The barbed wire fence is the starkest new writing on the Pakistani wall. And the tragedy is, you have to know neither English nor even Urdu to read it.
Now you can travel around the world and find the first line of this sign at almost every immigration window in the world, probably even Pyongyang, with the possible exception of America since immigration there doesn’t seem to respect anybody and suspect all. You can see it in their eyes, body language. But even they do not say so in bold signs for you to read. For that candour, come to Pakistan. As you walk, wheeling your bag from the ceremonial Indian gate at Wagah check-post and into the Pakistani immigration/customs office to complete arrival formalities, the sign looks down at you as the immigration cop squints at your face and the picture on your passport to make sure you are the same guy. To be fair, the staff are friendly, relaxed, totally non-threatening and even willing to exchange banter with Indians.
The Amritsar dry fruit trader ahead of me in the line makes the usual, polite Punjabi conversation: “We are the same people. If only the Angrez had not divided us, we’d be a global power.”
“Oye chhaddo ji, vadde vir (Oh, forget it, older brother), even if we were together, assan lad-lad ke syapa pauna seega (we would have fought amongst ourselves and made a mess). Just as well they divided us, the white man knows us inside out.” His colleagues laugh the Punjabi laughter, as does the nervous trader. You can now see he is right, we are all one people.
It’s only on the way back from Lahore later in the week that the significance sinks in of that first Writing on the Wall that you see on entering Pakistan: “We Respect All, We Suspect All, Until Proven Ok”.
Never in my life travelling around the most troubled parts of the world — war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq in the early ’90s, the unravelling Soviet Bloc (all as a reporter for this magazine), countries and systems which required you to get even an exit visa stamped on your passport to be able to return home and, thereby, suspected “all” on the way in and out — had I seen a declaration of intent as rudely candid as this one. I ask the immigration staff if it isn’t odd. The innocent answer is, “Aap kya sochte hain, sir, some people tell us this is not good, but what’s wrong with being truthful?”
I laugh too and ask if I could take a picture of the sign as a souvenir and am told, by an amused gaggle, OK, but only the sign.
I lift my iPhone and am walking out when a more important looking dude in shades tells me to step aside. He takes my phone, deletes the picture, goes over the archive, asking me to explain each photo. It’s all polite and clinical. He takes screenshots of my passport, ID card and stops, finally, with a video clip I had recorded at a Kejriwal rally in the Delhi election. His “suspicion” over, he now plays the clip and asks me to explain the Kejriwal phenomenon. Then he lets me go, saying, with genuine warmth, “Don’t mind if we look overly suspicious. Ultimately it is for your hifazat (safety) and our qaum’s.”
Welcome to Pakistan, a full-fledged National Security State, and see you again soon. Because it is friendly and suspicious, distant but curious, paranoid yet cocky, all at the same time. And you see that not merely in the Writings on the Wall at the Wagah immigration office. There is much other evidence as you keep looking, even if you can’t read a letter of Urdu (like this reporter). And remember, as our experience of trawling the countryside in the subcontinent has shown, Writings on the Wall don’t lie.
Both India and Pakistan indulge in an exercise of awful, fake and filmi hyper-patriotism on their respective sides every evening as their national flags are lowered. Tourists make noisy chorus on either side, running up to the dividing line with national flags while handpicked 6-ft-plus jawans stomp the ground in exaggerated gestures, exchange threatening glares, and, of course, nobody in the thousands-strong crowds sees the ridiculous side of the daily mime. Both sides play loud “patriotic songs”, which on the Indian side include Alisha Chinai’s “Made in India”. But only on the Pakistani side, on the wall enclosing the sprawling checkpoint area, you see coloured portraits of Pakistan’s heroes of its wars with India, the name of each suffixed with “Shaheed”, as Pakistan does with all its posthumous, topmost gallantry award winners (Nishan-e-Haider, equivalent of our PVC).
Each of these wars similarly produced heroes on the Indian side and, equally, left proud and grieving families. We are at fault being so forgetful about them. But Pakistanis immortalise them on the walls, in school textbooks and road-signs. Most big cities have major roads or squares named after the same heroes. In Lahore, you can’t miss the Aziz Bhatti Road (Nishan-e-Haider, 1965, Barki, Lahore sector). We will come back to him and his equally famous kinsmen in a minute.
Even more striking is M.M. Alam Road. Alam, the mythologised Sabre pilot who claimed to have shot down 11 Indian fighter aircraft in 1965-the first fighter ace claim since World War II (fully disputed by IAF and Indian war historians)-was a Bengali and became a greater hero because he stayed back in Pakistan even after 1971. In fact, I spotted him on one of my reporting visits in the late ’80s leading a pro-Mujahideen procession in Karachi, sporting a long mullah beard and a Kalashnikov.
For years after 1965, he flew his Sabre with 11 miniature Tricolours painted on its left, each representing an IAF jet he claimed to have shot down. That same Sabre now adorns the main square of M.M. Alam Road although a Google search now throws entries mostly about premium real estate along it. All this reverence, mind you, in a country whose army never won a war. I should actually say that with care. My professor, Stephen P. Cohen’s landmark book, The Pakistan Army, was banned by Zia-ul-Haq, who otherwise adored him, even calling “professor sahib” home for meals. He objected to a line that said something like, Pakistan’s was the finest army in the world that never won a war.
Big cities have roads or squares named after war heroes. The sabre of M.M. Alam, a 1965 fighter pilot, adorns the main square of the eponymous road.
The walls tell you better than any scholarly PhDs or journalistic tomes that the armed forces have a very special place in Pakistani hearts and minds, unmatched by any other country in the world, and mind you, everybody loves their soldiers, as we do in India. Which is the point where we return to late Major Aziz Bhatti, or let’s stick to the full usage now, Major Raja Aziz Bhatti Shaheed. He died fighting for the village of Barki after the Indian advance across Wagah was stopped in 1965. I walked to old Lahore’s Urdu Bazaar, filled with textbook shops just like Delhi’s Nai Sadak-Chawri Bazaar, and almost every year’s textbook from Class III on has a chapter on Bhatti, as on some other wars and their heroes.
And remember, I confine myself to relatively gentler English books, being illiterate in Urdu. There are myths about him, that his rooh (spirit) still visits the village at night. One area where the Pakistanis outdo us greatly is the colourful imagination of their gallantry awards citations. Three generations have been made to believe and memorise every one of these in an institutionalised militarisation of the Pakistani mind, through textbooks, folklore and, indeed, the inevitable Writings on the Wall. You might think I am overstating the point, and in any case, this was from half a century ago, so what’s the relevance today, particularly as you did not bother going on and on about it in scores of your previous reporting visits to Pakistan?
Today’s relevance is understood when you leapfrog from 1965 to the next war, 1971, and note the stories of Pakistan’s greatest hero from it, Major Shabbir Sharif Shaheed (Fazilka sector) and their highest decorated soldier ever, with a posthumous Nishan-e-Haider on top of an earlier Sitara-e-Jurat (equal to Vir Chakra) in the same 13-day war. Mythology about him, enshrined in official history, has it that he accepted a challenge for a personal duel with an Indian major (Narain Singh) and won, of course, to be killed later by India’s much larger numbers.
Now let me tell you the connection that any Pakistani interlocutor is quick to underline. Shabbir Sharif was the older brother of General Raheel Sharif, the current chief, and Bhatti their uncle (mama). So, while every army chief in Pakistan has a larger-than-life image and is admired, Gen Raheel is super-special. “Who can ever question him over anything, when he has these two most celebrated martyrs in his family history?” a prominent politician and former minister says over a generous evening of Black Label and biryani. “And then he is also our best looking chief ever.” Sure enough, most people you speak to, including top politicians, don’t bother mentioning his name or rank. He is, quite simply, the big man or the top man.
You shouldn’t call anything impossible, so let’s only say that a physical military takeover of power is very, very unlikely in Pakistan now. But it isn’t needed any more as the military control of the Pakistani mind is so complete. Note the way the National Assembly passed laws setting up military courts for terrorists with such near-unanimous alacrity. And how pending executions resumed at a pace that at the time of writing this piece Pakistan was on top of the world for the year, leading the usual suspect Saudi Arabia 53-48.
If any doubts remained, these were buried after the killings of army officers’ children in Peshawar, Pakistan’s 26/11 and 9/11 rolled into one. The mood has now shifted completely. The army is the only institution loved and respected and soldiers adored as heroes for fighting to preserve Pakistan, the only difference being that this time they are fighting against their own. Track the Pakistani armed forces discussion groups on the internet, even the Twitter feed of its most eminent, liberal commentators, and you will only see awe and gratitude for the sacrifices “our soldiers” are making in the war against “traitors”.
And mind you, it’s a real war with real casualties and portraits of new posthumous heroes, a Major Tufail now, a Major Hamza keep popping up, rifles in hand, ammunition belts round the torso. You also find old childhood photos posted by schoolmates. There is also widespread repudiation of Raheel’s predecessor Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is now rumoured to have cut private protection deals with the bad guys. Even the spokesman of the armed forces, a serving brigadier, has a Twitter handle (@asimbajwaISPR) that cheekily says it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the organisation, but still has almost 850,000 followers.
A reference to the Indian version of these war histories is relevant not so much for fairness or to establish equivalence but to underline how this total military takeover of the Pakistani mind, this unquestioning acknowledgement of the army as the sole saviour has been reinforced over the decades. Against each one of these Pakistani heroes was, inevitably, an Indian, also with a high decoration and stirring citation.
Facing Bhatti was Major Asha Ram Tyagi (MVC, posthumous, who died in the battle of Dograi on September 20) and Shabbir Sharif was up against Major Narain Singh (VrC, posthumous). Barki fell into Indian hands after a night of amazing valour and sacrifice on both sides in September 1965, and Pakistani advance in Fazilka stopped in 1971 exactly where Sharif and Singh gave up their lives. But how many Indians remember those names, mark roads, squares, academies after them, or write textbooks celebrating their heroism? We, in fact, go to the other awful extreme.
The Mazar of Havildar Abdul Hamid in Khem Karan and the memorial to Major Shaitan Singh of Chushul (PVCs, posthumous), killed in 1965 and 1962, respectively, are routinely devoured by weeds. Smriti Irani is now talking of taking a leaf out of Pakistanischool textbooks for ours. Keep also in mind that it is this indoctrination of young minds that has established Pakistan as the world’s most formidable National Security State, suspicious, insecure, prickly, defensive, constantly looking at its front yard and backyard, and sideways across its shoulders. Militarised up there, in the head.
So what exactly is a National Security State? Listen to General (Retd) Jehangir Karamat, one of the finest professional soldiers to lead the Pakistani army (1996-1998). At a seminar at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad in 2012, he defined it as a state where security gets an inordinately high share of the national budget and where strategic concerns override all others, from economy to society to education. He said initially India was also headed that way but has now done a course-correction.
Sure enough, India’s defence budget has been consistently below 2 per cent and declining even as the GDP is rising. Pakistan’s is 3.5 per cent and rising in a stalling GDP. But it is explained somewhat more strikingly by my friend of three decades, former Pakistani ambassador, commentator and now its most eminent political exile, Husain Haqqani. “A good, strong army is needed by every nation, including Pakistan. But look at it like this: if you go to the gym and lift weights with only one arm all the time, you will have one really strong set of biceps while the rest of the body would wither.” Which is precisely what happens to a National Security State such as Pakistan.
You hear this description all the time, and with disapproval, as in the panels of the Lahore Literary Festival, at whose invitation and hospitality I visited Pakistan this time. Another old friend, and a brilliant Pakistani commentator, Najam Sethi and former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri (wait for his book on India-Pakistan relations), with whom I had the honour of sharing a plenary in front of a full Alhamra auditorium, both underlined the problem.
But forget challenging it, nobody can even debate the notion outside of the charmed, tiny and incestuous English-speaking liberal and very brave intellectual circle. Or, as an old politician friend in Lahore tells me, in the two-passport circuit, alluding to the Pakistani law allowing dual nationality where elites keep a home each, usually, in Lahore, London and Dubai. As elites send their children overseas to study, for the natives the fastest growing knowledge business is religion. Check the backs of autorickshaws. So many display invitations to “deeni” (religious) congregations and marches.
It’s remarkable how much criticism the establishment allows the intellectual class. But only as long as it is confined to english, a marginalised discourse here.
It is remarkable how much free speech and criticism even this security establishment allows the mostly western-educated intellectual class. But with one unwritten condition: it must remain confined to English, which is a marginalised discourse here. Follow some of Pakistan’s finest, most courageous minds-many of them young women-in the new media. They have enormously more spunk than us in India. But all in English. Urdu is a different matter altogether.
English publications’ circulation is minuscule compared to Urdu and there isn’t even one news channel in English, though they have in Mubashir Luqman someone who can by himself outshout all our English prime-time warriors, including the champion of champions. My friends tell me the story of Raza Rumi, a fine, brave liberal commentator and patriot. He was ignored as long as he confined himself to English. Then one day he succumbed to the temptation of TV, obviously in Urdu, and continued speaking the same honest truth. His car was attacked, his driver died and he escaped with a bullet and is now exiled in Washington. Do Google his writings.
Haqqani and other Pakistani liberals highlight the downside of this imbalance. In a country of 20 crore people where the median age is 23, younger than India’s 29, nearly 46 per cent young people do not go to school. They walk the streets, jobless, aimless, lacking in knowledge of the world and self-esteem, totally alienated with the elites who are now physically quarantined from them.
They are easy victims for the maulvi, madrasa, Kalashnikovs, Lashkars and jihad. It is this wasted generation that India has been fighting, from Kashmir to Parliament 2001 to Mumbai 26/11. And this is precisely what slaughtered the Pakistani army’s children in Peshawar and is drawing this brutal fightback, with artillery, Huey Cobra helicopter gunships, fighter jets. And the nation is cheering this war on some of its own people. I cannot say for sure, but can speculate with some authority on why the armed forces held a parade, a formidable show of power, on Pakistan Day last week after a seven-year break in tradition. My guess: it was to say, don’t worry, we are back, we call the shots and we are the only ones you can trust.
More than three decades ago, when Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law was at the peak of its glory, Lahore’s beautiful liberal landmark, Alhamra Centre’s auditorium, witnessed a spontaneous resurgence of democratic impulse. At a festival dedicated to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal Bano sang his “Hum Dekhenge”, an invocation to popular rebellion against dictatorship. With each line, the crowd realised what was going on: Sub takht giraye jayenge, sub taj uchhale jayenge (All thrones will be toppled, crowns tossed), aur raj karegi khalq-e-khuda, jo main bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho (and God’s people will rule, which is you and I), hum dekhenge (we shall see).” A clap built up, a cheer and then, finding safety in numbers, everybody clapped and sang. The civil society had thrown its first challenge at Zia.
The literary festival was held in the same complex this year and the tone was just as liberal, honest, even secular. More than 70,000 people attended over three days and there were lines at the entrance through each day. The difference this time was the security, and a strong barbed wire concertina fence around the complex. At the entrance, police crouched in “position” behind barricades, fingers on trigger. A church had been bombed in Lahore a few days earlier, nearly leading to the cancellation of the festival. But now Shahbaz Sharif’s Punjab government was determined to protect it.
The barbed concertina wire is now ubiquitous, circling schools, colleges, government offices, army installations, homes of prominent people-which is the reason we said Pakistan’s intellectual elites now live in quarantine. The barbed wire fence is the starkest new Writing on the Pakistani Wall. And the tragedy is, you have to know neither English nor even Urdu to read it and understand the meaning of a National Security State which suspects all, most of all its own.
A version of this article was first published in India Today in April, 2015