REVIEWS: Bluntly speaking
We’ve Learnt Nothing from History — Pakistan: Poliics and Military Power
By M. Asghar Khan
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by A.R. Siddiqi
Asghar Khan’s has been an autobiography that’s more than the work of a historian. It’s a personal narrative of his political life ever since his retirement as PAF chief in 1965 and resignation as PIA president a few years later. Thereafter, he threw himself headlong into power politics without yielding to the lure of power at any cost.
At a meeting of the Lahore High Court Bar Association where he had been invited as the guest speaker, a couple of young lawyers stood up to question his credentials as a politician even before he had started to speak.
The first questioner bluntly asked him: “Why should we listen to you? You are a failure in politics.”
The second question was: “Which Pakistani politician has been a success?”
Asghar Khan could see that his questioners would probably name Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as the popular leaders of Pakistan, and he was glad to say that he was not one of them. As one who reported to him as his PRO for two years (1961-63), I had the opportunity of watching him as a man and a commander-in-chief in the young Pakistan Air Force. In him I found an airman with his feet firmly planted on earth. He would exercise the authority of his command to the full without either overindulging or overstepping it beyond the scope of the service manual.
His lack of success as a practical politician could be traced to his fond hope of pursuing his political career as a disciplined service chief even without his disciplined service constituency. Uncompromising to a fault, he would refuse to follow the unprincipled course of our national politics and the endless temptation it offered for personal aggrandizement.
Politics without the love of power and resolve to gain it at all costs, even in the best of societies would be little more than chasing a mirage. Asghar Khan loves power without being its votary and without prizing it above his personal integrity. Hence his long and beguiling pursuit of the mirage.
The “fog of power”, he says, “blinds people into rationalizing to an extent that makes a mockery of law”. Unfortunately, however, this is what our self-centred, personality-driven politics has been all about. Playing politics all the time instead of furthering it for the national good and in the larger national interest would appear to be the one and the only obsession of a Pakistani politician in most cases.
How would someone like Asghar Khan figure in the annals of our political history? Whether as a leader who failed or as a statesman who set an example for others to follow in terms of personal integrity and uprightness? The question can be answered either way depending on individual preference and perception.
In crass practical terms, however, Asghar Khan’s contribution towards changing the course of national politics remains less than spectacular. He stands today where he might have been over 40 years ago. His idealistic approach in equating political leadership with military command, amongst other things, may well explain his inability to move ahead with his political agenda.
Asghar Khan’s We’ve Learnt Nothing from History offers a sad record of our double failure in nation building and a pathetic ineptitude to learn from our mistakes. The book covers the whole range of our national history from the Quaid-i-Azam to General Musharraf. Martial law or military rule has indeed been the bane of our society. However, besides weak political institutions and individuals, what encouraged military interventionism in national affairs has been the role of our judiciary. Asghar Khan illustrates the point by recalling the advice Chief Justice Munir gave to President Ayub to have his draft constitution approved by addressing public meetings at Mochi Gate like the leaders of ancient Greece. “No wonder that Pakistan has found it difficult to shake off martial law ever since.”
The sheer greed of civilian leadership for power at any cost played no mean role in encouraging the army in its interventionist role. Bhutto told Yahya Khan that the “soldier” Yahya and the “politician” Bhutto could rule the country together for the next 20 years or so. The PNA movement against Bhutto was about the only such movement with a national sweep. Besides the insidious role played by Gen Zia in subverting the movement it foundered on the rock of divisions within the ranks of the politicians themselves. Rafique Bajwa, PNA secretary-general, was the first to defect and join hands with Bhutto. Asghar Khan’s own role first in inviting the military to intervene and then to do his “solo” remains debatable. He decided to set off on his own during the election campaign under Zia’s martial law. “It is my belief that his PNA would not have been able to hold together for long”
Asghar Khan has been bitterly critical of the army’s standard practice to invoke the threat to the integrity and ideology of Pakistan as the excuse for perpetuating its rule. Gen Zia used it as a justification for postponing the elections solemnly promised by him for October 1971. He refers pointedly to the “Monarch-Mullah combination” used by generals “whilst dishing out a few crumbs to the mullah” Zia also unconscionably foreshadowed Mullah Umer of Afghanistan by declaring that only “good Muslims and good Pakistanis” would be allowed to stand for elections. Gen Musharraf did much the same thing by equating the mullahs’ madressahs sanads with BA and MA degrees.
In an oblique reference to the state of the US-Pakistan relations today Asghar Khan recalls Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s warning to Pakistan in a speech in New Delhi on February 12, 1980 against serving as a “puppet of imperialism”. “It will jeopardize its (Pakistan’s) existence and integrity as an independent state.”
Asghar Khan holds the United States responsible for giving the gift of bigotry and fanaticism to Pakistan. While the people of Pakistan cannot be persuaded into believing that they are living in a democracy under a general in uniform, he admits that Gen Musharraf’s “presence in power is more likely to yield results” as far as the Kashmir dispute is concerned.
“It is unlikely that India would regard any settlement of the Kashmir dispute without the involvement of the armed forces as durable.”
We’ve Learnt Nothing from History is a confessional and a critique of our collective failures in learning from our own mistakes.