The story of three books, freedom of press and security

Thursday, 21 June 2007

By: Khadim Hussain

It probably happens in those countries only where authoritarianism reigns supreme, where fundamental human rights are held in abeyance and where the civil society is rendered toothless and spineless.

The launching ceremony of the book Militarily Inc. by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert in war studies, was announced to be held in Islamabad Club, a governments owned prestigious establishment that caters to the civil servants and the business class of Islamabad, on the 31st of May 2007. The announcement was made in the popular national dailies. The book lovers, unaware of what is in store for them, reached the premises of Islamabad club. To their utter dismay, they found out that the ceremony had been cancelled on the behest of the unknown authorities at the last minute. It was decided there and then by the organizers of the event, including the author, that the ceremony would be held in the office of a non-governmental organization. Several of the ageing participants were shocked to see panic in the government circles in the wake of the ripples produced by the publication of the book. The other day, all the copies of the book lying in the bookstores were sold out. The book is now out of print and the second edition is probably on its way to the press.

According to the book, Pakistan army’s business capital has grown tremendously since 1947. The Army Welfare Trust, since its inception in 1971 till 2001, has increased its capital from Rs 700,000 to Rs17.45. The military owns 70,000 acres of agricultural land while its subsidiaries have 35,000 acres.

Freedom of expression? Intellectual freedom? The present government had this feather in its crown and would show it to the world whenever it deemed necessary. Washington Post in its June 4, 2007 edition says, “The country's half-dozen networks all sprung up under his watch, and Musharraf has repeatedly bragged to the world about his efforts to free Pakistani television from state control and censorship for the first time in the country's history. But with his government teetering, Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, is threatening the networks' very existence”.

Unfortunately, this seems to be true. All those claims of the freedom of press and expression by the present incumbents were just surface coating which the book by Dr. Ayesha has effectively scratched to show the real face of authoritarianism. The government claims it be a vilification campaign against the armed forces and thus unconstitutional. But then what is constitutional? Probably the statement of the Corps Commanders’ meeting who "took serious note of the malicious campaign against Institutions of State, launched by vested interests and opportunists who were acting as obstructionist forces to serve their personal interests and agenda even at the cost of flouting the rule of law…Any attempt by a small minority to obstruct the aspirations of vast majority would only derail the nation from its path of progress and prosperity", is more constitutional than the launching ceremony of a book based on academic research.

Some observers point at a very interesting point in this regard. The Tahreek-e-Nifazi-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi’s remnants in Swat (Maulana Fazlullah) and the Lashkar-e-Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam in FATA have been using their FM radios to stop the people from taking polio vaccine. They have also been active unabatedly against girls’ education and watching TV. Maulana Fazlullah has been exhorting the simple minded folk of Nekpi Khel Swat to throw out their TV sets into pieces. The freedom of press is observed in these cases in letter and spirit. Everybody knows that the government has not only given absolute freedom of expression but also the freedom to hold the policemen hostage to the management of a religious seminary in Islamabad. All of these activities are probably more than constitutional. Some people might also state the example of shooting at the protesters in Karachi on May 12 as constitutional.

The military research cells, and they are many, would do better to come up with something academically convincing against the research carried out by Dr. Ayesha because the beaten terms of ‘malicious campaign’, ‘obstructionist’, ‘rule of law’, and ‘progress and prosperity’ have stopped influencing the educated middle and working classes of this country. The book is discussed and debated in almost all academic, professional and social circles in Islamabad. The single topic that dominated discussions among academics, professionals, intellectuals and journalists during the Council of Social Sciences meeting on the 2nd of June was Dr. Ayesha’s book and its startling revelations.

The second book that was sold like anything in Islamabad and which has made its impact felt in the reading circles was the new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. The story in the novel has an engaging element to it though the plot is quite simple. It is probably the subject of the book that attracted the attention of the readers in Islamabad than the technicalities of the novel—the post 9/11 era. The disillusionment of a young professional with the modern financial institutions, careless of the human sufferings, in the novel is something that the majority of the professionals share in what they call the ‘modern global world’.

The novel in a subtle manner shows a ray of hope also—intellectual activism. Changez, after quitting his high profile job in the US, joins the Punjab University and engages in debates, study circles and media talk shows combating against what he perceives to be extremely dangerous for the present world. Almost all the university students I encountered who are interested in reading have got hold of a copy of the novel by Mohsin Hamid.

Another book that created ripples in the otherwise quiet environs of Islamabad is Frontline Pakistan by Zahid Hussain. The commonly coined term of ‘mulla military alliance’ has been thoroughly explored in this book. The security paradigm of the state has been brought under discussion in a candid and convincing manner, though journalistically. An evolutionary approach has been adopted in the book giving a sense of continuity to the reader. This aspect of the said book leaves an overriding impression on the readers.

Though all the three books have adopted different genres—Zahid Hussain’s journalistic account, Mohsin Hamid’s novel and Dr. Ayesha’s research work, they converge on one interesting point. This is the state’s security paradigm. It is probably this converging point that all the three books have been sold like hot cakes. The million dollars question —are the educated middles classes of Pakistan inclined to redefine the state security paradigm? Or have the books captured the zeitgeist?

The answer to these questions is positive keeping in view several instances. Firstly, several analysts have observed the common people taking keen interest in the issues previously thought to be discussed by only a handful of disgruntled intellectuals. Secondly, there is a tremendous demand of the private channels showing live telecasts of the lawyers’ rallies, talk shows of the opposition politicians and programmes regarding the military involvement in civilian affairs. The anchorpersons of these programmes have become more popular than bollywood celebrities among the common folk. It is interesting to note that the issues taken up for discussion on these channels are not those which traditionally used to arouse the emotions of the common people—the issues of religious sectarianism. Thirdly, the tone and tenor of the debate regarding crucial issues of the state is on the rise continuously. And so the flow of the tide continues unceasingly.

The writer is an academic based in Islamabad. Email: khadim.2005@gmail.com

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