by Tariq Ali
As if everyday life in Pakistan weren’t dispiriting enough, last month the swift and turbulent Indus burst its banks and swathes of the country disappeared under water. Divine punishment, the poor said, but they were the ones who suffered. Allah rarely targets the rich. As the floods came and the country panicked, its president fled the bunker and went on a tour of inspection to France and Britain.
The floodwaters have now receded in many parts of the country, leaving 20 million people homeless. The province of Sindh, however, is still under threat and 800,000 people are marooned without food. Aid agencies estimate the bail-out costs for the country at between seven and ten billion dollars, but only $800 million has been pledged by foreign donors, in total contrast to the support given after the devastating earthquake of 2005. The rebuilt towns and villages are proof that not all the money was stolen that time. But despite this, little help has been forthcoming from abroad, the result of a combination of Islamophobia and distrust of the Zardari government on financial matters.
Did the rulers of Pakistan treat the worst natural disaster to hit their country as an emergency, and pull out all the stops without thinking of themselves or drooling at the prospects of foreign aid pouring in? Like hell they did. For the whole of August the plutocracy floundered hopelessly as the catastrophe grew. The army did its best, but was hindered by the war on terror. As nearly a million people came under threat from the floodwater in Jacobabad, the local authorities were informed that the nearby Shahbaz airbase could not be used for rescue operations. In response to a parliamentary question from the opposition, the health secretary, Khushnood Lashari, explained: ‘Health relief operations are not possible in the flood-affected areas of Jacobabad because the airbase is controlled by the United States.’ It was not necessary to add that those on the base were busy arming and dispatching drones to hit villages in northern Pakistan. In Swat, closer to the AfPak war zones, a detachment of marines was made available to airlift tribal elders to safety, in an attempt presumably to win hearts and minds. Some hope.
Voluntary groups – including Islamists of every hue – attempted to provide some aid while Zardari inspected his properties in Europe and, it’s said, looked over a huge apartment on the edge of Hyde Park, not too far from Edgware Road, where the exiled General Musharraf holds court and plots his return to power and where, too, one of the more poisonous figures in Pakistani politics, Altaf Hussein, the supreme leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (established under the patronage of the late General Zia-ul-Haq), regularly spews out speeches via video-link to his supporters in Karachi. Although his party is in alliance with Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, Altaf fears assassination or arrest were he to return. The British have kindly given him permanent refuge with no conditions attached.
Back home, Faryal Zardari Talpur, the president’s sister (elected unopposed to the National Assembly from a rotten borough) and the head of the women’s section of the Pakistan Peoples Party, convened a small but select gathering of billionaires and millionaires in Karachi, a city where they are not in short supply. Money was needed urgently, she told them: ‘Our people are suffering.’ When she then announced that she wanted to set up a relief fund in the names of Bilawal and Bakhtawar Bhutto (two of the three children of Zardari and Benazir Bhutto), one of the businessmen rose and explained calmly that they were all concerned about the situation, and were prepared to contribute generously, but not in cash. They would provide food, clothes, raw materials to build temporary shelters and rebuild homes, crate-loads of medicines and whatever else was required. All they needed was to know where to send these things. The meeting ended abruptly.
Fantastic tales about embezzlement are making the rounds all over Pakistan. Most organisations bypassed the government and just sent doctors and relief workers to the flood-stricken areas. On 21 August, one volunteer, a doctor sent to rural areas in Sind, emailed her first impressions:
Khairpur at this moment is housing a huge bulk of displaced people from Larkana, Jacobabad, Shikarpur and many smaller villages … the registered displaced people are now more than 50,000. Around 120 camps are housing people in small clusters … In all camps the majority by far are children … Almost all the children are sick, ranging from stunted growth, severe malnourishment, diarrhoea and skin problems. Almost all the women are anaemic, weak, malnourished, and perpetually pregnant or breast-feeding, and the sad part is there is no milk but the baby is still latched, always. Perhaps 20-25 per cent are pregnant … What does one do about these patients? We tried sending them to hospitals but common complaints were ‘they prescribe medicines we cannot afford, tests we cannot afford, doctors are never there and, in any case, doctors do not treat us.’
I have read more than a dozen similar reports. Many governments would find it difficult to cope with such a disaster (think of New Orleans after the levees burst), but the situation in Pakistan is exacerbated by the failure of its ruling elite, in the 60 years since the country’s foundation, to construct even a primitive social safety net. Even in normal times the growth of 60 per cent of children born in Pakistan is severely or moderately stunted by malnutrition, a situation much worse than elsewhere in South Asia. When a natural disaster hits the country the hatred and resentment felt by the poor for the cocooned rich inevitably increases.
Some popular talk-show hosts have been venting their frustration, arguing that the country needs a revolution. And from his perch in London, Altaf Hussein has called for the army to take over the country, set up a government of honest administrators and technocrats and hang all feudal and corrupt politicians (excluding himself?) from the lamp-posts. One of his underlings in Pakistan appealed to the country’s army chief, General Kayani, to emulate De Gaulle and save his country. (It wasn’t an original suggestion: General Ayub Khan, president of Pakistan in the 1960s, who did model himself on De Gaulle, laid the basis for the break-up of the country in 1971 with the secession of Bangladesh.) When a State Department functionary rejected this idea in public, Hussein and his minions obediently changed their tune.
Venal politicians are far from Pakistan’s only problem. What of the obscene amount of money spent on the country’s armed forces – expenditure that is never questioned – or the fact that the top echelons of the military apparatus plunder the country just as much as their political counterparts, if a bit more discreetly. Bleating on about the importance of democracy is pointless in any case. Is the police abduction and torture of investigative journalists like Umar Cheema more acceptable because it’s instigated by an elected government?
The crime rate in Pakistan’s cities has quadrupled over the last decade. In the Punjab the Sharif brothers – old rivals of the Bhuttos – and their Muslim League run the elected provincial government. Unable or unwilling to control crime, the Punjab government has turned a blind eye to honour killings, vigilante squads and lynch mobs. Even as the country lay engulfed, news of a grisly episode in the ancient Punjabi city of Sialkot spread across the videosphere. This is where the two great poets of the subcontinent – Iqbal and Faiz – were born. In my youth it was thought of as a carefree city with handsome young men and spellbinding dancing girls. I can still remember the words of a popular Bollywood song in which a great diva sang lovingly in Punjabi of a boy from Sialkot (like the girl from Ipanema) with a dark mole on his face who so entranced her that she could die.
Sialkot produces some of the best cricket bats in the world. On 15 August two teenage brothers, Mugheez, 17, and Muneeb, 15, enjoying the school holidays, went to play cricket after breakfast. Their father, who runs a small business producing material for footballs, encouraged their passion for the sport. Unknown to them, earlier that day armed robbers had been in action close to the cricket field and escaped with some loot. As the boys set off back home on their bikes with a bag containing cricket equipment, someone shouted: ‘It’s the robbers.’ The kids were surrounded by a mob, beaten to death and then hung upside down from a nearby post. A few young men videoed the killings and put them up on YouTube. The hundreds who watched this lynching included a senior police officer accompanied by three other policemen. There is much press speculation as to whether such lynch mobs are secretly being encouraged by the provincial government to deal with the complete breakdown of law and order. When the boys’ father arrived, the crowd evaporated. He sat on the pavement and wept as the bodies were taken down. Later, he spoke to reporters quietly and with great dignity: ‘Even if they had committed an offence, was this the way to deal with them? Slaughter them like animals? We live in a country without justice or shame.’
It was only when a visibly shocked Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, announced a suo moto investigation that any action was taken. ‘Why are the police so helpless in nabbing the culprits involved in the gruesome murders of two brothers?’ the chief justice asked on 3 September, and instructed the authorities to arrest and charge the four policemen; 14 others have now also been arrested. There were angry demonstrations in Sialkot and elsewhere, in most places led by the moderate Islamists of the Jamaat-i-Islami. The Sharif brothers eventually arrived in the city to meet the grieving family. One can only hope that the brothers restrained themselves and did not offer ‘generous financial compensation’ to buy the family’s silence – the Sharif solution for almost everything.
With most avenues for social advancement sealed off, poor Pakistanis have turned to sport, especially cricket. The passion for the game continues to grow and hordes of illiterate kids in villages and towns are much more knowledgeable about the rules and excitements of cricket than schoolchildren elsewhere in the world. The crowds that have been demonstrating against the three Pakistani players accused of corruption come for the most part from the same social background as these players. Some are unemployed. Most are young and feel betrayed by their stars. Cricket is all they’ve got and if even that is corrupt then it’s farewell to hope.
Unsurprisingly, a love for the game is linked to a desire to rise in society. A talented player from the poorest of poor families can become a superstar. If he succumbs to the siren calls of the betting mafias he will rapidly become a multi-millionaire able to help his family, build them a house, pay for the education of his siblings and so on. He will of course earn much less if he doesn’t take bribes: the disparity in the wages paid to Pakistani test cricketers and their British equivalents mirrors the inequalities between the global north and south.
– Tariq Ali’s new book, The Obama Syndrome, will be launched in Washington, DC and New York on 16 and 17 September respectively. This article was first published in the London Review of Books.