At 10: pm on May 25, Ayesha Siddiqa gets a call from the information minister. It’s only a chat he wants with the author of Military Inc. Maybe tomorrow, he can drop in, he wonders. He doesn’t. On May 27 evening, Mohammad Ali Durrani calls again, “can we meet at 11: am tomorrow?” ‘Tomorrow’ arrives sans Durrani. “I kept my husband from going to work as I wanted him around when my fellow Bahawalpuria (Durrani is from a neighbouring area) came,” Ayesha says.
Then comes ‘D-Day’ May 31, the day of the launch. The booked hall cancels her out; hotels shoo her away. Meanwhile the moment of the launch draws. Disinformation goes into an overdrive with text messages flying around saying the launch is called-off; the book is banned.
“I wish I had met Durrani. I wanted to know why the government was so hyper, so fearful.” Ayesha says. “Perhaps the time was inopportune; the moment wrong,” she adds as an afterthought. The Supreme Court seminar relayed live flayed the army and the top brass swore never again will they allow a frontal assault. Ayesha became their first anger-victim.
Peripatetic and barefoot on the mosaic floor of her home in Islamabad, Ayesha, 41, is constantly on her cell. Tea with biscuits arrives. “Can you get me some saltish biscuits,” she asks her servant. “I’m diabetic; I’ve had five heart surgeries.” Well-wishers call to talk about Gen (retd) Hameed Gul’s reported Rs. 1 billion, 20 crore defamation notice to her. She often breaks into seraiki with the callers. The TV crew of Al-Jazeera has turned up to interview her. She must change out of her casual tee-shirt and sweat pants, dab on some makeup, do her hair before facing the camera.
What was the trigger that caused you to write this book? Did you think it would raise such a stink in the Establishment? “No I didn’t,” comes her honest reply. “What’s the hoo- hah about?” she throws her hands in the air. “All the information is already out there in the public domain. I merely connected the dots,” still perambulating and fidgeting with her cell and newspapers. Okay, stop quibbling about the theory part Ayesha reproduced from public and government records, national assembly, even court papers. That’s old hat. Let’s move to her free-spoken analysis of the military business she dubs “Milbus” which is the real problem for the military.
“Milbus is meant for the gratification of senior officers where huge funds are transferred from public to private individuals without any transparency,” Ayesha says. Almost all countries, developed and developing, have military empires, “but Pakistan is unique, with Indonesia and Turkey coming close.”
Explaining while Western militaries operate from outside, making money doing business with other countries, “in Pakistan the military penetrates inside to get imbedded in the socio-economic and political arenas. For 60 years, the military classes have cohabitated with ruling elites such as the politicians, bureaucracy, civil society and businessmen wresting an empire for themselves for the senior army officers. Democracy is their anti-thesis.”
It took her two years to research the answer she wanted: “I could not understand why everybody in the military was biting into the pie and why the corporate and the political elites were letting them do that.”
She found an “explanation” at last: In Pakistan predation is the norm and the predators are the ruling elites. Put simply, the defence forces along with others have preyed on and plundered the resources of the state. “I must have interviewed some 100 odd johnnies (she won’t name them) from these walks of life from which I have drawn this conclusion.”
Well, you started the shosha; added fuel to fire; got the crowds all het up, so now for you to look deflated and be on the defensive, even sound apologetic, as you did on Geo with Kamran Khan is most surprising? I tell her.
“Says who I was on the defensive?” Ayesha hotly refutes. “Yes, you were” Brig (retd) Ishtiaq Ali Khan echoes. He lives nearby. Pulling out a list of good the ‘Military Inc’ has done, he says: “it employs a large number of ex army personnel as well as civilians; tens of thousands ex soldiers get welfare benefits in healthcare, education, loans in far-flung areas and supports financially widows and families of over 50,000 shaheeds (martyrs).”
“You become a fraternity – all you military people (retired and serving) when your interests are threatened,” Ayesha tells the brigadier who is one of the three high-ranking officers who resigned when Gen. Zia overthrew Bhutto and took power in 1977. The man has principles. Judging by an old Suzuki FX he drives, one can only say that ‘Milbus’ must have bypassed the brigadier. Still, his old heart beats in unison with his fellow military men.
“Brigadier sahib (woe betide, he hasn’t read her book!) I will not talk to a retired or serving officer unless he has read my book. I repeat I have no intention to malign the army. I’m just presenting the facts,” she tells Ishtiaq Ali Khan. Addressing us both, she mildly scolds, “Your views are too simplistic. It’s very sad that you should look at my TV interview with such a narrow vision.”
Continuing her ‘lesson’ to a ‘pair of school kids’ (me &the brig) she begins all over again: What the book contains was earlier extracted and printed in two Newsline articles last year. “I wanted to test the waters and when I got no reaction from any quarters, I went ahead with the publication.” We’re informed that heavyweights like Dr Manzoor Ahmed, Justice Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim and Jamil Yusuf okayed Military Inc book proposal and nominated Ayesha in 2004 as a Woodrow Wilson Scholar. She went to Washington and wrote the book.
“Let me make one thing very clear,” she says when I ask why she politicized the launch by inviting opposition party parliamentarians Aitzaz Ahsan and Ahsan Iqbal to speak. “I am an academic; not a politician. I don’t lead rallies.” She invited the two Ahsans because she wanted to “put them on the spot for their parties’ unholy alliance with the army.”
I don’t accept her argument. I think the author wanted fireworks but hadn’t bargained on an inferno. She reminds me of the brave and heroic firefighters of New York, dousing her inflammatory book with foamy explanations on why she penned it.
Her father, Sardar Owaisi, was an MPA belonging to the PPP. He died in 1979, when Ayesha was only 13 years old. “I wanted to enter politics but at age 26, when I went to UK to do my Ph.D in war studies, I was completely engrossed in academia and could never give up writing.” Her mother, Jamila Hashmi, is the renowned short-story writer. Today, their daughter has shown spunk to stand up to the Establishment: the security analyst’s own security is in danger: “My home and world is Pakistan and my heart breaks when I get messages to leave the country.”
You’re gutsy; people want you as their hero, I tell Ayesha. “I’d rather be a Harry Potter than a CJP 2!” she smiles.
Epilogue: That evening (June 5) Ayesha abruptly left for London.
The writer is a freelance journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org