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Overwhelming truths


May 20, 2018

Parveen Shakir famously said: “Baat tau such hai magar baat hai ruswaee ki” (the news is true though it be embarrassing.) This is the news about a truth-averse Pakistan today. The determination never to admit, permit or learn from the truth has been the curse of Pakistan’s political history. This history will either change or bury Pakistan. This is an overwhelming truth.

In a recent interview, the ousted prime minister suggested that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008 were sent from Pakistan. He asked “why can’t we complete the trial?”, and that “the delay was unacceptable.”

The accusatory questions being asked of the former prime minister include: Why did he say what he said? Why did he choose to say this now? Won’t India use his remarks against Pakistan? Does this not mean he supports India against his own country? Is this not treason? How can it be said the Indian media twisted his words out of context when he confirmed the report’s accuracy and asked what was wrong with what he said?

The one glaring omission from this list of questions is: Were the controversial remarks of the disqualified leader true or false? This leads to further questions. If he spoke the truth, why are his remarks regarded as irresponsible or even treason? What about the actions he was referring to? Were they not even more so? The international isolation Pakistan suffered as a consequence of the Mumbai attacks is still with us. Has anyone been called to account?

The very question is regarded as unpatriotic. Impunity and immunity rule as the country withers on the vine. Moreover, a country that refuses to face the truth can never reform. That is an overwhelming truth.

If, on the contrary, the former prime minister did not speak the truth, what is all the fuss about? A drowning political leader is merely clutching at straws. So, why the 24/7 organised vitriol and orchestrated vilification of him by a directed media? Unless, of course, his remarks are considered too close to the truth. And the truth in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ can never justify even suggestions against those exempt from political scrutiny! Incidentally, the LHC has thrown out a petition charging the former PM with treason.

This truth-aversion explains Pakistan’s lack of credibility even when its policy positions and arguments are justified and sound. It also explains India’s ability to get away with its more or less pathological attitude towards Pakistan and its criminal repression in Kashmir.

Informed and objective opinion takes for granted that what happened in Mumbai in 2008 is well known. The only relevant questions for today are: (i) For how long and to what purpose does India intend to use the incident to avoid structured dialogue with Pakistan which is a nuclear neighbour?; (ii) What has Pakistan learned from the consequences and costs of the incident?; and (iii) How do the two countries chart a course forward to deal with the set of existential challenges of the 21st century which are largely shared?

The former prime minister was certainly ill-advised and/or the victim of uncontrollable anger in deciding to desperately challenge the power structure after his disqualification. He tried to co-opt the power structure when he was part of it. Now he challenges it after being excluded from it. He sees himself a victim of a concerted military-judicial conspiracy.

Reports suggest there is some growing sympathy – if not support – for this view. George Orwell observed than an expensive education was required to know it doesn’t do to say certain things in polite (or powerful) company, especially when they are true. The ousted leader seems to have lost sight of another overwhelming truth.

This problem of unspeakable truth affects other issues too. Pursuing the truth with regard to Balochistan, Fata, Karachi, disappearances, budgetary allocations including veiled expenditures, tax exemptions, institutional capture, systemic corruption, selective accountability, unconstitutional political interference, protection of minorities, child and gender rights, education and health, civil-military relations, foreign policy issues, etc becomes dangerous beyond designated limits. It doesn’t do to pursue the truth regardless.

General criticisms are tolerated – up to a point. But specific revelations challenge tolerance levels irrespective of the truth. The former prime minister impetuously allowed himself to transgress these limits to truth-telling. Surely, that is culpable! Especially from an erstwhile pillar, indeed head of the establishment!

A judicial and accountability process may have brought down a powerful and even popular leader who, despite significant infrastructural achievements, apparently violated his oath of office, the laws of Pakistan and, arguably, the trust of the people. Generally, he is not seen as a paragon of financial probity, even if his political disqualification for life has been called into question by several distinguished legal experts.

At the same time, the country is also witnessing the assertion of a self-serving power structure; a thoroughly opportunistic, rotten and manipulated political process; and a pretentious media that is easily intimidated and brought to heel. With honourable exceptions, of course!

Given the scale, complexity and range of the challenges facing Pakistan today – including the state of governance, possible nuclear conflict, climate change, population growth, national unity, provision of basic services, terrorism, the rule of law, water and food security, gainful employment opportunities, institutional capacity and credibility, external threat management, etc – the nation is, without exaggeration, confronting a set of existential crises. This is yet another overwhelming truth.

Either one shrugs in despair over this state of the nation as unalterable except possibly through the passage of time and some ‘deus ex machina’ (divine intervention); or one recognises that the mere passage of time does not bring solutions, and given the set of looming challenges there is very little time left in which to address and overcome them. One is, accordingly, faced with the old but still overwhelming question: What is to be done? Or Iqbal’s “pas chi bayad kard?”

Many sceptics regard a transformation process as too ambitious an undertaking to coherently plan and implement. Instead, they argue for relatively academic analyses of specific issues, problems and situations leading to incremental improvements. Such efforts are indeed useful and important. But they do not build socio-political momentum. They risk being little more than tinkering. They are likely to be isolated, direction-less and mutually non-reinforcing unless sustained by a national transformation process that is itself embedded in an array of grass-roots movements.

There are welcome signs of such movements which may or may not blossom. However, none of the major political parties are interested in them because as right-wing or populist parties they are simply not committed to deep structural reforms. They are essentially status-quo entities whatever their radical pronouncements to the contrary. They are part of a class-ridden, lumpen-feudal, robber-capitalist and praetorian political system. Such a system’s dominant narratives are always deceitful. Its record is one of failure and disaster. It is a zero-sum system in which a small and powerful minority win and the people lose.

The people must organise to find answers and solutions to their problems. No one else will. They will have to struggle for their rights. History teaches that the rights of a people are never bestowed upon them by political champions, heroes, guardians, saviours or leaders. Other people have achieved this. So can the Pakistani people. If not, they will lose their country. Assertive, peaceful and sustained struggle is the way forward. That is the decisive and overwhelming truth.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

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