George Ka Khuda Hafiz
For the past nine years, I have been in a dysfunctional relationship. My liaison started somewhat unexpectedly, quickly becoming an all-consuming passionate love affair. My partner reciprocated strongly, bestowing deep affection and adoration upon me. Blinded by love, I was naive to her failings. Yes, at times she was self-destructive, irrational and grossly irresponsible, but I hoped by appealing to her nature’s better angles she could change. Instead, as the years progressed, and, supported by her ‘friends’ in the media, she corroded, simultaneously displaying signs of megalomania and paranoia. Once the relationship turned abusive and I feared for my life, I decide to call it quits. Today, the divorce comes through. Her name is Pakistan. And today, I am leaving her for good.
This was not a difficult decision to make. In fact, I didn’t make the decision. It was made for me. You do not chart your own destiny in Pakistan; Pakistan charts it for you. It’s emigration by a thousand news stories. I am aware that bemoaning the state of Pakistan as a final shot appears churlish and arrogant. After all, I have the luxury to leave — many others do not. Nor do I want to discredit the tireless work of the thousands who remain to improve the lives of millions of Pakistanis. They are better men and women than I. Pakistan has also given me so much over the years. It was Pakistan who introduced me to the love of my life. And it was upon her manicured lawns that we married, and upon her reclaimed soil that we set up our first home. She brought the love of a new family and new friends into my life. And it was Pakistan that witnessed the birth of my son, Faiz — named after one of her greatest sons.
She embraced me like no other gora post-9/11. I appeared in a documentary/reality series titled “George Ka Pakistan”. It allowed me to explore the country. I ploughed fields in the Punjab, built Kalashnikovs in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (probably couldn’t do that now), and mended fishing boats in Balochistan. The culmination of the series saw the then prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, confer Pakistani citizenship upon me, after the viewing public voted overwhelmingly to make me one of them. I was their George. Fame and affection followed.
But that love was conditional. Conditional upon me playing the role cast — the naive gora. The moment I abandoned the Uncle Tom persona and questioned the defined establishment narratives — whether through my television work or columns — excommunication began. No longer a Pakistani in the eyes of others, my citizenship evidently was not equitable to others.
So, as I depart, I could go with my reputation tarnished, but still largely intact. Or I could leave you with some final words of honesty. Well, true love values honesty far more than a feel-good legacy. So here goes.
Pakistan, you are on a precipice. A wafer-thin sliver is all that stands between you and becoming a failed state. A state that was the culmination of a search for a ‘Muslim space’ by the wealthy Muslims of Northern India has ended up, as MJ Akbar recently pointed out, becoming “one of the most violent nations on earth, not because Hindus were killing Muslims but because Muslims were killings Muslims”.
The assassination of Salmaan Taseer saw not only the death of a man but also represented for me the death of hope in Pakistan. I did not mourn Taseer’s death. I did not know the man. But I mourned what he represented — the death of liberal Pakistan. The governor’s murder reminded us how far the extremist cancer has spread in our society. A cancer in which I saw colleagues and friends on Face book celebrate his murder. A man murdered for standing up for the most vulnerable in our society — a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. He committed no crime. Instead, he questioned the validity of a man-made law — a law created by the British — that was being used as a tool of repression.
In death, the governor was shunned, unlike his killer, who was praised, garlanded and lionised for shooting Taseer in the back. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero overnight. But Qadri is not just a man — he’s a mindset, as eloquently put by Fifi Haroon. Fascism with an Islamic face is no longer a political or an economic problem in Pakistan, it’s now become a cultural issue. Extremism permeates all strata and socio-economic groups within society. Violent extremists may still make up a minority but extremism now enjoys popular support. As for the dwindling moderates and liberals, they are scared.
Pakistan does not require a secret police, we are in the process of turning upon ourselves. But then what do you expect when your military/intelligence nexus — and their jihadi proxies — have used religious bigotry as a tool of both foreign and domestic policy. It is ironic that the one institution that was designed to protect the idea of Pakistan is the catalyst for its cannibalisation. Christians, Ahmadis, Shias and Barelvis have all been attacked in the past year. Who will be next? Groups once funded and supported by the state have carried out many of these attacks. And many jihadi groups still remain in cahoots with the agencies.
So as I leave Pakistan, I leave her with a sense of melancholy. Personally, for all my early wide-eyed excitement and love for the country and its people, Pakistan has made me cynical, disillusioned and bitter over time. I came here with high hopes, adopting the country, its people and the language. I did find redemption here — but no longer.
From the moment I arrived in Pakistan nine years ago, the omnipotence of the military apparatus was self-evident. Yet, as I leave, it’s apparent it will be this institution, more than any other, that will be the catalyst of this country’s eventual downfall. As Pervez Hoodbhoy recently pointed out, rather than acting as a factor for détente in the region, our acquiring the nuclear bomb in 1998 exacerbated our military arrogance. Kargil, the attack on India’s Parliament and, more recently, Mumbai have all occurred since we got the bomb — attacks that couldn’t have been carried out without some military/intelligence involvement.
And yet, ironically, the military’s regional self-importance belies our chronic servitude to the US. In addition to being the largest landowner in Pakistan, the Pakistani Army is the world’s largest mercenary army. Look at the media storm created over the Kerry-Lugar Bill for it’s supposed slight to Pakistani sovereignty. Yet it is the army’s reliance on US military aid that has made Pakistan a client state of the US. This inherent contradiction is not disseminated in the media. Instead, the established narrative for our acquiescence to the US is laid firmly at the weakness of our political class. As if it was the politicians — and not the military leadership — who somehow control Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Of course the military/religious right in Pakistan use their proxies in the media to blame the Hindus, Americans and Jews for all our sins. But those sins are mostly ours. Atiqa Odho, a friend, and someone who truly wants the best for Pakistan, sent me a text message after the detention by India customs of singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. “Rahat Ali Khan is not a criminal, he has become a victim of corrupt trade practices in India that have singled him out to target the soft image of Pakistan… Let’s not treat a music icon who has million of fans over the world as a common criminal.” The text had it all: hyper-patriotism, paranoia, absolution of responsibility, and a shot of snobbery. Why shouldn’t he be treated as a common criminal if he was avoiding tax? The attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team wasn’t a foreign hand. It was a Pakistani hand. Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir were not brought down by some covert Anglo/India plot, but by their own avarice. They cheated.
But the right’s hyper-nationalism is perhaps more tolerable than the liberal elite’s disengagement and insouciance. Like the right, the liberal elite believe all Pakistan’s woes belong to others. But rather than the Hindu/US/Zionist paranoia of the right, the liberals put the blame on the mullahs, the masses, the uneducated and the unwashed — anyone, but themselves. We — and I include myself here, as this was my social milieu for the past nine years — are unaware of our own hypocrisy.
My friends will condemn the cricketers, but not the society that actively encourages these lower middle-class boys to cheat. But why would they? Their families have gorged and benefited from this society. Recently, at a coffee shop, I overheard a society Begum, decked out in designer clothes and glasses, bemoan the cricketing scandal. Her ire was primarily directed at the boys for bringing Pakistan’s ‘good’ name into disrepute — not the cheating itself. She then harked back to a time when the Pakistan cricket team spoke English well, as if good English equalled with moral rectitude. But does she question how her husband makes his money? For every Rs100 collected by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) in taxes, it misses another Rs79 due to tax evasion. The FBR estimates that the total revenue lost by the government as a result of tax evasion comes out to Rs1.27 trillion for this fiscal year and is equal to eight per cent of the GDP. According to the FBR, over 70 per cent of all taxes evaded are corporate income taxes. What’s the difference between Salman Butt screwing his country for money and the rest of us?
But the liberal elite is a misnomer. We aren’t really liberal. We want the liberal values of free speech and rule of law, without wanting to instill the economic and democratic mechanisms to ensure them. We espouse liberalism but don’t practice the egalitarian values — distribution of power and wealth — that underpin liberalism.
But then, the English liberal ‘elite’ has abdicated all responsibility to govern in the past 60 years. Despite enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth and education, we no longer believe it is our duty as the best educated and most privileged in society to contribute to its development. The English language has created a linguistic Berlin Wall between us and the rest of the country. We remain cosseted inside our bubble. Instead, we have ceded political space to a reactionary, conservative, military, feudal and religious nexus. Tolerating this because, in turn, they have left us alone. They have allowed us freedoms that the rest of the country doesn’t have.Freedom to get obscenely wealthy. Freedom to party at Rs10,000-a-ticket balls. Freedom to dress how we like. But these freedoms come at a price. A Faustian pact has been signed.
Even Pakistan’s intellectual elite has largely abandoned its responsibility. An ideological vacuum occurred after 1971, when the ‘idea of Pakistan’ and the two-state solution failed. What filled the vacuum over the succeeding decades have been a variety of parties with their own vested self-interests — Ziaul Haq, Islamists, the Saudis and the US — trying to enforce their own idea of Pakistan. Today, our intellectual elite are too compromised — suckling on the teat of donor money, scholarships and exchange programmes — to challenge the US narrative.
Unfortunately, no one is immune to the ills that this country subjects its citizens to. I have changed. Slowly, my values and morals have corroded. But I don’t want that for my one-year-old boy, Faiz. I want him to grow up in a society where guns are not an everyday occurrence and his parents can openly hold hands.
After Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, my mother-in-law — a hardworking, decent school principal, who was born in Bombay and had grown up in Dhaka before migrating to Pakistan — called me up. She had seen three of her children leave Pakistan during the past 20 years. My wife was the last one remaining. As she spoke, she sounded defeated: “George, just jao. Jao”. So now I am going. Khuda hafiz, Pakistan.