Crowded pages of our history

Salman Tarik Kureshi sifts through the debris of upheaval after upheaval in our existence since Independence

Crowded pages of our history
Periods of peace and prosperity, wrote the historian Arnold Toynbee, are the blank pages of history. The full pages are about turmoil, wars, famines, dynastic convulsions, revolutions and upheavals. As someone who always imagined that I would see, with the late John Lennon, “all the people, living life in peace”, Toynbee’s aphorism was hard for me to accept. But, looking at the history of my own country, the pages do look extremely crowded.

Wind the clock back to the 14th of August, 1946. The All-India Muslim League, tiring of the duplicity of Nehru’s Congress Party, bade goodbye to ‘parliamentary methods’ and embraced Direct Action. Whatever the merits of or motives for the decision, 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.

Gunmen battle it out on Karachi streets

But Calcutta, for all its horrors, proved to be a mere curtain raiser. Communal riots and killings in response broke out in the Noakhali region of East Bengal, followed shortly by the plunge into turmoil of the Province of Bihar. As the riots spread westward across British India, Viceroy Lord Wavell was sacked, Lord Louis Mountbatten flown in, the Partition Plan was announced and Cyril Radcliffe was commissioned to chop up Punjab and Bengal. The British had no more use for us, and what Sir Winston Churchill had called “Operation Scuttle” was on.

The tide of violence reached the Punjab, and became a veritable tsunami of blood. The land experienced the forced dislocation, both ways, of over twelve million people and incredible carnage that left perhaps two million dead. Our greatest poets and writers have written about that “Daghdar Ujala” (Stained Dawn), none more vividly than Saadat Hasan Manto who, amongst his other writings, captured something of the surreal pointlessness of the violence in his Siyah Hashiya. It was precisely this anomic, cold-blooded characteristic that made it all so inexplicable...and immeasurably horrifying.

But our history books have not had a lot to say little about those dire events, choosing to refer to them as merely ‘Partition Riots’.
In all these bad times, where were the good times?

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

Let us particularly look at the Zia dictatorship, which unleashed numerous scourges: heroin, the Kalashnikov culture, reactionary perversion of the legal and penal systems, religious bigotry, extremism, sectarian violence 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. Karachiites remember particularly the times when they would listen to the morning newscasts before deciding if or how they could get to work or if it was safe enough for their children to go to school.

The Zia years also saw Pakistan enter – indeed, initiate – the War in Afghanistan. This, now the longest running of wars during the last five centuries, has fanned international terrorism as well as the suicide bombings and religion-based militancy that swept across our land and which, even if they are presently reduced and we can play Cricket again, have by no means ended. And they could, of course, flare up again.

Preparations for cremating bodies after bloody rioting between Hindus and
Muslims in Calcutta, 1946

Alongside all this has been the stream of political assassinations: Liaquat Ali Khan, Dr. Khan Sahib, Shaheed Suhrawardy, Hayat Sherpao, Samad Achakzai, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Shahnawaz Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq, Ghulam Haider Wyne, Azim Tariq, Hakim Saeed, Murtaza Bhutto, Akbar Bugti, Benazir Bhutto, Imran Farouq, Bashir Bilour, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Fazil Rahu…the list is by no means exhaustive. In all but one of these cases, the murderer has still not been caught. In the one instance where the killer has himself surrendered, he has been lionized and treated as a hero and a mausoleum erected over his grave – being treated, essentially, as a Saint.

So, there we have it: Punjab in 1947, Baluchistan in the 1960s and 1970s, Bengal in 1971 and 1972, interior Sindh in the 1980s, Karachi in the 1980s and 1990s, Baluchistan again in the 1990s, and KP, FATA, and the whole country in much of the 21st century. In all these bad times, where were the good times?

Surely, it could be argued, many other nations have been through even more traumatic times. Consider, for example, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Vietnam of the late 20th century, and Europe of the great, wrenching wars. Yes, perhaps we have not approached those levels of collapse, yet. But consider that all of these, despite enormous destruction and violence, have also had their periods of relative calm, social progress, and governmental legitimacy. This has not been true of Pakistan.

The British developed an elaborate 'martial races' theory

Worse still, as we must admit to ourselves, most of Pakistan’s terrible wounds have been self-inflicted. Our constant railing against conspiracies, external enemies, and “hidden hands” has been so much obfuscation, and deception that fooled no-one but ourselves.

This continuous florescence of violence here is the result of our history of false narratives and fantasy identities. We have nurtured a culture of hyper-macho posturing, at all levels and amongst all categories of persons. These are among the delusions drilled into us, perhaps since the days of the ‘Martial Race’ claptrap fed to us by the British so that they could use the flower of our youth as cannon fodder in their wars. The faux religious miasmas blown this way from the Gulf have engendered still further delusions.

Where then is the fatal flaw that has created such a stinking cauldron of violence, where there could have been a country of simply ordinary and more or less tolerant persons? The flaw is a huge failure of Leadership. We are referring, here, to Leadership as a process – not of this or the other particular leader. And Leadership is provided, as Toynbee also 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. The dynamism is provided by Leaderships that identify and articulate the people’s needs and aspirations, not their uninformed prejudices and biases. The task of Leadership – whether political, judicial, military, entrepreneurial, or professional – is to provide the vision, strategies, and executive actions that will fulfil those needs and ensure that the people can obtain physical security, economic opportunities, cultural enrichment and all the other good things of civilised life.