Reading Arthur Miller In The Crucible That Is Pakistan

It can happen that the revenge exacted is far more excessive and counterproductive than the original perceived wrong

Reading Arthur Miller In The Crucible That Is Pakistan

Arthur Miller (1915-2005) was amongst the great playwrights and screenplay-writers of Hollywood. Famously, he also got married to Marilyn Monroe; and remained married to her for five years. However, this article is not about her Hollywood career or his family choices. It is about a sentence that he wrote in his acclaimed play The Crucible; and the wider implications of his words for the political scene in Pakistan.

Arthur Miller wrote in the beginning of Act One of this play, and I rephrase, “The repressions of an order are sometimes heavier than warranted by the dangers against which the repression was organised.” The sentence reflects keen observation of history and society. This overreaction happens in family affairs, in the business world and in international relations – it affects family members, business partners, state organisations and dictators. It can happen that revenge exacted is far more excessive and counterproductive than the original perceived wrong.

It is commonly observed across history that the authoritarian (over)reaction causes more grief to society than the original threats would have; and a few incidents are quoted here. The internal and external reaction to the protests of initial phase of French Revolution gave birth to Robespierre’s Terror which was the bloodiest episode of the French Revolution. This violent response against the suspected opponents of revolution stymied all notions of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; the original motivation of revolution. In the US in early 1950s, a terror was unleashed in politics and academia by McCarthyism. In an attempt to eradicate all symbols and sympathizers of Communism, many innocent people were hounded and maligned; some simply to settle personnel scores. In Iran, the Shah regime’s violence against the Islamic factions led to the more fierce revolution led by Imam Khomeini. The theocracy in control of Iran now appears more violent and dictatorial than the order it replaced.

Pakistan has experienced this phenomenon multiple times, from the Ayub era to the present times, of one bad government being forcibly replaced by a far worse order; more dictatorial, divisive and corrupt than the previous had been. In a rephrasing of Miller’s words in the same play, the witch-hunt that our society has witnessed is a perverse manifestation of the panic which set in among the elite and privileged classes (read ‘establishment’) when the balance appeared to be turning towards an end to corruption and elitism, amid loud demands for greater individual freedoms. This causes concern in the establishment, as it perceives weakening of its control of the country.

The slippery road to a politico-social bottomless pit started with the second Martial Law (the first was in 1953 in Lahore) imposed by President Iskander Mirza with the backing of General Ayub Khan, the Army Commander-in-Chief. Within days, the General had sacked the President and imposed martial law. That extinguished the fledgling flame of democracy and led to dismemberment of the country thirteen years later. Ayub Khan cited inefficiency and incapacity of politicians as the cause of stagnant government since independence. Tragically but purposely, he didn’t state that it was the interference of the bureaucrats in government and manipulation of judiciary that had brought the system to a halt. The dismissal of the East Pakistan government in 1954, illegal dissolution of constituent assembly in 1954, Maulvi Tamizzuddin case of 1955, and suspension of the 1956 constitution were a series of bureaucratic actions that brought the political system to an impasse.

In the Maulvi Tamizzuddin case, eight years after independence in 1955, the Federal Court led by Justice Munir even held that Pakistan was not an independent country and that the Governor General – and not the constituent assembly! – was sovereign. This ridiculous judicial manipulation was moral turpitude that has cast a long dark shadow over the nation. This is a shadow that refuses to recede. In each of these cases, the West Pakistani feudal class and the migrant elite desired to retain power in their own hands and to exclude East Pakistan from the power circles. The result, however, has been that not only East Pakistan ceded violently but the real power passed on to the military, where it resides ever since.  

In a similar era of oppression during General Zia-ul-Haq’s era, following the dismissal of Bhutto government in 1979, the hypocritical leader of the then military junta drove the country to a cultural and political wasteland because he wanted to erase the party of his political nemesis, whom he had already murdered through manipulation of Punjab High Court and Supreme Court. By the time the C-130 crashed near Bahawalpur (with one of my classfellows in its cockpit), the nation had been irremediably divided along sectarian and linguistic lines, corruption had proliferated, guns and drugs has permeated in the society and clergy had been unleashed. The country has not recovered from the calamity that the Zia regime wrought on the nation.

The Musharraf martial law was a classic Machiavellian medieval palace coup where the army general overthrew the legitimate government. The Nawaz government employed a devious method to remove the Army chief and the latter’s fellow generals removed the elected government to save their chief from being sacked. However, by the time army rule broke down, it had earned the ignominy of excesses committed during the lawyer’s movement, the sale of its citizens to the US during the US-Afghan war and creation of a phenomenon of ‘missing persons.’ The general wanted to save himself from early retirement but was destined to live out his remaining days in exile in disgrace, having being sentenced to death for treason. The general wanted to evade forced retirement but ended up being replaced in the army against his will, forced to resign from the Presidency and then exiled as a fugitive of law.

There are plenty of lessons in his career for those who tread in his path.

At the end of the play, when the hunt for witches had ceased, when the victims or their families had been compensated and orders for excommunication rescinded, Arthur Miller writes, “To all intents and purposes, the power of theocracy in Massachusetts was broken.”

Although even one wrongful death is one too many, yet of the 200 accused of witchcraft in Salem, only 25 people lost their lives: 19 hanged and six deaths in jail. And that was sufficient to break the power of oppressors; in this case a theocracy. That was at the turn of the 17th and 18th century, at around the time that Emperor Aurangzeb died in India and the Mughal empire commenced its slide down the long road to dissolution.

In Pakistan, alas, over last seven decades, thousands have been incarcerated and hundreds killed at the hand of military rulers and religious fanatics, yet the power of the oppressors stands intact.

There is a vital difference between progressive and degenerative societies. The former have hope.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: