Samson and the Philistines

IN A recent interview with the Guardian, General Musharraf confessed that he was growing increasingly unpopular. Clearly, an ungrateful nation thinks enough is enough. But the self-anointed president may wonder why he is no longer the flavour of the month.

By Irfan Husain

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Published: Thu 8 Jun 2006, 9:27 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:43 PM

Every second day, what passes for the opposition in Pakistan demands that General Musharraf must remove his uniform immediately if he wishes to continue as president. This is not unlike the Philistines asking Samson, the Old Testament hero, to shear the locks that gave him his mythical strength.

It finally took Delilah to beguile Samson into a haircut while he slept. In her absence, why should Musharraf strip himself of the real source of his power? Alas, a retired Pakistani general is a pathetic figure: forsaken and forlorn, his swagger gone, he is yet another retired army officer tapping his contacts in a desperate bid for a sinecure that would remind him of his days of glory.

And the more senior you get, the more there is to lose: staff cars with fluttering flags, security guards, sharp salutes and an unlimited number of underlings at your beck and call. Who would voluntarily wish to give up all this? So when hacks like me talk of 'exit strategies' for the army, we forget that it's very easy to get used to the good life.

During Benazir Bhutto's first brief stint in the late Eighties, I was in the lobby of a hotel in Islamabad, waiting for a friend, when I saw a brigadier in uniform striding towards the exit. He looked neither left nor right, expecting people to make way for him. And they did, too. He behaved like a Greek god on urgent business, and for whom lesser mortals had better make room. On his epaulets sat the power, the arrogance and the authority of the Pakistan Army.

A uniform, no matter how humble your station, makes you a member of an anointed elite, and you derive your authority from the state. Thus, even a junior police officer can stick his chest out and strut about, master of all he surveys. An Immigration Officer at the airport may earn a tenth of what you do, but his uniform gives him the power to stop you from catching your flight. Similarly, a Customs Officer can hassle you for hours on your return just because he is wearing that smart, white outfit.

In the 1980s, General Zia had the brilliant idea of putting the Pakistani bureaucracy into shalwar-kameez. I was working as a civil servant in Lahore in those days when out of the blue, orders arrived that henceforth, we would all have to wear the national dress to work. I think the reason given was that suits, trousers and shirts were a heritage of the colonial era, and therefore not suitable for officers working for an independent, Muslim state.

As the Press was censored, nobody could ask Zia why he had exempted the armed forces and the police from his edict. After all, these uniforms had been handed down by our colonial masters too. But despite loud grumbles from my colleagues, we duly turned up at work in our new, desi uniforms. Embarrassingly, a team of French consultants had been negotiating a proposal with some of us those days, and they were amazed to see the overnight metamorphosis.

Zia understood that smart army uniforms gave him and his men an authority that would seep away once they donned the garb of the ruled. One reason the armed forces have maintained a semblance of the discipline is that they have not fiddled around with their uniforms. Much else might have changed, but the starched khaki and the chestful of largely unmerited medals imbue the man within with a fraudulent air of reliability.

But if a uniform lends authority, it also imposes a degree of mediocrity. After all, as the word implies, a uniform leads to uniformity. Field Marshal Wavell (then a newly promoted Lieutenant-General) wrote to a friend in 1938 about his impressions of the territorial divisions that had recently joined his command in Salisbury: "They are magnificent material for the most part. But it is pathetic to see how much a uniform tends to cramp a man's natural commonsense and instincts. I suppose it is an almost inevitable characteristic..." It must be said that the other side of the coin is that men in uniform have seldom been accused of original ideas, or even interesting conversation. A lifetime of saying ‘Yes, sir!’, and of laughing at bad jokes told by superior officers, must deaden creativity.

My shaky claim to some limited insight into the military mind comes from having spent a couple of months with an infantry battalion in Quetta in the early days of my civil service career. In those days, young civilian officers were attached to military units to teach them how the army ran things. No doubt this policy was designed by Ayub Khan to improve civil-military relations. Quetta in those days was not the intellectual capital of the country, so I scoured the base library for books. Often, young officers coming to the mess in the evening would ask me if I was preparing for an exam. The concept of reading for pleasure was unknown to them. No doubt they have since risen to great heights in the army.

Just as they have retained the uniforms of the colonial army, our soldiers have also retained many of those attitudes. They thus view the rest of us ('those bloody civvies') as rabble, and themselves our saviours. And just as the Brits did not consider the natives able to govern themselves, so too does our army deem it necessary to intervene when things are not going according to their idea of how the country should be run.

While we are on the subject, let's admit that although Musharraf cuts a sharp figure in his suits and sherwanis, he exudes far greater confidence and authority in his khaki uniform. His various medals, ribbons and stars add a dash of adventure and daring. With his beret at a rakish angle, a cigar clenched in his teeth, he could easily be returning to Kargil. With all this, why on earth should he willingly surrender his uniform?

Irfan Husain is an eminent Pakistani commentator and widely published columnist. He can be reached at irfan.husain@gmail.com



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