Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Talk and Tea with US Senators

Omer G
This afternoon, quite unexpectedly, SAC representatives were invited to a meeting between civil society representatives and United States Senators visiting Pakistan. The invitation came to us the way most invitations travel in the political circles here: ‘someone knows someone who knows someone else who...’ all the way, between the sender and the recipient. In any case, at around two in the afternoon, as the air was abuzz with the blithe news of the imminent release of our fellow students from jail, we hitchhiked our way to a house somewhere close to Pace in Liberty Market. A beautiful young lady with lots of make-up, dressed in a black business suit ushered us inside the house. To our left, I saw one of the most beautiful private gardens I have ever seen and there flickered in my mind, a glimpse of that eternally-sought-after Eden. But the next moment, we were led into a grand house and then a grand drawing room beyond which a swimming pool could be seen.

The room, however, was completely NGO-aunty-infested. At first, I felt trapped in yet another elite NGO-aunty tea party but further conversation marginally corroded my mental stereotype. After another hour or so, the senators arrived and the meeting formally began. The four senators (senators of their own states, not federal senators) were young men in their early thirties and had been selected from amongst a large number of candidates to spend a week or so in Pakistan trying to understand the country better. The moderator was the owner of the mansion, the young lady who had ushered us in. Besides three students, Anushay, Ammar and myself, there were lawyers, middle-tier representatives from the PPP and PML-N, journalists, representative of HRCP and Human Rights Watch and a couple of film-makers.

It would be pointless to give you a minute-by-minute account of the meeting. Besides, I don’t remember all the stuff; I can only offer snippets. First the arguments, then the people.

The civil society representatives offered the usual story; martial law is in place, the judiciary has been destroyed, rights and freedoms are minimal and Musharraf is banking on nothing less and nothing more than his American support base. The lawyers articulated their concerns fairly straightforwardly while the civil society representatives elaborated on how this was hypocritical, because the US professes to be the champion of democracy and liberal values, but its acts destroy the claim. It is against US interests because, with the current configuration of power, America’s War on Terror and support for Musharraf is alienating civil society; without their support, banking on the military alone, the US is highly unlikely to make much progress in fighting extremism.

The students added the point that without a strong and independent judiciary all governments tend to turn authoritarian and arbitrary. Therefore, if freedom, responsibility and good governance are to take root and survive in Pakistan, the illegally dismissed judges must be restored. Elections are part of the solution but democracy is incomplete without getting the judges back.

The Senators recognized the outrage against US polices amongst the civil society in Pakistan. However, they felt that, given its security concerns, the US had no choice but to back the military in Pakistan which is, among other things, crucial to the supply chain for waging war in Afghanistan. They expressed the fear that if the US withdraws its support for the Pakistan Army, the Saudis (whom they termed the biggest supporters of terrorism in the world and Islamic Fundamentalists) would fill in the vacuum. This, they believed, would put Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in even more dangerous hands. Again and again, the Senators kept insisting that instead of criticizing US policy, Pakistanis should provide alternative policies.

To this, the representative of Human Rights Watch and a few journalists responded by saying that the American aid did not have to withdrawn immediately. It would be a gradual process whereby the US should negotiate with not just the military in Pakistan but with the society in order to come to any settlement. Also, right now, even moral support in terms of a statement of two in support of the judiciary followed by some action will boost the courage of relevant actors. At the very least, the US should stop making irresponsible claims like saying that the judges issue is a mere Supreme Court reshuffle and elections will be free and fair. In the longer run, US security will remain in danger as long as common people hate it and resent its policies.

A lot of usual questions were asked and answered. The Senators did, however, raise two points which I considered to be quite enlightening. I felt that these questions caught some of us off guard and we need to think deeply about them. Why did the civil society not rise against the martial law in 1999, but rose up now? How are judges selected in Pakistan? If the government handpicks the judges, why is it still so outrageous when it makes them take a new oath or fires them? I do not mean to suggest that we have no answers to these questions, but I do feel that we need to reflect more deeply upon these key points.

As to the people, two of the senators stood out: Senator Pippy, ex-armyman, more than six-feet talk and very strongly built, he was a very sharp Republican. His questions were ruthless but relevant. The leader of the group, however, was a very sweet, good-looking and suave Democrat, whose quiet but perceptive demeanor and deep outlook inspired a lot of respect. He was quite understanding, and at the end of the meeting, profusely thanked us, terming this their ‘most lively’ meeting in Pakistan yet. Ali Dayan, from Human Rights Watch was very articulate and appeared fairly seasoned in tackling US politicians, appealing to just the right things; namely, their strategic interests. Later, over a cup of tea, he told me that he felt that the senators were ‘gaon kay loag’ (villagers) from small states, and hardly big fish in the American political arena. Aitzaz Ahsan’s son, a lawyer working with the UN was also there and he grilled the American just as his father used to grill the Attorney-General in the Supreme Court, before Nov 3.

Then, of course, there was our unforgettable hostess but I have mentioned her elsewhere…

Throughout the meeting, waiters - some dressed up in fancy sherwanis and turbans, others in ragged clothes - kept roaming miserably from one person to another, distributing tea, sandwiches, patties, pastries and delicacies of all sort and the senators kept refusing to accept their generosity. In my heart, I could feel the contempt that this must have inspired in the Senators. Maybe they share my contempt for the rich in Pakistan who have the intestinal fortitude to blame America for hypocrisy while, in their own houses, they do the same – talk of justice and rights, but engage in ruthless exploitation of the laboring class; tell the Americans to respect other humans, but force their own servants to work in harsh and humiliating conditions. Are we any better than the military? Why should the Americans leave the reins of power in our hands? Is it the perpetuation of our power and privilege that we are fighting for? I don’t have any quick answers. But as my eyes wandered from our beautiful and eloquent young hostess to the senators and back, I felt these questions plague my mind.

At the end of the meeting, business cards were exchanged. Asma Jehangir had come by then. As we stood outside the house, waiting for a rickshaw, all the aunties had left in their big cars. A rickshaw was hard to find. The weather was lovely, windy and Islamabad-cold and we were anxious to join our recently released friends at the Hunger Strike Camp outside the Press Club. We had with us a chatty, young, Lahori lawyer, who had spent a week or so in jail. Like most Lahoris, he had quite a few stories to share…


Anonymous said...

I loved reading this piece. You are such a good writer. A lot to chew on here--Especially and mostly the apartheid we practice in our daily lives in Pakistan and how that makes us quite a bit dishonest about "equality, democracy and revolutions". I often wonder how many people get ready every morning to go the "revolution" tea served to them--clothes ironed for them---house made for them--the driver driving them to the spot for the protests. But never mind--However, if we do finally manage to achieve the rule of law (thanks to all the brave students--lawyers--activists and good brave people of Pakistan and their muscular good looking sauve whatever friends) then this cruelty of social apartheid in Pakistan would begin to end. And its high time for it to go!
The question put by the Senator was a good one about why a Military Dictator was acceptable in 1999 and not now. This goes right into the heart of the social apartheid practiced in our daily lives in Pakisan and how the lack of institutions (and our perpetuating their erosion) allows us to exercise values and principles selectively. The situation since 9-11 has been such that almost all Pakistanis are feeling the apartheid from the entire world--no matter what their class or social status may be. We are all being treated as less then good. And finally people no matter what their class or ideology may be are waking up to the realities of supporting military regimes for the sake of their own individual family gains. Suddenly there is a personal cost to be paid for supporting cruel dictatorships--if principles and the rule of law are ignored selectively.
More power to the movement for the restoration of the judiciary! The sooner that happens the sooner we emerge from this apartheid.


dream pakistan said...

A wonderful read, I agree with Maniza and your observation ,this social Apartheid is what is the problem. We at HDF " "
completed a outcome study of our microcredit program in Pakistan .
Ill be happy to share it with anyone who is interested ( ,it concludes that there is a problem behind each problem and we seem to be chasing to the same conclusion Social Apartheid. If time permits and this emergency fiasco settles down I hope these new activists will Join us at hdf to address these " problems behind the problems "that we endeavor to solve for the people of our nation
Social Apartheid to which most people have been 'desensitized '
The aunties and the servers alike.

Participants of the meeting said...

Omer G, thanks for your contribution. From those who attended the meeting with the Senators,
we were quite suprised by your rather spicy and misconstrued account of the meeting that you labelled as a ' tea party.'
Firstly to correct some of the factual errors you made - there were no filmmakers there. There were only 2 people from NGOs. And the young women you so scornfully have labelled as 'coffee party aunties' are perhaps a few years older than yourself and are hard working professionals. In your article you contradict yourself by saying 'NGO aunty infested' room and then give an account of lawyers, politicians etc being there. Also, your derogatory tone towards NGOs and aunties suggests that you think that these institutions and people have no meaningful contribution towards society - perhaps you should read history and not judge everyone by your 'superior' principles. Strange that you attend an elite institution and pose as a representative of the 'have-nots of society.'

Secondly, the lawyers and civil society did protest against the imposition of emergency in 1999, and the Senators were informed accordingly. Perhaps you were not around then and so penned it down as it did not happen.
We also noticed how you pounced on the US Senators for their contact numbers and more than once hogged the conversation, while senior journalists waited patiently for you to finish your 'revolutionary talk' which is mostly confined to your campus.
You repeatedly target the hostess on frivolous grounds from your own 'superior pulpit'. She is an intrepid journalist and has been in the forefront of the journalists' agitation against the regime. Just as a reminder for when you write next: it is not only in bad taste but discriminatory to criticize women because of what they wear.
Lastly, we do hope that next time you will have the courage to walk away from such immoral homes, rather than be part of a crowd which you so obviously despise.

Anonymous said...

Participants of the Meeting,

It appears that my account of the meeting has hurt someone's feelings (I don't know who). I actually feel bad about that, regardless of whether I was at fault or not.

In my defense, I can only make three arguments: Firstly, I did not intend to hurt or insult anyone. This is why there are no names in there, except the senators' and students' - the general public(not too many read this blog anyway) has no way of figuring out exactly who I am talking about. The account is sarcastic but makes a generalized attack on our society, not specific attack on individuals.

Secondly, I wrote about things as I saw them; others may, and are entitled to, see things differently. Even I am not very clear about the true meaning of things. This is why, I emphasised that more than anything else, the encounter left me with a lot of open questions to which "I don’t have any quick answers". I appreciate your attempt to address some of the queries raised at the end of the post.

Thirdly, some of the accusations arise out of a misreading of my text. The case of "NGO aunties", for instance. I wrote that the encounter "marginally corroded my mental stereotype" about them. This is, in simple words, confession that I went there with certain prejudices but interaction reduced, if not eliminated, those prejudices - in fact I developed some respect for many of them. If, as you suggest, my tone does indicate the contrary, let the make take the opportunity to make it clear: I have nothing against NGOs or their role in society, nor against aunties or women too young to be my aunties.

As for the hostess, I cant see where I have 'targeted' or "criticized" her. Who says that there is anything wrong with being a "beautiful young lady with lots of make-up, dressed in a black business suit", "young and eloquent"? or "owner of the mansion". At least, I didnt say there is anything wrong with this. Most of us would find these adjective flattering. It may be taken as indicative of admiration, even envy, but not that I 'obviously despise' her - I dont. I said nothing more about her; I had no right to say more.

I hope that these comments would address some of your concerns. I and a lot of other students value the contribution that other people (including those attending that meeting) are making to the ongoing struggle. Nonetheless, I consider it our duty to keep asking myself some tough and honest moral questions like: "Is it the perpetuation of our power and privilege that we are fighting for?" and " Are we being hypocritical?" These questions that often "plague my mind"; I dont think if in our homes, our offices, and our campuses we can always answer them in the negative, although sometimes we can. This is why I feel it necessary to share these queries with fellow students and members of the civil society.

Humble little author on a fairly unknown blog

Lawyer said...

I take exception at the description of so called 'aunties.'Many of them have taken more rickshaws in their lives, than the young yuppie who did not know where he was going and where to find one near Pace.Shocking that he discovered that people have domestic help in Pakistan. It is unfortunate but not uncommon. The emphasis was more on grilling senators and to make the point that they were unimportaant than on the objective of the meeting. It appears that the senators did hear a consensus that Pakistani civil society wanted democracy as well as the judges restored.
It is in bad taste and most ungraceful to accept people's hospitality given in good faith and then disgrace them. The clothes and make up of the host is her personal matter. Those who put down those who are fighting on the same side(without a reason) are the ones to watch out for.Afterall the people who we are all supporting-judges including- are not living in huts. Be real and more gracious. Perhaps we can also learn the attire of all the men there. Surely they too had shaved and were not all there in rags or arrived on motorcycles. The gender snare is disgusting.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised to read that you could not get a rikshaw there and I want to understand that how come it was possible that you could not find a single rikshaw on one of the busiest roads. I myself attended the meeting which you have very mercilessly labeled as tea party. And rather to say thanks to the hostess, who have actually come up with this idea to get this interaction organized, you have attacked her personally which I find unethical. I hardly care how beautifully you write, but I wish you can think beautifully as well.
If you believe that you are a part of the struggle to bring back democracy and rights in this country then you have to rise above your prejudices, negativity and biases. Those who have the courage to achieve their goals, they make sure that it is possible according to you in tea parties as well. It is up to you whether you see a glass half empty or half full.