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Bhutto Or Zia: The Results Would Have Been The Same

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Umer Farooq writes about the unrealistic expectations people in Pakistan usually have from political leaders. He calls this problem ‘hero worship’ and argues that pinning all hopes on individuals always leads to disappointment. 

We think our heroes—the people we consider our heroes in public life—can solve our problems with a magic wand. And even if they don’t, they will certainly do something, which will make us proud. And everybody knows that for us Pakistanis, it is much more important to feel proud than find solution to myriad of social, political and economic problems our society is facing.

Hero worship is a problem we are afflicted with. Our problem or disease as I would call it, is akin to the great man theory of history, which says that history is made by great people who inhabited the earth on different points of time.

These great men were the catalysts of change in historical processes and all the great changes in history were in fact of their making.

They somehow subordinated the immensely powerful social, economic and political forces existing in societies and turned the course of history in the direction they wanted the society or history to take.

According to great men’s theory of history, these great men could be military commanders, religious leaders, kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, or may simply be great thinkers or reformers. And they do things in a way, which change the course of history and thus according to this theory, history is the work of these great men.

Years of indoctrination to politically colored history lessons in our primary classrooms, onslaught of themes in country’s media that constructed hero worship into our psyche, faulty political narratives of right wing political forces and avalanche of popular literature, both poetry and fiction, that reinforced the themes of “great men” in history, have left a very deep imprint on the social psychology of our society. We, now, think in terms of heroes and villains as individuals—I mean there are people who are doing good things and we call them our heroes and there are people who are doing bad things and we call them our villains.

We don’t think in terms of social, political and economic trends or social political or economic indicators, which may benefit or harm our society. We think in terms of individuals who could be either good or bad and beneficial or harmful to our interests. And as Pakistan is a highly fractured society, everybody has his own heroes and villains. To cut the long story short, we don’t think along modern and scientific lines about social, economic and political forces affecting us as a society.

We have a very mythological view of how individuals—individuals may be heroes or villains—are causing benefit or harm to our interests as social and political beings.

Two examples will make my point clear.

—General Qamar Javed Bajwa is an individual, who has served the army for three years as Chief of the Army staff, (COAS). Our government thinks that his services as COAS are indispensable for three more years as regional security situation is unusual and this individual’s services are required to deal with the regional threats that are developing on our Eastern and Western borders. This is something akin to great men’s theory of history.

We have an army of around 6 hundred thousand troops and an officer corps of more than thousands of officers, which may include more than 100 generals (both major generals and Lt Generals). Let’s be sure that all of these 100 generals have passed through the same training and on job experience through which General Bajwa has passed.

Secondly and presumably we have a strong well trained, well equipped, highly motivated and led by a well-oiled bureaucracy, Army, which is arguably in a position to defend our frontiers. And yet our government and a segment of our society think that the services of one individual are required to safeguard our security interests. A cursory look at the statements, tweets and assertions dealing with the extension issue will make it clear that the same romanticized version of individuals playing decisive role in national destiny are at play here.

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I am not going into the details of politics related to extension issue at this stage.

Second example relates to the rampant phenomenon of corruption in our society. Villains in this story are individuals. The enemies, as portrayed by the government are individuals, as the government—as far as its narrative is concerned—is not fighting corruption as a social and political evil in our society.

Nawaz Sharif is the biggest villain for the government. Second comes Asif Ali Zardari. But we are not fighting corruption, which is having a corrosive effect on our state machinery and its ability to deliver services to the impoverished masses. There is a very poorly imagined anti-corruption advertisement campaign in the country led by National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which is visible on the streets of Islamabad, as if Islamabad’s residents are target audience of this campaign.

They should not be as they are not the one corroding the state machinery. Ironically nobody at the helms of affairs has so far realized that its the legalized and institutionalized corruption in state machinery’s ranks that is corroding the credibility and effectiveness of the government departments.

And yet individuals are the target of government’s efforts, leading one to believe that we are suffering from the same “big men or great men’s” theory of history. And in the process we are ignoring the social, political forces, which are affecting our society.

Why are we so individual-centric in our understanding of social and political realities? The reasons for this are myriad. But to put it simply I will trace the origin of this in our flawed understanding of our own history and lack of tradition of social sciences academic research in our society.

Pakistan society is severely starved of any serious historiography and filling the blanks are story telling various and narrations based on religious beliefs and traditions. The result is individual-centric view of history, where all the great deeds of the past are understood to be work of great personalities. Social, economic and political forces are never studied and therefore there is no comprehension about these forces that affected our past and that are affecting our present.

Reinforcing this belief in the individual centric view of the history are the momentous events in regional history that also identify individuals as the directors of great political changes in our neighboring countries or within our own country. So Iranian Revolution was the handiwork of one firebrand religious cleric named Imam Khomeini—and were not led by the social classes in Iranian society who emerged as losers in Shah of Iran’s flawed policy of economic modernization—Afghan resistance to Soviet Occupation was led by guerilla leaders like Ahmed Shah Masood and Gulbadin Hakimetyar—and were not conservative Pusthtun tribal uprising in the south and East of the country against the modernization programs of communist regime.

No less a part in developing this understanding of history and social forces was played by the media, which, throughout the last four decades based its reporting of events on the principles of “great men or Big men’s” theory of history. So Bhutto singlehandedly led a movement against military regimes in West Pakistan and came to power as a result and Zia killed Bhutto out of personal insecurity.

Analyzing the social and political forces working in the background remained restricted to the corned and isolated political analysts and some left oriented intellectuals, who were never taken seriously in the society.

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According to narrative in the media, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif presided over the most corrupt regimes in country’s history. While Elder Bhutto and Zia were repressive they were not financially corrupt. Nobody bothered to analyze that return of democracy in Pakistan in 1988 coincided with the rise of neo-liberal economic philosophy in the west, which brought the idea of privatization to Pakistan and, which introduced corruption as a greasing material in the free market and free trade facilities that neo-liberalism intend to introduce in the countries under its influence, after the defeat of Soviet communism.

Lack of the tradition of social science research on social, political and economic developments in the society is another factor fueling the “great men’s” theory of history in Pakistan or its Pakistani version, which only see individuals—both heroes and villains—are bringing changes in the society. There are organizations carrying out social science research in our society, but the diffusion of these research and ideas into the society is a big problem.

Our media till this day don’t give any serious consideration to these researches or base their reports on their conclusion. Some of the English language news outlets do talk on modern lines about social and political developments in the society.

Few months back, I had a hypothetical debate with one of my colleagues about what would have happened if General Zia, the person, had decided not to stage a coup on July 4, 1977, would the history be any different? Would Pakistan have been spared the ordeal of religious extremism? Would there have been no autocracy in Pakistan? My colleague was of the view that Pakistan would have been a democracy, free of extremism, if Zia had decided otherwise, thus he was in a way advocating in accordance with the “great men’s theory of history.

 I strongly disagreed with him. History is not made by individuals as independent actors or agents—as great philosopher, Karl Marx used to say the humans are the product of their socio-economic conditions. It is the socio-economic and political realities that shape history.

In 1977, Pakistani society was developing a reaction to Bhutto’s economic policies of nationalization and land reforms, which favored downtrodden in both rural and urban areas. Small traders and their religious conservative political ideology was dominating the politics of Pakistani religious right. There was a trend of sunnification of Pakistan’s military establishment underway as a result of greater interaction with Gulf States. And lest we forget, Bhutto was no less of an autocrat than Zia and he was not less willing to appease the religious clergy in the country. So with fewer changes in the characters of the drama that was played out in Pakistan, the result would have been the same level of autocracy and religious extremism.

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