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How narratives of sacrifice is of supreme import for the Pakistan Army

Maria Rashid's new book, Dying to Serve, is a sobering reminder of the overweening military dominance over Pakistan’s civilian life

Dying to serve: Militarism, Affect and the Politics of Sacrifice in the Pakistan Army By Maria

While it is well known that the Pakistan Army relied heavily on the Pothohar region of rural Punjab for recruiting soldiers, Maria Rashid’s book shows in depth how it has systematically cemented a military culture, building bonds of affectation with men, their wives and mothers in the famed ‘Land of the Valiant’, Chakwal. This was achieved not only through benevolent management of recruitment and training practices, but also a calculated manipulation of grief, death and compensation to families. This may have become necessary to enable villagers to adjust to a change in perception of the enemy, from the “traditional” Indian to the new “internal Muslim”, confronted especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the last two decades.

Perhaps, this revealing inquiry could see the light of day because of the author’s lineage. Belonging to a third-generation military family, Maria dedicates her book to her father, Brigadier Rashid Ali Malik, who retired in 1996. He apparently contested her findings before his death in 2017 (she admits to being “baffled by his acceptance”… he “loved me regardless”). Though Maria enjoyed unfettered access to officers in Army Headquarters (GHQ) and the Inter Services’ Public Relations (ISPR) during her research she notes, rather tongue-in-cheek, their admonition not to reveal uncomfortable facts.

The author describes the fanfare attending the annual Youm-e-Shuhada (YeS) function (April 30), which started in 2010 but was discontinued after 2015, which focused on martyrs from FATA. This was different from the older Youm-e-Difa (YeD) commemoration (September 6), observed after the 1965 war. In both, it had become customary for the army chief to make “a State of the Nation” type address, depicting the valour and sacrifices made against the enemy in “carefully crafted narratives of grief and mourning”.

Members of martyrs’ families, especially mothers of the shuhada, appeared on the dais and ISPR officers carefully monitored their preparation during rehearsals, “to show just the right emotion and some acting”, while skillfully managing camera work to determine what was depicted. While the mother’s sacrifice was often venerated, as it was “pure, even asexual”, the participation of a shaheed’s wife was discouraged, as the “display of romantic love” was considered “tricky and could have un-Islamic” connotations. Women’s feelings of regret and anger about their lost sons differed from the fathers’ reactions, who found it easier to take solace from public affirmation of their sacrifice.

Rashid shares with readers voices of the next of kin of martyred non-commissioned officers (and not only their superiors). During her research trips, she sometimes found villagers sceptical about military outreach, admitting to acquiescent behaviour stemming from fear (“Aisa karna parta hai”). While she found jubilation and pride at coveted acceptance in the military, there was also rising anxiety when sons were posted to combat areas, and the “numbness at death, awe at the grandeur of funerals organised, raw grief afterwards”, when military officers left the village. Though “the orchestrated rhetoric of continued sacrifice invoked some cynicism among the next of kin”, overall, she found “an awareness that the institution must be protected from those who wished to malign it”.

The army faced a controversy in 2010-13 over rightist Islamic parties questioning the segregation of “military martyrs from other Muslim (militants) killed”, but by adopting these practices, the author believes, the military “had been able to largely override the challenge brought by the shift from the Hindu enemy to the new Muslim”.

Apart from the reception of grief in villages, Rashid’s book devotes specific chapters to recruitment and training (‘Manufacturing Soldiers’), soldier disabilities, religion and the “war on terror”. Deliberate policy efforts in the post-Musharraf phase saw a reduction in recruitment quotas for Punjab. This created resentment in Chakwal. Influential civilian feudals found their sifarish for entry less effective, though recommendations from ex-serviceman held greater weightage.

The last chapter (‘A Post-Military World?’) reaffirms how narratives of sacrifice continue to hold valence, despite strains during moments when the relationship is tested. “Avoidable death is turned meaningful” and the military can “function as a modern kinship group that rewards its subjects with pay, pensions, and other benefits including land grants”. These inducements “act as bargaining chips that permit continued membership” in the kinship group. The army is acutely conscious of how it crafts ties with its soldiers and their families. This “appeal of militarism” remains a “powerful political act, used to challenge its subjects”. It can also be displayed as “a heady mix of grief and ceremony for the larger nation”, when needed.

Rashid’s book is a sobering reminder that military dominance over civilians is unlikely to change in Pakistan in the foreseeable future.

The writer is former special secretary, cabinet secretariat

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