Friday, 21 January 2011

State of violence, by Salman Tarik Kureshi

State of violence, by Salman Tarik Kureshi\01\22\story_22-1-2011_pg3_2

Ours, it seems, is a nation born in violence and which continues to remain in a state of violence. Is this characterisation excessive? Surely, it could be argued, many other nations have been through even more traumatic times

The way to begin an op-ed piece is to have what is called a ‘peg’ on which to hang the rest of the article. This peg is usually some newsworthy event or issue, giving the piece a sense of immediate relevance, which draws the reader to consider the views of the columnist. Thus, the reader knows at the outset where the writer stands and something of what to expect from the rest of the article.

This is a generally good practice that, however, I will not be following in today’s piece. I can only trust I will not be taxing my readers’ tolerance by asking that they follow me to the conclusion of this verbal ramble, as if listening to a long and involved narration that even fails to deliver a punch line.

My point of departure is August 14, 1946, when the All-India Muslim League, tiring of the duplicity of Nehru’s Congress Party, bade goodbye to ‘parliamentary methods’ and embraced direct action. Whether this was a necessary or inevitable course is not an issue here. It happened. And one of the results was the Great Calcutta Killing, the communal riots that raged in that city over the next several days and the dreadful cycle of killings and counter-killings between Muslims and Hindus that happened.

But Calcutta, for all its horrors, proved to be a mere curtain raiser. Communal riots and killings next broke out in the Noakhali region of East Bengal, followed shortly by the plunge into disorder of the province of Bihar. As the riots spread westward across British India, Viceroy Lord Wavell was sacked, Lord Louis Mountbatten flew in, the Partition Plan was announced and Cyril Radcliffe Q C was commissioned to chop up Punjab and Bengal. What Sir Winston Churchill had called “Operation Scuttle” was on.

The tide of violence reached Punjab and became a veritable tsunami of blood. The land experienced the forced dislocation, both ways, of over 12 million people and incredible carnage that left perhaps three million dead. Our greatest poets and writers have written about that “Daaghdaar Ujala” [eclipsed light], none more vividly than Saadat Hasan Manto who, amongst his other writings, captured something of the surreal pointlessness of the violence in his Siyah Haashiya [Black Margin].

In the midst of this khoon ki holi aur aag ki barsat (game of blood and rain of fire), the nation state of Pakistan was midwifed. My readers will say: but we know all this; we too have read Manto, Qasmi, Amrita Pritam and all the other chroniclers of those days down to Bapsi Sidhwa more recently. I ask my readers to bear with me a little.

Following independence, a quarter of a century jolted along through two wars and three coups d’état (Ghulam Mohammad, Ayub, Yahya), climaxing in the military massacre in Dacca. There followed a civil war, another 10 million refugees, another million dead, a third war and the further division of the country. After this, there were yet another four coups d’état: Bhutto, Zia, Musharraf and Musharraf again.

It was the Zia dictatorship that unleashed numerous scourges: heroin, the Kalashnikov culture, reactionary perversion of the legal and penal systems, religious bigotry, extremism and sectarian and ethnic violence. The formally bright and vibrant port city of Karachi now has the highest number of hard-drug addicts of any city in the world. Karachi has also become a free-fire zone, whose streets and alleys echo with the rattle of gunfire at all hours and turf wars and target killings are the order of the day. The Zia years also saw Pakistan enter — indeed, initiate — the war in Afghanistan. This is now the longest running war in the history of the world for the last five centuries. More, this war has fanned international terrorism as well as the suicide bombings and religion-based militancy that swept across our land, while the civil war against the insurgency in FATA continues to rage.

Alongside all this have been many political assassinations: Liaquat Ali Khan, Dr Khan Sahib, Shaheed Suhrawardy, Hayat Sherpao, Samad Achakzai, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Shahnawaz Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, Ghulam Haider Wyne, Azim Tariq, Hakim Saeed, Murtaza Bhutto, Akbar Bugti, Benazir Bhutto, Imran Farooq and now Salmaan Taseer; this list is not exhaustive. In all but one of these cases, the murderer has still not been identified. In the one instance where the killer has, himself, surrendered, he is being lionised and treated as a hero.

Ours, it seems, is a nation born in violence and which continues to remain in a state of violence. Is this characterisation excessive? Surely, it could be argued, many other nations have been through even more traumatic times. Consider, for example, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan today, Vietnam of the late 20th century and even Europe of the great, wrenching wars. Yes, perhaps we have not yet approached those levels of collapse, yet. But consider that all of these, despite the massive destruction and violence, have also had their periods of relative calm, social progress and governmental legitimacy. This has not been true of Pakistan.

Moreover, in each of these cases, it can be shown that upheaval was thrust upon them from the outside. This has not been true of Pakistan, whose terrible wounds are self-inflicted, notwithstanding our constant railing against perceived conspiracies.

Where then is the fatal flaw that has created such a stinking cauldron of violence where there could have been a country of perfectly normal and more or less tolerant people? The flaw is a failure of leadership — leadership as a process, not of this or the other particular leader. And leadership is provided, as the great historian Arnold Toynbee pointed out, by a creative minority. The so-called silent majority is a passive force, an inertial mass, silent precisely because it has little to say. Dynamism is provided by leaderships that can identify and articulate the people’s needs, not their uninformed prejudices. It is the task of leadership — whether political, judicial, entrepreneurial or professional — to provide the vision, strategies and executive action that will fulfil those needs and provide people with physical security, economic opportunities, cultural enrichment and all the other good things of a civilised life.

Although the people may not be the prime actors on the historical stage, who drive the action forward, they are the ones whom the play is all about.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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