I confess, in the least uncharitable terms, that I was never fond of Benazir Bhutto. In fact, I was inimical to her politics. In death, however, she has redeemed herself. In the imagination of the masses she has acquired a mystical significance that is destined to be a never-ending source of inspiration in their struggles ahead.
Most authentic martyrs in history were reluctant to die. All of them were, however, prepared to accept death. Benazir went further. Her detractors have accused her of being foolhardy. That is not true. She only embraced what she had in the last days of her life come to perceive to be her destiny. Hers was an act of courage steeled in deliberation and schooled in the imagination. It matters who killed her, but what matters more is that she knew she would be gunned down. Had she escaped death that day, the suicide bombers would have done her in sooner than later. Yet, she decided to take the risk. Again, it matters whether she died of the gun wound or was later levered down into death. But what matters more is that she was there, facing a possible killer. She did not flinch.
It is this image of her last moments that has sunk into the consciousness of the people.
Her middle class followers may insist that she died in the cause of democracy. She did. But the millions of her admirers come from the classes below the middle sections of our society – the peasants spread across our villages, hills and plains, the working people, the lower sections of the lower middle classes, and of course the majority of the women of our country. They perceive her to be a princess who came with the mystical water to sprinkle on the dormant masses to quicken them into life and then went to sleep again. She may already be in the process of becoming Shaheed Bibi, who many people, especially in Sindh, where the mythopoeic Sufi tradition is strong, may invoke for fertility. It is an image carved by the masses that are not differentiated in terms of class. They are what may come in time to constitute into a populist party or parties, not a class party.
This brings us to the question of Benazir’s succession. The queen is dead and the king is yet to be groomed.
When BBB nominated Asif Ali Zardari as her successor, was she acting as Shahjehan to Mumtaz Mahal? We will never know. The fact, however, is that in nominating him BB saved the PPP.
Unlike the martyred Bhuttos, who include the younger siblings, Asif Ali Zardari has not been touched by charisma. He has decided to rule in the name of the Bhutto sandals that he has shrewdly seated on the party throne. Even if he tried he would not be able to ride roughshod over others in the party, who are at least his peers if not senior to him. Zardari and his peers will come under great pressures from the masses below. These pressures will grow with time. It will not be possible to ignore them.
The People’s Party has, therefore, the potential to develop into a mass party of consensus. It will be ruled by a kind of constitutional monarchy whose residual powers will only diminish with time.
These masses, as suggested above, see in the People’s Party their saviour. They are however not clear about what will bring them salvation. They have no clear vision of what constitutes social justice and what constitutes their share in a fuller life. Their goals are not defined and most of all they have no idea of how those goals, which are hazy at best, could be realised.
This lack of vision is not peculiar to the PPP alone. No political party today has any definite political agenda. In modern parlance, the politics of Pakistan has been dumbed down. The case can however be made that the struggle for democracy has since 1958 pushed other imperatives into the background. That should be no consolation to us, however.
Sooner or later, the PPP will have to come to terms with the masses; if it does that should help it to realise their dream into tangible political agenda.
There are no shallow waters in the politics of Pakistan. In the first instance, time is not on our side.
At this juncture, Pakistan is faced with myriad problems: virtual breakdown of law and order, grinding and worsening economic imbalances and the many-faceted backwardness that goes with them, the regional imbalances and the unrest, particularly in Balochistan. But these problems are overshadowed by what is happening east of Afghanistan. It poses the greatest threat as yet to the very fabric of the state. The area has virtually become ungovernable.
Our people bordering on Afghanistan and further east have been sucked into the vortex of Afghanistan. The area is doomed to be in perpetual turmoil as long as Afghanistan is occupied by the foreign troops. Afghanistan itself is the outpost of Iraq, and it is for the first time that Pakistan has become part of Western Asia, SEATO and Cento having been non-starters in that regard.
However, Waziristan and Swat have a distinguishing feature. They are dominated by those who want to establish sharia and then extend their mission to spread sharia further afield. It is this aspect that is most frightening.
Let us be clear about one thing though. The urge for sharia arises from a perception of Islam that may be draconian but at the same time it is by and large egalitarian. The perception is rooted in the perceived golden period of Muslim imperialism. This urge has gripped large areas of Muslim communities all over the world, especially the more backward communities or states. It is a protest against the western, particularly American, domination, and their corrupt urban collaborators who rule over them. These masses perceive the west and their collaborators to be responsible for all their ills. Islam is not opium nor is it the sigh of the oppressed. It is a battle cry.
However misguided the urge for sharia may be, the impulse informing it should not be slighted or trivialised. Its appeal is almost primordial. The Swat-Waziristan phenomenon is not going to go away, in any case not in the near future. Let us not forget that the Islamist organisations, ranging from the innocuous Tablighi Jamaat, to the Jamaat i Islami and Fazlur Rehman’s JUI, provide the comforting terrain for the organised militant minority to operate in. In fact, they have provided breeding ground for religious extremism.
Anyone who imagines that a democratic government will be able to dissipate the situation in that area is labouring under an illusion. In the first instance, a democratic dispensation needs time to develop. It appeals to peaceful though restless people. The Shariatis in Swat and elsewhere however oppose the western style of democracy. Their Shoora is a tribal assembly with an autocrat at the head. The closest to it in modern forms of democracy is, ironically, the American presidential system, despite its famed checks and balances. A democratic government in order to tame them will have to rely on the military which is already engaged against them. This will further strengthen the military, which will then have the added advantage of enjoying popular support.
A democratic government may have to make concessions to the shariatis; in other words it will have to retrogress more and more. A depressing dimension of extremism is their intolerance to dissent. They can compromise only on their own terms. In the process they destroy political culture. They make politics impossible.
At the same time, they try to impose their medieval version of law and order and security and their appeal is not only to the masses living there but much beyond, in Pakistan as they have not seen anything better. One is reminded of the Talban times in Afghanistan when some leftists lauded the Taliban form of social order for the reason that they had brought some semblance of order and justice to the blighted land. The militancy of the shariatis will only have to be met with force, and destruction will only spiral higher and higher.
The Shariatis are doomed on a large time scale, but they will play havoc in the middle term.
A characteristic of extremism is that it breeds further extremism. A new phenomenon in Muslim fundamentalism is what I would term suicidal fundamentalism. The psycho-analytical evidence aside, the incidence of this kind of violent extremism cannot be predicted. Undoubtedly it is a perverted interpretation of Islam, which even the most orthodox ulema do not approve of. It is however sanctioned by the Islamic activists who are active in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These suicides, even more than the violent jihadis, are driven by self-righteousness, which brooks no compromise. They will seek to destabilise the polity. They are reminiscent of the shadowy assassins of the Middle Ages (though they killed others not themselves). The assassination of Benazir is only the tip of the deadly phenomenon. Only education and meaningful social justice can lay the ground in which their fantasies will have the chance to play themselves out here on earth.
In the meantime, the deadly game will go on.
Balochistan is another flash point. It cannot be compared to the Waziristan-Swat syndrome. It is a national or sub-national struggle for their perceived rights. Its strategic importance, especially its proximity to Iran, may tempt foreign powers to be lured to their shoes and mountains and terrains. But unlike East Pakistan, Balochistan is a small population and its contiguity with the rest of the country makes the state a formidable adversary.
It is interesting to note that in a multi-sub national state, there are two opposing forces that are operating at the same time. While the urge to a common market tends to act as a centripetal force, the perceived deprivation of a sub-national community acts centrifugally. In a democratic dispensation, the forces of integration and cohesion get time to play their role while centrifugal forces are weakened or are dormant. Under a dictatorship the reverse is the case. The sub-national forces in Balochistan are secular and nationalistic. They are political forces and can be accommodated only in a democracy.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan state is like a groggy drunk lurching from one mishap to another. It is ruled by a corrupt elite with the military establishment at its head. More often than not we tend to think of the military establishment as being distinct from the civil society. It is fallacious. It is very much part of the civil society. It will be pitched not only as a force externally to the civil society but also as a conglomeration of its own civil society components against the rest of the civil society. I need not labour the point, but I shall insist that while the restoration, maybe the establishment, of democracy is certainly a step forward, the military will always – well, almost always – remain there, always in the wings when it its presence is not overt.
Who mentioned Kashmir? What Kashmir? Of course, Kashmir has been the determining constant in the predominance of the military in the Pakistan polity. But it has undoubtedly been put on the back burner. However, I do not foresee any let-up in the predominance of the military in our politics. There have been times when it was believed that the military was no longer needed by their western patrons. But soon something like Iran or Afghanistan happened and the military got a reprieve. The reprieves have been in succession.
It is now people like Qazi Husain Ahmed, Hamid Gul and Imran Khan who are talking of a revolution. In the absence of an organised party or parties it is difficult to expect a revolution. There can be anarchy, and possibly a civil war.
If the situation deteriorates further, as I have described, the Americans will move in to save us, particularly to secure our nuclear arsenal.
Presented at a meet organised by Campaign against Martial Law
Khalili Lecture Theatre, SOAS
15 January 2008