Monday, December 18, 2006

On the memoirs of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan

"At the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world," says Saleem Sinai in the first chapter of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, as he reveals that "thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country." In the prologue to his memoir In The Line of Fire, Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf, born four years before the creation of the state of Pakistan, sounds very much like a Pakistani Saleem: "The story of my life coincides almost from the beginning with the story of my country - so the chapters that follow are not only the biography of a man, but of Pakistan as well".

Saleem Sinai's claim is supposed to be interpreted by the reader as comic: Rushdie wants us to marvel at this fantastical linking of the destinies of man and nation, and Saleem himself always bemoans "that benighted moment" that robbed him, as it were, of his own independence as a sovereign individual. But the good General's claim is made in all seriousness. Providence has singled him out - the son of middle-class immigrants, reconciled at one stage to seeing out his career as a high-ranking military officer - for some reason for a special place in history, and, handcuffed to history, it is his duty now to carry out his role, responsibly if reluctantly, of commander of the ship of the Pakistani state.

"My autobiography," he says solemnly, "is my contribution to the history of our era." A simple, plainspeaking, moral man ("truthfulness is a sine qua non of good character" he tells us in a passage on moral development), he will along the way also tell us the real truth, obscured until now, about many things - the tussle in which he overthrew Pakistan's erstwhile prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Kargil episode, Pakistan's role in the War on Terror and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. "I want the world to learn the truth." "It is time to lay bare what has been shrouded in mystery." This I-know-it-better-than-anybody-else air is the characteristic tenor of In The Line of Fire.

If In The Line of Fire reveals anything of interest about the president, it is the centrality of the army and the martial way of life to his worldview. "I was only eighteen when I entered the Pakistan Military Academy in 1961," he recounts in an chapter about his youth, one of the few which is low on rhetoric. Indeed, it is somehow symbolic that he has spent all his adult life as a soldier. In his book the word "army" is always associated with positive values: valour and heroism, commitment and sacrifice, integrity and intelligence. The army is a world within the world - a bastion of discipline and order to counterbalance the confused, disorganised sprawl of civilian life and of electoral politics.

When it comes to his beloved army, Musharraf is especially sensitive to insult and especially susceptible to grand posturing. What stung him most in the aftermath of what he sees as Sharif's ill-advised withdrawal from Kargil in 1999 is the sullying of the army's image by the country's own government: "I am ashamed to say, our political leadership insinuated that the achievements of our troops amounted to a 'debacle'. Some people even called the Pakistan Army a 'rogue army'."

The truth, he would have us know, is quite the opposite. "Considered purely in military terms, the Kargil operations were a landmark in the history of the Pakistan Army." Against all evidence he doggedly maintains that "whatever movement has taken place so far in the direction of finding a solution to Kashmir is due considerably to the Kargil conflict". This is a curious stand coming from a man who has, since coming to power, purported to taking the lead in resolving the Kashmir problem through dialogue.

For someone who considers himself "a soldier's man", the General also reveals himself to be an expert juggler with words. Although he agrees that he deposed Nawaz Sharif after the famous hijacking drama of October 12, 1999, he does not agree that it was a coup d'etat - instead it was "a countercoup". In the General's opinion it was Sharif who actually launched "a coup against the army and myself" by dismissing him as chief of the army while he was away in Sri Lanka and appointing another general in his place, and what the General did in reply was the countercoup - "for there can be no other word for it".

By refashioning the meaning of the word "coup", which my Shorter OED defines as "a violent and illegal change of government", the General carves out a kind of moral legitimacy for himself, even as he unintentionally demonstrates how in Pakistan, a country which has seen four military rulers in its short history, the army's self-image and functions often overlap with those of the state. To depose the chief of the army in such a country can also be a "coup".

The General drips with contempt for his two predecessors as the head of Pakistan's government, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - particularly Sharif. For him the decade between 1988 and 1999, when Benazir and Sharif each spent two terms in power after winning elections, was a period of "sham democracy". Nor does he think very highly of Indian democracy, using quote marks always to show what he thinks of "the largest democracy in the world".

But democracy, through elections, confers legitimacy upon leaders, and every leader craves legitimacy. Musharraf had his own tryst with the electorate in the infamous yes-or-no referendum on his rule in 2002, in which he emerged with a staggering 97% yes vote. In a piece on this exercise called "The April Fool Referendum", the Pakistani human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir testified that "the rigging was so brazen that it will embarrass any foreign government to accept the exercise and its result as a democratic process". But while Musharraf himself admits that the exercise "ended in a near catastrophe", here is his wily attempt at explaining it:

The referendum went smoothly. There was a very high turnout, and the overall count was strongly in my favour. There were some irregularities, though. I found that in some places overenthusiastic administrative officials and bureaucrats had allowed people to vote more than once, and had even filled out ballot papers themselves. I also later found out that this absolutely unwarranted "support" was helped along by the opposition in certain areas where they have a hold and where they stuffed ballot boxes in my favor as to provide supposed evidence for claims of foul play. The whole exercise ended in a near catastrophe.[…] Finally, in a national broadcast, I had to come clean. I thanked the people for their support but also admitted that some excesses had indeed taken place without my knowledge or consent. (my italics)
In this passage Musharraf appears more sinned against than sinning, with both his supporters and opponents remarkably conspiring towards the same ends (to rephrase the old saying: with enemies like these, who needs friends?). Meanwhile, the General was oblivious to these happenings, but the chorus of "I founds" are meant to attest that, insofar as he had any agency in the whole case, it was in bringing the wrongdoings to light.

To be fair to the General, life has not been easy since he came to power. He took over a country on the brink of economic collapse. Later, the American government's demands after 9/11 and the resentment of Pakistan's religious hardliners put him between a rock and a hard place. His crackdown on terrorism led to two attempts being made upon his life; Time magazine declared that he held "the world's most dangerous job". Musharraf's account of how he negotiated his way through these troubles shows a commendable understanding of realpolitik. One of his good qualities appears to be that, at least in domestic matters, he has no patience with fundamentalism and religious obscurantism. On the demonization of Islam around the world as a religion of intolerance, he sensibly observes:

It is all very well for us to say that Islam is nothing of the sort, that it is in fact a very progressive, moderate and tolerant religion - which indeed it is - but why should the people of the world bother to go out of their way and spend their precious time to explore the authentic sources of Islam? They are going to judge Islam by the utterances and actions of Muslims, especially those actions and utterances that affect their lives directly, and not just by the protestations of academics and moderates, no matter how justified.
Six years in power have taught the General to weight and to aim his words carefully - his book, which made it to the bestseller list, can itself be seen as a work tailored carefully for a Western audience interested in Asian affairs but not expert in the finer details. His book tour in the US in 2006, which featured amongst other events a hit appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show", was in stark contrast to his official visit to the US in 2005. That turned out to be a PR disaster after he spoke recklessly on the Mukhtar Mai rape case, suggesting that rape in his country was used as a tool by women to gain riches and to emigrate.

Now, in his book, his thoughts on the case are shoehorned into a chapter full of pieties called "The Emancipation of Women" written, as Tunku Varadarajan says in his piece on the book, "with all the passion of a government circular". It is a chapter that shows he has learnt that, whether or not he actually walks the walk, a statesman should always talk the talk. He drones:

Rape, no matter where it happens in the world, is a tragedy and deeply traumatic for the victim. My heart, therefore, goes out to Mukhtaran Mai and any woman to whom such a fate befalls.
"My heart, therefore" - how insincere is that? And what is the point of that phrase "no matter where it happens in the world" - how should that be relevant in any way? We understand when, a little later, the General reveals that no rape case should be allowed to besmirch the good name of the nation:
Rape and violence against women are universal phenomena, but this does not justify their presence in Pakistan. We need to set our house in order. I only object when Pakistan is singled out and demonized.
When a case of female victimization in Pakistan comes to light, sometimes the first victim is the truth.
In The Line of Fire itself often takes liberties with the truth, but in doing so it is so revelatory of the General's personality that it makes for a far more interesting book than a safer, more cautious account. Autobiography often stands at an angle to historical truth, but in doing so it lets us in on other valuable truths. This is not a book we need to read to understand contemporary Pakistan, as the General would have us believe, but it is certainly something to read if we want to understand the General.

A series of extracts from In The Line of Fire can be found here. And here are two perceptive pieces on the book, by Husain Haqqani and Vir Sanghvi. An audio clip of Musharraf's controversial remarks on the Mukhtar Mai case can be found here, and the video of his appearance on "The Daily Show" here.

Mukhtar Mai has also recently published a memoir called - in an uncanny echo of the title of Musharraf' memoir - In the Name of Honour. And see also a very good essay by Salman Rushdie, "Where is the honour in this vile code...?" on the parallels between the Mukhtar Mai case in Pakistan and the Imrana case in India.


Anonymous said...

Glad to be here. I am glad I found this blog out of nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Autobiography often stands at an angle to historical truth, but in doing so it lets us in on other valuable truths.

what a great way to end another great review. thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

"Autobiography often stands at an angle to historical truth...."

It's because of such lovely expressions that I keep returning to this blog again and again. You seem to be able to paint with words.

Chandrahas said...

Gautami, Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 2 - Thanks very much for your kind remarks. You're welcome to borrow my copy of *In The Line of Fire* whenever you want, as General Musharraf has been giving me dirty looks off the cover for the last three days.

Anonymous said...

My Dear Brother,

Another of words to fool ur self against pakistan!!! so,u r so keen to write about Musharraf but y u forget to write about ur army killing kashmires??burning of mosques or killing 1000s of muslims in ahmedabad???so y dont u 1st write abt ur demoracy or wat ur army n leaders doing before writing about others???