Books have an interesting history. As incubators of ideas they have bred revolutions which, in turn, have spawned myriad characters—both nauseating and colourful—making history in their own right.
However, books also have a history of upsetting people, powerful people at that. They have found books inconvenient, to say the very least. Recall what conquerors, in particular, did with books of the lands vanquished by them.
History informs us, for instance, of Hulagu Khan, the Mongol conqueror and grandson of Genghis Khan, having a particular dislike of books. When he overran Baghdad, in 1258, he torched every library of books in what was then the greatest seat of scholarship in the world. Mountains of books, turned to ashes, were dumped into river Tigris, whose water remained dark for weeks afterwards.
In medieval Europe, it was common for the Church to condemn books and their authors at will. Torching books that raised the ire of bishops and cardinals was an accepted practice, as was the burning of their authors at the stakes.
Dislike of unsavoury books, and blatant condemnation of those penning them, haven’t died down, or gone out of fashion even in our modern world. Totalitarian regimes have outshone each other in coming down hard on books and authors who dared write what didn’t catch the fancy of autocrats. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses unleashed a storm across the Islamic world and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued an edict against him, calling for his death.
But allergy to books seen non-conforming or out-of-line is very much in vogue in supposedly democratic and open societies, too.
Pakistanis flaunt with great pride the openness and vibrancy of their news media as evidence of their total liberalism and democratic credentials. That may be true up to an extent. However, the uproar at the recent publication of a book by Retired General Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, belies the claim of the country being all kosher as far as freedom of expression is concerned.
Durrani has co-authored the book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace with A S Dulat, a former head of India’s intelligence agency, the RAW.
This joint product of penmanship by heads of the principal intelligence services of India and Pakistan was recently launched, more than a week ago, in Karnataka at a ceremony which attracted former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari. In fact, according to Durrani, the seeds of this joint scholarly undertaking were sown in his mind by Ansari at their meeting some years ago at which Ansari, lamenting the sad state of no-love-lost between the South Asian twins, did some loud thinking about prospects, if any, of this “madness,” in his words, ever dying down or running out of steam.
If one were to take an entirely detached and non-partisan view of this joint publication, it’s a fantastic effort at understanding each other by, what may fashionably be described as, top sleuths of India and Pakistan. I must confess that it seemed like a totally ersatz thing to me when I heard of the heads of the two rival spy agencies putting their heads together to write a book, ostensibly in the interest of peace and normalcy between the two neighbouring countries.
But any sane person, anyone not swayed by parochial concerns or a false sense of national pride, should be expected to welcome this novel effort. Who could have imagined, until this book hit the headlines, that the chiefs of two spy agencies commonly believed to be constantly plotting against each other would think of putting their not-too-elegant history of being at each other’s throats behind them and break new ground.
But in Pakistan, the country’s ‘establishment’ is apparently looking at this joint venture from a rather narrow angle of national security. Durrani is on the mat because he is perceived as giving away national interest for the sake of earning brownie points with rival India. He has already been summoned before the high command at the GHQ to explain why he undertook this joint publication. No details of his appearance, that happened on May 28, before the military brass have been divulged yet. However, the news media, together with a vibrant social media, has come up with tons of speculative theories as to
what may have transpired at that meeting.
That Gen. Durrani is in lots of hot water is clear from the development that his name has been put on the Exit Control List of Immigration. The obvious intent could only be to make sure he doesn’t run away from the country. What the loud-mouthed Pakistani news and social media are saying is that Durrani shouldn’t be allowed to flee from accountability. Accountability for what? For spilling the beans in ‘collusion’ with the ace sleuth of ‘enemy India’ is the usual refrain against him.
Durrani is no stranger to controversy. It was under his watch as head of ISI that the ‘establishment’ conspired to topple Benazir Bhutto at the 1990 general elections by doling out huge sums of money to the likes of Nawaz Sharif, then a blue-eyed boy of theirs. Durrani was named as a principal ‘conspirator’ along with the then Chief of Army Staff, General Aslam Baig, in a case filed at the Supreme Court in 1996. The apex court has yet to come up with a verdict in that notoriously famous litigation.
Durrani, apparently, faces a tall order in saving his skin in this latest allegation or scandal against him. This time around, it’s much more serious than bribing politicians. He has a mountain to surmount. His troubles have only just begun.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat