You have to stand guard over the development and maintenance of democracy, social justice and the equality of mankind in your own native soil. [Mohammed Ali Jinnah]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Talk and Tea with US Senators

By: Umar G
Date: 12 December, 2007

This afternoon, quite unexpectedly, SAC representatives were invited to a meeting between civil society representative and United States Senators visiting Pakistan. The invitation came to us the way most invitations travel in the political circles here: someone knows someone who knows someone else who know… all the way between the sender and the recipient. In any case, at around two in the afternoon, as the air was abuzz with the blithe news of the imminent release of our fellow students from jail, we hitchhiked our way to a house somewhere close to Pace in Liberty Market. A beautifully young lady with lots of make-up dressed up in a black business suit ushered us inside the house. By our left a saw one of the beautiful private garden that I have ever seen and in my mind flickered a glimpse of that eternally-sought Eden. But the next moment we were led into a grand house and then a grand drawing room beyond which a swimming pool could be seen.

The room, however, was completely NGO-aunty-infested. At first, I felt trapped in yet another elite NGO-aunty tea party but further conversation marginally corroded my mental stereotype. After another hour or so, the senators arrived and the meeting formally began. The four senators (senators of their own states, not federal senators) were young men in their early thirties and had been selected from amongst a large number of candidates to spend a week or so in Pakistan trying to understand the country better. The moderator was the owner of the mansion, the young lady who had ushered us in. Besides three students, Anushay, Ammar and myself, there were lawyers, middle-tier representatives from the PPP and PML-N, journalists, representative of HRCP and Human Rights Watch and a couple of film-makers.

It would be pointless to give you a minute-by-minute account of the meeting. Besdies, I don’t remember all the stuff. I can only offer snippets. First the arguments, then the people.

The civil society representatives offered the usual story: martial law is in place, the judiciary has been destroyed, rights and freedoms are minimal and Musharraf is banking on nothing less and nothing more than his American support base. It is bad because the US professes to be the champion of democracy and liberal values but its acts destroy the claim. It is against US interests because with the current configuration of power, America’s War on Terror and support for Musharraf is alienating the civil society; without the civil society’s support, banking on the military alone, the US is highly unlikely to make much progress in fighting extremism.

The students added the point that without a strong and independent judiciary all governments tend to turn authoritarian and arbitrary. Therefore, if freedom and responsibly, good governance are to take root and survive in Pakistan, the illegally dismissed judges must be restored. Elections are part of the solution but democracy is incomplete without getting the judges back.

The Senators recognized the outrage against US polices amongst the civil society in Pakistan. However, they felt that given its security concerns, the US had no choice but to back the military in Pakistan which is, among other things, crucial to the supply chain for waging war in Afghanistan. They expressed the fear that if the US withdraws its support for Pakistan Army, the Saudis (whom they termed the biggest supporters of terrorism in the world and Islamic Fundamentalists) would fill in the vacuum. This, they believed, would put Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in even more dangerous hands. Again and again, the Senators kept insisting that instead of crticising US policy, Pakistanis should provide alternative policies.

To this, the representative of Human Rights Watch and a few journalists responded by saying that the American aid did not have to withdrawn immediately. It would be a gradual process whereby the US should negotiate with not just the military in Pakistan but with the civil society in order to come to any settlement. Also, right now even moral support in terms of a statement of two followed by some action will boost the courage of relevant actors. At least the US should stop make such irresponsible claims like saying that the judges issue is a mere Supreme Court reshuffle and elections will be free and fair. In the longer run, US security will remain in danger as long as common people hate it and resent its policies.

A lot of usual questions were asked and answered. The Senators did, however, raise two points which I consider quite enlightening. I felt that these questions caught almost all of us off guard and we need to think deeply about them. Why did the civil society not rise against the martial law in 1999, but rose up now? How are judges selected in Pakistan? If the government handpicks the judges, why is it still so outrageous when it makes them take a new oath or fires them? I do not mean to suggest that we have no answers to these questions, but I do feel that we need to reflect more deeply upon these key points.

As to the people, two of the senators stood out: Senator Pippy, ex-armyman, more than six-feet talk and very strongly built, he was a very sharp Republican. His questions were ruthless but relevant. The leader of the group, however, was a very sweet, good-looking and suave Democrats, who quiet but perceptive demeanour but deep eyes inspired a lot of respect. He was quite understanding, and at the end of the meeting, profusely thanked us terming this their ‘most lively’ meeting in Pakistan, yet. Ali Dayan from Human Rights Watch was very articulate and appeared fairly seasoned in tackling US politicians, appealing to just the right things. Later, over a cup of tea, he told me that he felt that the senators were ‘gaon kay loag’ (villages) from small states, and he had dealt with bigger fish before. Aitzaz Ahsan’s son, a lawyer working with the UN was also there and he grilled the American just as his father used to grill the Attorney-General in the Supreme Court, before Nov 3.

Then, of course, there was our unforgettable hostess but I have mentioned her elsewhere…

Throughout the meeting, waiters - some dressed up in fancy sherwanis and turbans, others in ragged clothes - kept roaming miserably from one person to another, distributing tea, sandwiches, patties, pastries and delicacies of all sort and the senators kept refusing to accept their generosity. In my heart, I could feel the contempt that this must have inspired in the Senators. They must be sharing my contempt for the rich in Pakistan who have the guts to blame America for hypocrisy while, in their own houses, they do the same – talk of justice and rights, but engage in ruthless exploitation of the laboring class; tell the American to respect other humans, but force their own servant to work in harsh and humiliating conditions. Are we any better than the military? Why should the Americans leave the reins of power in our hands? Is it the perpetuation of our power and privilege that we are fighting for? I don’t have any quick answers. But as my eyes wandered from our beautiful and eloquent young hostess to the senators and back, I felt these questions plague my mind.

At the end of the meeting, business cards were exchanged. Asma Jehangir had come by then. As we stood outside the house, waiting for a rickshaw, all the aunties had left in their big cars. A rickshaw was hard to find. The weather was lovely, windy and Islamabad-cold and we were anxious to join our recently released friends at the Hunger Strike Camp outside the Press Club. We had with us a chatty, young, Lahori lawyer, who had spent a week or so in jail. Like most Lahoris he had quite a few stories to share…

Blogged with Flock


dOn said...

Very well written article. I agree with most of the points but i think as pakistanis we should not even think of seeking help from Americans. This is real world everyone fights for himself. I think right now we should lay low but strengthen our roots in students.Rather than wasting our energies in such lavish parties.

Mohammad Ali said...

Very well written indeed. Excellent job Omar.

About "seeking help of Americans", I think in this "real world" one does not lives alone. You need to mobilize international community for a cause to be successful, especially need to convince those who are supporting the aggressor, either by design or simply by not knowing the ground realities.

Americans or some one else, There's no harm in meeting any one from the foreign community visiting, especially if they're interested in current developments.