Where Democracy Is a Terrifying Business
“I have been contesting and winning elections for decades. The wolves are very effective.”
By: Ali Akbar Natiq
Every two weeks I travel from Lahore, where I teach Urdu literature at a university, to my village in Okara district of Punjab Province. The conversations, the political debates, the infrastructure of the cities disappear in the three-hour bus journey.
I grew up here and my parents continue to live here. Most Pakistanis in my village and in thousands of such villages live in grueling poverty, living off subsistence agriculture and working as laborers.
It is the other Pakistan, where no nonprofit groups open their offices because we have no air-conditioned meeting halls, where no functioning hospitals are built because the doctors who come from middle- and upper-middle-class families won’t come to work here, where you don’t find clean drinking water because no health and sanitation worker ever shows up and where few schools are built — and even then, with little concern toward the quality of education — because most of us remain condemned to working as farm hands and laborers.
In our villages and small towns, we don’t have political leaders; we have brokers and thugs who sell our votes to federal politicians and their backers in the military establishment. Democracy serves a singular purpose in the village: to maintain the power of our feudal lords and to further enrich them and their families.
The rural people of Pakistan don’t have the luxury of weighing ideologies and campaign promises of political parties. Who they vote for is determined by a smile, by a disapproving look from the feudal lord. Tens of thousands of votes are cast for the political party the overlord favors — a choice he always makes after weighing the balance of power.
The practice of democracy in the countryside is almost invisible to the television anchors and columnists and other influential urban compatriots who pay American prices for a cup of coffee in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.
We will vote in our national elections in two weeks. The campaign season reminds me of the last election in 2013. There is a high school in my village where about 1,000 boys and girls from neighboring villages study. We lived nearby and I graduated from there.
The road to the school is a long stretch of dust and potholes. Every time it rains you feel like getting a boat. The children wade through a river of mud to school. The road could have been fixed, but the local political broker did not allow it because my extended family disobeyed his decree and voted for someone else.
I got my undergraduate and master’s degrees through long-distance learning and worked as a mason for 15 years, along with numerous odd jobs. Along with mixing cement, mortar and bricks, I read widely and wrote poems and short stories. Eventually I was hired at a literary institute in Islamabad and published my first collection of poetry in 2010.
My new life as a published writer in Islamabad brought a new set of acquaintances. A young government official I came to know was posted as the district magistrate, the head of my district’s government. I spoke to him about the broken road by the village school and sought his help to get it fixed. He visited the village and ordered a new metaled road be built. Months passed. Nothing happened.
I went to meet my officer friend again. He was helpless. The political broker, the ward boss, or as we say in Punjabi and Urdu, the Chaudhary Sahib, in our village had spoken with the chief minister of Punjab, who had ordered the officer to not build the road before the local political boss approved it. The children still wade through a river of mud to the school.
A few days back, my father called from the village. Chaudhary Sahib had stopped by our house and asked my father about pledging his and the family’s vote. “What shall we do?” my father asked. I understand that if my family doesn’t vote the way the Big Man wants, he will make their life difficult. No political idea, no slogan offered me a way to help my father out. All I could say was, “Abbajaan, do whatever you like.”
I used to know Janmohamed, a teacher in a neighboring village who died a few years back. He offered us another great lesson in how democracy works in our villages. One day, the mother of his village’s Chaudhary Sahib died. Janmohamed was unwell and couldn’t make it to the funeral. Chaudhary Sahib felt slighted, made a few phone calls and got Janmohamed transferred to a school in a faraway village.
A few months later, it was time for the 2013 national elections. Janmohamed thought democracy would give him justice, and he campaigned and voted for a political party that was opposing the village headman’s party. Sadly, Chaudhary Sahib’s party won.
Chaudhary Sahib got the local government to stop Janmohamed’s salary for three years. The villagers pleaded with him to forgive the poor teacher, but he did not relent. “If I forgive him, then others will rebel,” he said. “Let him be a lesson for all.” A hopeless, starving Janmohamed got sick and never recovered. Chaudhary Sahib was kind enough to show up for his funeral.
Ten years back, I used to buy milk from the villages for a milk-foods company. During the 2008 general elections, I was in a village called Siddhar, near the border with India, buying milk. I had gotten to know the village headman, whom everyone called Sardar Sahib. He had a large dairy farm and would contest elections for the state legislature as well.
Sardar Sahib would entertain supplicants sitting on a large chair outside his house. He had raised two wolves that would be tied nearby for the visitors to see. One of those days, I was at Sardar Sahib’s house when his henchmen presented two villagers. Sardar Sahib stared at the men for a while. “I hear you have decided to vote against me,” he finally said. They remained silent. “You see the wolves!” Sardar Sahib barked. “I will set them upon you.” The villagers shrank with fear, the color fading from their faces. They begged for forgiveness and pledged their votes.
After they left, I asked Sardar Sahib whether he would have indeed set the wolves upon the poor villagers had they not pledged their votes to him. “Of course,” he said, smiling. “I wouldn’t kill them. I would pull back the wolves after a few bites.”
I was stunned and protested. “Natiq Sahib, you don’t understand politics,” he laughed. “I have been contesting and winning elections for decades. The wolves are very effective. I have used them just once. The fear takes care of the votes.”
The biggest feudal lord and landowner in the villages of Pakistan is the military. Tens of thousands of farmers work as sharecroppers on the land owned by the military. They vote the way the generals want them to.
The military occupies over 17,000 acres of prime agricultural land in Okara district, not far from my village. About 150,000 villagers live on Okara Military Farms and most of them work as sharecroppers.
A friend of mine, Mehr Abdus Sattar, is a leader of a farmers group demanding land rights for the sharecroppers at Okara Military Farms. In the fall of 2015, special elections were held to fill a state legislature seat after the serving legislator was found to have forged his university degree and was disqualified. Mehr decided to contest the special elections and found immense support from the farmers. After the polling was over, the soldiers took away all the ballot boxes. Soon it was announced that he lost the election.
The police registered more than 30 criminal cases against him. He was arrested in April 2016 and was released after two years and two months in June. And he was arrested again to ensure he doesn’t influence the forthcoming elections in Okara.
Democracy has become a terrifying business in the villages of Pakistan. Elections might change the federal and state governments, but the feudal and punitive power structures in the countryside don’t change. The feudal lords offer allegiance to the new ruler and continue to oppress the poor villagers.
Ali Akbar Natiq, a poet and novelist, is the author, most recently, of the short story collection “What Will You Give for This Beauty?” This essay was translated from Urdu by Basharat Peer.