Ayaz Amir: The Road to Hell

This article appeared in The News on January 1, 2010

We have a developed talent, honed over the years, for counting the trees and missing the larger picture. We see things in one dimension and forget that there may be other sides to reality. This leads to false conclusions and the begetting of great tragedies.

Let us for argument’s sake accept that Asif Ali Zardari, the luckless president of a luckless country, is the author of a thousand villainies, the darkest thing to have happened to the Islamic Republic. But let us at least weigh his real or presumed infamy in the scales of history before coming to a judgment about what he deserves.

Has Zardari done anything which comes close to the unbeatable folly of the 1965 war? If anything undid us it was that foolish call to arms. We had set out to conquer Kashmir. At Tashkent we ended up lowering the casket of the Kashmir cause into the ground.

Do Zardari’s alleged crimes measure up to the folly of General Yahya Khan who presided over the break-up of Pakistan? If ever the larger picture escaped anyone it was that latter-day Muhammad Shah Rangila, caught up in circumstances beyond his control or comprehension. We couldn’t stand the notion of meeting East Pakistani aspirations half-way, just as we are having a hard time now understanding Baloch aspirations.

The frenzied crowds which poured out in 1977 to protest the alleged rigging of the elections by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto called for the establishment of Nizam-e-Mustafa (the dispensation of the Holy Prophet). Like the supposed reformers of today who think they are battling corruption, the enthusiasts of 1977 were convinced the promised kingdom was just a step away if only that incarnation of evil, Bhutto, was taken care of.

Bhutto was taken care of and eventually hanged but the frothing crowds were no nearer Nizam-e-Mustafa or anything like it. Instead, for their pains, they got General Ziaul Haq and the long night of his dark tyranny. Zia first proclaimed his aim as Islamization. Then it was accountability. These were pretexts for suppressing democracy and perpetuating his rule. Zia was perhaps the greatest disaster to befall Pakistan. We are still living with the consequences.

Nothing in our history has been more dangerous than the simplicity and innocence of our good intentions. Riding on their back we have stood before not the pearly gates promising everlasting bliss but the gates of hell. It is scarcely an accident that many of the voices now earnestly urging the Supreme Court to embrace an ever-widening agenda of reform were early supporters of Musharraf’s military rule. Such contradictions bestride our history.

Khan Roedad Khan hailed Musharraf as a messiah come to rid the country of its woes. Khan Imran Khan, to his lasting chagrin, was also part of the Musharraf-welcome crowd. At least Imran has the decency to say he was wrong. Others are not so coy. There was indeed a time when prominent media pundits, now in ultra-reformist mode, conducted themselves virtually as Musharraf spokesmen. Humein yaad hai zara zara, tumhein yaad ho keh na yaad ho.

Zardari may deserve all the pejorative adjectives in the dictionary but has he committed any crime which comes close to the enormity of the disaster that was Kargil? That adventure was meant to seize advantage in Kashmir once again. It ended up exposing Pakistan to fierce international criticism and giving birth to the term cross-border terrorism, the stick with which Pakistan has been regularly beaten ever since. Are we calling for a national commission to investigate Kargil, as we should? No, we are into other things.

Talking of Musharraf’s military rule, what was the role of our present lordships when Triple One Brigade, our highest constitutional authority, reinterpreted the Constitution once again on the long afternoon of Oct 12, 1999? A few judges — Chief Justice Saiduzzaman Siddiqui comes to mind — did not take oath under the Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) issued two months later. But if imperfect memory serves, all of their present lordships, at one time or the other, took oath under the PCO.

Not only that, some of them were on the bench which validated Musharraf’s takeover. A few, including My Lord the Chief Justice, were on the bench which validated Musharraf’s takeover for the second time in the Zafar Ali Shah case (2005).

Of course, we must let bygones be bygones and deal with the present. But then this principle should be for everyone. We should not be raising monuments to selective memory or selective condemnation. If the PCO of 2007 was such a bad idea, in what category should we place the PCO of 2000? And if in this Turkish bath all are like the emperor without his clothes, the least this should inculcate is a sense of humility.

And if we accept the logic that there can be a transformation in the nature of things, that people who did questionable things once-upon-a-time can undergo a conversion on the road to Damascus (or anywhere else) and become knights in shining armour, dispensing light and so on, should not some of the same indulgence, the same benefit of doubt, be extended to others?

Zardari cut deals and earned commissions and for his talent in this field earned the sobriquet Mr Ten Percent. You reap what you sow. So if Zardari is haunted by the ghosts of his past, and if his past keeps popping up in conversation and national discourse, he has only himself to blame. But now, whether we like it or not, he is something more than a mere replica of his past. He is the constitutionally elected President of the Republic.

For his failings in government, for his mistakes as President, for incompetence or inadequacy — if these are the charges brought against him — he can be pilloried and even ridiculed. This is part of democracy, part of the political process.

But when hidden forces with their hidden agendas go about manipulating things, pulling strings from behind, and if elements in the media or other distinguished places become witting or unwitting partners in this game, then it is not democracy being served or strengthened but intrigue and conspiracy.

The Supreme Court judgment on the vires of the 2007 PCO came on the 31st of July, 2009. But the knives were out for Zardari much before that. Zardari of course heads a team with no shortage of incompetents on board. In a land even otherwise dedicated to mediocrity they seemingly outshine all competitors. (Keen for a doctorate myself, I am still trying to discover the location of that celebrated seat of learning, Montecello University.)

President Zardari can also be his own worst enemy. Who told him to deliver the speech he did at Naudero on BB’s second death anniversary? There were things in it which were best left unsaid. Those whom the gods would destroy they first push into such speech-making. But it is also true that Zardari has been driven into a corner. The mandate he got — constitutionally it bears remembering — is being nullified by other means.

Their lordships are all men of honour and rectitude who stood up to Musharraf’s dictatorship and gave hope to the country. But their lordships are just one part of the national spectrum. If they are men of honour it doesn’t automatically follow that everyone else in the equation is also playing by the same rules.

There is thus a need for caution, a need to draw a line between past and present. Let us study our past and draw the correct conclusions. But let us not, wittingly or unwittingly, destabilise democracy. Cleansing the national stables is a laudable aim and makes for a heady slogan. But as our history demonstrates, good intentions, unsupported by a sense of reality or a sense of proportion, lead to unforeseen consequences.

The temple of democracy is a cohesive whole. There is no such thing as smashing one pillar and hoping the rest of the structure will survive. It won’t. And when the slabs come crashing down, we will be the losers while those who have always operated in the shadows will have the last laugh. So Happy New Year. Our curse is to live forever in interesting times. May the new year be a bit less exciting than the one which has just gone by.

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One Response to “Ayaz Amir: The Road to Hell”

  1. Shehbaz Hassan Says:

    The Supreme Court declared the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that came into effect on October 5, 2007 ultra vires on grounds that it was discriminatory. That should restore the pending proceedings in various courts. But these proceedings should not become an excuse to overturn the mandate given by the people of Pakistan in the general elections of February 18, 2008.

    The people of Pakistan knew that they were voting for NRO beneficiaries and the mere fact of someone being an NRO beneficiary cannot be held as justification for demanding the ouster of anyone elected by the people or their representatives. Only conviction by a court of law for a specific criminal act or wrongdoing should result in the ouster or resignation of any official.

    Elected governments and leaders make mistakes. Scandals emerge in the most advanced countries. Those elected amid cheering become the object of criticism or ridicule everywhere. But the desire to “correct the mistake of the electorate” through media noise and backroom maneuvers is not the way forward for a democratic system.

    To avoid the pitfalls of the past, why not allow the law to take its course without rocking the boat of democracy this time? Let the courts deal with corruption while allowing the elected executive and the parliament handle their respective spheres in accordance with the constitution. One can understand the frustration of those implacably hostile to President Asif Zardari and the PPP but they, too, should understand that democracy requires patience and howsoever much you might hate the elected leaders it is important to wait for their mandate to expire.

    We face a unique situation in Pakistan where we accuse people of corruption and we want to skin them even without charges being proven against them. We must wait and see how democracy delivers. Even if democracy can deliver despite hurdles and leg pulling , I believe it can deliver hundred times more in a smooth environment.

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