Monday, May 22, 2006

The Post: Op-Ed May 22, 2006

Our tryst with democracy

The grand love affair developing in the cool climes of London continues to raise temperatures and political eyebrows in Islamabad. The mercury has been steadily rising in the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi as it is, and the release of the recent Charter of Democracy might not have helped matters.

Though nothing pleases us more than the signs that our political elite, or two in this case, have finally evolved to develop a backbone — cavemen had taken less time to progress (if we are studying the Darwin school of evolution) to learn to stand upright, fashion the odd tool and prepare for the ice cap that was threatening to develop on the horizon. However, we are happy that the two ‘great white hopes’ for democracy have learnt to smile the ‘ab khul kay muskaraye’ cheesy grin for each other and prefer to direct their angry snarling and baring of teeth at the livid general.

The Charter of Democracy (in an opinion piece elsewhere someone has rushed to label it our Magna Carta) seems an earnest declaration on the part of our leading political lights. However, before we become all effusive about how the two have penned the magnum opus, party poopers like me would like to raise certain issues that we feel the charter ignores or glosses over at best. I for one would have liked a brief statement in the preamble — lest we forget our Georgian past it could have been along the lines of “Forgive us (Oh Lord) for we have sinned — and I now know the error of my ways.” If the future sovereign couple of England could only start their new marriage after apologizing for their wicked ways and begging forgiveness for their sins in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury, their family members, best friends, and TV audiences around the world, why should we Pakistanis demand anything less? So yes, I would have liked them to express their sincere apologies for rushing to hold the General’s hand when things got tough earlier. And that they have learnt the bitter lesson that you cannot blame the military for all that goes wrong and then expect the same military to resolve the mess when the natives start getting restless. One of them could have declared in all honesty something along the lines of “ridding me of the other father that spawned me (i.e. my political entity) has not been easy, but guess what I have found where to direct that Oedipus complex.” So Mr. Sharif, would you like adding something to that declaration?

While we see a lot of ‘toner’ spilt on spelling out the protagonist’s distaste of the vilification campaign against their political colleagues, and the two seem passionate about establishing their credentials to fulfil the conceptions of the ‘democrat par excellence’, the Father of the Nation, why don’t we see the two executors of the Quaid’s dream spelling exactly how they want to tackle the intolerance in Pakistani society?While there is some mention of increasing seats in the Upper House to secure more (I assume nominated) seats for (compliant) minorities (preferably those who are eager to prove their loyalty to the establishment along the lines of members of the minority communities who rallied in support of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Idara-i-Khidmat-e-Khalq in Sindh recently) we don’t see any specific mention of how the two will tackle the draconian legislation that continues to plague minorities in the land of Quaid’s secular dream. Madam Bhutto should have spared some thought for her Sindhi sisters — those who for Pakistan’s legislative machinery are ‘children of a lesser god’ and who to date continue to be kidnapped, raped and forcibly converted. I can only read the same hackneyed phrase of “Women, minorities, and the underprivileged will be provided equal opportunities in all walks of life”, but what would have been welcome would be some ‘teeth’ in the document by expressing their political will to do away with the specific legislation that impedes their social progress.

From what I can read, Bhutto and Sharif’s ire is directed towards the military (and very rightly so, none of us have any problems with trimming the fat off some holy cows), but they keep mum about the other ‘sacred bovine’ that refuses to budge from our political landscape. The two declare that they want to reinstate the 1973 Constitution as it was on October 12, 1999? Forgive me for not keeping awake in my Pakistan Constitution 101 class, but does that mean that our much-loved Shariah Ordinance lives for another day? That ‘cat of nine lives’, the Hudood Ordinances the other general entrusted us with, whom Nawaz Sharif reverently kissed with both eyes shut, and promised to take with him wherever he goes, can still be part of our democratic future? The two have also kept their silence on whether they think honour killing is part of our cultural heritage as assured by our Senate, whether it is compatible with the spirit of the Charter of Democracy or whether there was so much that Nawaz Sharif could unlearn without the ghost of Abba Ji and generals past and present pestering his conscience.

Kashmir gets specifically mentioned in a charter that was about Pakistan’s tryst with democracy and the population of Balochistan, which as you read reels under a full-fledged military action, remains forgotten. Perhaps, the other democrat did not want any reminders of the sins of her father when he unleashed the military to quell democratic expression in the province.

There is talk of the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and their possible inclusion with NWFP, but it is a coy reference at best. I am sure we would have welcomed mention of developmental projects in the region, inclusion with NWFP notwithstanding. What about initiating a dialogue with people of that area? As others before me have said, one cannot resolve the crisis that has developed in the region by violent means alone. The killing of innocent civilians as collateral damage in the fight against militants (indigenous or otherwise) will always escalate into a bloodier situation. Even the most hardened hearts towards our Pukhtoon brothers and sisters cringe at images of the human toll that rises with the military action. And the PML (N) and PPP remain mute about the harsh conditions that have prevailed in the region for so long. For decades, they and the religio-military nexus that rules us have been comfortable with using the population as mercenaries in their foreign interventions and denied the region any tolerant thinking. There were the odd crumbs off the table, but all very strategic and allowing the status quo to prevail — sorry “these people are from the tribal areas and please let them retain their traditions”. And now that the situation has become problematic for them, they want to bomb all who don’t suit their world vision.

Our political and military elite have together robbed a significant section of our populace of any democratic future by their constant intervention and whitewashing of our history. As Mark Tully wrote in another forum, “How can it be when their women, whose writ Ghaffar Khan said should ‘run alongside their husbands’, are back in the burqa? How can it be when the politicians elected to govern Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province follow harsh, intolerant Islam while Ghaffar Khan, though a devout Muslim, believed ‘prayer in whatever language or form was addressed to the same God?’” Messrs. Bhutto, Sharif, and Musharraf, the people of NWFP had their writ on democracy and liberalism. Allow them to act on it and if you have to intervene it should be to rid them of your political stooges.

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