VIEW: Modernity, Generals and Ayatollahs —Suroosh Irfani
Daily Times, June 18, 2007
As a testament to ‘truth telling’ Military Inc. is more than an academic work: here, critical thinking and social conscience come of age as intellectual struggle, which is at the same time a struggle for human dignity and justice in Pakistan
If modernity is about generalising the critical impulse in society, then the critical debate gripping Pakistan since the publication of Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s new book is an apt marker of Pakistan’s modernity.
Siddiqa’s Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy is not a breezy work of fiction offering escape from mundane reality, but a rigorous account and analysis of Pakistan army’s economic empire that’s made the army the decisive force in politics. Even so, her book’s riveting appeal has the quality of a great novel, what Milan Kundera termed the “ability to reveal some previously unknown aspect of our existence”.
The unknown aspects of our existence as citizens of Pakistan the book reveals are not simply about the army’s economic activities, but also about a destructive culture the rapacious nature of the army’s economic empire is spawning. Beneath a high-flown rhetoric of ‘ideological frontiers’ and ‘national security’, the army’s economic juggernaut is promoting a colonial mindset and feudal culture at war with the essence of a just and democratic society — the raison d’être of Pakistan.
Siddiqa starts with the premise that the search for financial independence and profit-making ventures by the various militaries of the world is something of a norm today. Summed up as ‘milbus’(= military business), such economic activities of armed forces and its subsidiaries are in fact vital for “providing a system of welfare for retired and serving personnel of the armed forces, as well as contributing to national socio-economic development”.
However, while milbus has flourished in Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia to a point of corporate partnership with international businesses, its underside is adverse to the “building of democratic norms and institutions”. Moreover, the dynamics of milbus in Pakistan entail a cultural reversal: reclamation of the colonial mindset and feudal culture to sustain the army and its associates as a predatory economic superpower.
The predatory nature of the military’s economic drive underpins “the wanton use of (army’s) power and influence” beyond the monetary need of its personnel. Not content with an economic empire now estimated at Rs1 trillion (USD16.5 billion), this predatory impulse is driving the military to forcibly occupy public or private land. Siddiqa cites the example of the villagers of Mallah in Jomshoro, Sindh, where villagers were coerced into giving up their land for the navy’s cadet college. When the villagers resisted and filed a writ in the Sindh High Court, the commandant of the cadet college had a wall erected around the village to harass villagers. The parallel with Israel’s construction of the wall in the occupied Palestinian territory became complete with the naval police manning the movement of the villagers.
According to Siddiqa, similar stories of forced evictions or attempts at appropriating the land can be heard in other provinces.
Even more troubling is the extension of this predatory culture of land grabbing to other paramilitary organisations. The example she gives is of the Rangers taking control of 100 km of the coast in Sindh and Balochistan and “dozens of lakes in the area”, under the pretext of an Indian threat. At the same time, the Rangers virtually destroyed the livelihood of the local fisherman by stopping them from fishing, and selling fishing permits to big contractors. Consequently, the fishermen’s number has reduced from 7000 to less than 200, she further notes.
This leads one to the conclusion that a predatory culture of encroachment is a foundational plank of the ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’ in Pakistan, as borne out by the example of the Lal Masjid complex in Islamabad. Originally constructed as a mosque for the residents of Islamabad, Lal Masjid has grown into a network of seminaries and settlements by illegally encroaching on huge chunks of government land, its property expanding from 1,000 square meters in the 1980s to 17,000 square meters today. Indeed, if in the past the armed forces appropriated land on the pretext of ‘Indian threat’, Lal Masjid mullahs have appropriated prime property in the name of Islam.
Furthermore, in January this year, female students of Lal Masjid’s Jamia Hafsa seminary occupied a children’s library nearby belonging to the education ministry. The library, renamed Islamic Library, remains under the illegal occupation of burqa-clad Hafsa girls, who have threatened to unleash suicide bombings if they are evicted.
Indeed, this mix of ideology and national security that underpins the ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’ and upholds the army’s economic empire could be compared to the economic empire of the Ayatollahs in Iran.
A report published in Forbes magazine (July, 2003) revealed that “the real power in Iran is in a handful of clerics and their associates who call the shots behind the curtain and have gotten very rich in the process”. These mullahs and their associates have far surpassed the tycoons of the Shah’s era whose assets the mullahs expropriated, besides “virtually everything else of value — banks, hotels, car and chemical companies, and makers of consumer goods”, after the 1979 revolution.
Moreover, another commonality of the economic barons of Iran and Pakistan is their ‘rentier mentality’ — to thrive on windfalls of unearned income. For example, Siddiqa tells of how the generals transferred prime property belonging to the Karachi National Stadium to senior army officers: a residential plot of 500 sq meters was sold to the army officers for Rs0.6 million (USD10,000), which could then be sold at the market price of Rs15 million (USD258,000).
Such easy access to ‘income without work’ resonates with the ‘get rich quick methods’ that prevailed in Iran’s currency markets until a few years ago, when there were two exchange rates for the dollar: a subsidised import rate of 1,750 rials to the dollar, and the market rate of 8,000 rials to the dollar. Having the right connections for an import license meant that one could buy dollars at the subsidised rate, and sell at the market rate.
Consequently, Iran lost between USD30-50 billion “from this kind of exchange rate fraud”, according to Saeed Laylaz, a reputed Iranian economist interviewed by Forbes. However, it is interesting to note that the number of top Iranian families getting the lion’s share of such unearned money is around 50, a number close to that cited by Siddiqa for the families in Pakistan reaping the windfall from the country’s economy.
Indeed, if 29 years of military rule in Pakistan lie behind the army’s economic empire, the parallel in Iran is exemplified by perennial strongman Syed Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who has virtually run the Islamic Republic for the past 27 years. According to Forbes, the Islamic revolution “transformed the Rafsanjani clan into commercial pashas” who own and control an economic juggernaut no less than the Pakistan’s army’s, ranging from companies in the oil sector, through plants assembling automobiles, to Iran’s best private airline.
However, Pakistan’s saving grace lies in the democratic strain of its political culture which has made it possible for a work like Siddiqa’s to be published, marketed and debated at a scale never before seen in Pakistan before. This is a far cry from Iran, where it is inconceivable that a book exposing the economic empire of the ayatollahs could be published and circulated like Siddiqa’s book in Pakistan.
The scale and intensity of debate and critique spurred by her book indicates that Pakistan’s intellectual culture will never be the same again. And the army’s marriage of convenience with regressive religious forces on the one hand, and opportunistic civilian associates and politicians on the other and, is now open to question.
Indeed, as a testament to ‘truth telling’ Military Inc. is more than an academic work: here, critical thinking and social conscience come of age as intellectual struggle, which is at the same time a struggle for human dignity and justice in Pakistan.
Suroosh Irfani teaches Cultural Studies at National College of Arts, Lahore