Saturday, September 5, 2009

Conspiracies, plots and myths

By Irfan Hussain UNWITTINGLY, our private TV channels provide us with more entertainment than they know. The other day, I was sent a link to a recent debate between that hardy perennial, Mustafa Khar, and another permanent fixture, Brigadier Imtiaz ‘Billa’. Both have been in and around power, with the former having flip-flopped his way across the political spectrum, and the latter providing his uniformed and civilian masters with a sharp and ready hatchet out of the ISI/MI armoury. This debate — which was more of a ferocious verbal punch-up than a courtly discussion — focused on yet another London conspiracy that was supposed to have been hatched in the mid-1980s. A number of military officers were arrested and sentenced to long terms for planning a coup against Zia; and Raza Kazim, the brilliant lawyer and multi-faceted intellectual, was arrested for his alleged role in the conspiracy. Mustafa Khar was then in exile and was accused of getting Indian support and arms for this plot. During the programme, the two panellists accused each other of distorting the facts; and the discussion grew so heated that I expected fisticuffs any minute. Amusingly, ‘Billa’ kept asking the compere to direct Khar to use parliamentary language while addressing him. Considering that he has worked diligently to destabilise successive elected governments, his respect for the norms of parliamentary debate was almost touching. I will not try to encapsulate the 70-minute discussion here except to mention that the question Khar repeatedly asked with telling effect was that if he had been the lynchpin of such a serious conspiracy, why was he not tried when he returned from London during Zia’s era. Why not indeed? Apparently, Khar had been offered several deals to join the junta’s Muslim League team. ‘Billa’ insisted the case against the politician was watertight, but he was let off the hook by Zia. The point here is that we will probably never know the truth. As in so many conspiracies and plots that litter our history, the public is left in the dark for years after the charges were originally made. So we have to guess whether the allegations were cooked up to smear somebody, or were indeed based on the truth. Knowing the murky role our intelligence agencies have played in Pakistani politics, their version is automatically suspect in the public eye. Thus, much of our historical narrative has two sides: the official and the popular. Going back to Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination and the MQM’s ‘Jinnahpur Conspiracy’, we have endless accusations and denials. Occasionally, charges are filed but dropped before the case goes to trial, so we never know for sure what was really behind the event. For example, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was accused by Yahya of plotting the break-up of Pakistan in his famous Agartala Conspiracy, but he was never tried, and the whole thing remains a mystery. Even when facts are released, they are often doubted. Take Operation Midnight Jackal. This intelligence operation was conducted in 1989 when a no-confidence motion was moved against Benazir Bhutto’s first government. A certain Major Amir was caught on video trying to bribe PPP MNAs to defect to the opposition. Despite this damning evidence, little was done to investigate his links. Then, of course, there is the over-arching, ever-present conspiracy that features India, the US and Israel. While they might act in concert or individually, they are the ultimate axis of evil where most Pakistanis are concerned. This narrative is pushed by a galaxy of popular print and TV journalists who mostly write and broadcast in Urdu. While I respect their right to their opinions, facts should be sacred. However, these conspiracy theorists have scant respect for historical reality. One very popular TV anchor quoted a 10-year old boy in his column a few months ago, saying he had learned from this lad that the US hated Pakistan so much that it did not recognise the new state for two years after its birth. In actual fact, Washington recognised Pakistan on Aug 15, 1947. Another Urdu columnist wrote that Germany had attacked Poland at the start of the Second World War to recover Alsace and Lorraine. In reality, these two regions were the cause of conflict between Germany and France for centuries. Given this level of ignorance among well-known commentators, it is easy to see why so many Pakistanis have such a warped view of history and global politics. No attempt is made to analyse facts rationally, and try to see why states behave as they do. In our worldview, everybody is against us. And even when they are with us, they are acting in pure self-interest, and will ditch us after they have used us. One powerful antidote to this fog of misconceptions and sheer ignorance is a good education. Unfortunately, state schools, colleges and universities in Pakistan have sunk so low that those educated in these institutions are not taught to think for themselves. Largely, they are brainwashed through a poisonous curriculum that repeats and amplifies wicked myths about the rest of the world. This mutually reinforcing relationship between the media and the educational system has produced a population that is all too willing to accept the most absurd conspiracy theories. Young people are actively discouraged from asking questions. Garbled half-truths and downright lies are served up as history. Often, the establishment creates and perpetuates distortions to cover up its own role in disasters. Thus, Bhutto is blamed by the army for both the 1965 and 1971 wars, conveniently forgetting that on both occasions, military dictators presided over our destiny. Given these self-serving strands in our historical narrative, it is small wonder that millions of Pakistanis now inhabit a make-believe world, cut off from reality by a fog of confusion and deceit. Clashing conspiracy theories support a shaky edifice of jingoism and extremism. In this universe of smoke and shadows, nothing is as it seems. As long as we do not face reality and see the world as it really is, we will not be able to rejoin the international community. Isolated from the rest of humanity, we will remain prisoners of the self-fulfilling myth that everybody is against Source : Dawn

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