Saturday, 12 May 2012

Bannu, Zia-ul-Haq, And Bhutto's Reincarnation

Qissa Khwani - story-telling. Hmm ... ! I remember a little story. Perhaps have told it many times in 140 words or less. Jokingly mentioned on my Wall. But somehow feel it needs to be retold.
Year: 1988.
Place: F.G. School for Girls
City: Bannu
Characters: Talkative Little Girl, Frustrated Government-Paid Teachers, Jealous Little Boys and Girls, A Military Dictator and Other Dead and/or Forgotten People 

She was 9. She talked a lot. Loved being a monitor in her class 'coz it gave her the immense power of hitting other kids with the broken leg of a wooden chair that the teacher kept for control. As she barked at them to take out their hands from behind their backs so she could gleefully hit them so hard they would howl she thought to herself, "How I wish I was made monitor every day!" But before the first blow came down something inside her always winced - the terror-stricken faces waiting for the pain, the feel of wood on soft almost-baby flesh, the thwack and the quick redness spreading across the palm left her nauseous. "No! I can't let them see I am a weakling. They do the same to me when its their turn. Worse ... they laugh at me (and anyone else) when I cry. I'll do it even if it haunts me the whole long afternoon and evening and night back at home. Afternoon when I drive my brother's BMX up and down the scorching tarmac driveway of our yellow-bricked colonial Government residence. Evenings when I sit under the Jamun tree and collect the fruit with my purple-stained fingers singing songs I had made up. Nights when I slept in a huge bed between my two elder sisters and couldn't put away stories of the young English woman who jumped from our balcony many, many years ago and haunted the hosue. They are neither of them very huggable and I have a feeling its because they don't like me". And she would bring the wood cracking down without any feeling any more. 

This day was like any other day. The teacher dozed at her desk with hands placed on the table, fist under her chin. 9 year olds sneaked bites out of their lunch boxes unable to wait for break. The smell of half-fried eggs and parathas filled the hot Bannu afternoon. And something unusual happened! 

The Principal was a skinny old woman (40+ seems old at 9) with a stern mouth and unkind eyes. There were strange lines around her mouth and eyes though that were firmly and permanently crinkled in an unfamiliar way. They never deepened but they were there. Tell-tale signs of something the kids could never decipher. She was out of bounds for all kids. No one was ever supposed to greet her. They were too insignificant. But on this day she came into the class and made a grunt. 45 saucer-like eyes and wax-filled ears focused with all their might on her. What could she want? 

"Children whose fathers are in the Police stand up!" 
*crickets chirping*
Looking at the classteacher, "Who was that girl you were telling me about?"
"That's her, Ma'am" - and for one agonizing moment 45 erratic beating hearts prayed with all their might it wasn't them. And sure enough the finger pointed at her. "Dear God, no. Please whatever it is I have done I'll never do it again. Please save me this one time and I'll never miss a prayer or watch a Bollywood movie again". 
"Come forward! What is your name?"
*chirp chirp*
"I asked you a question!"
*chirp chirp*
"Is her father the *xyz*? You said she was the most talkative. What's wrong with her today?" 
Frantic classteacher, "Do you know who the president of our country is? Remember I told you all in class last week?"
Last week Baba had given her Rs. 10 and she had a feast with it at the canteen. Rs. 2.75 could buy a coke and with Rs. 0.25 you could buy a samosa. Also, a rupee could buy you 20 Fanty candies. But she knew the answer to that question any way. 

She was born on 4th April 1979 at 5 PM. No one ever let her forget that. It was the day Bhutto was hanged. It never made sense to her why or how that was important. All she knew was it was how her birthday was remembered. The guy who killed her was Zia-ul-Haq. The funny man with the big moustache who was shown on PTV all day long. He was the reason they sometimes cut-down the 10 minutes Danger Mouse cartoon that was shown every day at 4 PM. It was the highlight of her day and this man ruined it for her on many occasions.

"Good! Get her ready."
"Yes, Ma'am Principal!"

And then started one of the the most embarrassing moments of her life. The teacher gave her a bar of soap and made her sit next to the tap in the playground where she was a sitting duck for everyone from 1st grade to 5th. And the scrubbing started. It went on till her face was raw and her hands sting. A pathani-dress was produced from thin air and before she knew she was wearing it (the memory of how that happened is foggy). Teachers in the staffroom produced a white creamy stick that was smeared all over her face. Long nails were skilfully used to paint as near her tear-ducts as possible. She had to look white - she was a pathani! A blood red SwissMiss Lipstick was applied to her lips. The same lipstick was then used to add some color to her cheeks. After much fussing over when she was finally allowed to look in the mirror she almost squealed in terror. But oh well ...

Shame of shames, another classfellow was brought out all dressed up. Mortified, she looked around for someone to save her but no help seemed to be coming. She heard her jeering school-fellows make comments like, "Ooh look at the bride and groom". She almost died!

All she remembers after that is being handed over to a pair of complete strangers, men for that matter, who took them to the airport where a huge chopper almost blew her off her feet. She was given a bouquet to present to the guest. A bunch of grinning men came out of the heli and she was pushed to walk towards them. A man who looked familiar broke away from the rest and walked up to her, took the bouquet from her hands, smiled down and thanked her. 
Only when she reached home she was told that was the guy from TV. She was somewhat of a celebrity that day and it took out the sting from her earlier humiliation - just a bit of it.
Few weeks later on August 18, 1988, the president died in a "Case of Exploding Mangos". The story that went around in the family said she was the last kid to give him a bouquet. Not sure of the truth of that. But some called her Bhutto's reincarnation that avenged his death. 

Of course the kid in the story is moi. Incidentally, my husband's birthday is 27th December.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Looking for Taliban equivalents

Bestowing artificial legitimacy on aliens?

In a recent opinion piece, Mr. Nadir Hassan has drawn parallels between the present-day Taliban and the resistance movements in the federally administrated tribal areas (FATA) in the remote past. The writer asserts that he does not condone the Taliban atrocities but, unfortunately, he appears to rationalise that madness by his attempt to impart legitimacy of sorts by trying to tie them to the past struggles in that region.

Mr Hasan has focused on the anti-colonial, conservative religious figure, the Faqir of Ipi and has compared the Faqir of Ipi’s rebellion against the British Raj with the Taliban. The similarities between the two movements – if the Taliban can be called one - are far and few in between and the comparison is valid only in a very limited scope, if at all.

The writer has, for example, exaggerated the reach and influence of the Faqir’s uprising by calling it one of the ‘most successful rebellions’ which was actually not the case. The fact is the movement by the Faqir of Ipi was quite limited and neither had the capacity to nor did extend outside Waziristan. Like the Taliban’s Pakistani backers, the Faqir’s uprising had its foreign supporters in Germans and Italians. However, unlike the Taliban’s handlers, the Germans and Italians were aware that even with unlimited supplies he could not gather more than a thousand adherents or carry out a serious and sustained assault on British forces. The Faqir’s did conduct the classic hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against the British but really had no strategy to expand the scope of their rebellion, including tying it to the larger independence struggle in British India.

Unlike the highly Arabised and Pakistan-trained Taliban, the Faqir of Ipi’s movement was indigenous in nature, characteristics, norms, scope and influence. It was not driven by an anti-imperial ideology or any mooted anti-colonial phenomena. It erupted on the issue of handing over a Hindu minor girl to her parents by the British administration, following a complaint against a tribal man for abducting, converting to Islam and marrying the girl. The action taken by the British administration, of course, was highly commendable, especially when compared today with the complicity of present-day political and civil administration and the inaction of judiciary in similar cases.

The steps taken by the British administration were nonetheless conceived as an attack on the tribal code as well as against religious norms. The outrage against the perceived British excesses morphed into a decade-long insurgency. The indigenous nature of the revolt by default had to tap the traditional bastions of native culture and power i.e. the jirga (political assembly), hujra (social assembly) and the mosque (religious assembly). The former two power centres overshadowed or at least remained at par with the mosque – an exact opposite of the way Taliban movement evolved and prosecuted war. The Faqir’s men worked with the existing socio-political structures, which is in stark contrast with the Taliban zealots blowing up jirgas and decimating the tribal elders and their hujras. Not a shred of historical evidence suggests that the Faqir’s men went on a killing spree against the tribal leaders, common people, music or poetry recitals, village fairs and play areas, bazaars, shrines or mosques.

The very distinct composition of Taliban-ian Islam (as the writer asserted) is the attempt to bring down the existing socio-political structure and to extend their control by inflicting a puritanical version of Islam and waging a jihad against fellow Muslims considered guilty of idolatry, grave worshipping and adultery. Imposing rigorous prohibitions on music, dance and all forms of arts, and enforce punishments for not observing Islamic rituals, challenging tribal hierarchy and insisting on socio-religious equality of the people to win over support.

In his pursuance of finding out an equivalent from the region to dispel the impression of considering the Taliban as an unprecedented phenomena, he missed that the Faqir of Ipi was not a mullah; he was associated with a Sufi clan, a disciple of Pir Naqib of Charbagh, which makes him a Barelvi. Thus, his version of religion was more in line with the local interpretation of Islam (for instance, it is apparent from the use of music in his war parties).

Also, if he had researched about the descendants of the Faqir of Ipi, he may have found that the successor of the Faqir, his nephew, Niaz Ali Khan, was known for his conciliatory approach in tribal disputes, and his sons Abdul Jaleel, Abdul Wali and others were often inveighed by the local mullahs for inertness toward the religiously glorified war of Afghanistan and the current uproar in FATA.

The Faqir of Ipi’s opposition to the idea of Pakistan came from the political leanings favoured towards Congress and its allies in frontier region, the Khudai Khidmatgars. His support of the Pashtunistan was first influenced by this and later by his contacts in the Afghan Government, which lost grounds after Badshah Khan took an oath of allegiance to Pakistan and his military commander later surrendered to Pakistan.

Taliban roots in political and religious movements on Pashtun lands can be traced to the Wahhabi-influenced movement of Syed Ahmed of Bareli, who sought political control by declaring himself the vanguard of Islam, imposed centralised Sharia Laws, changing Pashtun traditions and norms with their version of Islam and challenging the traditional authority of Pashtun elders as well as the religious clergy by assigning themselves the authorities to arbitrate disputes and collect religious tax, as Zakat and Ushr. These steps by Syed Ahmed and his disciples from across India and among Pashtuns were rejected by the traditional Pashtun leadership as well as clergy. The alien movement ensued in an utter failure

Local tribal elders and people of FATA have the same feelings of agony towards the aliens and monsters aka Taliban; it is state support for perceived strategic interests which have enabled them to continue their beleaguering of FATA.

Originally published in Pakistan Today on Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

QOTD: Afghanistan & the first drones

"It is a matter of great regret that the throwing of bombs by zeppelins on London was denounced as a most savage act and the bombardment of places of worship and sacred spots was considered a most abominable operation. While we now see with our own eyes that such operations were a habit which is prevalent among all civilized people of the west"

                  -King Amanullah of Afghanistan (1919) writing about the British bombardment of Kabul