Abject surrender

My piece published in The Friday Times
How can I remain unaffected and quiet after seeing that my country might be disfigured and my roots pulled out, to be replaced by an ideology alien to my thousand-year old consciousness?

April 13 will be remembered as a black day in Pakistan’s history. This is the day, future historian will write, when its pampered and stuffed-up political elites opted for a grand surrender. We have to live with the pain, infamy and ignominy of the December 1971 surrender at Ramna Park, Dhaka. That black moment was faced by a General who shall remain the face of Pakistan’s atrocities against its own citizens, the interference of an irresponsible, vengeful neighbour and the bravado of Bengalis who had been excluded from the privileged ‘martial race’ category by none other than Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his junta. This exclusionary act by the Field Marshal, later recorded in his memoirs, set the tone for an agenda of discrimination that was subsequently responsible for the second amputation of South Asia in less than 25 years.

On April 13, 2009, the National Assembly accepted that armed militias seeking power through militancy were legitimate. The house, while endorsing the Swat deal, indulged in little or no debate, let alone weighing the pros and cons of such a deal. Whilst recognizing the legitimacy of parliament, the minimum that should be expected from the representatives of the hapless awam is a meaningful discussion on an issue that is of manifest national importance. It was a tragic farce that had already been scripted and enacted in the desolate valley of Swat, which will now ‘obey’ a sectarian version of Shariah branded as Islam and ‘Divine will’ by Pakistan’s right wing and its electronic media bedfellows.

There stood the new-age majestic Rajas, driven by short term power imperatives and capitulating like their ancestors, only confirming that history repeats itself often in a brutally cruel manner. Yes, there were death threats and the well-established norms of top leaders that prevailed. But was there no intra-party discussion, trepidation or rumbling? How can they, the proponents of the rule of law and the peoples will, be so oblivious to what is dereliction of duty and an abject surrender?

One can obviously not ignore the extra-parliamentary forces that are larger-than-life in Pakistan. The way these forces and centers of power operate within and permeate national institutions, discourses and myths, is amazing to say the least. A dear friend from Islamabad took one and a half hours to explain how foreign infiltrators were aiming to destroy Pakistan and how the new Shariah deal was actually the best way to counter this larger conspiracy to destroy Pakistan. Who is spreading this disinformation and how come such rumour-mongering factories, without providing a shred of evidence in the public domain, have started to convince our urban middle classes of the ‘patriotism’ and wisdom of this infamous deal.
One cannot be blind to such realities. But, disappointment remains. Each time we [re]start the democratic journey, the paths are so muddled and broken that often the journey gets consumed by its laboriousness. However, unlike 1988, we are at the brink of internal combustion, even though the popular imagination, with decades of false textbooks and a controlled thought-process, holds external enemies responsible for where Pakistan stands today. If it is not India, the Hindu-state, then it is the US or its stooge Israel wanting to ruin the country. These days Russia is also back in the fold of popular lore on ‘those who want to destroy’ Pakistan, the only Muslim nuclear state in the world.
Such is the perversity of the ideological polarisation in the country, that we are split across the middle. There is a sizeable number of Pakistanis who think that the Taliban are not all that bad, as they are fighting a war against America, and at the end of the day they want to promote ‘religion’. The largest numbers of adherents to this theorisation live in the most populous province and ironically in its cities. The peasantry and the working classes, in any case, live a life that is nasty and brutish hence they remain unmoved by a post-material ideological conflict.
The other, the majority group does not agree with the former school of thought. The urban proponents hold extremism of this kind to be a danger to civilisation and its manifestations such as Western education, the English language, globalization and the opportunities it accords. In addition, this group is strengthened at the subaltern level by the fact that Sufi Islam is a living reality in the villages and towns of Pakistan. Name one qasba where a dergah does not intersect cultural life. This is true for all parts of Pakistan, and more so in Sindh and the Punjab.

Such ideological divisiveness leads to distortions of reality and its various discourses. But the camp that’s soft on the Taliban is more powerful. So what if it is not a group with the majority of the population behind it? It has arms, terror, money and the appropriate credentials for great-gaming. This is the cabal that has now silenced the National Assembly and its power-wielders. This is the group that articulates what the mainstream media should relay. The media messages therefore are confounding: excuses for flogging a seventeen year old girl have been crafted, the virtues of qazi justice are being counted and the Taliban-are-actually-Indian-agents, is a transmitted, urban legend now.

This is why the only dissenting party from the National Assembly’s collective wisdom, the MQM, is being viewed suspiciously for its forthright and strong condemnation of the Swat deal and its endorsement by the legislature. Instead of recognising that in these dire times any degree of truthfulness and courage should be welcomed, the historical capitulators are damning this urban group of the country. If anything, the MQM has rekindled hope among citizens that capture by the extremists would not be that easy or pervasive.

The fog of confusion is also a metaphor for inaction. A collective sense of resignation prevails. In the Pakhtoonkhwa, this feeling has grown beyond belief. Even before the political elites capitulated, parts of the civilian administration, as press reports are now suggesting, were quick to recognize the new Shariah-branded rulers. This trend wants to flow downwards into the rest of Jinnah’s Pakistan. It wants to compete with the course of the mighty Indus; and criss-cross the Punjabi heartland where Nanak had once sung songs of love and Divine unity under the influence of Muslim Sufis. Here Baba Farid Ganj-e-Shakar spread the message of love and the equality of man that is central to Islam.

The recent, horrific threat to the Taxila museum is an ominous message for our civilised existence. The mysteriously beautiful ruins of Taxila, where the followers of Gautam Buddha sowed saplings of peace and enlightenment, are now endangered, and God forbid might suffer the tragic fate of Bamiyan when mellenia old gigantic statues were blasted with dynamite and destroyed. The merchants of hatred also want to capture the truly cosmopolitan urban centre of the country and the mystical lands of Sindh. And, we hear ad nauseam that the deal will bring peace. It can only guarantee ruination of our centuries-old syncretic, plural and predominantly Sufi culture.

I have been told that silence is the best reaction to the gravity of this situation. But how can I remain unaffected and quiet after seeing that my country might be disfigured and my roots pulled out, to be replaced by an ideology completely alien to my thousand-year old consciousness? How can I not write about an absolute lack of a cultural challenge to the barbarians, and the shameful retreat of the progressives?

If nothing else, I don’t want to end up as an exile without a cause.

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