TEIT HORNBACK / STILL PICTURES
Michael D'Souza reports on Pakistani disenchantment
with a politics poisoned by violence and intolerance.
There were perhaps six of them, maybe a dozen. It's so long ago that my memory could be playing tricks on me. But every one of them was wearing a burqa - the women's garment that looks like a tent. The wearer peers through a grill over the eyes; it always looked to me like the helmet worn by knights in English historical novels. The women came from the apartment above us. I had seen them on the steps, though rarely, and they always had the veil down. This time it was different. The burquas were not the usual black ones. These were a shimmering silken fabric; blues and even a pinkish one; garments saved for special days, weddings and Eid celebrations. They had come to take my mother to the polls to vote. It was the first election they had ever voted in. It was the early 1960s and Ayub Khan had called local elections. We were part of the Christian minority living in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi. My mother had not even considered voting, but these neighbours were quite adamant that she should. And it was a celebration. Mother had no choice; their overwhelming enthusiasm made her change into a sari more appropriate to the occasion and go off to vote.
That is what democracy should be. The sheer, unadulterated joy of making choices for yourself, for your family, with your neighbours and for your country. But that tantalizing promise has been repeatedly betrayed in Pakistan. In the most recent election, most of the electorate didn't even bother to vote, then celebrated in the streets when the military overthrew the elected government.
Years after my mother's first vote, Ayub's foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, quit and labelled the Ayub regime a dictatorship, accusing it of losing Kashmir to India. There were reports of corruption and enormous wealth accumulated by the President's family. Tens of thousands of protesting students invaded the college I was attending and I was swept into this sea of young humanity demanding change, demanding justice, demanding democracy. We flowed down Bunder Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Soon we saw black smoke pouring out of an empty movie house that was believed to be owned by Ayub's son. The police moved in with their lathis (bamboo staves with steel tips) and I joined the rush away from the beating, jumping a wall and fleeing to the nearest open doorway.
In elections finally held in 1970, Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party assumed power in what was left of Pakistan after the secession of Bangladesh. He went on to win another term in 1977 but the opposition accused him of rigging the polls and took to the streets with massive demonstrations. In July the Army Chief of Staff, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, staged a coup. Two years later the Zia regime found Bhutto guilty of a political murder and sentenced him to death. I watched from Canada. On 4 April 1979 the Zia regime hanged Bhutto; that day I decided to apply for Canadian citizenship.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and billions of dollars in US military aid were sent to prop up Zia's government. But Pakistanis paid dearly for this money. About three million Afghans crossed the border looking for safety. While the refugees received cash benefits, Pakistanis living in the area - who were just as poor - saw prices increase until food and shelter became unaffordable. Many of the weapons given to the Afghans to fight the Russian invaders ended up in Pakistani markets. In Karachi you could rent semi-automatic rifles or even grenade launchers by the day, two blocks from where my family buys groceries - and about a thousand miles south of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Then there were drugs. The border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan has long been known for its opium poppy fields. During the war factories started springing up like weeds in the fields, to refine the opium into heroin. Most of the refined drugs were shipped to markets in the West but there was spillage: heroin addiction became a major problem in Pakistan, especially in the cities. Freely available weapons and drugs made for a deadly combination and Pakistanis paid with their lives.
Zia also brought in Sharia law for which women paid the stiffest price. He introduced the Zina Ordinance against extramarital sex. Under this law, for a man to be convicted of rape, the penetration had to be witnessed by four pious Muslim men. If these pious gentlemen were not available to testify, the women were thrown in jail for having sex outside marriage. The female population of Pakistan's jails skyrocketed. Now, not only could men freely rape, but fathers and brothers could punish female family members who tried to choose their own marriage partners. In many cases women were killed for besmirching the honour of the family. The insult could be as innocent as conversation with a man. In 1999 the women murdered numbered more than a thousand. None of the Pakistani regimes since Zia - not even when led by a woman, Benazir Bhutto - have discarded this horrific law.
After Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won power with the overwhelming support of women voters. But accusations of corruption and abuse have dogged Pakistan's elected governments throughout the 1990s. Within two years the President dismissed Bhutto's Government with these allegations. Nawaz Sharif won the next election, but in 1993 the President dismissed him. Same charges. Sharif challenged the dismissal in court and won. New elections were called. The PPP and Bhutto triumphed this time and she appointed a new President. But it did her little good as three years later he dismissed her on charges of misrule and corruption.
By this time Pakistanis were getting fed up with politics altogether. In elections in February 1997 two out of three eligible voters didn't bother as Nawaz Sharif won an overwhelming majority. He used that power to amend the constitution, removing the President's authority to dissolve the National Assembly.
Then in October 1999, when Sharif tried to fire its chief General, Pervez Musharraf, the Army turned the tables and Sharif found himself in prison. The country reacted indifferently to the latest coup - the legacy of in-fighting and failure of both Zia and democratically elected governments had taken their toll.
Drugs and weapons are still a reality in Pakistan. Zia encouraged an intolerant brand of Islam. Violence poisoned the elected governments following Zia's death. Political fights usually ended up in gun battles. Many of the people killed were often innocent bystanders who are now numbered in thousands - people who happened to be in the market picking up their groceries when a hijacked van pulled up and men started shooting randomly.
Religious intolerance meant mosques were sprayed with machine gun fire - Sunnis by Shia, Shia by Sunnis. During Benazir Bhutto's regime one illiterate Christian boy was condemned to death for allegedly writing blasphemous statements on the walls of a mosque. With Sharif in power, a woman seeking divorce was shot dead in her lawyer's office because of the disapproval of the male members of her family. The police responded by pursuing charges against the lawyer.
No elected government has succeeded in bringing any sense of law and order to the country. The political parties have encouraged intolerance and hatred for their own short-term benefit. Some parties even participated actively in the violence. One, the MQM, largely based in Karachi, was found to run its own torture cells - drilling sense into their critics quite literally, by using an electric drill. The Sharif Government was so reviled that its overthrow was celebrated in the streets with the distribution of sweets - a Pakistani way of celebrating good news.
An active and vigorous human-rights movement has taken root in Pakistan. Two sisters, Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, are in the forefront of this movement. Asma Jehangir defended the boy accused of blasphemy and the woman seeking a divorce was shot in Hina Jilani's office. Both lawyers have had their lives threatened. Both are still active defending the human rights of their fellow Pakistanis and demanding changes in the law.
Politicians have run for election making promises of a better life and then betrayed the people. But it is individuals who make a difference, like the human-rights activists, who make no promises but lay their own lives on the line to defend others. Without a fundamental respect for human rights it is impossible to make choices at a ballot box that will make life better for you, your family, your neighbours and your country.
works as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7