Red Terror or Revolutionary War?

Book Review: Lal Shontrash: Siraj Sikder O Sharbohara Rajneeti (Baatighar, Dhaka, 2021, 430 pages)

Red Terror; Siraj Sikder and Sarbahara Politics” (in Bangla) is about the birth, growth and withering away of a revolutionary organisation about which most Bangladeshis have heard, very many are curious but too few know anything. Given the clandestine character of the Purbo Banglar Sarbahara Party (East Bengal Workers’ Party) and the secretive life of its cadres, its relatively short life and the turbulent times in which it existed, very little information about this organisation had been available until now. What was hitherto known was in bits and patches, as a bewildering mixture of fact, myth and fiction. 

The party’s leader, Siraj Sikder, acquired a cult-status in his lifetime and turned into a mythical figure after his death in police captivity in 1975 at the rather young age of 30. Compounding the curiosity are the circumstances of his death, which are as controversial as his revolutionary life. In light of this, Mohiuddin Ahmad had taken upon himself a very challenging task and it has to be said that he has acquitted himself very well.

An author and Prothom Alo columnist who formerly served as Assistant Editor at the Daily Ganakantha, Ahmad has previously written on the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal. As with these previous books, Lal Shontrash is a gripping historical account from beginning to end, a real life story of some naïve young men and women barely in their adulthood coming together under Sikder’s leadership to liberate the oppressed and exploited people of Bangladesh through armed struggle.

Lal Shontrash is a gripping historical account from beginning to end, a real life story of some naïve young men and women barely in their adulthood coming together under Sikder’s leadership to liberate the oppressed and exploited people of Bangladesh through armed struggle.

Ahmad has meticulously collected and compiled in one volume not just all available and scarce published documents relating to the Sarbahara Party but also interviewed many surviving participants. If it wasn’t for his effort, many of the facts revealed in this book, some startling, a few shocking, but all very instructive and interesting, would forever be lost to posterity.

This book consists of two parts, the first is a summary of the Leftist politics, parties and movements in East Bengal (Bangladesh), in general, and of the Sarbahara Party, in particular. In the second part, Ahmad has published the accounts of eleven party activists based on interviews he conducted over many months or they themselves wrote, both published and unpublished. Some of the accounts are in the first person, reproduced verbatim, making them all the more fascinating.

Published for the first time is a written testimony of “Bulu”, who was not only active in the party for many years but also was married to “Taher”, Sikder’s closest comrade and deputy until his assassination in August 1971. As such, she was in a position to observe Sikder from very close quarters in the early stages. The value of Bulu’s testimony lies in the fact that it is a contemporary, first-hand account straight from the heart and never intended for publication. As such, it is of great historical importance and would almost certainly have been lost to posterity but for Ahmad’s commendable investigative effort.

Some of the facts explicitly mentioned or implied in Bulu’s testimony are explosive and certain to invite the wrath of Sikder devotees, particularly his multiple marriages and alleged extra-marital liaisons and advances. But the fact is that these unsavoury truths about Sikder are corroborated elsewhere. The term “debauched” employed by the author in a few questions and comments in relation to Sikder may be both harsh and exaggerated, but they are neither a figment of his imagination nor an effort to vilify the late leader.

But another accusation against Sikder, that of autocratic leadership and a personality cult which brooked no criticism and led to harsh expulsions and even assassinations, are quite well known. It was this tendency that resulted in a murderous rampage within the party after the supremo’s death. Comrades accused fellow comrades of betrayal and some were executed after summary “show trials”, leading to a meltdown of the party.

Ahmad not only asked probing questions of his interlocutors but he interviewed at least one high-ranking leader (“Rana”) multiple times based on new information obtained from other interviews. Although his searching questions and cross-checking efforts sometimes annoyed Rana, the author was surprised and amazed by the openness of all the formerly highly secretive revolutionaries whom he interviewed.

Although most Sarbahara cadres were very well-intentioned, highly motivated intelligent young men and women, the constant hardships, secretiveness, violence and repression cumulatively resulted in dissension and deterioration within the party, aggravated by Sikder’s sudden death in January 1975. Ahmad has provided the best available details of the circumstances of Sikder’s capture and death from four different sources, three published and one based on an interview the author conducted with a then-serving high official of Rakkhi Bahini.

Very helpfully, Ahmad has given a list of names of party activists along with the pseudonyms by which they were known within the party. Although he has provided a list of his sources in an appendix, he has failed to give proper citations in the text, often leaving the reader not only to wonder about the exact source, but also causing some confusion. It might also have been useful to provide a full chronological list of the party congresses, conferences and meetings in an appendix for ready reference.

There are also a few inaccuracies and mistranslations which the author ought to rectify in future editions. For example, he mentions that the party’s magazine “Lal Jhanda” (Red Flag) was first published in September 1974 (p. 160). I am able personally to attest to the fact that the first issue was published sometime in mid to late 1969. It was clandestinely cyclostyled late one evening in an architect’s office on Topkhana Road in Dhaka, where Bulu’s brother Kalam worked. Being a party sympathiser, he had provided party cadres the key to the office. The word “jhanda” was chosen after some deliberation, being preferred (by Sikder himself) over the more authentic Bangla synonym “potaka”. “Jhanda” resonated militancy, whereas “potaka” sounded too gentle!

Many admirers of the party and its leader, among other things, will perhaps protest the title of the book, “Red Terror”, which may well have been chosen by the author and publisher for its flashiness, but it is neither misleading nor inaccurate. Sarbahara Party cadres, like all revolutionaries throughout history, had no scruples against employing terror, including execution, against those they perceived as enemies and traitors, including their own.

After all, Sikder and his followers were self-professed believers and practitioners of “armed struggle, class war, people’s war and revolutionary terror”. Didn’t their revered Chairman Mao Zedong say: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”? It is a different matter, however, that their motley guns proved no match for the heavy guns employed against them by the state.

It is too early to say how history will judge Siraj Sikder and his Sarbahara Party. But this book definitely is a very commendable effort on the part of Mohiuddin Ahmad to preserve the record for future historians to work with.

(Published in Daily Star, Dhaka, 27 May 2021)

by Razi Azmi

Posted in Reminiscences | Leave a comment

Success has many fathers*

Now that Manmohan Singh has become the Prime Minister of India**, many on this side of the border are not just proud, but also claiming paternity, so to speak.  A leading columnist of Dawn has expressed his elation that Mr Singh hails from Potohar, while a Jang columnist has countered with the claim, albeit a weak one, that the Indian Prime Minister is a Multani. For a son-of-the-soil to rise to the pinnacle of political success through a free vote in a country of a billion people has justifiably led many a thorough-bred Potohari into a state of excitement.

But Potoharis should mix their pride at the accession of one of their own to the highest executive position in India with a tinge of shame and regret.  One recalls that another former Indian Prime Minister, I K Gujral***, was also from the Potohar belt. It is not as if these two now-eminent Potoharis had chosen to abandon the place of their birth to migrate to India. They were hounded out of the land of their ancestors, forced to leave everything behind them, except memories.  And they were the lucky ones.  The unlucky ones (and their numbers are in the hundreds of thousands) fell to marauding hordes of opportunists, avengers and believers.

It will be said that the carnage happened on both sides. While that is true, the fact is the carnage was solely the result of the partition of the subcontinent, which the Singhs and the Gujrals had not wanted, but which nonetheless happened against their will and mostly at their expense.  Muslims demanded Pakistan and got it, and Hindus and Sikhs were forced to flee their lands in West Punjab in order to save their lives.  Punjab – both east and west – is probably the worst example of ethnic cleansing in the history of the modern world.  The Muslims of East Punjab also suffered greatly in lives lost and lands abandoned, but then they too had wanted and got their Pakistan.  It is quite another matter that their hope for their part of the Punjab to be included in the Islamic republic proved wrong and they suffered as a consequence, many paying with their lives.

The so-called Mohajirs, who were most vociferous in the demand for Pakistan, had the extraordinary privilege of eating the cake and having it too, insofar as most of them, while migrating to Pakistan, left some kith and kin in their ancestral homes in India.  So it became possible for a certain Dr Mahmood Hussain to become a Minister in Pakistan, while his brother Dr Zakir Hussain rose to the position of President of India. 

On the other hand, the Sikhs and Hindus who survived the carnage in West Punjab quite literally had to run for their lives. They were not allowed to leave any trace or retain any links with their ancestral lands, having been evicted unceremoniously, without warning and under pain of death.

One recalls that when I. K. Gujral became the Prime Minister of India some years ago, a Pakistani journalist traveled to Gujral’s native village in Punjab and spoke to some old men there who remembered Gujral’s father and family well. Asked about the elder Gujral, an old-timer reminisced that he was so humane, kind and non-discriminatory in his attitude that one could not tell whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim.

The articles by Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed in these pages have brought out many a sad tale emanating from partition.  Many more are embedded in the birth of Bangladesh – which, like Kashmir, is a spillage of the 1947 partition.  While the suffering of the Bangadeshis has been sufficiently highlighted, the tragedy of the so-called Biharis, on account of their loyalty to Pakistan, still beckons a historian.  The “Bihari” side seems to have been totally overlooked, for while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.  Bangladeshis write their history, as do Pakistanis, while the “Biharis” – not counting those who died in 1971 — have been reduced to non-persons living in a sort of no-man’s land, physically in Bangladesh but officially not quite there, being stateless non-citizens.

The partition of 1947 resulted in the deaths of between half a million to one million people and the largest migration in history, involving 15 million people. And what do we have to show for the effort which extracted this colossal human sacrifice?  More than half of the population of the country whose establishment caused this mayhem rose in open revolt against it and established their own independent state less than 25 years later in 1971. A Muslim population currently equaling its own had to be left behind as a small minority in a Hindu-majority India to reap the whirlwind from its creation.  And God knows how many more will flee or be driven from their homes or die in Kashmir, that “unfinished business” from the partition of 1947.  As for the residual Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the quasi-official “homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent,” it staggers from one crisis to another, regarded by independent observers as a failed state, propped up by little more than prayers, “nuclear bums” and American political, military and financial assistance.

The Pakistan/Muslim factor has engendered Hindutva in India.  The BJP has lost an election, but many have signed Hindutva’s death certificate a trifle too early. The patron of the Afghan Taliban, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has now been elevated to the position of leader of the opposition in the Pakistani National Assembly, thus becoming its prime minister-in-waiting, to use the idiom of parliamentary democracies.  When the Vishwa Hindu Parishad locks horns with the Islamists-Jihadists of South Asia, which is probable if not certain, how many millions more will fall victims to more madness in the name of religion is anyone’s guess. But the fact that partition deprived the current and a former Prime Minister of India of a place they can truly call home should motivate thinking Pakistanis to reflect on the man-made tragedy of 1947 which continues to cast its tentacles, hydra-like, on a quarter of the world’s population.

*This column was first published on 29 June 2004 in Daily Times, Lahore.

**Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, was born on 26 September 1937 in Gah village in Chakwal District in Potohar region of Punjab in Pakistan (then a part of British India). His family migrated to India after partition.

***Inder Kumar Gujral, a Hindu, was born on 4 December 1919 in the village of Pari Darveza in Jhelum district (also in the Potohar region) of present-day Pakistan. His family also migrated to India after partition. Multan is in the Saraiki region of southern Punjab in present-day Pakistan.

by Razi Azmi

Posted in Current Affairs | Leave a comment

The personality cults of Trump, Modi and Imran Khan

One of the great advantages of democracy is that it resists personality cults.  The two are so mutually incompatible that when personality cult grows, democracy recedes, and vice versa. Durable democratic processes do occasionally produce very popular leaders, but rarely one with a cult following.

One very popular democratic leader was President Franklin D Roosevelt in the United States, who won four consecutive elections (1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944). He died in office in 1945, whereupon congress, in 1947, initiated the 22nd constitutional amendment restricting a president to two terms.

Despite what their objects claim, personality cults are never spontaneous. They are always carefully cultivated, usually but not necessarily with state patronage. When the state machinery is used to promote the cult of a leader, the results are catastrophic. The worst example in recent history is the cult surrounding the Kim family in North Korea. There are, of course, other lesser cults now doing the rounds: Belarus, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, China, Brazil, the Philippines, etc.

In recent history, millions became sacrificial lambs to feed the extreme cults of Adolf Hitler (Germany), Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Mao Zedong (China), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Saddam Hussain (Iraq), and Hafez Al Assad (Syria), to name a few.

Pakistanis have witnessed the rise and fall of a political leader with a cult following limited to a small, regional ethnic minority. Exploiting some genuine grievances of the Urdu-speaking youth of Karachi and Hyderabad, Altaf Hussain used demagoguery and oratory to build a cult following: he was “Quaid, Pir and Aqa”.

Like all cults, his ended disastrously. So did the cult of Velupillai Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka. Both Altaf Hussain and Prabhakaran had united their respective Mohajir and Tamil communities and infused them with a sense of pride and power. But the seemingly powerful edifice they had constructed came crashing down due to the over-centralisation, obstinacy and skulduggery that accompany personality cult and hero-worship.

Pakistan is now in the throes of the cult of Imran Khan, which began to take shape a few years before he became prime minister. His choice of the epithet “Kaptaan” not only harked back to his success as a cricket captain, but also announced him as a potential “captain of the ship of state”. Using colours, banners and songs, exploiting youth and technology, viciously attacking opponents and making deceitful promises, he portrayed himself as a larger than life figure, the messiah who would rid the country of all evils. Thankfully, in Pakistan’s quasi-democratic, hybrid system, he has not been able to harness all the instruments and organs of the state to push his cult.

Across the border in India, the cult of Narendra Modi has grown alarmingly. Far more devious, divisive and destructive than our Kaptaan, aided by very potent symbols (such as Hindutva), a much stronger team and a far larger support base, Modi has overwhelmed India’s strong and resilient constitutional safeguards and system of checks and balances.

Modi prefers many epithets for himself but two are worth mentioning. “Chowkidar” was transient, to whip up anti-Pakistan (and, by implication, anti-Muslim) sentiments for electoral gains by highlighting his defence of India’s territorial and ideological frontiers. “NaMo” is more enduring, being rhythmical, personalized and sounding like a brand name. But I doubt that Modi will be able to totally subdue India’s constitution, institutions, civil society, and its pluralist and secular tradition to enforce his divisive and authoritarian diktat for too long.

But whereas NaMo presently calls all the shots in India, in Pakistan Kaptaan has to contend with a colossus, referred to as “The Establishment” or “State Institution”, which reigns supreme. It tolerates no cult other than its own, although it is facing unprecedented challenges now.

Then there is Donald Trump, the lying, cheating, bullying real estate tycoon who surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the US presidential election in 2016. Beginning with the election campaign and gathering steam with the presidential debates, he began to cultivate a cult following with carefully chosen words, slogans and gestures, as well as plans, promises and objectives. At the centre of it all was “MAGA”, his promise to make America great again.

Explicitly mentioned were the southern wall to keep messy immigrants out and a tariff wall to keep jobs in. But implicit and between the lines were xenophobia, loathing for Muslims, aversion for blacks and Hispanics and promotion of a white supremacist agenda harking back to the days when blacks were kept in their place and non-white immigrants kept a low profile. Although the American democratic system and tradition had the better of him, he remains a lurking danger.

Of the three personality cults mentioned above, I believe that Trump’s is the most potent for two reasons: firstly, he delivered on some of his promises, such as jobs, and many of the issues he raised were real. He boldly confronted China, which is known to take unfair advantage of lax American rules, he called out Europe and Japan for paying far less than their fair share of the costs of defence alliances and United Nations, and he highlighted the economic, social and demographic consequences of unregulated immigrant influx.

If the issues Trump represents are not taken seriously, there is imminent danger for the United States, for he has a huge following among ordinary Americans and a cult-like status for many, who are armed and spoiling for a fight to the finish.

Modi, to the disappointment of many of his followers, has so far failed to deliver on any of the promises that really matter. The economy is in a mess, largely due to his own reckless policies, China has inflicted a humiliating defeat in Aksai Chin in response to his bluster, Pakistan has not been browbeaten, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Dalits are alienated and the whole country is in turmoil.

But Modi has whipped up so many Hindus into such a frenzy that it will be impossible in future for Indian Muslims to feel like equal citizens of the country. Even after a post-Modi reset, India will be an Israeli-style democracy where non-Jewish Arab citizens, 20% of the population, have constitutional safeguards, but are practically relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

Like Israel, which is “Jewish and democratic”, in reality if not in name, India at best will be “Hindu and democratic”. Even so, it will perhaps be more democratic than the world’s many Muslim-majority countries, where non-Muslim minorities are second class citizens without exception, in practice as well as in theory.

Whereas both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi will leave their mark on the history of their respective countries, Imran Khan will be a mere footnote in the history of Pakistan, remarkable for the incompetent and blundering leadership he delivered, in sharp contrast to the hype and promise of the personality cult he generated and cultivated.

by Razi Azmi

(Daily Times, 14 March 2021)

Posted in Current Affairs | 18 Comments

Good liberals, bad liberals

Liberals are the favourite whipping boy of governments and their loyalists, not only in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh but in all pseudo- and quasi-democracies, autocracies and dictatorships in the world. From Europe (Belarus, Hungary) to Southeast Asia (Myanmar, the Philippines) and from Africa (Uganda, Egypt) to Latin America (Venezuela, Brazil).

But there is a paradox. While these governments and their loyalists detest and denounce the liberals within their own countries, they commend and congratulate the liberals of other countries. For them, in other words, there are good liberals and there are bad liberals.

How do you judge which is which? Pretty easy, from the standpoint of the chest-thumping “patriots” who take their cue from their governments: domestic liberals are bad but foreign liberals are good. But, again, the latter are good only insofar as they champion causes that are dear to these people, such as Kashmir and Palestine, but bad when they criticise the governments of their countries for failure to protect minorities.

Let us begin with Pakistan. Two well-known liberal activists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and the late Asma Jahangir, have been subjected to malicious campaigns by pro-regime elements. These elements, however, admire and cite liberals of India, such as Arundhati Roy and Ravish Kumar, for defending the rights of the people of Kashmir and Indian Muslims, who are under attack from Hindutva forces there.

On the other side of this paradoxical equation, these Hindutva forces in India hate and denounce Roy and Kumar for precisely this very reason, for defending the rights of minorities of their own country. While these two liberals carry on despite threats, Gauri Lankesh was killed a couple of years ago for her activism. At the same time, while killing their own, these forces shamelessly quote and cite Pakistani liberals like Pervez Hoodbhoy and the recently-deceased Irfan Hussain for raising their voices in support of persecuted minorities in Pakistan, including Hindus.

Malala Yusufzai is probably the best known Pakistani liberal who has faced a barrage of criticism and condemnation from right-wing “patriots” in her own country while winning the Nobel Prize for Peace for defending the rights of women to education in Pakistan and everywhere.

The renowned American linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, is much admired in Pakistan by liberals for obvious reasons. But even those who hate Pakistani liberals do not mind quoting him often for his criticism of Israel and support of Palestinian rights as well as his denunciation of US military interventions overseas.

Over three decades ago, I was told of an instance when, in answer to a question at a talk in Islamabad to a large audience, Noam Chomsky revealed that he is a Jew. A pall of silence fell over the audience as most Pakistanis cannot believe that a man who speaks so passionately and persistently about Palestinian rights, besides castigating Israeli expansionism, can be a Jew!

State-controlled Russian, Chinese and Turkish media, as well as their dedicated English-language TV channels (Russia Today, CGTN and TRT World, respectively) profusely quote liberals from Western and other countries on selective international issues. At the same time, these regimes jail dissidents and crush their own liberals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly went so far as to attempt to poison the country’s best-known liberal, namely, Alexei Navalny. A few years earlier, the most prominent Russian liberal leader, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated not far from the Kremlin. In the weeks before his assassination, he had expressed the fear that Putin might have him killed.

The dictionary meaning of a “liberal” is a person “favourable to progress or reform; free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant.” Liberals of every country demand of their governments to respect fundamental human rights and liberties, uphold the rule of law, guarantee due judicial process and equality before the law, hold transparent, free and fair elections, protect women’s rights and ensure the rights of minorities to full and equal citizenship.

Naturally, then, while Pakistani liberals call for the protection of Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, their counterparts in India defend the rights of Muslims and of Kashmiris, in Sri Lanka they support the Tamil and Muslim minorities, in Israel the rights of Palestinians and, in the United States, an end to police brutality against blacks.

As I write these lines, an article in Time magazine questions US support for the Narendra Modi government in India (“How Long Will Joe Biden Pretend Narendra Modi’s India Is a Democratic Ally?” 15 Feb 2021):

“The U.S. would like to see India as an ideological and strategic counter to China’s rise, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook India’s fast-declining democratic standards. The daily assaults on civil liberties and the threats to India’s Muslim minority under Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have noticeably increased since Modi’s re-election in 2019. Hate speech is rife, peaceful dissent is criminalized, freedom of expression and association faces new constraints, and the jails are filling up with political prisoners and peaceful dissenters as a servile judiciary looks away.”

These words, coming from an Indian liberal, namely, Debasish Roy Chowdhury, would be very welcome for the pro-establishment forces in Pakistan. And no doubt that these very words would earn Chowdhury the ire of Modi’s government and their Hindutva champions in India. Reflecting this paradox, Indian and Pakistani expatriates in the United States prefer liberal administrations in Washington for ensuring their rights as minorities while condemning liberals in their own countries for doing the same there.

Smear campaigns against non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are carried out and restrictions imposed on their operations in all autocratic, pseudo- and quasi-democratic countries for the same reasons that liberals are condemned, for exposing the failures of these governments from the standpoint of international law and universally accepted human rights standards.

by Razi Azmi

(Daily Times, 20 February 2021)

Posted in Current Affairs | 9 Comments

Wondrous World of the Great Khan

Surely I am not the only one so enthralled by Imran Khan. He continues to amaze me. Consider his latest discovery: Pakistan’s five-year prime ministerial term is too short. But allow me to go back a bit in time before I return to this subject.

To become prime minister of the country, in terms of actual effort, Imran Khan went to lengths (all corners of the country), heights (standing atop shipping containers) and depths (using foul language) that no one else had before him.

From mobilising the young at the grassroots level to co-opting turncoats from the very parties he denounced, from making alliances with religio-rightist parties to erecting barricades, burning utility bills and invading the parliament. Bold, determined, persistent and focussed, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Before he became prime minister of the country, Imran Khan frequently brandished his strong credentials. One, that he knew how to assemble and lead a winning team. And, two, that he had engaged in political activism for two decades.

To support his first claim, he emphasised his success as cricket captain, particularly in winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup. His second assertion put him in a different class from other politicians in Pakistan. He was in politics not as a family heritage, as is the norm in this country, but because he was passionate about serving the nation.

In the years, months and days leading to the election, our dashing, desperate, aspiring and ready-to-be prime minister constituted and presented his team and published his manifesto. Moreover, he did what was a first in Pakistan, revealing long, medium and short term plans, all backed by figures and charts, to put Pakistan on the path of such progress as to make it the envy of other nations.

Not only did Imran Khan announce milestones and targets, parameters and deadlines, including a 90-day plan of action, but also principles and virtues that would imbibe him and his team.

So when Imran Khan became prime minister, his admirers were ecstatic, for cometh the saviour to rid the country of all evils. The public at large, the silent majority shall we say, was optimistic, for he looked promising, very promising in deed. And his critics were confused and bamboozled, for there was a good chance that he would prove that they were wrong about him all along.

In the event, Imran Khan’s admirers had rejoiced too soon and his critics had worried too early. What followed is one disaster after another worthy of a comedy, were it not for the fact that the fate of over two hundred million people is at stake. Always candid and eloquent, here’s how the prime minister gradually and incrementally explained away his failures.

Within months of taking on the reins of government, Imran Khan declared that there was no shame in making policy “U-turns.” In fact, the courage to make U-turns, when required, was a virtue. He made so many in such a short time that critics began to call them W-turns.

After over two years of heading the government, the prime minister regretted that he had been ushered into the corridors of power without any preparation and training. This, he said, was true not only for him but also for his team. I should point out, however, that a large number, if not a majority, of his ministers had had substantial ministerial experience under one or more of the previous regimes, the ones he condemned as corrupt and shameless. It is also significant that, within his bloated and extended cabinet, it is precisely the most inexperienced and amateurish ones who are closest to him.

And, finally, to borrow a term from cricket as Imran Khan himself prefers, he has achieved a hat-trick by lamenting that the five-yearly election cycle in Pakistan is far too short, preventing the implementation of long-term plans. In truth, the five-year term is the longest in any parliamentary democracy in the world. It is five years in the UK, India and Bangladesh. In Australia, it is three years. American presidents are elected for four years, with a limit of only two terms, giving them a maximum of eight years, subject to re-election.

A Pakistani prime minister, in contrast, can enjoy as many five-year terms as he fancies, provided his party is able to muster a parliamentary majority through elections and he retains the confidence of his party.

In India, Jawaharlal Nehru remained prime minister from independence in 1947 to his death in 1964, winning three consecutive elections. In Australia, John Howard won three continuous three-year terms through elections, losing in his fourth attempt. He was prime minister for nearly twelve years (1996-2007), second only to Robert Menzies who served for 18 non-consecutive years (1939-41, 1949-66). If Nehru is remembered as the founder of the modern Indian state, Menzies and Howard are icons of Australian politics.

Margaret Thatcher in the UK won three consecutive elections and remained prime minister for a little over ten years (1979-90), having had to resign early in her third term after she lost the support of her party.

What Imran Khan is aiming for, however, is nothing of the sort. He wants a long tenure not by winning democratic elections, but rather through some autocratic route. In the context of long and secure tenures, he has specifically mentioned China, disregarding the many factors and characteristics of that country’s one-party, autocratic system, which are totally inconsistent and incompatible with Pakistan’s foundational principles, the vision of its founders and the aspirations of its diverse and multi-ethnic population.

In the past, Imran Khan has also praised the Taliban and the Pakhtun tribal Jirga system of justice, falsely equating it with the jury system. Another favourite of his is the Turkish model of Recep Erdogan, who occupies the country’s highest office since 2003. Secretly, Imran Khan may even envy Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, ensconced in the Kremlin for twenty years and counting.

Lucky are we that our visionary prime minister has not mentioned Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994. Or, for that matter, Hun Sen of Cambodia or Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, in power since 1985 and 1986, respectively. A nation in the throes of multiple crises, financial, economic, demographic, political, social and ethnic, should be grateful for such small mercies!

by Razi Azmi

(Pubished in Daily Times, 5 February 2021)

Posted in Current Affairs | 2 Comments

Lessons of Trumpism: Nations need leaders, not liberators

The events of the last few days in Washington where, following incitement by the sitting president himself, a hysterical mob besieged, stormed and violently disrupted a session of the Congress, has shamed the vast majority of Americans and embarrassed supporters of democracy around the world. But it has also provided ample raw material to the propaganda factories of dictators, autocrats and pseudo-democrats of all types, of which there are many.

The images beamed from the U.S. Capitol on January 6, however shocking, were over four years in the making. What happened on that day had, by and large, become inevitable after Donald Trump got ensconced in the White House.

Every single day that Donald Trump has been in office, he has damaged America’s democratic institutions and traditions. But he was a disgrace from even before he was ushered into the White House. The leaked video in which he is heard boasting about being able to grope any woman and get away with it because he was a celebrity, should have collapsed his 2016 election campaign instantly. He would be considered as not “fit for public office.”

But it was a sign of the times that Donald Trump got away with that and numerous allegations of sexual assault by women. His misogynistic conduct towards Hillary Clinton during the presidential debates also became acceptable.

Propriety was sacrificed by leaders of the Republican Party at the altar of power and partisan politics. They whose job is to lead, instead became devotees of a thug and bully, fortified by his celebrity status, spurred on by his racist, rampaging admirers. And those who normally occupy the middle ground, the silent majority, also threw basic decency to the winds, laughed off Trump’s obscenities and found fault with Hillary Clinton instead.

No nation in history has been well served by charlatans who pose as heroes and liberators. Countries need leaders, not liberators. It is a sign of imminent danger when pretenders, with charisma or a prior celebrity status, employ demagoguery to build a distorted and false narrative to enter the corridors of power.

Though no two situations are ever identical, historical similarities can throw some light and make us wiser. For we may notice some common features and pointers such as big and repetitive lies, branding of those who think differently as enemies, denouncing political adversaries as traitors, resorting to cheap patriotic and nationalist slogans, arousing a feeling of collective victimhood, etc.

In the United States of Trump, these have been: Latino immigrants, Muslim infiltrators, “Socialist” Democrats, “China Virus”, “build the wall”, “take back our country”, “make America great again”. It is worthwhile mentioning that even Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through elections, by repeating similar falsehoods and slogans about Jewish conspiracies, appeasement, betrayal and sell-out.

When I look at the rise to power of Narendra Modi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan at about the same time, I see tell-tale likenesses with Donald Trump in the US. In Pakistan: targeting adversaries as corrupt, “Modi ka yaar” (Modi’s friend), liberal, tool of Western agenda. In India, denouncing “appeasement” of Indian Muslims, asking even Hindu opponents to “go to Pakistan” and vowing to expel Bangladeshi “termites”.

Trump and Modi may be the first of the type in their countries, but Imran Khan is not the first in Pakistan. This country has had the misfortune of suffering from the rule of many a “hero-liberator”. Due largely to them, Pakistan’s brief history is a long succession of military, economic, political and social failures and catastrophes.

It started with Ayub Khan, the handsome general in uniform determined to clean up Pakistan from the scourge of “corrupt politicians”. His slogan was a local version of Trump’s “drain the swamp” and “lock her up”. When Ayub resigned, 11 years later, the country had been wrecked by his political experimentation and military adventurism in Kashmir, leaving the majority population in East Pakistan totally alienated.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto constructed his political career on half-truths and blatant lies, such as Ayub Khan’s alleged surrender of military victories, and threatening to reveal the non-existent secret clauses of the Tashkent Declaration at an appropriate time. Pakistanis were led to believe that their leader’s machismo was more than a match for India’s female prime minister and he was the right man to avenge the military defeat of 1971. Combining charisma, oratory, demagoguery and bluff, Bhutto soon succeeded in his goal of getting to the top. In five short years he landed himself, and the country, in a grave political crisis.

Seizing the opportunity, Ziaul Haque, a cunning hypocrite in uniform, dishonourably despatched him to the gallows in cahoots with vindictive judges and some opportunistic politicians. What followed under this “Mard-e-Momin”, who vowed to Islamise an overwhelmingly Islamic country, was even worse. What Zia lacked in charisma, he made up with a mixture of blatant lies, religious slogans and brute force.

In his second incarnation as prime minister, bolstered by his two-thirds parliamentary majority (“heavy mandate”), Nawaz Sharif began to cast himself as Amir-ul-Momineen (commander of the faithful). Brooking no opposition, he sent hoodlums to storm the Supreme Court, much like Trump had the US Congress invaded.

Then came Pervez Musharraf, the “commando liberator”, with his promise of “enlightened moderation”. For him nothing mattered, not the parliament, not the constitution, not the supreme court, for he knew best. When he was over and done with, the country was in a much worse shape, despite the infusion of billions of dollars from Washington.

And finally there is a new hero-liberator, “Kaptaan” Imran Khan. Advancing a dangerously false narrative over the years, buttressed by his success as a cricket captain and in building a cancer hospital, astutely extracting every ounce of his celebrity status, he presented himself as the messiah who would liberate the country from the clutches of an evil and corrupt clique, solve all its problems within months, not years. It will be recalled that in August 2014, after laying siege to it for a hundred days with the goal of overthrowing the government, Imran Khan had incited his supporters to storm the Parliament House in Islamabad, which is the equivalent of the Capitol building in Washington.

Unfortunately for the country, Imran Khan has turned out to be the most conceited and incompetent head of a Pakistani government ever. Here, as in the US, the signs were there for all to see. Some saw the trees, but not the forest. Too many were mesmerised by their hero and fell for his tall promises.

Returning to the events of January 6 at the US Capitol, those who think that the US is just the same as any Third World country, ought to be reminded that even Trump’s own servile vice president has defied him to defend the constitutional process, many senior leaders of his party have broken ranks and the whole “insurrection” incited by the president was over in 15 hours. The one-term president has been impeached for the second time. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president on January 20 as stipulated in the constitution.

In Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”, when Andrea says: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”, Galileo replies: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes”. Better “Sleepy Joe” than “Celebrity Trump”! It is true for every country.

(Published in Daily Times, 16 January 2021)

By Razi Azmi

Posted in Current Affairs | 10 Comments

Salman Taseer: a tribute to a true hero

It is nine years to the day since the life of Salman Taseer was cut short at the age of 66 by an assassin’s bullet. His killer was none other than one of the trained men officially assigned, paid and sworn to protect him from harm.

Taseer was a man of many talents: accountant, businessman, entrepreneur, politician, publisher, writer and administrator. Associated with the Pakistan People’s Party since the 1980s, he rose in the hierarchy to become a minister and finally governor of the Punjab, a position he held at the time of his death in 2011.

In whatever he did, Salman Taseer distinguished himself. But he is most remembered for the one quality which cost him his life. He had his heart in the right place and, in an environment fraught with fear, he spoke fearlessly from the heart.

It takes a very brave man to speak out consistently in defence of Pakistan’s many persecuted religious minorities. It takes extra-ordinary courage to ask publicly that this country’s blasphemy laws need to be revisited. But it demands heroism of historic proportions for a provincial governor to be photographed in jail with an ordinary, poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, unfairly condemned to death by those very laws and to plead for justice on her behalf while large mobs bayed for her blood.

Salman Taseer was born in 1944 in Simla, then a part of Punjab in British India, of mixed parentage. His father, M D Taseer was one of the founders of the Progressive Writers Movement in Pakistan, along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who later married the sister of the elder Taseer’s wife, thereby making Faiz an uncle of Salman Taseer. Progressive thinking was thus in the latter’s blood, one might say. He was a progressive to the marrow of his bones and to the last day of his life. In fact, it was his bold progressivism that cost Salman Taseer his life.

While his killer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, has spawned a generation of nutheads within Pakistan, Salman Taseer is mourned by millions in this country and across the world as a martyr for the cause of humanity, regardless of one’s faith, creed or station in life.

No one engages in politics and statecraft for long without some blemish. Salman Taseer is no exception. His partisan dismissal of the Shahbaz Sharif government in the Punjab in 2009 at the behest of his party bosses in Islamabad, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court, is one such.

If Taseer had pedigree, pen, panache, pelf and power in life, he has left progeny who will make him proud. One son, Shahbaz Taseer, who was kidnapped and kept as a hostage for over four years by the assassin’s supporters, continues to speak out bravely for the same causes that had cost his father his life. So does another son, Shaan Taseer. A third, Aatish Taseer, is an accomplished journalist and writer who has earned the ire of the Hindutva bigots in India for speaking out in defence of minorities, including Muslims, in India. 

Salman Taseer’s soul and those who live to mourn his death can take some satisfaction from the fact that it took the painstakingly long but combined and sustained efforts of three successive, mutually antagonistic sets of Pakistani government leaders to finally bring an end to the ordeal of the woman at the centre of this tragedy.

It was the Pakistan People’s Party’s government that arrested and prosecuted Salman Taseer’s killer despite his overwhelming popularity among large segments of the population. It was a Pakistan Muslim League government which could muster the courage to hang him no matter his folk-hero status. And, finally, it was the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf government that was able to get Aasia Bibi’s death sentence overturned and to provide her a safe passage to freedom.

Her prayers alone, or those of her children, should suffice to guarantee Salman Taseer a place of honour in the hereafter. May his soul rest in peace!

(Published in Daily Times, 4 January 2021)

by Razi Azmi

Posted in Current Affairs | Leave a comment

Making light of an elephant

Just over four decades ago, as I was driving my VW Beetle in Islamabad, a street dog standing aimlessly on the edge of the road suddenly decided to cross directly in my path. I applied the brakes, swerved a little, but a corner of the front bumper of the car collided with his head. With me in the car was a major of the Pakistan army who, noting my feeling of anguish, said: “Don’t feel too bad, he was living a dog’s life anyway.”

If this were to happen now, he might have substituted “elephant” or perhaps “Kaavan”, for “dog”. Though the tale of Kaavan the elephant has a happy ending, his tormented life in Islamabad Zoo has been reported throughout the world. As a year-old cub, he had been gifted to the Pakistani president in 1985 by his Sri Lankan counterpart as a gesture of friendship between the two countries.

Kaavan should have considered himself lucky being the beneficiary of such highest-level favour and to be lodged in a zoo in “Islamabad the Beautiful”, as we like to call our capital city. But that was not to be. A few weeks ago, as a result of an international humane intervention, the distressed animal was rescued from the zoo and transported to a sanctuary in Cambodia.

Pakistan has thus made light of an elephant, both physically and in a manner of speaking. It should be a matter of national shame, but few Pakistanis have batted an eyelid over the fact that a country with the world’s 5th largest population and 6th largest army, a proud nuclear power and a boastful champion of Islam, has failed to care for the centre-piece animal in the only zoo in their capital city. With the departure of its sole elephant and the wretched condition of its remaining live exhibits, the zoo has now been closed. “Islamabad the Beautiful” is now without a zoo.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, who surveys world affairs with a majestic sweep and maintains a robust presence on social media, has not said a word about Kaavan or about the zoo closure, to the best of my knowledge. To give the tale a touch of irony or, should I say, add insult to Kaavan’s injury (which was both physical and mental), and even before the miserable elephant vanished from the news cycle, he thought fit to post videos of himself being playful with his two lovely, sturdy dogs.

Pakistan’s zoos, mired in apathy, corruption and incompetence, would be a study in absolute misery for its captive animals. Of course, there are good people too. A group of volunteers called the Friends of Islamabad Zoo (FIZ), following periodic surveys, raised questions over the fluctuating number of animals in the zoo. When they pointed out these anomalies, the vanished animals soon (re)appeared in their enclosures.

There are strong indications that some zoo animals, mainly black bucks, were being sold for a price to influential and rich people to add variety and prestige to their barbecue parties.

Karachi Zoo, established in 1878 during British colonial rule, has a history of unnatural animal deaths. A pair of Arabian Oryx, classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), gave birth to a female in 2007 and to a male and a female the following year, both of which died shortly after.

The first-born Oryx gave birth in 2010 to another calf, which died the following day. Four days later, the mother of the calf also died. The female of the original pair from 2007 met the same fate in 2010 from a foot injury.

In 2016, a 16-year-old Bengal tiger named Alex died in the zoo from kidney failure. Around the same time, the zoo lost three young blackbucks in a fight within the enclosure during the night, for there is no monitoring of animals during those hours. Three newborn puma cubs have also died in the zoo.

Lahore Zoo, established in 1872, and Pakistan’s best by far, is not doing much better. In 2004, three female black-footed grey langurs died from exposure to cold. The next year, a mandrill and a puma died inexplicably, as did an Asian black bear in 2006. The same year, some animals at the zoo were diagnosed with tuberculosis, but early detection and treatment averted a major catastrophe.

Earlier, in 2004, a four-year-old male chimpanzee was reported to have died in Lahore zoo. Three years later, two stray dogs entered an Indian peafowl pen through a hole in the fence and killed 28 of the birds. Two Bengal tigers, one of which had given the zoo 19 cubs, died from trypanosomiasis the same year.

About the same time, a new-born macaw was reported to have been stolen from the zoo. In 2008, a chimpanzee died from a prolonged unidentified illness. A female giraffe was attacked by a plains zebra and died from its injuries. A 3-year-old female Bengal tiger died after a caesarean section. Two Asian black bear cubs went missing from the zoo in 2010.

That same year, Lahore Zoo received 53 falcons which were seized from Islamabad Airport when being illegally smuggled to Qatar. It wasn’t long before 16 of them died from heat stroke and other causes. But they did not die in vain! As a result of their deaths, the remaining falcons were given to the wildlife department to be set free.

By any standard or yardstick, Pakistan’s zoos are pathetic places, poorly funded, filthy dens of corruption. They lack adequate facilities, trained staff and qualified vets, and are bereft of compassion, both from staff and visitors, who poke the captive animals with sticks and throw stones at them for a laugh.

Public attitude towards animals is woeful. Malnourished cows, buffaloes, donkeys, mules, horses and camels with open sores carry or pull loads far above their capacity; poultry, tightly packed in small cages, are held or transported on open trucks in wind, cold and rain. And street dogs? Well, for them the proverbial dog’s life.

In a country whose prisons are horrible places where human captives are treated like animals, what can captive animals, beasts of burden and street dogs expect!

(Published in Daily Times, 22 December 2020)

by Razi Azmi

Posted in Current Affairs | 8 Comments

War crimes and election results

by Razi Azmi

Two recent events on far sides of the globe have given many people in the Third World, from ordinary folks to autocrats and dictators, occasion to gloat and beat their chests triumphantly. Though they are different in every respect, one in the United States and the other in Australia, what ties the two events is that they ostensibly show the West in a poor light.

To the detractors, these two events eliminate or blur the distinction between “them” and “us”, between the West and the Third World, between democracies, on one hand, and pseudo-democracies, quasi-democracies, autocracies and dictatorships, on the other hand.

The more recent and by far the more publicized of the two is the presidential election in the United States. President Donald Trump, having lost to Joe Biden, is disputing the result and playing every trick to have himself declared the winner. In so doing, he is casting aspersion on the election process of his own country by alleging rigging and “illegal” votes against him. He even suggests that there is, in America, a “deep state” which is determined to oust him.

That has led some people in Pakistan and many other countries to ask whether the western democracies can claim that their elections are free and fair, after all. Well, the truth is that Donald Trump is a disgrace to America but he remains an aberration, rather than the rule. Even his own party, slowly but surely, is accepting the victory of Joe Biden. Nevertheless, many of the issues which garnered over 70 million votes for Donald Trump on this occasion are another matter. They must be taken seriously by his adversaries unless they want to self-destruct.

But no one anywhere should lose any sleep over this election’s outcome and a peaceful transition from this president to the next. The winner, Joe Biden, will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021 on schedule as the 46th president of the United States. The US constitution, judiciary, media and civil society are far too strong and entrenched to allow any upstart, even an incumbent president, to subvert the election result.

The other event concerns Australia. A few days ago, the Australian government officially released the “Afghanistan Inquiry Report”, the result of a four year-long investigation by Justice Paul Le Gay Brereton. He was appointed by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force in 2016 to investigate pervasive rumors of war crimes in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2016. The report concludes that soldiers from Australian special forces committed 39 murders in Afghanistan, and recommends that 19 current or former soldiers face prosecution and be stripped of their medals.

It is an exceptional case of a nation washing its very dirty linen under floodlights, so to speak. The report is scathing of patrol commanders of the Special Operations Task Group, where the “criminal behavior was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed”. Commanders further up the chain of command who are found to be negligent may also face disciplinary action.

The hitherto highly-regarded Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment’s second squadron will be disbanded following these damning findings of a “warrior-hero” culture that contributed to this criminal conduct. Compensation will be paid to the families of the Afghan victims. Most of these alleged murders involved prisoners who had been captured or subdued.

Announcing the findings of the inquiry, Australia’s military chief, Gen. Angus Campbell, said that he found the findings “deeply disturbing” and “unreservedly” apologized to the Afghan people. “Today, the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct”. “Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed.”

In the United States, Robert Bales is serving life in prison for the “Kandahar Massacre”, which involved the murder of 16 Afghan civilians in Panjwayi, near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on March 11, 2012. There have been reports of atrocities committed in Afghanistan by troops from other countries, including New Zealand, but no country has ever so thoroughly and comprehensively investigated criminal conduct by its own troops as Australia has now done.

This inquiry was not the result of any external or international pressure, but entirely an Australian initiative after reports began to emerge internally in 2015. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani before the release of the report to express his “deepest sorrow”.

Contrast this with the response to allegations of atrocities against their own forces by governments and nations who will use this report to denounce Australia in particular and the West more generally. Let us begin with those who will scream the loudest, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

No Russian soldier has been investigated for crimes committed during their 10 year occupation of Afghanistan (1979-88) or during two military campaigns in Chechnya (1994-96, 1999-2009). Similarly, no Turkish soldier has been charged for any crimes resulting from military operations in northern Cyprus (1974), Syria or Iraq.

Indonesian atrocities in East Timor (1975-77) have remained unpunished and the on-going Saudi and Emirati crimes in Yemen will never be properly investigated. Closer to home, criminal conduct by Indian troops in northern Sri Lanka (1987-90) and in Kashmir remain mostly unpunished.

And what about our own widely reported infamy in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971? To their credit, two officers of the Pakistan Army’s own public relations department (ISPR), Brig. A. R. Siddiqui and Major Siddiq Salik have, in their published first-hand accounts, alluded to atrocities against civilians during military operations (“East Pakistan: The Endgame, An Onlooker’s Journal: 1969-71” and “Witness to Surrender”, respectively).

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission (officially the War Enquiry Commission) Report, a highly critical account of Pakistan’s military in 1971, has never been officially published, though some details were leaked thirty years later.

For nine months in 1971, in the name of defending national unity, Pakistani troops are alleged to have committed the most atrocious crimes against civilians in what was then East Pakistan, including the pre-planned, targeted and cold-blooded murder of hundreds of professors, poets, doctors and intellectuals, but not a single prosecution resulted.

What the Australian Defence Force and government have done in relation to exposing, accepting and prosecuting its own soldiers for atrocities committed in Afghanistan is exemplary and a model to follow by other nations. While many individual heads must hang in shame, as a nation Australians should take pride in this investigation, the official expression of remorse, compensation to the victims and prosecution of offenders.

(Published in Daily Times, 27 November 2020)

by Razi Azmi

Posted in Current Affairs | 7 Comments

Who needs a ministry of information?

We have grown so accustomed to a ministry of information that we hardly notice that Western, democratic countries do not have any such entity. There is no minister of information in USA, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, nor in France, Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark. Continue reading

Posted in Current Affairs | 6 Comments