Grief overkill….and hitting out at the ISI

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Hamid Mir

A gun attack on a prominent journalist in the country’s largest city, on the road from the airport, would be enough bad news and to spare anywhere else. And everyone would be examining the cult of violence, and the stealth accompanying it, which has this nation in its grip. But such is the excitability, the nervous state of Pakistani democracy, that here it must be turned into another melodramatic episode in the never-ending saga called civil-military relations.

Hardly was the poor guy in hospital and before the doctors had even a chance to extract the several bullets in his body the cry went up that it was the mother of all evils, the ISI, which had done it…without a shred of evidence of course to back up the cry. But since when did such niceties stop the drums of wild accusation from being beaten?

The cry echoed across the land and across the global airwaves. The shooting itself took a back seat as the ISI debate raged on, the battle lines drawn, on one side the knives drawn for the ISI, on the other self-appointed defenders of the ISI, the usual suspects including the one made famous by his trademark red cap, going on about dark conspiracies against the fatherland, etc.

Time was when the clock of democracy stood still in this country. Time now is when there seems to be a veritable excess of democracy – not for the masses, blast them, but for the chattering classes and for the genie that goes by the name of 24-hour television, the genie freed from its confines and let loose amongst the Pakistani populace by one Gen Pervez Musharraf. When the final reckoning comes, of all his sins this may well be considered the gravest of all. Not that journos will remember this with any remote sense of gratitude – biting the hand that feeds them one of the more endearing characteristics of our trade.

The triumph of democracy is witnessed in such glories as front page news stories that many would hesitate to carry, editorials masquerading as news stories, news stories doing service for outrageous opinion pieces…all in the name of the sacred rights of freedom of expression, freedom that in its more florid expressions comes across as the freedom of the chimpanzee, or that of the monkey with a freshly sharpened razor blade in his hand. And things are said on the TV screen that makes Fox News look like a family channel.

The ISI theme makes for entertaining copy, for it confirms our worst suspicions that the agency is peopled, and led, by some of the choicest idiots on the planet who chose an auspicious day for settling scores or teaching a lesson to a journalist they did not like – when the prime minister, with the brass in tow, was reviewing an honour guard in PMA Kakul, and going out of his way to say nice things about the army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, in an obvious bid to soothe ruffled military feathers. The very day, moreover, when Musharraf was flying from Islamabad to Karachi and TV screens were full of the elaborate security put in place for him.

In other words, just when tensions between the Sharif government and the army were coming down, the ISI chose that very moment to lay an ambush for a journalist whose prominence in the media field would guarantee the maximum coverage, automatically ensure that the finger of suspicion was pointed at the ISI – Hamid Mir reportedly having said that if anything happened to him the ISI would be responsible – blacken the army’s name, and wreck any chances of a real cooling down between the PM and General Headquarters.

And the ISI was so good at what it did that this dreaded agency, the stuff of legend, victor of Afghanistan and Kashmir, bungled its job and failed to get its man. Hamid’s near and dear ones have every right to blame whomsoever they want, this the unchallenged right of the hurt or the aggrieved…subject of course to subsequent investigation and the law of evidence. But the drum-beaters almost made it sound as if the attack on Hamid was a pretext to score other points, politics supplanting grief and outrage given pointed meaning.

What are we all trying to do? And what games are we all playing? To be sure, the ISI is not an outfit of the Salvation Army. Which intelligence agency is? In the army’s history many deeds are enshrined that do not redound to its credit. Much is there that should not have been there. Indeed, there is much in the nation’s past, and much in its thinking, that has led to consequences we would have been better off without.

But in the midst of hand-wringing and chest-beating we should also consider that in the shape of our Taliban wars our past has caught up with us. The dragon’s teeth scattered then, by none more assiduously than a misguided army, have come to haunt us now. And for the soul of the country, its future, we are battling and the only army we have, whether we like it or not, is this army.

Yes, cobwebs of the past still cling to the rafters. There is much old thinking that needs to be exorcised. One would suppose that this would be amongst the first tasks of the political leadership, leading the army, giving it a sense of direction, educating the nation about the dangers ahead. What we are seeing instead is a failure of leadership, the government far from being able to give a lead to the army getting into unnecessary scraps with it. Nawaz Sharif rode into his third incarnation as prime minister with the promise of stability. He is managing to deliver anything but that.

All of this comes on top of a divided nation, split down the middle in its thinking, the Hamid Mir affair, with all its pain and tragedy, mirroring this division and playing up the nation’s confusion. The government looks clueless, the army peeved, the ISI hurt. Enjoying this spectacle almost with glee are the Taliban, their spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, coming up with these priceless words: “The attack on Hamid Mir, orchestrated by ISI proved that the spy agency had no respect for the civil and private institutions in the country…The real power brokers in Pakistan were the army and ISI and they eliminated everyone who raised voice against their excesses.” The Taliban upholding decency and rule of law…try beating this.

And what is the government caught up in? On its mind are such brilliant ideas as fast track trains to picturesque Murree and distant Muzaffarabad. You must have seen the ads. Look at them again and wonder. Ye gods, great as our sins may be, what have we done to deserve this? And such thinking at the highest echelons is all we have. Qadam barhao Nawaz Sharif, hum tumhare saath hain.

And the media which should be helping clarify matters is not just adding to the confusion but revelling in it…as can be graphically seen in the reaction to Hamid’s shooting. The triumph of democracy or the triumph of mediocrity? Take your pick. When the Titanic was sinking at least the band was playing and there was plenty of booze to go around. Consider our plight: the only band playing is the screeching of the media. As for the rites of civilisation, the less said the better.


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