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]

Monday, February 18, 2008


- reflections, a night before elections

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections deserve a mention at this forum. Don’t they? Hundreds of miles away from LUMS, back at home, I find myself quite excited about tomorrow. Despite some doubts (so much about these elections remains overcast with doubt), I do sense a moment of reckoning approaching. Slowly, almost silently, the armies of change are marching. You can smell its heady aroma from afar.

This night of hope contrasts so sharply with another that I spent back home, not so long ago. That evening we met Maulana Fazl ur Rehman and Qazi Hussain Ahmad to convince them about the need to support the movement of rule of law, restoration of judiciary and end of Emergency rule. While Qazi sahib was both polite and supportive, Fazl ur Rehman was brusque and dismissive. While one seemed ready to take on the establishment, the other seemed hopelessly sold out to the promise of comprise and acquiescence. One could sense the rift between the two men, already too vast to be gulfed.
As he sat on the sofa, looking somewhere between his feet and speaking a lot of sense, stroking his imposing white beard every now and then, he evoked in me (not a JI-voter) a lot of sympathy. Left in the lurch by his erstwhile companions, he was still standing for his principles, even at the cost of his party’s electoral fortunes. No compromise with dictatorship, nothing less than systemic reform, he vowed. It was normal for me and my fellow students to display such unflinching idealism - we are young, and new to this game. But the same coming from a seasoned leader of one of Pakistan’s major political parties… it took us by surprise. All the same, we could see a somber tinge, or even sadness in his eyes – the somber look of a man about to sacrifice much, a man who knowingly and willing fights a losing battle because he believes in it, a man about to be wiped out by the massive forces he has taken on.

That night, as I put my head to the pillow, I felt terribly depressed by the same thought. I thought then that we too were fighting a losing battle. It looked as though the likes of Fazlur Rehman and Chaudhary Shujaat would outvote everyone and buffet Musharraf’s repressive regime, which we had tried so hard to topple. Nothing will change. No power to the people. No systemic reform. Just status quo. The pessimism that batons and tear gas couldn’t infuse into us was infused into us by one smug look from an establishment politician, and the dejectedness of his erstwhile colleague. That night I thought it was all lost, gone to waste.

Tonight is different altogether. I stand convinced, just like a vast majority of Pakistanis, that tomorrow by the power of our vote, we will bring a lot of change in the system. The system which we shook up by standing before palpable state oppression will be given one final fatal blow by the collective power of our votes. What a magical thing that piece of paper is: thin, small, almost as weightless as air, yet as powerful as a bludgeon; dumb and silent, but sharper than the sharpest of tongues. Tomorrow, inshaAllah, I will see it for the first time in my life, and I will put it to good use.

Tonight also reminds me of the night before November 5, 2007. Back then, I was trying to muster up whatever courage I had, to prepare myself for the next morning when I would go and protest the imposition of martial law, out at the High Court, knowing full well that at that moment, there was no battlefield more dangerous than that, anywhere in the country. Out there, on the first week day after Nov 3, the state’s forces would gather to quell all resistance at its nationwide focal point – the Lahore High Court. That night, we knew that nothing less would get the message across. It was hard a night.

Tonight is so much easier. I am convinced that tomorrow all it would take to get the message across is to cast a vote. There is still a fear of poll-day violence and bombings, but then that fear has almost become a part of our every-day lives. Even that might change in the aftermath of the elections. At least, let’s hope so.

Somehow, I feel another chapter in our history coming to an end – the eight-and-a-half years of dictatorship. To whom should we dedicate this chapter? My first thought, perhaps surprisingly, is Aasim Sajjad, our erstwhile professor. Mention of Asim Sajjad sparks another memory. Almost a year-and-a-half ago, there was news of Musharraf coming to preside over LUMS graduation. Feeling incensed, we held a meeting to sign a petition urging the administration to cancel their invitation. We didn’t want the dictator to be given this gesture of support and respect.

In those days, we had much less hope. So many people lingered under so many illusions and there was so much apathy. Peope would say: Pakistan’s unfit for democracy; Musharraf’s so benevolent and enlightened; Pakistan’s developing so fast, who cares for human rights; we don’t care because our future remains essentially unaffected by whateve happens in politics; Musharraf will always be there and the army’s here to stay in politics, and things of this sort. Tonight, hardly any of those myths survive and there’s much less apathy.

So perhaps we should dedicate this epoch to activists like Aasim Sajjad, and to judges like Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary and lawyers like Ali Ahmed Kurd and Aitzaz Ahsan who stood firm telling Pakistan that no matter how screwed the system was, if you were firm enough and honest enough and brave enough, you could still bring about change. Tonight that change seems so imminent, although it would only be the beginning of a series of changes that need to be brought about. Credit should also go to Imran Khan, who may never become a major player in our politics, but has already managed to transform it deeply. While his party could never get its slogans to the halls of power, those policies and slogans – justice and rights - have been adopted by a major political force, who just might make it into the halls of power. If politics is about ideas, then Imran Khan’s politics, in a strange and indirect way, is flourishing today like never before.

Last but not the least, we might dedicate this era to the ordinary common man who will come out to vote Musharraf and his cronies out. The ordinary voter, the common man, the man on the street also has other reasons to feel avenged. The elections campaign simply destroyed the silence observed by Pakistan’s westernized English-educated elite over the massacre at Lal Masjid and the continuing human rights abuses in the Waziristan war. When the politicians went to the voter on ground, many of them were surprised about how close and alive these issues are to the people’s hearts, particularly my part of the country. In many ways, the ordinary Pakistani was way more touched by the sight of charred bodies and a demolished mosque than the ‘enlightened moderate’ elite that dominates the media. Democracy and its processes like mass campaigning avenged the greater public sentiment, as every politician had to talk about those momentous events, no matter how ‘politically incorrect’ it sounded. The forgotten blood of innocent young girls, the debris of a mosque destroyed, the amputated limbs of Pakhtun civilians in Waziristan, they are all back on the list. Ordinary people have brought them there, showing that while they do care about bread and butter, they also care about more.

I pray for tomorrow and for all the days that follow. May it be that by Allah’s blessing, every coming day lives out its true promise. Ameen.