Robert Fisk’s World: On the streets of Pakistan, it's as if the sun hasn't set on the Raj

by Robert Fisk

The Independent

Like everything else here, the bigger your cortège, the more important you are

I cruise the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi in a rather shabby white car, me sitting next to the driver.

In the North West Frontier province, I put my Pushtu translator in the front, a good Pathan face to greet the checkpoint cops who anyway pay little attention to us, or anyone else for that matter. After all, if they stop the "right" car – the one with the bombers inside – they are likely to get "suicided" for their loyalty to Pakistan's corrupt government. Better a little flick of the hand and the comforting roar of my departing hackney.

There's a pecking order in all this, of course. Like everything in Pakistan, the bigger your cortège, the more important you are. In that order. Unlike The Independent's humble correspondent, these nabobs live in residence-fortresses, air-conditioned bunkers, seals of security which cut them off from the 150 million people of Pakistan as surely as the razor wire around their electrified gates. As Mohamed Jamil of Islamabad's Daily Times points out, this profligacy, along with the usual perks and privileges, is one of the reasons for the perpetual increase in Pakistan's fiscal deficit. "They move around with multiple-layered security escorts, equipped with the most sophisticated weapons and equipment. Exorbitantly expensive bulletproof cars and vehicles are being imported and provided to them." They are often guarded, I need hardly say, by gun-happy and brutal Western mercenaries, in some cases the direct descendants of the Brits who guarded governors general, chiefs of staff and humble district commissioners of the Raj. How typical, you might say, of the high and mighty in what we used to call the Third World – after which we called it, even more patronisingly, the developing world – but which we shall now just call Pakistan.

But hold on a moment. So much of this sad, intelligent, brave but deeply corrupted country has its roots in imperial history that you have to remember a basic tenet of all de-colonised nations – albeit that the Muslims of India were struggling for a new country called Pakistan rather than the nationalist Indian battle for an end to the Raj. And the most prominent characteristic of all post-colonial independent states is their ability, willingness and even desire to imitate their oppressors.

One of the most important features of feudal culture was that it was regarded as below the dignity of aristocrats to walk on foot like ordinary folk. I'm obliged to the perspicacious Mubarak Ali, writing in Dawn – "Qaid" Jinnah's old newspaper which, incidentally, wisely reprints articles from The Independent – for pointing out that "rich, influential and high officials always used some conveyance suitable to their status in order to impress people by showing their power and wealth. The British officials also adopted this tradition to maintain their status in the eyes of the local population".

When the president of the company of Madras went out, he took with him 400 native personal guards, his arrival presaged by the beating of kettledrums, his flag decorated with shining stars; his council members might be protected with aftabgir (umbrellas) while British officers would normally be accompanied by 20 horsemen, usually preceded by four servants carrying a silver staff (an asa) as a symbol of authority. As Mubarak Ali puts it rather quaintly, "Every English officer had elephants, horses and palanquins for his conveyance." Check palanquins in your dictionaries, Oh Readers ignorant of the Raj.

Some Brits, of course, went too far the other way – learning Persian and Urdu, the language of the nobility, as well as the Indian "natives" who learned English. In fact, some of these Brits almost forgot how to speak English. Thomas George dictated his own biography in broken English, so brilliant had become his knowledge of Persian and Urdu. Another British dignitary actually wrote his biography in Persian and sent it to London for translation into English. And the Brits also held their own versions of Mughal courts where they received an offering (nazr) from loyal servants. Mughal emperors gave their British interlocutors robes of honour – a form of jagir – and an awful lot of money. The Resident of Delhi, so Ali discovered, was awarded the title "Muntazimud-dola" – "administrator of the state".

But this was before the days of the East India Company, when fashionable integration – and the resultant Anglo-Indian families that came with it – turned into Raj rule. I have a wonderful Victorian volume at home which recounts how the British indulged themselves even when at war on the North West Frontier, one officer advancing with the Army of the Indus around the hills south-west of Peshawar with three camels to carry his personal supplies of cigars and wine. In 1842, in what was then the greatest disaster in British military history, the Army of the Indus was annihilated in the Kabul Gorge by predecessors of the Taliban.

In Peshawar last week, I was a little more circumspect. I dined on the floor at an old friend's home, talked to the North West Frontier's courageous Pakistani journalists in their press club, attacked last year by a suicide bomber – noting the unsmiling intelligence officer in the front row and the length of beards in the back row – before joining all of them for a group photograph. Ah, the pleasure of leaving Peshawar with 400 uniformed guards, 20 horsemen and servants carrying silver staffs. "Bahadur" Fisk with elephants and horses conveyed on his personal palanquin, preceded by the beating of kettledrums and flags bearing The Independent's aggressive eagle. Alas, at dusk I snuggled rabbit-like into the back seat of my little white car and trundled out of Peshawar through canyons of traffic, past mules and trucks of animal intestines that slopped on to the road, and beggars and motorcycle rickshaws and heavily bearded, armed men. I leave it to the new nabobs of Pakistan to uphold the standards of the Raj. I'm just a representative of scaredy-cat Britain, sneaking out of the North West Frontier as the sun set on the empire upon which the sun was never supposed to set.

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