The Mukhtaran Mai Episode: Need for Introspection

The News, June 24, 2005
'What we need is introspection'
Ghazi Salahuddin

What should the present government do to repair the damage inflicted by the Mukhtaran Mai episode? This, certainly, is time for a reality check. Pakistan came in for a lot of flak from the international media when a courageous woman who had challenged the inhuman conventions of our feudal society was detained, harassed and prevented from proceeding to the United States. In the process, ambivalence about Pakistan's role in the war on terror and about the sense of direction of its polity has deepened.

In a crucial sense, it is President General Pervez Musharraf who has attracted some surprisingly virulent criticism. This criticism had surged even before Musharraf admitted that it was his decision to ban Mukhtaran Mai's travel abroad. Now, Musharraf also personifies the refurbished image of Pakistan as a moderate Muslim country, bravely struggling against religious extremism in the front line of war against terrorism. Hence the damage that has been done is incalculable.

There must be something inherently flawed in the government's decision-making process and its ability to manage a crisis to produce this outcome. After all, the story has continued to unfold for about three weeks and there has not been any official expression of sincere regrets. On the contrary, the high functionaries have continued to malign the NGOs for supposedly exploiting the Mukhtaran Mai case to please their foreign donors.

The irony here is that the government itself is the largest beneficiary of the same donors and their influence on its policy is repeatedly underlined, including in the Mukhtaran Mai case. When it comes to taking U-turns under pressure, the facts are obvious. As far as the civil society organisations are concerned, they are making a great effort in very adverse circumstances to promote what is essentially the government's slogan of 'enlightened moderation'. In fact, they are largely there because the government has miserably failed to deliver in the social sector.

Since one thing leads to another, the Mukhtaran Mai entanglement has almost dovetailed into questions about Pakistan's role in the war on terror. This is truly unfortunate. No other world leader, barring Tony Blair, has earned as much American applause as Musharraf for his contribution to America's war against international terrorism. Now, Afghanistan has made noises that Pakistan was not doing enough to fight the militants on its side of the border. Musharraf has had one telephonic conversation with President Bush and two with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai and the subject of discussion was said to be the ongoing war on terrorism.

These developments should have nothing to do with the Mukhtaran Mai case. But Pakistan's credibility has weakened in the aftermath of its treatment of an exceptional individual who should be honoured as a symbol of emancipation of women in a traditional society. If an immediate damage control exercise had been undertaken when the Mukhtaran Mai story had made its first headline, Pakistan may have been in a stronger, more confident, position to respond to the Afghan charges.

This is how Jim Hoagland began his column in the Washington Post: "A straw breaking the camel's back, a pebble triggering the avalanche, a drop causing the cup to overflow: choose your own image for Mukhtar Mai and to the troubles she creates for her country's frightened and duplicitous leadership. If there is justice, any of those images will fit." The point he is making is that the issue has dealt a blow to the credibility of President Musharraf. And he said: "The sordid details of the campaign to break Mukhtaran Mai's will are emerging at a moment of strategic change in South Asia."

That it is sad to see Musharraf being criticised in this manner is also underlined by Jim Hoagland: "As a persistent critic of the Bush team's hype about Musharraf and the general's own shortcomings, I have to acknowledge that the Pakistani leader is less corrupt and more courageous than the weak civilian governments that preceded him, including the one that forced him to take power in 1999 to save his own life."

Incidentally, this Washington Post column reminds me of another column in the same newspaper published last year -- on June 1, 2004, to be exact. It was titled: "A Plea for Enlightened Moderation," It was written by Pervez Musharraf. Getting that piece into a major American newspaper was some kind of a coup for our media managers and it had naturally made headline news in the Pakistani media.

In that write-up, Musharraf had explained his prescription to "stop the carnage in the world and to stem the downward slide of Muslims." He had said: "My idea for untangling this knot is Enlightened Moderation, which I think is a win for all -- for both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds." It was in the same article that he wrote: "What we need is introspection."

Can the present government accept this edict and do some introspection? This brings me back to the question of whether the leadership is conscious of the mistake that was made and is aware of its consequences. It will not do to desperately tilt at windmills by way of attacking the NGOs. Surely there are individuals who sit on the table of authority and also realise the unfairness of maltreating Mukhtaran Mai. Why do they not raise their voice?

One great tragedy in our lives is that these people who may recognise the folly of the government's action keep quiet because they want to retain their positions in the power structure. Such moral bankruptcy is the cancer of our political governance. Look at the spectacle of the present administration being a reshuffling of the cards -- jokers included -- from the previous administrations.

The face of betrayal is etched on both sides of the coin. On one side, a number of ministers who had served Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif so sycophantically are willing to serve President Musharraf who is passionately opposed to the two former prime ministers. On the other, Musharraf himself is happy to ride with the former loyal ministers of the former prime ministers.

So, is genuine introspection possible in this setting? Be that as it may, we should at least expect a reflection committee, perhaps of the top spin doctors of this regime, to ponder the entire 'image' conundrum. Hopefully, they have already conducted this exercise. Not just the decision of putting Mukhtaran Mai on the exit control list, owned by Musharraf, the entire drill must also be reviewed. Mukhtaran Mai has given some details of how she was intimidated and she has refused to say anything about the two days she spent in Islamabad.

Finally, what is the present status of the campaign for 'enlightened moderation'? Let me conclude with another quote from Musharraf's article in the Washington Post: "I say to my brother Muslims: the time for renaissance has come. The way forward is through enlightenment. We must concentrate on human resource development through the alleviation of poverty and through education, health care and social justice." Social justice?
The writer is a staff member


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