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An equal music

The Chinese saying goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’ and the past fortnight has been nothing if not that, writes Salman Ahmad.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2007 20:47 IST

The Chinese saying goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’ and the past fortnight has been nothing if not that. The accusatory e-mail exchange between Bilal Musharraf and myself, has been following a volatile trajectory in cyberspace, sparking off an intense debate about whether I was right or not to disassociate myself publicly from Bilal’s father, Pervez Musharraf. When the destiny of millions of people is being jeopardised by a flawed regime, personal friendships have to take a backseat.

Artistes by nature represent a global civil society. In Pakistan, as in much of the subcontinent, this role is misunderstood by many who think that dissent is reserved only for political opposition, media pundits, human rights activists and religious extremists. The people who think that I’m jumping on the post-Emergency Musharraf-bashing bandwagon should know that ever since I can remember, Pakistani governments have sought to muzzle artists and poets who express dissent. The Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wrote “Bol kay lab azad hain terey”, but Pakistani leaders’ favourite artistes are those who behave like court jesters rather than informed citizens who have independent views on politics and society. Throughout my career, I have focused on entertainment blended with social themes, expressed through music, poetry and documentary films.

In today’s hyper-connected world, where pop culture drives politics, music fans and college students confess that they no longer rely on cable news networks or radio for their socio-political news but are turning more toward musicians, actors and celebrities to inform them through Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Today’s info-technology has empowered Pakistani civil society and the world to participate in political debate in ways that counter the State’s desire to censor independent voices. As a Pakistani, I’m affected by the local and global concerns for peace, justice and equality on our deeply polarised planet.

As Pakistan plunges into an uncertain future, the spotlight is focused Musharraf, and the media-savvy former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto’s feudal and avaricious regime as pm witnessed shocking levels of corruption. She has managed to hoodwink Western liberals into believing she represents the progressive Muslim, while she still treats Pakistan as her fiefdom, to be abused and exploited for personal gain and power. Her regime was characterised by gangster rules rather than the rule of law. Back in the late 1990s, I recorded Ehtesaab (Accountability) with a video that satirised corrupt Pakistani politicians. Bhutto’s government banned the video and threatened me. That wasn’t the first or the last threat. Many Pakistanis have given in to these terror tactics out of fear.

One of Musharraf’s staunch allies is the MQM, which took part in a massacre in Karachi on May 12. Forty people were killed for raising slogans against the government and supporting the Pakistani lawyers’ movement for the restoration to position of the twice-removed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I.M. Chaudhry. A few years ago, when I refused to perform at their exiled leader Altaf Hussain’s wedding, they threatened me with dire consequences. When I discussed the matter with lawyers, I was told that no court would be strong enough to stand up to the MQM. President Musharraf has turned a blind eye to those who practise fascist politics and instead has focused his energies on dismantling the independence of the judiciary by arresting SC judges who threatened to delegitimise his presidency.

Like many of my generation, I had faith in Musharraf’s commitment to promote “enlightened moderation” in Pakistan. We supported him because he said that he would make politics accountable and transparent, fight extremism, remove media repression, and bridge the staggering chasm between the rich and poor. Surely, it cannot be labelled opportunistic if we are disenchanted when he arbitrarily imposes emergency, bullies the media and arrests opponents? His contempt of civil institutions is a devastating betrayal of his earlier promises. Right from January, I had been telling people close to Musharraf that the president should think about his legacy and bow out gracefully. In August and September, these communications included very candid e-mails to Bilal whom I have known for over a decade. All these concerns fell on deaf ears.

Ironically, the opening of the media and televised political debate is something that Musharraf can take credit for, but when the same media started criticising his high-handed tactics, he clamped down on it. The political crisis in Pakistan represents the birth pangs of a newly-empowered civil society yearning for the rule of law. The recent struggles of lawyers, judges, journalists, students and civil rights activists should not be dumped into Pakistan’s long history of social apathy; instead, they need to be nurtured by a return of the rule of law. The reward could one day be a democratic Muslim country at peace with itself and the world. Religious extremists would be no match for a united Pakistan.

I have dedicated my performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo to the Pakistan lawyers’ movement and civil society’s peaceful protests against Emergency and the restoration of the deposed judges of the Supreme Court. Music so often can be more powerful and far-reaching than silence — or words.

Salman Ahmad is a member of the Pakistani rock band, Junoon.