of public floggings to implement his primitive sharia laws taken from the books of Jamat-e-Islami, his new found political ally. Do these young people remember all that? I was wondering. Was there anything in their history and Pakistan Studies textbooks about a military dictator who had installed himself as the Islamic ruler, Amir-ul-Momineen, of the wretchedly poor people of Pakistan? Do they know who created and fostered the present day Islamic extremists terrorizing the people, killing them in their mosques, imambaras, and bazars while taking over the northern areas of Pakistan?
Once I got up to speak I pretty much repeated to my young audience what I had said at the Lahore School of Economics about the roots of Islamic extremism and terrorism in today’s Pakistan. Injecting the beliefs and rituals of a particular religion in the affairs of a modern, pluralistic, state is like playing with fire, I said. And the proof is all around us today as the country’s mosques, imambaras, bazars and hotels burn, set on fire by the bombs and explosives of religious zealots. It is time for the people of Pakistan to make it very clear that most of them are Muslims, they were born Muslims, they have learned their faith from their elders, and neither the state mullah nor any jihadi has the right to tell them how to practice their faith.
But is it realistic to suggest that Pakistan dismantle its Islamisation project and break its ties with the only superpower on earth? Yes it is, if the government is a democracy run by the consent of the majority. The majority of the people of Pakistan have never endorsed Islamic rule as they have rejected the Islamist parties in every election held in Pakistan which was not rigged. Religious fervour that is observed today in Pakistan is largely confined to the small middle class, always ready to compromise to protect its precarious existence. The people in general are fed up with the mayhem created by the Islamic militants. Several recent public opinion poles have also confirmed that an overwhelming majority of the adult population does not want the United States to interfere in the affairs of Pakistan.
After a brief stay at the beautifully laid out campus of the University of Gujrat, which incidentally is headed by a noteworthy academic and not a retired military heavy-weight, I was driven to Islamabad.
Islamabad, as the capital of Pakistan has many reasons to be visited, but lately I have been going there to spend a few restful days with a friend, sheltered by the Marghala hills, and to browse through the stores selling used and new books in the F/6 and F/7 markets. But it looks like what used to be the the most calm and cloistered capital city in the world is now wide open to scarification by a new breed of militant Islamists. Last time I was there a large area of the city was fenced off where once was a mosque called Lal Masjid. This time my friend drove me by an enormous pile of debris which once was the imposing structure of Merriot Hotel surrounded by the shinny cars of its clients. It was indeed a grim reminder of the deadly power weilded by the men of God in today’s Pakistan.
Next I took a bus to Multan and was hardly in that city of the saints for long when the news broke out of November 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai hotels. The irate Indian prime minister immediately called up his Pakistani counterpart, naming not only the rabidly anti-Indian jihadist outfit, the Laskar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), as the perpetrator but also accusing Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence agency (ISI) as having directed the atrocity. The Pakistani prime minister, a fellow Multani not known for much political astuteness, denied all accusations and even offered to send the director of the ISI to help in finding out the culprits. However, the poor fellow had to retract his offer soon thereafter and went into the denial mode.
Within the next few days all signs of official or unofficial contrition vanished from Pakistan’s media coverage, washed away by a tide of national jingoism. Indian admonitions that Pakistan rein in its Islamic militants were met by a chorus of patriotic war cries vouching to defend Pakistan from its perennial enemy, India. If on the one hand spokespersons of the venerable Lawyer’s Movement were issuing patriotic statements, on the other hand there were the villainous terrorists, the likes of Baitullah Mehsud and Mangal Bagh, voicing eagerness to march their lashkers to the Indian border to defend Pakistan. The rest of this drama is still to unfold.
I had yet to go to Karachi to participate in a discussion panel on Dada Amir Haider Khan’s book of memoirs, ‘Chains to Lose’, which I was finally able to get published last year. But Karachi was once again in the grip of riots. This time the riots were sparked by MQM’s fears that Pakhtun refugees from Waziristan and the districts of Pakhtunkhwa, displaced by Pakistan army’s anti-terrorist operations and constant missile attacks launched from the US predatory drones, were flocking to Karachi and taking control of local markets.
In any case I was able to make it to the Karachi event, thanks to an interlude of peace in the city in preparation for the Eid holidays. The book discussion was organized by Dr. Jaffer Ahmed, the able and tireless director of Karachi University’s Pakistan Studies Centre, the publisher of the ‘Chains to Lose’. Some half a dozen people, journalists, writers, political activists, presented their very well informed and perceptive reviews. Zahida Hina was one of them whose presentation in Urdu caught the general sense of the house. She said:
‘Dada’s memoir is a great historical document if one seeks to understand a glorious 20th century movement in South Asia for freedom from world colonialism and imperialism.’
If our generation has no idea of who Dada Amir Haider Khan is, it cannot be blamed. This generation has never been told anything about our great compatriots. We make giants out of dwarfs and treat our persons of great stature like lowly creatures. . . .
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan shoved Dada behind bars, locked him in solitary confinements, kept him in the torture chambers of the Lahore Fort, and finally banished him to the far-flung Pothohar village where he was born . . . He was a dangerous man indeed because he talked about people’s rule, he was a leader whose politics was above race and language, religion and sect. We can well imagine what a terrorist he was. In our books, only the commanders of lashkars and extremist organizations are considered honourable and trustworthy.
Feeling happy that Dada’s contributions, a committed communist, to make Pakistan, South Asia and the world a better place for humanity are becoming known, I returned to Lahore on December 6. Next evening there was a sitting with some like-minded comrades arranged by Awami Jamhori Forum. It turned out to be a free-wheeling discussion of the present global economic crisis, war on terror and the rise of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan, terrorist attacks on Mumbai hotels, the US elections and the victory of Obama.
Perhaps the most serious concern was the position and the role of the socialist left in all this. I maintained that the greatest asset of the socialist left is its set of values. These values of freedom, peace, opposition to all wars, human rights, respect for nature and all life, economic, racial and gender equality, religious and ethnic tolerance, are together a powerful antidote to the present global crisis. There is every chance for the socialist left to succeed in its own right if it stops wasting its resources to support the lesser evil in political contests. I gave the example of very active and resourceful anti-war and anti-poverty groups in the United States who squandered their assets by supporting Barack Obama as the lesser evil in the contest between the two mainstream bourgeois parties. There is no sush thing as more or less evil, I said. All war is evil whether it is more or less, all poverty and all inequality is evil whether it is more or less. A similar mistake was made in the last elections in Pakistan when parties calling themselves “communist” rushed to suppoert the PPP.
I better end here. My apologies if I have bored you with my long story. If you do have any questions and comments I will be glad to receive them. I wish you a very happy new year.