Punjab khappay?

by Nadeem Paracha on DawnBlog

According to many emails that I received after posting a blog in the wake of the terrible bomb attacks in Lahore last week, I was ‘spreading politics of ethnicity.’

I don’t know exactly what made these folks think this way, but the accusation does smack of an attitude demonstrated by many of my fellow countrymen when they are asked certain thorny questions regarding ideology and religion: they at once either label the questioner as being ‘anti-Islam’ or ‘anti-Pakistan.’

I am not the only writer in this country who has faced this kind of a barrage, mind you. Men and women like Dr. Pervz Hoodbhoy, Ahmed Rashid, Asma Jehanjgir, and late Akhtar Hamid Khan have had their share of such laminating labels bestowed upon them long before others like Hassan Nisar, Imtiaz Alam, Fasi Zaka, Irfan Hussain, Ayesha Siddiqua, Hassan Askari, Nazir Najee, Kamran Shafi, and myself became the Islamic Republic’s new batch of anti-Pakistan/anti-Islam devils.

Ironically, just what I meant in the blog, ‘Wake up, Punjab,’ was blatantly proven by the recent comments by Punjab’s Chief Minister and the president of the province’s ruling party, the PMLN, Shahbaz Sharif. Not only did the man conjoin the anti-Americanism of the Taliban with that of his own party, but he also pleaded for mercy from the terrorists specifically for his home province of the Punjab.

Why does Mr. Sharif want the Taliban to only spare the Punjab? Isn’t the Taliban issue a national menace that has affected the whole country? Sharif apologists defend his stance by suggesting that since Shahbaz Sharif is the Chief Minister of Punjab, he is likely to only talk about the Punjab.

If so, then Mr. Sharif and PMLN members from the Punjab should stick to their province, instead of dishing out the lofty tirades and sermons that they love to deliver on the corruption of President Zardari and the incompetence’ of the current PPP-ANP-MQM coalition governments in Islamabad and in other provinces.

Even if one gives Shahbaz the benefit of the doubt that he spoke strictly as the Chief Minister of the Punjab, how is one to explain his weak-kneed attitude towards the Taliban – an organisation which, along with its many clandestine foot soldiers in shape of assorted sectarian outfits, has been responsible for literally slaughtering thousands of common men, women and children in the mosques and bazaars of Pakistan.

These are monsters against which the military, political parties, and a majority of Pakistanis are fighting a deadly battle, losing numerous lives, both uniformed and civilian, in the process.

How can one explain Shahbaz’s insistence that the Taliban should spare the Punjab because the ‘PMLN too is anti-American.’ Was he suggesting that the PMLN endorses the Taliban ideology? An ideology of utter bloodshed, remorseless violence, coercion, and theological psychosis cloaked with rhetorical anti-Americanism and a demand for Sharia law?  An ideology both the state and society of Pakistan have been at war with for the past five years of so?

What does Mr. Sharif mean by ‘anti-Americanism?’ How is his party any different from the parties the PMLN accuses of being ‘American stooges?’ Any high-profile official of American or western states who visits Pakistan is also met by PMLN chief Mian Nawaz Sharif. Why can’t he just shun them?

And how is ‘American interference’ that parties like the PMLN and Jamaat-e-Islami are always lamenting any different from Saudi interference? It was the US along with the Saudis who were the biggest donors to the anti-Soviet Afghan ‘jihad’ in the 1980s. What’s more, the Saudis were also the only other country (apart from, of course, Pakistan) that actually recognised the brutal tyranny of the Taliban under Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan (1996-2001).

Today, after facing the wrath and the madness of the monsters that it helped Pakistan create, the Saudis are willing partners of the US in its war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. So how come not a word is uttered by the PML-N against the Saudis as well?

Effective politics is first and foremost about policies derived from diplomacy and pragmatism and then implemented through a democratic consensus. Ideology works merely as a cover to communicate such policies on a populist level. There’s a lesson to be learned here by Shahbaz Sharif and the PML-N. PML-N’s popularity in central and upper Punjab is still rooted in the solid developmental work it did in that province between 1985 and 2007.

Its weakest link, however, has remained its ideology. Unfortunately, no matter how hard it has tried to sound like a national party, the PMLN’s ideology always seems to be stemming from the ethos of Punjab’s conservative sections. This ethos is the one that also informs the ideological make-up of the Pakistan Army and large sections of the province’s bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes.

Over the decades it has been accused by Sindhi, Pushtun and Baloch nationalists of dictating (through the ‘establishment’ and the military) a homogeneous Pakistani nationalism, but one that is ingrained in the Punjabi industrial, bureaucratic and political elite’s worldview.

And therein lies PMLN’s ideological dilemma. This worldview is a strange brew of aggressive anti-India positioning; a scorning disregard for any attempt to give Sindh, Pakhtunkwah and Balochistan any worthy degree of political autonomy; an air-tight notion of political and cultural Islam that attempts to overwhelm the many other strains of the faith that exist in the country; and a stringent observance of public conservatism. Add to all this a new-found respect for democracy and claims of anti-Americanism and you have in your hands the ideology of the PMLN.

However, if you slightly alter this, wouldn’t one then get what, say, a reactionary political party like the Jamaat-i-Islami stands for?

Yes. But the difference is the PMLN’s legacy as a doer party. It is this and not entirely its ideology that is helping it bag votes in the Punjab. It is the doing bit that gets votes for other mainstream parties as well such as the PPP, ANP and the MQM.

Nevertheless, whereas the other parties mentioned have been pragmatic and progressive enough to let their ideologies evolve according to the needs of the time, the PMLN seems to be getting stuck in an ideological hole that it continues to dig for itself.

One moment it is quick to show off its new-found credentials as a modern democratic party working for the rule of law and constitutionalism; the very next moment one is baffled by the way this party continues to romanticise ideas and entities associated with the most reactionary strains of Islam.

For example, the PMLN is quick to make sure Lahore’s traditional festival, Basant, is banned because many people lose their lives. If so, many people also lose their lives during Ramadan. According to a research, the number of traffic accidents almost double every Ramadan about half an hour before the opening of the fast as motorists and bikers try to hurry back home. Does this mean that Ramadan too should be banned?

The PMLN government was even quicker to put restrictions on Punjab’s once thriving popular theatre scene and on the late night packages offered by telecom companies because they are ‘a bad influence on the youth.’

Meanwhile, Punjab Law Minister, Rana Sannullah, is seen (literally) holding hands with the chief of a banned sectarian organisation, and Shahbaz Sharif says his party’s ideology is close to that of the Taliban. Is this meant to imply that terrorists are a better influence on the youth? Is a suicide bomber exploding himself in public a better influence on the youth than a dance performance by Nargis on a Lahore stage?

Ban the theatre actors and dancers, curb night-time offers from telecom companies, put a stop to men wearing shorts in public (I’m serious), let hate-mongers make whirlwind tours of Lahore’s educational institutions, keep badmouthing the president, but at the same time sound meek, hopeless and even reconciliatory when it comes to brutal terrorists. Is this the PMLN’s idea of a ‘sovereign,’ just and democratic Pakistan?

Spurred on by one particular TV channel which itself has kept its own historical skeletons locked in the closet while lecturing the nation on sovereignty and a corruption-free Pakistan, the PMLN has begun to perform not for the people as such, but for TV audiences. And that is dangerous.

The PMLN’s growing self-righteousness that sounds so pleasant on TV cannot continue to get it votes. As mentioned before, it is the party’s legacy of being a resourceful political entity that can actually undertake developmental work that matters.

And come to think of it, it is easy to criticise the current PPP-led coalition government for struggling against the Taliban menace. But the truth is, the real failure in this respect is more obvious in the Punjab than anywhere else.

The Punjab government and those who support it should seriously start to rethink their priorities. Again, one of the easiest (if not also the laziest) things to do is to sound all lofty, high and mighty talking about sovereignty, independent judiciary, corruption, et al, on the TV; but all this starts to seem dizzying and fluff-like in the midst of loud, rude bomb attacks by men who are a million times worse than what the PMLN is so concerned about.

In parting, I would also like to sincerely advise the doings of certain TV channels whose policies are clearly echoing those of the PMLN. On these channels, amidst sounds and visuals of gory suicide attacks, death and destruction, one can still catch sheer hate-mongers masquerading as preachers, ‘scholars,’ talk show hosts and ‘security analysts.’

My question to these channels is, if you think that corruption and lack of accountability are not good for the country, then how good are those we see sprouting utter hatred and mischief in your studios? And anyway, accountability, like charity, should begin at home, shouldn’t it?

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