What Punjab can do and what it has never done

Ayaz Amir, Friday, May 31, 2013
From Print Edition

Islamabad diary

Mystics and divines, poets and singers, men of enterprise and of daring, of quality and base instinct, the best dancing girls in the entire sub-continent, Punjab has given birth to them all. What, through some quirk of geography or history, it has never been able to produce is the able ruler.

Except of course for a single exception: for over 2000 years, from Alexander’s invasion to the Partition of British India in 1947, only one ruler of ability and distinction in its turbulent history, the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Apart from him, governors and vassals in plenty but no independent ruler, principally because Punjab was never an independent kingdom except when Ranjit Singh raised it to that status.

Afghan kings, kings of Turkish origin, Mughal emperors but only one Punjabi king. So while Punjab had other strong traditions, in agriculture, music, poetry, dancing, and, I daresay, the sycophantic arts which come so readily to subjugated people, the one tradition its superior classes lacked was that of leadership.

They knew best how to scrape and bow before authority. They were good at carrying out orders. But in 1947 history placed upon their shoulders the task of creating a nation and giving that nation a sense of direction. And they were not up to it, because nothing in their past had prepared them for this. True, Punjab’s elite classes, in alliance with the Urdu-speaking elites who had crossed over from India, managed to create order out of the chaos of Partition, a remarkable feat in itself. A country was thus born but something else as important proved elusive: the quest for nationhood.

Small wonder, misgiving arose from the very start, not everyone feeling that they were equal citizens of the new state, certainly not the people of East Pakistan who despite being in a majority felt excluded from decision-making. Baloch nationalists were unhappy, Pakhtun nationalists aggrieved, they who had been in the forefront of the struggle against the British. And winds of religiosity beat down upon the land, making what were still called minorities uneasy.

Jinnah had said that religion had no place in politics, the gist of his famous address to the Constituent Assembly just a few days before independence. But here something else was happening, religious rhetoric becoming more powerful even as political and economic performance lagged far behind.

Paranoia as regards India, an insecurity which sought relief in military alliances with the United States, an obsession with religious chest-thumping, truly bizarre in a Muslim majority country where Islam should have been the last thing in danger, or the least in need of artificial props – of such humours was concocted the doctrine that came to be hailed, and indeed flaunted, as the ideology of Pakistan.

The Baloch had no fear of India. For them Kashmir was a distant proposition. In Sindh where there was a large Hindu population, the people had no problem with India or Hinduism. Neither did the Pakhtuns have any mental problems with India, despite being very religious in their everyday outlook. In the tribal areas and in places like Swat there were Sikh and Hindu communities which felt safe and co-existed happily with their Muslim neighbours.

But it was altogether different with the official Punjabi mind and that of the Urdu-speaking elites where flourished the demons of fear and insecurity, more as a political tactic than a psychological necessity because it was a good way to keep the rest of the population in line. And because these classes dominated the upper echelons of the armed forces, the ethos of the services came also to be imbued by the same fears and compulsions.

Paradoxically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who should have been the most enlightened man of his generation fanned the flames of this anti-Indianism more than anyone else, perhaps calculating (although there can be other theories on this score) that beating the anti-India drum would best appeal to the Punjab masses. But when the wheel came full circle the movement against him in 1977 received its most powerful impetus in Punjab, and it was the Punjab bazaar and trading classes which bayed the loudest for his blood.

When Gen Zia went looking for allies against Bhutto he found the fiercest in Punjab. When President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the ISI sought to contain Benazir Bhutto in her first prime ministership they groomed a champion in the form of one Mian Nawaz Sharif, a scion of Punjab. The fateful enterprises promoted in the name of ‘jihad’ found some of their first votaries and loudest advocates in Punjab.

Land of the five rivers – what hast thou not wrought? From thy bosom arising Guru Nanak and Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain and Waris Shah, Iqbal and Faiz and Munir Niazi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kundan Lal Saigal, Rafi and Noor Jahan, not to forget the great Sir Ganga Ram who had no equal when it came to giving, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his companions who had no equals when it came to laying down their lives in the cause of freedom. At the same time, land of our fathers, home to so much nonsense at the altar of faith and righteousness.

Pakistan today is largely what Punjab, for good or ill, has made it. Indian Punjab is a small part of India. Pakistani Punjab encompasses the best and worst of Pakistan. The social conservatism on display in our midst, the mental backwardness, the narrowness of outlook, the triumph of hypocrisy, the destruction of national education, the muddling up of national priorities, the temples erected to the false gods of national security – so much of this, alas, can be traced to the incapacities of Punjab.

Perhaps Ranjit Singh was an aberration, a historic anomaly – out of the mould and thus one of a kind.

Our Punjab certainly has nothing in common with his kingdom. In his army found service men of all races and religions. There were Mussalman battalions in his army and his head of artillery was Mian Ghausa, just as his principal wazir was from the Faqirkhana family of Lahore. And his favourite wife was a Muslim, Bibi Gulbahar Begam.

The PML-N has been in power in Islamabad twice before but in different circumstances, Nawaz Sharif not quite his own man in his first incarnation and, despite his huge majority, an unsure man in his second. He now comes as someone who has seen and experienced a great deal. So can he make a difference? Disavowing his past, does he have it in him to write a fresh history of Punjab?

Another thing to remember about the Lion of Punjab (the only lion, others all fake and imitations) is that he knew how to handle his Afghan problem. He defeated the Afghans and took Peshawar from them. Peshawar was part of the Sikh dominions annexed by the British. So if Peshawar and its environs are a part of Pakistan today it is because of that earlier Sikh conquest, half-forgotten in the mists of time. As Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan go prattling about talking to the Taliban they could do worse than study the Maharajah’s approach to the Afghans.

So can we get our historical compasses right? For over 2000 years on the soil of what is Pakistan today no independent realm or kingdom existed except two: the kingdom of Lahore and the state of Pakistan. The first was a success, a well-run entity, at least as long as the Maharajah was alive; the second is the shambles that we have made over the last 65 years.

Now there comes an opportunity to redeem our past. Question is, can the new rulers of Pakistan be half as good as their most illustrious predecessor, the one and only King of Punjab?

Email: winlust@yahoo.com

For a change, something to celebrate


by Ayaz Amir
Friday, March 09, 2012

Banana republic, client state, dictation from the US? This is not how puppet states are supposed to behave. Following the American attacks on two of our border outposts, leaving 26 of our soldiers dead, Pakistan has held off the United States and – would you believe it? – the heavens have not fallen.

The Nato supply route across Pakistan remains closed, not a container getting through, and it is the Americans who are sweating. US envoy Marc Grossman wanted to visit Pakistan for a damage-repair operation but he was told the time was not opportune.

Time was when the sound of clicking heels was a regular feature of life in Islamabad. The new reserve is something vastly different. It comes as a result of the realization dawning in the corridors of national security early last year that instead of any appreciation coming Pakistan’s way for what it was doing to help the US in Afghanistan, in support of a mission seen increasingly as running into the sand, American behaviour was cocky and arrogant.

The Americans may put a brave face on the suspension of Nato supplies but it doesn’t take much to figure out that it would be a serious problem. Pakistan, however, is playing it cool, having made it known that a parliamentary committee is reviewing relations and whatever emerges from the exercise will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Seldom in Pakistan’s history have the Americans so eagerly awaited a joint session of our parliament.

As everyone understands, parliamentary oversight is a bit of a fig-leaf. Government and GHQ will decide and parliament will go through the motions. In any event, the one-phone-call relationship is a thing of the past – although, to be fair to Pakistan, even that was greatly exaggerated. Whenever Pakistan has wanted to stand its ground it has been able to do so. When it has jumped into America’s lap it has done so on its own.

No one had to force or convert Gen Zia into backing the so-called mujahideen. It was his own decision. Gen Musharraf did not have to be threatened to fall into line post-Sep 11. In the wake of that occurrence Pakistan’s newly-discovered importance spelled the end of Musharraf’s international isolation. So he welcomed it.
Another issue on which Pakistan is sticking to an independent position is Iran.

Hillary Clinton did not so much warn Pakistan as state what she thought was the obvious: that the Iran gas pipeline would entail financial and economic consequences for Pakistan as per US law. But the riposte from Pakistan was quick, Foreign Minister Hina Khar – a lot smarter than her famous uncle, the once-upon-a-time Loin (sic) of Punjab, Malik Ghulam Mustafa Khar – saying that Pakistan would take a decision in its own interests.

The important thing remains that even as war-talk relating to Iran from Israel and the US is on the rise, Israel desperate for a US strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, Pakistan is not backing off from the Iran deal.

To say that Pakistan is breaking out on its own would be another exaggeration. But it is fair to say that the Americans are learning the limits of their influence in Islamabad. This is a good thing. Even close friends should not be taken lightly and the feeling had grown in Pakistan that the Americans were taking us for granted.
But here’s a remarkable thing. When official Pakistan was supposed to be in America’s pocket, or dancing to America’s tune, anti-Americanism at the level of public sentiment was strong and virulent. But with the relationship going a bit cold, the psychological necessity for overt and loud displays of anti-Americanism has diminished. On the banner of Pakistani patriotism America-bashing has slipped several notches. Pakistan seems a more relaxed place as a result. Long may it remain this way.

Pakistan must think long and hard before allowing a resumption of the Nato supply line although the best thing would be for it to remain closed.
Notice one thing more. Imran Khan’s rhetoric has gone a bit flat, the fizz having gone out of it. This is not because other parties have suddenly hit the comeback trail but because the American relationship has been downgraded. Some of the wind has been taken out of his sails.

In order to reignite popular anti-Americanism two conditions have to be met: more drone strikes and more American visitors descending on Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Who’s really standing up to the Americans? Popular folklore would have it that it is the army which is calling the shots. But this is too black-and-white an explanation. The government and army are on the same page on this. On each and every matter – Raymond Davis, May 2, Salala, etc – if the army has taken a position, President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani have unequivocally backed it.

On Afghanistan, and on what happens next there, Zardari, Gilani and Kayani are one. Indeed, Zardari started cultivating President Karzai of Afghanistan when it was bad form in Pakistan to do so. And on Iran at the height of Memogate Zardari said something, this in Naudero, which wouldn’t have gone down too well with the Americans: that Pakistan would not be drawn into unwanted conflicts. He did not name Iran but the meaning was clear.

No one has been dealing separately with the Americans, which is one reason why General Headquarters, for all its Memogate fulminations, really has no charge against the political government. It also says something for the unwitting sophistication of the present diffusion of power – with no single power centre able to have its way in all things – that despite the friction between GHQ on one side and the political government on the other caused by the memo caper, the two sides are back to a working relationship.

Solitary dictators, under no compulsion to look around, have been the death of Pakistan. The present model of government suits Pakistan best – a decentralized system putting a premium on negotiation and consulting. But working this model requires flexibility and exceptional political skills. To the growing surprise and dismay of their detractors, Zardari and Gilani possess both in sufficient measure.
But not to put too fine a point on it, Pakistan is also being well served by its army leadership. How stereotypes crumble. Kayani was supposed to be an American creature.

Yet here it is him and Gen Shuja Pusha as the head of the ISI who have stood up to the Americans. Imagine the kind of pressure – congressional hearings, senatorial warnings, etc – they have had to face. But they have stuck to their guns…and, it should be noted, without undue horn-blowing or flag-waving.

Memogate was an exercise in folly but then the best men make mistakes. Zardari and Gilani seem clever today. But the imposition of governor’s rule in Punjab back in 2009 was their Memogate. The only thing to be said in their favour in that context is that they quickly recovered. Kayani and Pasha too will recover from their governor’s rule, if they haven’t done so already.

ISI chief is one of the key posts in our security hierarchy, one especially important in view of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. We have had sinister figures and not a few outright dunces standing at the gates but, the memo intervention apart, Gen Pasha has been a clever head of the organization.

Let’s not be blinded by bias or prejudice. This is the freest democracy in our history, not because of any Abraham Lincoln but because of circumstances conspiring to bring about a diffusion of power and authority. Let us keep it this way, hoping all the while, and trusting to our good fairies, that the coming elections lead to a smooth democratic transition…this at a time when the Americans are cutting and running from Afghanistan.

The torch of government and democracy safely handed over…this will be a first in our history. If there is an occasion for some champagne that will be it.



Islamabad diary, Friday, June 12, 2009
Ayaz Amir
Leadership is not part-timism. It is a single-minded vocation that brooks no rivals and indeed can co-exist with no distractions. You can’t be into business deals and kickbacks and the other pursuits that define leadership in a country such as Pakistan and yet lay claim to honest leadership. It just doesn’t happen that way.

The thought of property acquisition, plots and flats here and there, nest-eggs in London and New York, hobnobbing with property tycoons and other shady characters, are no part of leadership.

M A Jinnah, M K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru were titans who lived politics and were consumed by politics. They were very much men of the world but in a sense other-worldly too in that what they cared about the most were idealistic things, things of the mind and the spirit. (He ne’er is called to immortality, wrote Keats, who fails to follow where airy voices lead.) Ordinary men could not have written what Gandhi and Nehru did. An ordinary man could not have delivered the speech that Jinnah did in the Constituent Assembly on Aug 11, 1947.

Here was a man who had led the fight for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the sub-continent on the basis of Muslim separatism. Yet at the very moment of his triumph he was exhorting his countrymen to leave the past behind and transcend the foundations of Partition.

Pakistanis try to impose a supernatural consistency on Jinnah’s political life. They are wrong. He was first a Congressite nationalist, then a Muslim separatist but when the goal for which he had struggled was on the very point of consummation he tried to sketch out another template for the future of the country he was founding.

Did Mustafa Kamal, Father of the Turks, leave behind any material possessions? His life was devoted first to his military career, in which he excelled, winning renown in the battle of Gallipoli where he was the senior Turkish commander; and then to the cause of Turkish independence. He was fond of drinking, and drank at times to excess, justifying it on the grounds that it was good for his chronic constipation (doctors of digestive disorders may kindly take note).

There’s no point in beating about the bush. He was also fond of women. (At times he was also fond of other things but let’s not get into that). Asked once as to what was the quality he admired most in women, his wry answer was, "Availability" — a sentiment sure to outrage feminists and other stalwarts of the various women’s movements. But all these proclivities were subordinate to the one overriding passion which dominated his waking hours, and perhaps even his dreams: Turkey’s rebirth and redemption after the chaos and humiliation of Ottoman decline and fall.

Lenin, Stalin, Mao: all of them driven souls, single-minded individuals, their lives dominated by one passion alone, revolution. All three were voracious readers; autodidacts all their lives. Lenin as Soviet leader often read dictionaries for relaxation. Stalin wrote poems (some surprisingly good) and read books on history and biography all the time. Mao as Chinese leader practically lived in his library. He had an oversized bed strewn with books and it was on the same bed that he consorted with the regular stream of female comrades arranged by his helpful bodyguards to help lighten his loneliness.

Philip Short’s excellent biography of Mao has this to say about the bed and its occasional occupants: "The tradition of Saturday night dances in Yan’an (during the Long March) had survived the move to Zhongnanhai (in Beijing after the communists had come to power). From the dance floor, Mao and his young partners would gravitate to his study… beside the pile of books stacked on his vast bed. The girls came from dance troupes organised by the cultural division of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army), chosen both for their looks and their political reliability."
One of the things sadly missing in the Pakistan army: it has no cultural division.

When the German army was close to Moscow in October 1941 there was panic in the city and plans were made for its evacuation. A train had been prepared specially for Stalin. Here from Montefiore’s excellent life of Stalin: "Stalin hesitated for two long days. No one knows his exact movements but he no longer appeared in his office. At the height of the legendary struggle for Moscow the Supremo actually dossed down in his greatcoat on a mattress in the subterranean halls of the Metro, not unlike an omnipotent tramp."

And where did the Supremo sleep? In a small space sealed off from running trains by plywood. A space also was created for his use as an office: "Passing trains caused pages to fly so they were pinned to desks. After working all day in his subterranean offices, Stalin would finally stagger over to his sleeping compartment in the early hours…It is hard to imagine any of the other warlords living in such a way but Stalin was accustomed to dossing down like the young revolutionary he once was."

And then Stalin decided that Moscow would not be abandoned. When the Politburo seemed to be in two minds he asked his housekeeper, also rumoured to be his mistress, "Valentina Vasilevna, are you preparing to leave Moscow?" "Comrade Stalin," she answered, "Mother is our Mother, our home. It should be defended." And that was that.

Not only was Moscow not abandoned, Stalin, to the astonishment of his colleagues, also decided that the traditional Revolution Day parade on November 7 would be held. "I’ll see to it personally. If there’s an air raid during the parade and there are dead and wounded, they must be quickly removed and the parade allowed to go on. A newsreel should be made and distributed throughout the country. I’ll make a speech…"

The parade and speech can be seen on YouTube. The speech is just six and half minutes long, delivered in a very calm manner with no poetic or rhetorical flourishes whatever. But it says everything there is to say and leaves a deep impression.
We all know the last part of Churchill’s speech… we shall fight on the beaches and so on…but we shall never surrender. But the entire speech is a masterpiece, an account of the lost battle of France — almost a dispassionate account in which he also brings himself to say that the Germans are a brave race — and when it reaches its climax one can feel the hair rising on one’s back.

Churchill was the son of a lord but he had no private income and when not holding political office lived all his life from the money he derived from his books and newspaper writings. He lived the life of a highborn aristocrat but this was sustained by his pen.
When Clement Attlee stepped down as British prime minister he had to take to newspaper writing to support himself. Harold Wilson had no private income. Lord Wavell as viceroy of India had no house of his own in England and had to buy one when he returned from India.
The current scandal over MP expenses in Westminster tells an altogether different story but this is now and that was then.

Ordinary times call for ordinary leaders, leaders who are competent managers rather than inspirational figures in the Churchill or Stalin mould. But in Pakistan we are living through extraordinary times, with wars within and menacing pressures outside, a situation calling for leadership of a high calibre, to inspire the nation and summon it to action.

Criticism is easy and it is also easy to give way to despair but we should not lose heart. Other nations have been through worse times and while the weak have perished those with some strength in them have emerged successful from their trials. We have our weaknesses and failures but also our strengths and successes. The ordeal we are going through was perhaps necessary. We will be a better people once we pass this test.

Tailpiece: Consider Stalin’s decision not to evacuate Moscow and then consider the PML-N’s decision to have the by-elections in Rawalpindi and Lahore postponed because of the law and order situation. Is this the way to fight terrorism? No worse message could have been sent about the party’s stewardship of Punjab. Even if the threat of terrorism was a hundred times worse, the elections should have gone ahead. Even now it is not too late to make amends. A fresh application must be made to the Election Commission and the elections should be held as scheduled. Or else we might as well make our peace with Maulana Fazlullah and Baitullah Mahsud.
Email: winlust@yahoo.com