Ayaz Amir:

Punjab and the study of Ranjit Singh
Islamabad diary

Friday, January 16, 2009
by Ayaz Amir

At this juncture, when the seven tribal agencies along the Afghan frontier are lost to any form of government control, and Swat–once paradise on earth, now very much a picture of hell–is returning to the Middle Ages, and most of Balochistan is stricken with discontent, and the army no longer commands the moral authority it once did, does Punjab, elder brother in Pakistan’s besieged federation, understand its historic responsibility?

It is no manifestation of Punjabi chauvinism, and no disrespect to the other provinces, to say that Punjab is the pivot around which Pakistan revolves. This is a simple statement of fact based on geography, population and economic clout. For too long Punjab’s greater weight relative to the other provinces got translated into an argument for political domination which did Pakistan no good. In fact, Punjabi domination was one of the curses leading to East Pakistani alienation and the breakup of Pakistan.

Just to clarify matters, it was not the Punjabi peasant or the Punjab artisan holding sway over the rest of Pakistan. Poor souls, they were as dispossessed as the rest of their countrymen. It was the Punjabi bureaucrat and the Punjabi army officer fulfilling this role, backed up by a Punjabi version of neo-conservatism: the ideology-of-Pakistan school of thought, now mercifully confined to the city of Lahore.

This school of thought takes good care not to muddy its own boots. But from the comfort of Lahore–amidst Pakistan’s present travails still a great city to live in–it continues to propound the virtues of jihad and endless confrontation with India. Not surprisingly, it is in possession of one of the choicest properties on the Mall, still one of the most stylish thoroughfares anywhere in the subcontinent. Whenever I pass this property I cannot help giving it a baleful look.

But the days of domination are gone. Pakistan is caught up in the vortex of other troubles. After Pakistan’s vivisection at the hands of India and East Pakistani nationalism in 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto described what was left of Pakistan as a New Pakistan. He was wrong. His Pakistan was a continuation of the old Pakistan. And he, despite being the most intelligent politician of his generation and era, committed the same old mistakes: conducting a military operation in Balochistan and being too autocratic for his own good.

Had he conducted himself more wisely Pakistan might have been spared Gen Zia-ul-Haq and his hypocritical Islam. What a joke Zia played with Pakistan. There couldn’t be a more Islamic country than ours. Yet that wily ruler, for purposes of his own, was bent on converting this country to Islam once more.

So look at the sequence of events. Bhutto gifted us Zia, Zia gave us phoney Islamisation, from the womb of that hypocrisy arose the first Afghan jihad, and the dragon’s teeth sprouted by that jihad in time led to Al Qaeda and the rest of the mumbo jumbo we are having to live with today. And let not the Yanks think they had nothing to do with this progression. They scattered the dragon’s teeth with us and lauded it as a noble act. As they battle the Taliban, and their satellites futilely try to track down the elusive chief of Al Qaeda, let them show some indulgence for Pakistan’s present troubles, for we and they were partners in the same crime.

The Pakistan of Baitullah Mehsud (of Waziristan) and Maulana Fazlullah (of Swat) is the New Pakistan, buffeted by storms whose impact has yet to be fully measured. In this situation Punjab’s task is cut out: to be not the Serbia which was instrumental in the breakup of Yugoslavia but the true and strong magnet which keeps Pakistan’s whirling pieces together.

The past, however, is no help, because in two thousand years the only ruler of worth, if not genius, to spring from the native soil of Punjab–as opposed to imports from Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia–was Maharaja Ranjit Singh Virk. Him and him alone. Then we wonder why Punjab always produces political collaborators: Iskander Mirza Republicans, Ayub Khan Convention Leaguers, Pervez Musharraf Q Leaguers. Given Punjab’s history, should this be surprising?

But now Punjab is saddled with an historic responsibility. If Pakistan’s north and north-west are on fire, Balochistan is restive, if Karachi’s affairs give rise to forebodings, Punjab, in order to fulfil this responsibility, must become a comfort zone, looking at which Pakistanis can say that, bad as things are, they are sure to get better. Those in a position to do so are migrating from Swat and the Frontier Province. If distress is forcing them from their homes, what will their feelings be if they find things no better in Punjab?

So what beckons is the moon and the stars. This is no time to lose any sleep over Governor Salmaan Taseer, twice elected MPA from Lahore but, despite trying, never an MNA. He is consumed by one wish alone: to become relevant, for which he’s dying to play a spoiler’s role–an opportunity he is not likely to get because Pakistan is caught up in other things and a new dynamic is taking shape in Islamabad with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani trying to spread his wings and assert himself.

Taseer was once in the PPP, but, then, so was I. Today the only relevance he commands is of a Musharrafite holdover. He lends colour to the Governor’s House. Let him remain there, but let him not be taken seriously. The bon vivant that he has always been, and for which I have envied him, he has good connections with Lahore’s Lollywood crowd. Let him cultivate those connections, and if there is a good bash one of these days, for old time’s sake (auld lang syne) I expect to be invited.

Punjab’s rulers must concentrate on governance. The chief minister has a reputation for hard work, but he should remember that too many meetings, one following the other, are not always a good thing. There must be time to push back one’s chair and mull over things. And there must be stimulating people to talk to, of whom there is no shortage in Lahore. Mercifully, there is more to Lahore than the ideology-of-Pakistan school of armchair warriors.

For precisely this reason, it’s not good to place undue reliance on the bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are best when put to implementing things, disastrous if their political advice is sought. From my infrequent visits to 7 Club Road, where the Chief Minister usually sits, I get the feeling (about which I could be wholly wrong) that there are too many babus around, serving and retired. I wish there were more politicians around, and more political workers, and more riffraff and, why not, some journalists who can always be depended upon to give an account of the other side of the hill. 7 Club Road gives too much of a sanitised look, of a VIP hospital ward freshly sprayed.

The political ascendancy of the civil service in Pakistan’s early years distorted the growth and evolution of a democratic political culture. Happily, the civil service no longer exercises that kind of clout. The demise of the office of the deputy commissioner was an event un-mourned in Pakistan, no hands raised in fateha at its passing. There is a strong civil service cabal entrenched in Lahore which wants to see the return of the district magistrate. This cabal is entitled to its dreams, but it should not be allowed to have its way because that would cause an administrative muddle and lead to no good.

The district nazims may have caused mayhem in their time, but that was mainly because they became a political arm of the Musharraf dispensation. In itself the idea of administrative devolution and an elected district head (with some modifications which are easily devised and managed) is not a bad one.

And the police service, now in the front trenches of law enforcement given the all-round law-and-order deterioration we are witnessing, would not take kindly to civil service domination. Since the unwept demise of the district magistrate much water has flowed down Pakistan’s rivers. Reversing what we now have does not seem a good idea.

Not that the police service needs no re-education. If there was a large enough concentration camp in Pakistan most people would dearly wish to see the police force’s finest in it. At election time last year I hadn’t shed all my starry-eyed notions of how things should be. Therefore, I requested that no one but directly-inducted police officers (PSP) should be posted to my district. Now, after seeing two of them perform wonders in Chakwal, I have begun to nurse the gravest doubts.

Which still is no argument for bringing back from the dead the district magistrate. That, by far, would be the greater of the two evils.

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