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Even in a land renowned for silly edicts, the most recent addition to the statute book, Chief Executive’s Order No 15, takes the prize for silliness.
Even as separate electorates have been abolished and a single or joint electorate restored, this Order makes provision for mentioning voters belonging to the Ahmedi sect in a separate column.
Anyone suspected or accused of being an Ahmedi can be called upon within the next few days by the concerned returning officer to sign a form affirming the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (upon whom be peace). Should the person so required refuse, he or she will be counted as a non-Muslim voter.
To Believers inclined to have strong views on the subject, let me say this: this is not a question of Islam or its eternal glory but one of simple logic. One’s religious denomination is relevant when there are separate voting lists for Muslims and non-Muslims. It is irrelevant in the case of common lists wherein the only relevant denominator is Pakistani citizenship.
So why has the military government impaled itself on this stake? Only to oblige some religious parties which were making an issue of this thing. Islam gains nothing as a result, Islam not being so weak a faith as to stand in need of such gimmicks. Only we collectively are made to look silly.
When in joint voting lists people of all faiths are lumped together (and a good thing that they are), what does it matter, and how does it subvert Islam, if voters of the Ahmedi sect also find themselves in the same category? Not that this is an earthshaking development. But it makes you wonder why we in Pakistan are so prone to tilt at windmills and so ready to make an issue of non-issues.
Down the years governments have tried to play the religious card to appease the religious lobby. Gen Zia did this successfully because there was a method to his wickedness, the religious lobby being one of his primary constituencies. Other governments have floundered on this wicket. Concessions made have only whetted the appetite for more. There is no reason why Gen Musharraf should take to this unpromising line.
In passing let it be said that out of the tamasha we have made of religion, we haven’t become better Muslims, only stronger hypocrites. If we can’t roll back the frontiers of hypocrisy, let us at least not make further additions to the kingdom of silliness.
Religious to the core, the Muslims of this country are emotionally attached to their religion and will brook no insult to it, real or imagined. But at the same time the vast majority of them are not pain-in-the-neck zealots. Fulfilling their religious obligations, fasting during the month of Ramazan, performing the Hajj when they have the means to do so, they yet keep the professional maulvi in his place.
For births, funerals and marriage ceremonies they will have recourse to the services of the maulvi. But in their temporal or worldly matters they will not allow his interference — a circumstance vouchsafed by the beating religious parties get in elections.
On this score there has always been a wide gulf between the maturity of the Pakistani people and the weakness and vacillation of their governments which, for usually the wrong reasons, have run in mortal fear of the religious parties.
There is of course another possibility. We might just be witnessing a trade-off between weakness on the Kashmir front and a show of religious zeal at home. Even when we were succumbing to American pressure and pledging to stop incursions along the Line of Control we were testing our missiles, this smokescreen of resolve being meant for our own people. The climb down on the voting lists could be part of the same strategy: making a show of piety at home while bidding farewell to ‘jihad’ in Kashmir. If so, this makes sense. But even so it is never wise to tinker with dangerous tools.
This is no time for playing monkey games. We should rather be taking stock of our follies and changing national direction. Our external follies — the Taliban, the search for strategic depth in Afghanistan, ‘jihad’ in Kashmir — we’ve had to give up because of external pressure. To the wrestlers and Nazis of the Bush administration who made us see the error of our ways we thus owe a vote of thanks. But for their vigorous arm-twisting (ruthless men, it must be admitted) we would still be sticking to the old policies and congratulating ourselves on our cleverness. But all this is past. We must now look to the future.
The future, however, is at home and not on some distant mountain peak. Reverses on the external front - all of them necessary, let me reiterate — make it all the more imperative that we sort out our internal problems. The Bush administration, having no compelling interest, will not help us in this. This is a job we must do ourselves.
These are the last months at the disposal of the Musharraf government to make any sort of difference to the country’s landscape. After this, the deluge. All the talk of protecting reforms is bumph or, more politely, rhetoric. Gen Musharraf is already a stricken leader. But after October, regardless of the constitutional tricks that he may pull out of his hat, his hands will be further tied. Now is the time to act. But what, defying the pressure of time, can he do?
A great deal. He has been the Caesar of a failed dictatorship. Should he choose, he still can be the godfather of a stable democracy. But only if he casts aside his fears and conquers his prejudices.
What is there to be so afraid of? Not having a Bolshevik revolution to safeguard, why should anyone be losing sleep over the complexion of the next parliament? In any event, Pakistani parliaments have shown more maturity down the years than Pakistan’s generals give them credit for.
No matter which party or combination of parties dominates the next National Assembly, we will still see the country’s politicians making their peace with Pakistan’s generals. It is the generals with their notions of infallibility who have always found it difficult to make peace with politicians.
There is thus no need for the ISI to invent ever-fresh combinations of Muslim League unity or prop up unlikely coalitions. When the army leadership makes itself a party to such shenanigans it damages its own standing.
We have been through these games before. The ISI’s archives bear witness to this circumstance. It’s time we changed tack and thought of fresh story lines. Keep hands off the electoral process and leave the Q League and other hothouse plants to their own devices. This is the best advice any friend of the army (in which number I count myself) can give the army.
Of the countless misjudgments I have made as a journalist, one of the grossest was the writing off of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif soon after the Musharraf coup. I wrote (with no small glee, I must admit) that they were finished, little realizing that the lack of direction of the Musharraf regime would in time be the strongest restorative tonic these leaders would get.
But so what? What if the nightmare haunting the president’s spin masters comes true and the PPP scores big? The army command should be able to live with this outcome provided it does a crash course in recent history. Whatever Benazir’s other faults (and they were many), she kept on good terms with her army chiefs, something which can’t be said of all the other players in the political arena. And, something that most people don’t realize, she pacified Karachi in 1995.
Is my slip showing? Am I, dread thought, guilty of sympathy for the PPP? I don’t think so. If the PPP’s brass bands come marching in I know what my first column will be: ‘The Return of the Clowns’. All I am saying is that if we can temporize with India and make peace with the devil, we should be able to temporize with reality at home.
Necessary as the turnarounds on Afghanistan and Kashmir were they will remain meaningless and of no value if not complemented by a return to democracy - democracy as understood by the world, not just GHQ or the National Reconstruction Bureau.
Granted, politicians have been inept and corrupt. But, if there still is such a thing as honesty in the world, not more than their military counterparts. In this Turkish bathhouse all of us are naked: generals, politicos, judges, journalists, fat cats, and what have you. Even the people are not blameless for they have suffered poltroons and hailed them as heroes.
Against this background, the quality we need above all is humility. The time is over when the military could descend from the mountains commandments in hand. For the sake of the country’s future it should be stepping back to its proper place and helping a stable polity to grow. To this task Gen Musharraf can still make an enormous contribution.
Tailpiece: Whatever’s happening in Dera Bugti? The Frontier Constabulary is deployed in force and pickets have been set up all over the town. Whatever for? The Bugtis, as ancient guardians of the lands from whence comes the bulk of Pakistan’s gas supply, have legitimate expectations from the companies extracting that gas. Their demands, which basically boil down to jobs, should be discussed across the table. Let it not be said that the force we couldn’t use against India was deployed (not for the first time) against our own people.