By Humayun Gauhar

As President Zardari stood up clumsily to deliver his annual address to parliament his chair fell. His sage said it was a bad omen – “Beware the ides of March” and all that jazz – for ‘The Chair’ is akin to a throne, symbolizing power and office. “You will have to pray at the shrine of a Sufi much bigger than any we have in Pakistan,” the sage declared. So Zardari decided to go to the biggest South Asian Sufi of them all, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1230 CE), whose shrine is in city of Ajmer in India.

Many kings, presidents and prime ministers have gone to Ajmer Emperor Akbar is said to have gone to Ajmer to pray for a son. Some say it was to a Sufi in Sheikhupura, I forget his name, but that is another story. Either way, Akbar got a son and successor from his Hindu Rajput wife and the Mughal dynasty continued.

The official reason for Zardari’s visit was that he went to honour his late wife’s promise or ‘mannat’ to the pir, but the talk in the bazaars is that it was the ‘bad omen’ that triggered it off. It could have been both. Should it matter?

Yes it should, because the Pakistani state, ergo the people, must have paid for some part of the visit, even though it is said that the president paid for everything from his own pocket, including the one million US dollar offering he gave to the shrine. Fine, but the questions then arises: from where did he get so much money? Best to leave it to the judges of our highest exalted court – the ‘Supreme’ one that is – to take suo moto notice. I don’t know how Muslims can call any court ‘supreme’ and that too in an Islamic state since in Islam only the court of God is supreme because only God is supreme and sovereign. That’s yet another discussion. No one will object because our people, particularly of Sindh and southern Punjab, have a proclivity to go to Sufis dead or alive for blessings and intercession with the Almighty. That in Islam no one can intercede with God on anyone’s behalf is forgotten. And – you guessed it – that’s yet another discussion.

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So off our president went with son, daughter, sage, ministers, sycophants, journalists, media and staff in tow, enough to require two aircraft, one executive jet (wonder which anointed ones got to sit in that one with the ‘royal’ family) and an army C-130, the type in which this ‘royal’ family’s nemesis General Zia ul Haq crashed and perished with many others. That particular aircraft, legend has it, was the same that transported Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s dead body half way to his ancestral graveyard in Sindh before returning to Rawalpindi halfway with engine trouble and the body had to be shifted to another C-130.  Not that it means anything; else the sage wouldn’t have kept quiet. By the way, such is our attraction for graves that Bhutto’s mausoleum has become another saintly shrine. Why do you think that some Muslims level them off every few years?

It was good that Zardari’s private visit included a ‘sumptuous’ semi-official lunch with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Not that a constitutionally ceremonial president and a weak proxy prime minister amount to much in this land of dynastic rule with the fig leaf of British parliamentary democracy. But it is precisely because of dynasty that Zardari wields real power, being Bhutto’s son-in-law and co-chairman of his party, with his young son the chairman and icon of the Bhutto cult, a symbolic figurehead so far. As for Mr. Singh, real power lies with the daughter-in-law of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who is also the leader of the ruling party. No matter: jaw-jaw is better than war-war a la Churchill.

Be all that as it may, our media’s hysterical hoopla that accompanied the visit last Sunday was shameful. So obsessed was it with Zardari’s lunch and pilgrimage that it callously paid scant attention to the worst peacetime tragedy our army has ever faced when 135 of soldiers were buried alive in an avalanche in Siachen. The two oldest civilizations in the world have been at each other’s throats for 28 years in what is called the “highest war in the world”. Stupid. Both have lost more soldiers to the elements there than to bullets. It’s about geo-strategy and water. To get news about the Siachen tragedy we had to turn to foreign channels. Shows how wonky priorities can get when the collective mind is wonky: the difference between right and wrong, relevant and irrelevant or less relevant is lost.

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Our media went overboard on the visit because we as a people are merrily unaware of where the limits of respect for state office end and the courtier’s pathological sycophancy begins; of where constructive criticism ends and national damage begins. There was daydreaming galore by anchors, clapped out ambassadors, bureaucrats gone to seed, generals put out to pasture, all masquerading as analysts, most in awe of America, many members of the Langley Club or on its waiting list.

That the Supreme Commander of our Armed Forces chose to go to India in the face of this enormous tragedy was of no consequence to him or to our media. Symbolism is an important balm for broken hearts and destroyed lives, more, dare I suggest, than the symbolism of a spiritual pilgramage. Would the great Sufi of Ajmer have missed Zardari’s presence? Would he have any use for the one million US dollars offering? Only his progeny would. Custody of shrines by progeny is a booming business because illiterate, desperately poor and helpless devotees can go there for, if nothing else, therapy of a soul in turmoil, even if they know that only God can answer prayers and that the piety that lay with the Sufi did not enter his genes to be passed on to his descendants. In Zardari’s mind – and he is our best political tactician, mind you – the symbolism of his pilgrimage to Ajmer would hold importance with Sindhi voters, what with elections looming.

Shrines often become political constituencies of Sufi progeny whose habits their exalted forebear would have looked at askance. Their graves are where the credibility and constituencies of ‘Mukhdooms’ or custodians lie. It’s as primitive and predatory as feudalism and tribalism since all three societal forms prey upon the illiteracy, poverty and helplessness of the hapless. Pathetic. Sufis are people of peace, of love, of poetry and sometimes of trance and dance, which is why the ascetic disapproves of them.

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Only those who cannot see God with their inner eye, in their hearts and in His creations pray to mortals or ask them to intercede with Him. Human beings find it difficult to think in the abstract. Go to mausoleums, certainly, because very pious and God-loving people used to live there, but don’t imagine that they can do for you that which only God can do. Genuine Sufis and mystics were incredible people for they saw beyond logic and came to their deductions through feeling with the mind and thinking with the heart. But their followers and adherents don’t understand this and ascribe to them and their progeny qualities that only God has. Here I go drifting off into another subject.

Moinuddin Chishti is regarded as the greatest Sufi of the subcontinent for helping people, which is why is called ‘gharib nawaz’ or helper of the poor. The fire of the huge cauldron in which food is cooked and distributed free has been alight for centuries. It takes a ladder to get to its lip.

Back to the visit: Pakistan wants to be seen to be trying to improve relations with India, if for nothing else than to score brownie points with America. India has had the bad habit of linking disparate issues, particularly terrorism with everything. But now it seems that it is breaking that habit. India should remember that it is state terrorism that begets non-state terrorism. I will not say more. No point in laboring the obvious. America and India shouldn’t forget that no country in the world has suffered more at the hands of homegrown and foreign terrorism than Pakistan has and no country has lost more soldiers and civilians in fighting terrorists. Good luck. Peace is better than war.

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