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January 14, 2014

At the mercy of men of straw

Opinion

January 14, 2014

Let us be realistic. Over here nothing is going to happen except what we are seeing: the steady descent into chaos and disorder, our troubles proving too much for us…all this and our helplessness. This seems to be our fate.
The tradition of mushairas is no longer that strong. Otherwise we could be writing ghazals and reciting them to acclaim even as everything around us collapsed…just like Bahadur Shah Zafar and his shrunken court.
What can the gods do? They can’t fight our battles for us. Through signs and omens they can only point the way. The courage of Chaudhry Aslam, the sacrifice rendered by that young schoolboy, Aitizaz Hasan, are such signs from above, telling us, the citizens of the Islamic Republic, this so-called Fortress of Islam, to wake up and bestir ourselves. But, no, hollow words are all that escape our fearful lips because of anything more, anything remotely resembling bravery and resolution, we seem incapable. The power has been drained from our limbs.
Chaudhry Aslam was battling terrorists and criminals before the present lot came to power. He awaited the framing of no counterterrorism strategy to do his duty. No metaphysics was required to show him that terrorists were there to be fought against. The lad Aitizaz, all of only 15, suspected that someone approaching his school was up to no good. So acting on his instincts, driven by some spark within, he rushed to grab that person, not caring for his life…and not wondering whether any counterterrorism strategy was in place. For both of them their epitaph the dirge from Cymbeline:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages…
What a contrast with our mighty men of straw moving about in their gleaming motorcades, bullet-proof vehicles, hundreds of men for their protection, yet consumed by fear, fear sitting in their hearts, and therefore seeking endless excuses for their

irresolution.
The Taliban are in no doubt. They have virtually declared war against Pakistan, its army and its people. What does it take to see that their aim is not the emirate of Waziristan, or even drawing a line at the Indus but something higher, the whole of Pakistan? Yet far from being goaded into action, the men of straw in command of the republic’s destiny seek endless excuses for not doing anything. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be…” would seem a model of decision compared to their indecision.
The enemy is not at the gates; he is within. And while the Taliban make an art of the hidden roadside bomb, their deadliest weapon as it was of the insurgency in Iraq, the governing class hailing from Punjab – along with that other gift to clarity, Imran Khan – continues to weave bandishes (variations) on the raga of talks.
The Taliban kill a general of the Pakistan Army – Maj Gen Sanaullah – and our men of straw are for talks. A Peshawar church is bombed and they are for talks. Imran’s party men are killed in KP and he is for talks. Pakistan’s toughest cop, Chaudhry Aslam, is killed and the talks mantra does not change. In Hangu young Aitizaz sets an example for the entire country to follow but his sacrifice is in vain because those who should take heed remain men of straw.
So what should we do? God knows this is not a country of Athenian or Spartan warriors. But whatever bit of pluck and daring there may be, it is being held in check – nay, dissipated – by the ruling lot a blind Providence has been pleased to place upon the people of this country. Of what avail another Chaudhry Aslam, another Aitizaz, when the nation’s caravan is led by such heroes?
But can’t others lead the race? If from this soil can spring Aslam and Aitizaz and Malala Yousafzai there must be others. Is it written in our stars that for all time we must suffer buffoons and self-seekers? We need someone to tell the people of Pakistan that their existence is at stake. We need someone to touch their spirit, to tell them this won’t be an easy fight and that to win it would require more blood and tears. We need someone to show the army the way, someone to convert the army to new ways of thinking. Men of strong countenance are what we need, not self-seeking tradesmen.
Do we even understand what’s happening? Things are spinning apart and the centre is not holding. The government is out on a limb and the army is thinking differently, as slight straws in the wind suggest. Note the army chief’s quick response to the deaths of Chaudhry Aslam and young Aitizaz. Wreaths from him are laid on their graves. There is no ambiguity here. The government also says the right things but it is a question of emphasis: the spirit behind the words, you can almost feel it, is not the same.
The Taliban get bolder in their attacks, this to all appearances the long-delayed offensive promised on the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud. But the government continues to dither. The will to do something, the readiness to take on the Taliban is just not there.
But if this is the state of affairs, if nothing is going to happen except the Taliban getting bolder, then about the only course left for many of us is to spend our evenings as best we can, and wait for the waters to rise, or to think of hijrat – going away somewhere else. But how many places would accept us?
After the Iranian revolution much of the Iranian upper class was either eliminated or it sought refuge abroad. I am no member of the upper class. But the meaning should be clear. In Afghanistan, we have seen it before our eyes, the old educated class all disappearing, almost to a man and woman, fleeing to Pakistan, fleeing to the west, lives wrecked by 30 years of war and upheaval.
Are we not realising how Pakistani society has been affected? There is an Afghan presence now in every town of Punjab. Has anyone cared to conduct a census of the number of Afghans illegally present in, say, Lahore? Society hasn’t become more Talibanised – although there would be those who would dispute this assertion – but the support base, the support network, for the Taliban is now spread, in the shape of friendly madressahs and sleeper cells, across the country. Between this shaky stability, if stability this can be called, and the utter breakdown of order stands only one force, whether we like it or not: the army. Apres l’armee, le deluge.
And we are mythologising democracy and its wonderful transition. This democracy has thrown up what? Trader politicians and Imran Khan, whose worth in our battle for survival we have had ample opportunities to observe. Altaf Hussain is caught up in his Imran Farooq troubles, and when the pressure becomes too much his tone becomes completely unbalanced. Karachi could have become so much but at the altar of bhata-khori – extortion – that opportunity stands destroyed. Bilawal Bhutto is saying the right things and in a land where people are not ready even to say the right words, his doing so is a blessing. More power to his voice and may he be able to come out of his father’s shadow and transcend his legacy.
But between the rest tell me, my masters, what is there to choose? Compared to all these goats and sheep in wolf’s clothing, Ch Shujaat seems a better person. At least he speaks like a man. And if things come down to him, spare a thought for the desert that is Pakistani politics.
What has happened to us? Why are we afraid of our shadows? Kuch Chaudhry Aslam kee laaj rakh len, kuch Aitezaz Hasan ko saamne rakh len. Otherwise our fate should be clear: done away with, destroyed, in these dark alleys (tareek raahon mein) of the night.
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