September Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 16 years ago

Air Marshal Asghar Khan has offered a strangely assembled memoir that does not compare well with some of the books he authored and edited earlier. But his diaries do provide his readers with a good opportunity to sprint through 30 eventful years of our history (1971-2001).

Despite the fact that almost all the entries in the logbook are extremely brief, and there are significant gaps too, one can get a fair idea of Pakistan’s unedifying politics during the period under discussion. It is not easy to decide how much the authoritarian despots and their civilian-political challengers contributed to each other’s perceptions and policies. A surge of sympathy for the long suffering people of this country is unavoidable after reading this book. The final essays, titled ‘Reflection and Epilogue,’ contain many home truths.

asghar-khan-sep08The book’s main feature is that it helps one to get to know Asghar Khan better. One can see how he grew into a soldier’s soldier — he joined the Dehradun military school at the age of 12, and became one of the few in the subcontinent to qualify for a commission as officer in both the army and the air force. These two layers of military discipline cast him in a mould in which, perhaps, the politician in him got suffocated.

We also meet a kind patriarch who loves his family and cares for his friends and relatives, and does not fail to commiserate with the people he has known (and some of whom he has opposed). But his son Omar is, without a doubt, the apple of his eye. Every word in his notes on Omar’s studies, his brief and outrageously severed stint at the Punjab University, his work as a social activist and his political career, shows his affection and pride in his son. These observations also give us an idea of the old warrior’s grief at Omar’s sudden and unexplained demise, and the kind of effort he has had to make to avoid bending under the blow.

There are many places where the Air Marshal’s attachment to healthy political norms flashes through a somewhat colourless narrative. He finds the system of awarding party tickets to candidates in elections “rotten,” and notes that “the speed with which our newspapers change their tune and find hidden qualities in our rulers is sickening.” Most Pakistanis will agree with him when he states: “I feel that Pakistan must stay clear of the Afghan problem, and should not convert [itself] into a base for operations against Afghanistan … The risks are too great, and Pakistan’s own survival and security would be placed in jeopardy.”

The Air Marshal favours blunt idioms. If he finds a blackguard “a thoroughly obnoxious character and a bully to the core” and “a pain in the neck,” he says so. He does not mind reproducing Ayub’s verdict on a well known army general — “he is a rascal,” or a Swati politician’s denunciation of a religious party’s workers as Satan’s rivals. When he finds that “high living and enjoyment is the order of the day amongst most senior officers in the armed forces. Their houses are luxuriously furnished and they are getting bigger and more expensive every year,” he cannot avoid asking God to save Pakistan. He heaps scorn on both the PPP and the PML, and when words fail to fully express his gall against Bhutto, he gleefully reproduces Sir Maurice James’ diatribe against a rival who certainly caused him a lot of pain and misery.

As for his political struggle, Asghar Khan has been an odd man in Pakistani politics, something of an enigma. He came into politics to defend Bhutto when the Ayub regime put him behind bars, and liked the crowds he attracted. He generally appeared to be a rational politician; he was on the go all the time, he made endless speeches, and he had his share of calumny and repression. And yet he could not reach beyond the middle-class audience. He cared for peasants, workers and women more than many of his contemporaries, and often knocked at the hearts of the masses.But, somehow, he could not secure a niche there.

During the early years of General Zia’s dictatorship, his bag of political birds of different feathers kept getting bigger and bigger, and he left quite a few other parties behind. His party list of those days reads like a Who’s Who of Pakistani politics: Mahmud Ali Kasuri, Musheer Pesh Imam, Malik Wazir Ali, Javed Hashmi, Akbar Bugti, Aitzaz Ahsan, Nawaz Sharif, S.M. Anwar, J.A. Rahim, Shaikh Rashid Ahmed, Gohar Ayub, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Ahmad Bakhsh Soomro, Nisar Khuhro, Mehnaz Rafi and Nafis Siddiqui, etc.

What happened to his political party, the Tehreek-e-Istaqlal? It is possible that some of the party stalwarts were uncomfortable with Asghar Khan’s sense of discipline, his emphasis on integrity, his blunt manner of speech (despite his high sense of courtesy), his solo flights, or were simply unable to overcome the temptation offered by Zia/ Benazir Bhutto/ Nawaz Sharif/ Pervez Musharraf. But perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the party was destroyed during the Air Marshal’s long period of detention in the Zia decade, and this reflects on the peculiar temper of Pakistan’s political parties, especially their leaders’ obsession with putting flags on their vehicles. Asghar Khan also seems to have attracted adverse notices because of his strange equation with military rulers. He was bitterly opposed to them, but Zia often sought his opinion, General Fazl-i-Haq frequently called on him and discussed matters in confidence, and he has a strong tilt in favour of General Musharraf, to the extent of pushing his talented son into the pack of nodders retained by the CEO — all this suggests that there are chinks in his democratic armour.

Many of his qualities — straightforwardness, boundless zest for organisational work, strong emphasis on party elections, formal democracy in the party and a considerable capacity to pay the price for his views — mark Asghar Khan as a politician different and apart from the general sun of unprincipled, rapacious, self-seekers masquerading as politicians in this country. He will also be remembered for taking the ISI to court for its interference in politics. At the same time, it will be impossible to forget his contribution to the rise of authoritarianism — his letter to the service chiefs in 1977 (that he has, in vain, tried to explain away), his apparent rejection of Bhutto, in favour of Zia’s martial law, and his lapses into slogans that had a brutalising effect (e.g. “I will hang Bhutto at the Kohala bridge”). On the whole, however, history is likely to recognise him as one of the cleaner players on Pakistan’s difficult political pitch, even if he could not wholly master the art of leading the masses.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.

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