Opinion Columnists 10 Apr 2018 Honour icons, don&rs ...

Honour icons, don’t create ‘sacred cows’

Published Apr 10, 2018, 12:44 am IST
Updated Apr 10, 2018, 12:44 am IST
One way is to ensure universal access to historical information through a robust public curriculum that prioritises history.
Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stands with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before a summit in Simla, India, on June 28, 1972. Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup in 1977 and hanged two years later (Photo: Associated Press)
 Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stands with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before a summit in Simla, India, on June 28, 1972. Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup in 1977 and hanged two years later (Photo: Associated Press)

Last week, the PPP commemorated the death anniversary of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. As always, and befittingly, tributes to Pakistan’s most popular politician poured in, hailing him as a democratic stalwart, an independent thinker, an exemplary orator. Twitter overflowed with Bhutto’s witty retorts to US president John F. Kennedy during their meetings, circulated as proof of a man who was self-assured, worthy of respect, and key to securing Pakistan’s position. In the way he is valorised, Bhutto has become the strongest symbol for Pakistan’s democratic struggle. He shares a death anniversary with another icon, Martin Luther King Jr, a leader of the American civil rights movement, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968. This year marks the 50th since MLK’s killing, and it has been commemorated with especial poignance in the US, given the resurgence of racial politics and the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. While there has been no shortage of encomiums for MLK, there has also been much introspection, and efforts to review King’s life and death as a way to understand how the US has found itself as racially divided and unequal as it is now. There is a willingness to move beyond the symbolic heft of MLK, and consider the historical context in which he operated, all in an effort to make things better, even right, in the present.

And so we learn that at the time of his death, according to a Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans viewed him unfavourably. Those who supported the civil rights movement thought he wasn’t radical enough; those who didn’t, saw him as a troublemaker. While academics and some commentators in the press are willing to similarly analyse our iconic leaders, there is little opportunity in the public imagination to deconstruct our national heroes.  But we urgently need to do so. To take Bhutto as an example (and not because he singly deserves revisiting), it would be productive for Pakistan to understand the political deve-lopments that led to the passage of the second amendment under Bhutto’s watch in order to check the Ahmadi community’s persecution today. The problem is that such deconstruction is not normalised. If an academic, politician or journalist were to take up such an issue, it would immediately be politicised. The analysis would be considered partisan, serving an “agenda” or attacking a particular political party. The content of the discussion would be irrelevant. And yet, without reckoning with our history, and the individuals and their policies that shaped the country we’re in today, how can we hope to progress?

 

This is another challenge of having the military at the centre of a country’s politics. Military policies — even if they stray beyond the realm of security into foreign and economic policymaking — are considered immune to historicisation and analysis because we perceive them as products of an institution. Discussions on the “Bajwa doctrine” have been unusual in that they challenge our common practice of conflating army chiefs and the institution they serve. While some commentators have reiterated that the chief’s thinking is merely an articulation of a continuous, almost auto-generated institutional logic, others have highlighted that generals are individuals whose personal stances and decisions shape not only the institution but also the country. The lack of information and space to discuss military leaders in the same way one might analyse political leaders means that opportunities for righting historical wrongs are fewer in countries subject to prolonged dictatorships. 

The sacred cow phenomenon, and valid concerns about criticising those who have martyred themselves for their country, suppress the appetite for debate. How does a country get to a point where it can revisit its leaders and their decisions, without the act being dismissed as partisan or unpatriotic? One way is to ensure universal access to historical information through a robust public curriculum that prioritises history. Another way is for media outlets to invest in historical investigative journalism — think documentaries or long-form journalism revisiting key moments in the country’s history.  Widespread access to such information will help inform public discussions, and start to carve a distinction between debate and conspiracy theorising. After all, we cannot move forward without first going back.

By arrangement with Dawn

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