October Issue 2007
Interview: Tariq Ali
“Judges spring from the same milieu as the rulers”
– Tariq Ali
Pakistan-born Tariq Ali is an internationally renowned writer based in London, and the long-standing editor of The New Left Review. Well-known as a social and political commentator, he has worked as a playwright, filmmaker and television producer. A prolific writer, Tariq is the author of over a dozen books on politics and world history, five novels and scripts for both stage and film. He is also a noted broadcaster on BBC Radio.
His latest published work, The Leopard and the Fox, originally written as a TV series for the BBC, is about the circumstances leading to the overthrow, trial and execution of the first elected prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
A charismatic speaker, Tariq delivers lectures all over the world. Regarded as a radical, he has remained at the forefront of anti-war campaigns. Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places have all led him to speak out as he remains a vocal dissenter.
Newsline interviewed Tariq Ali at his house in Lahore, during his recent visit to Pakistan.
Q: How significant was Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s decision to fight back?
A: The struggle to insist on the separation of powers between the judiciary and the state, which has been very weak in this country, is very important. Judges have been cajoled, they have been bullied, and they have been fired from 1958 onwards. I remember Justice Kiyani who took a very brave step against the first military dictatorship in this country, going around universities, addressing students, speaking in a very subtle way, but encouraging us to think.
It is a fact that, by and large, judges in our country spring from the same milieu as the other rulers of the country. So that is why the decision of this chief justice to fight back was extremely important.
You know the whole world thinks that Pakistan consists of just military people, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics. That is the image of Pakistan in the West. This particular struggle to reinstate the chief justice gave a completely different impression of Pakistan.
Q: Can the rise of the judiciary help democracy in Pakistan?
A: This struggle has revived hope in the country, but judges only interpret the law. It’s the politicians who make laws. So the judiciary is structurally limited.
Q: Would you comment on the relatively cool response to Nawaz Sharif’s return?
A: If he was hoping that there would be lakhs of people out to welcome him, he was wrong. Money can buy you votes, but not popular affection. In fact, the masses were indifferent. People are not as stupid as politicians imagine. Everyone knows that the country was looted
Q: How do you see a deal between Musharraf and Benazir?
A: This deal, pushed through by Washington, will sink both parties in the end. Bhutto’s opportunism is disgraceful.
Q: Which political party has the capacity to put Pakistan on the right track?
A: Judging by what Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto did when they were in power previously, it is extremely unlikely that they are going to be different this time around. Politics has become a mechanism of making money in this country. Musharraf’s martial law also ended up ganging up with a bunch of corrupt politicians and trying to run the country.
Q: What then is the future of democracy in Pakistan?
A: All they did was to grow rich themselves. In my opinion none of the major political parties offer any hope. They are bankrupt gangs trying to enhance themselves and their wealth. They can never change the fate of this country. When you have three groups of corrupt politicians — the Chaudhrys, the Sharif Brothers and Benazir Bhutto lining up for power, or power-sharing, one has to despair. None of them did anything for the poor when they were in power.
Q: Did this country ever have a chance to move forward?
A: The one big chance Pakistan had of making a new start was at the time of the break-up of the country, which was very brutal for the population of then East Pakistan. But nonetheless, Pakistan had an opportunity to make a new start under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. People were filled with hope, and expectations were high. But very little happened. The regime talked a lot, there was a lot of rhetoric; some things did get done, but on the question facing the country, the institutionalisation of democratic rule — destroying, once and for all, the power of the landed gentry, setting up and establishing a solid education and health system, cutting down the size of the army and reducing the military budget — it did not happen.
When it did not happen you had the military coming back in again, and then General Zia-ul-Haq, on the authorisation of the US, executed the country’s elected prime minister, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto. Then began the worst period in Pakistani history. The country’s entire political culture was brutalised. Many of the things we are seeing now were seeded then.
Q:How would you compare General Musharraf with Zia?
A: The main similarity between the two regimes is that they both do Washington’s bidding in Afghanistan. Zia did so when the US favoured a jihad against the communists, and Musharraf is fighting for ‘global human rights’ against the jihadis who are now the enemy. Zia helped create the MQM, and Musharraf used it against the chief justice.
Q:The Left has failed to leave any impact on Pakistani politics.
A: The Leftist movement was never strong in Pakistan. The bulk of the Left in this part of the world went to India after Partition. Punjab, in particular, was probably the most reactionary and conservative province in British India. In the NWFP, you had a progressive nationalism led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars who fought the British politically and non-violently. The NWFP had a strong, secular, progressive force, but it wasn’t a radical left-wing movement as such. In Balochistan, Sardars dominated the society, so if two Sardars became left-wing, people thought Balochistan was very radical. But the basic institutional structure remained the same. Sindh was not a very radical place at all.
The tiny communist party that existed here in trade unions and the peasant movement made a big mistake by linking up with nationalists inside the army and trying to organise a half-baked coup in 1951. The Pakistan Labour Party, in a very modest way, in the recent movement to reinstate the chief justice was good. Left groups can play a good role in society if they are linked to it. If they are not linked to it, then it’s a joke.
Q:What are the reasons behind the success of Leftist movements in Latin America?
A: These movements have won because they have struggled for the last 20 to 25 years. These are not movements which suddenly sprang out of the air. In Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, there have been electoral victories recently. They are the result of social movements that have been struggling and working with the people, giving them an alternative.
Q:How can the agenda of imperialistic forces be defied in South Asia?
A: Only a leadership with vision can do it, and at present we don’t have any. We have politicians in South Asia and the Arab world who are permanently on their knees before the US. Now, the Arabs have so much oil they don’t need to be on their knees before anyone. But they are because in most cases these are unrepresentative regimes. They need US military backing to stay in power. If we look at the situation in Pakistan and India, I feel we need a European Union-style structure in South Asia. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka need to form a South Asian union which can later be expanded within this framework.
Q:But is it possible to achieve this without solving problems like Kashmir?
A: Since both Pakistan and India are nuclear states, a new war to me is unthinkable. I think Kargil was a foolish adventure by the Pakistani military for which they paid the price as a large number of Pakistani soldiers were killed there. If they do anything like that again, they will threaten the existence of this country. Kashmir cannot be solved in the present framework, we need a long-term solution. It can only be solved by an overall deal either directly with India, or within a South Asian framework. There is no other solution. And Kashmiris would also accept a unified, autonomous Kashmir within a broader union with its autonomy guaranteed by all the South Asian powers.
Q:Terrorism and extremism are two big problems Pakistan faces. How can these be addressed?
A: A series of radical social reforms is the answer to religious extremism. The country needs an excellent educational system, free for the poor. At present you cannot get proper education in Pakistan unless you have proper money. The level of education is abysmal — and I am not interested in the government’s figures of enrollment because there are no teachers and infrastructure. I feel there is no military solution, only a political solution, both internally and externally. The problem is deep-rooted in our history and has to be solved.
Q:Some people believe that US-led western forces are justified in the occupation of Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Is this the right approach?
A: I am one of those people who don’t believe that big powers occupying small countries solve any problem, even if they have good intentions. The Soviet intervention of Afghanistan created a mess which the Americans fully utilised to drive them out. If you accept, on principle, the right of the West to start occupying countries on the basis of extremism or terrorism, are you in favour of Pakistan being occupied? Many people in the West regard Pakistan as a failed state and name it as a base camp of terrorists and terrorism. What if they come and occupy Pakistan? They will find lots of figures like Hamid Karzai ready to work with them, but the overwhelming majority of the population wouldn’t be in favour of it.
To me, the Afghanistan issue can only be solved first by pulling western troops out, and then organising a summit of regional powers, including Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran, to discuss a joint deal to stabilise Afghanistan as a federation.
Q:Are you in favour of a world without nuclear weapons?
A: I have always been against nuclear weapons, but I do not believe that the US should determine who should or should not have nuclear weapons. If France and Britain, tiny little countries on the world map, can have nuclear weapons, why not India or Pakistan, and why not Iran? It’s the so-called monopoly of the West to have them that I don’t accept.