An untimely invitation

By Haider Nizamani

AS many as 150 members of India’s 541-strong Lok Sabha (the equivalent of Pakistan’s National Assembly) have criminal records. More than 300 of these members are millionaires. More than 50 political parties have elected members in India’s national and provincial legislatures.

Corruption and crime are endemic in its political system. Yet none of these parties, from communists to communalists, can muster up the courage to invite the Indian armed forces to kick out the politicians and take up the reins of power in the country.

Pakistan is in a different league. Altaf Hussain, the long-distance leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), recently extended an invitation to the Pakistan Army’s ‘patriotic generals’ to come forward to remove feudal politicians and root out corruption from the country. When the invitation received more criticism than accolades, the MQM leader roped in the Supreme Court on Aug 28 to team up with the army to do the needful.

The MQM is a partner in the coalition at both the federal and provincial levels, and ordinarily a party in power requesting the undoing of the system would sound scandalous. On both counts, feudalism and corruption, history and the present realities suggest that the military is not the answer. ‘Feudalism’ is the term used by the MQM to refer to the country’s land-owning classes. Either Mr Hussain is politically naive and has little grasp on the country’s history, or worse, he issued the statement taking the cue from authoritarian forces. More importantly, the stance of the MQM in raking up the ghost of feudalism in the manner that it has shows the party’s lack of seriousness about putting in the hard political work needed to meaningfully confront the landed elite of Pakistan.

What makes the MQM believe that corruption and feudalism can be eradicated through martial law? There have been three rounds of redistributive land reforms in 63 years of the country’s existence. Only one general out of the four military dictatorships can be credited with introducing land reforms, and even those were half-hearted.

The first round of land reforms, introduced by Ayub Khan in the 1950s, barely dented the landed gentry’s power as it set exceptionally high landholding ceilings. His successor, Yahya Khan, was not too bothered about carrying out land reforms. The second round of land reforms was first initiated by Z.A. Bhutto after coming into power in 1972. He pledged a third round in 1977 but Gen Zia’s military regime got rid of Bhutto as well as the promised land reforms. It was during Zia’s period that the Sharia court declared any land reforms un-Islamic. During Pervez Musharraf’s nine-year period of military rule, the MQM remained an integral part of the ruling coalition but did next to nothing to accomplish the goal it is now championing.

Meaningful redistributive land reforms, without going into the details of the comparative merits and demerits of such reforms, have never been on the agenda of past ‘patriotic’ generals and there is little evidence to accept Mr Hussain’s submission that a coterie of patriotic generals will undertake any such reforms.

Then there is corruption. If understood as the use of public office for personal gains then the very nature of the military regime is corrupt to the core, because the very action of using the public office of a general or brigadier etc that is used to initiate a coup and then run the country without any legitimacy makes it a corrupt system. Furthermore, lacking legitimacy, all military regimes in the country have taken under their wings politicians who had little public appeal.

When the army comes in as a house-cleaning force, it inevitably turns the venture into house-keeping exercise and in Pakistan’s chequered history this has led to house-occupation, leaving the country more corrupt and unequal in the wake of prolonged military rules.

On Aug 28, the MQM leader rephrased his position and said that he never sought the imposition of martial law but wanted the army to act within constitutional limits and help the poor “snatch the lands and big palaces of feudals and landlords”. And to facilitate this the Supreme Court “under Article 190 of the constitution … can direct the army, police, Rangers or any other law-enforcement agency to apprehend those who had breached the canals and barrages to save their lands and properties causing death and destruction”. I claim no legal expertise on constitutional matters but Article 190 of the constitution is a one-liner: “All judicial and executive authorities throughout Pakistan shall act in the aid of the Supreme Court.” Only the most imaginative understanding of this article can enable judges to endorse the appropriation of private property as suggested by Mr Hussain.

The MQM is taking the easy route of calling on the army to perform what is essentially the role of political parties. It will have to come out of Karachi and work with the peasantry if it is serious and sincere in championing the rights and aspirations of the non-landed rural population. The peasantry is a much more complex lot than suggested by the MQM’s narrative. Mere sloganeering may help the MQM gain the attention of television anchors but convincing different layers of the peasantry to occupy the lands and homes of the landed elite is a far more difficult job and the Pakistani peasantry is unlikely to trust the MQM as the party of the landless masses.


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