Saturday, January 23, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Milestones in a Political Journey

Thanks to Dost Publications for the review copy

PUBLISHED IN DAILY TIMES / 23 JAN 2010

Author: M Asghar Khan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the title: Snapshots of History

The title is misleading. Unless the definition of milestones has changed — the events depicted here are the very antithesis of milestones. Maelstroms would have been a more apt description. When things went south during Asghar Khan’s political struggle, which they did a lot while operating under the destructive influence of dictatorship in the absence of political capital, a free press and/or leverage, speech making and letter writing were the two options left to peace-loving activists. The writer used them extensively. And this is what this misleadingly titled book is all about — Asghar Khan’s thoughts expressed via a collection of letters, speeches, statements and articles spanning four decades. Like many memoirs, documents and books of that era, there is the obligatory parade of dictators and despots — Yahya, Bhutto, Zia, Nawaz and Musharraf. These decades, tainted by the demise of democracy and the advent of hypocrisy, could easily be classified in the horror, thriller, and/or tragedy genre. Not surprisingly, as leader of his political party he has no love lost for dictators, scant respect for civilian stand-ins and little faith in the system. Surprisingly, he continued to write to them, perhaps in the hope of making them rethink their decisions.

Embedded within this (well mannered) rant are lessons that cannot be repeated often enough. Much of his views on annoying trends that are both inhibitive and ubiquitous (buying people/public transport for public meetings ruling party style, extravagant spending) sounds eerily familiar, thoughts on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) and National Accountability Bureau (NAB), appointing babes in the wood to lead parties, changing the exploitative socio-economic order so loved by all the king’s (party) men for instance resonate, some on a nuclear-free nation are likely to bewilder and still others that suggest 12 provinces for Pakistan will raise eyebrows. He minces no words, but throughout the tone is polite, for these are letters and/or articles, some written to the very objects of his ire, many of whom responded while others could not be bothered. Their responses have been thoughtfully included.

Coming back to the bewildering suggestions, Asghar Khan believes that India would settle for a conventional war if Pakistan voluntarily defangs itself. Nuclear deterrence has prevented both countries from going for all-out wars. This is why Pakistan has them in the first place. While the idea of a semi-nuclear-free zone seems perfectly plausible on paper, it could well be at the cost of Pakistan’s security. His fear of an inadvertent nuclear war triggered by madmen, however, is perfectly justified. The depiction of some equally disturbing alternate scenarios is chilling. These documents show how much Asghar Khan was tuned in to subtle shifts within society, if only the leadership was listening. As early as 2000, he pointed out emergent threats like Sufi Mohammad, the man who, as founder of the militant organisation Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), played a central role in trying to broker a faux peace treaty between the murdering Taliban and the peace loving Pakistanis, the same man whose son-in-law wreaked havoc in Swat.

Asghar Khan’s political career was marred by the peculiar nature of this environment where the concept of political prisoners thrives. His retaliatory moves involved filing petitions and addressing bar associations. Against an all too familiar backdrop, some new details surface: Zia silently goading Sunnis to carry out ethnic cleansing in Kohistan, and the northern areas of Chilas and Gilgit denying women/the uneducated the right to vote (charming!); Bhutto’s contempt for the people; an inspector general of Punjab police casually admitting that some 25,000 criminal record holders in law enforcement actually ran the show in the 90s (p185) (but of course!). In the midst of lectures where he admonishes the lawmakers and administrators for being lawbreakers at the behest of the ‘all-powerful’, he offers helpful suggestions on healthcare and educational reforms. The writer includes a statement taken from a former IG police that detail the tragic circumstances in the unsolved murder/suicide of his son Omar Asghar Khan, also a political activist, and identifies certain destructive patterns that could have served as early warning indicators. There is even a neat little Kashmir solution in there somewhere.

People reluctant to travel back to those decades might be convinced to do so by the writer’s erudite observations in this recap. Those who come for the history lesson could stay for the scattered trivia. And the next generation politician and/or dictator could choose to style their regime on a totally different set of parameters, given that ‘ten reasons (give or take a few) why our governments always flatline’ is out now.

Asghar Khan retired from military service, left active politics, spent years in detention, but did not relinquish his position as the moral compass of a nation mauled by dictatorship and democracy alike. Ironically, Milestones in a Political Journey begins with the writer renouncing awards and ends with him accepting one. Since this is not a book per se, it shifts tone abruptly, appears haphazard and is repetitious. There is no beginning, middle or end. There are no milestones either. Just some ‘stills’ taken from snapshots of history.

About the Author: Asghar Khan was the youngest to lead the Pakistan Air Force. He is the recipient of several awards, and led his party (Tehreek-e-Istiqlal) in spirit when he could not do so in person. He is also the author of other books, which include Pakistan at the Crossroads (1969), The Lighter Side Of The Power Game (1985) and the more recent My Political Journey (2008).

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