Saints & Soldiers

In times of distress we tend to exclaim that we await the arrival of the Saints or the Soldiers.

Not long ago I found myself in the company of a man most suited to the first category. A tall, thin and stately figure of a man, his attire gave away generations of conservative upbringing. Boasting a lineage that intertwined with numerous critical events of the past millennium, his family archive could form the backbone for a travelogue from the shores of the Aegean to the deserts of Rajputana. Diversely educated, well versed and a gifted orator, he articulates his thoughts in a concise and resolute manner engaging reverence amongst most around him. For a lifetime spent amongst the almost bohemian echelons of the civil service there is an added rarity that his name is often prefixed by his peers with reverent titles, saint being one of them.
We sat in his study, where a copy of Hamlet, freshly bookmarked, was placed upon a chaise next to Noah Feldman and Kashaf-al-Majoob, in its original Persian. He greeted me with the warmth and fervour accustomed to a father figure and before long, over some savouries and green tea, we spoke at length about literature and favourite authors, battling over our differed opinions on characters as diverse as Polonius, Sheherzade, Afrasiab, Don Quixote and Umro Ayyar. The mild revelry drifted towards strategy and statesmanship and inevitably to the ‘affairs of state’ and the ‘state’. His pain was visible to me in every phrase and accompanying gesture. He had spent three decades serving the country and had lived through its numerous peaks and troughs however the current state of the nation made him despair.

“Our friends think us treacherous, our enemies think us weak while the rest of humanity wish us away”.

He mourned the inability of successive leaderships to agree the most fundamental ideas, such as those of identity, and then lamented the loss of culture and civility that once was a byword for the region. It pained him to see that many amongst the coming generation looked towards others for direction and aped one or another culture just to take on the garb of civilisation. The absence of this sense of history and identity was to him the core of the now rampant moral servitude of the civil leadership, both political and technocratic.

“People unaware of whom they were have no aspiration to decide what they can become”.

We took no time to agree that a shift must occur from the status quo but then hit a barrier when I tried to personify him with this shift. He declined and there was more than humility in his words. They weighed heavy on him as did the realisation that he and his ilk were not the antidote to the ills of the state.

“Not me, I am too rigid in my views son and I have no vision. I can only look back to view what glories we had in the past, I can attempt to emulate them but I cannot chart a path to our own glory. I am, at best, one of those who can stand by such men and follow their lead. Such a man or woman would have me. I would take the name of Allah and then give everything I can. Mind, body, my entire being, conscious and unconscious, and if need be, my life, I would gladly dispense everything I have to make that vision come true”.

The force of his conviction was apparent in his voice and the pain he felt was evident in the tears welling in his otherwise regal blue eyes. Perhaps conscious of my surprised gaze, he lowered his head and collected himself. When he spoke again he chuckled in a sweet manner with a slight twinkle in his eye, knowing that I would be amused as he paraphrased “A visionary! a visionary! my life for a visionary”.

A few nights later I sat through what seemed like a seven course meal with a now retired General. A soldier to his very DNA he had a career marked initially with citations and then achievements. Like most of his ilk of Kakul’s early graduates, he had a liberal view of statesmanship and had once found himself more at home in the company of Kemalists than conservative Muslims. Preferring to be considered a soldier and administrator, period, he has found life after arms a little disconcerting in the face of a descending nation. Now he found his heart yearning for something more, something profound. When quizzed about his affinities he is more philosophical.

“I am a man lost in the sea of my own thoughts. I am searching, son, still searching for the people who bind my soul. Until then I have found a strange solace in the writings of Iqbal. He manages to sooth the soldier within me while trying to guide my restless soul”.

He talked at length about his years in the military and the bonds he formed. He discussed pivotal moments in his career, jumping from events almost metaphysical in their acceptance to more structured developments of weapons and tactics, earthly in timelines and explanations. He discussed the men he served and the ones he led. His eyes glittered with the memory of those he lost and others he lowered into graves. That morning he had buried a young man, a nephew of a once dear friend. The general had laid them both to rest.

“We have lost too many young men to our indecisions”. I quizzed him, as delicately as I could, sensitive to the pain that every memory brought him, about the way forward for the people and the military. “Don’t do that”, his tone assertive yet somehow plaintiff, “we are ‘the people’ too. Do not use my skills and my profession to dissect me from the rest”.

What followed was a concise and convincing elaboration of the demarcation of institutional responsibility and how its absence had led us down a quintessential cul de sac. I asked if the military leadership of the day is capable of leading us out or did they lack the ability and he was emphatic in his reply.

“No. Not at all. Even if they are capable of doing so, and I believe this set is quite capable, I will not subscribe to that. We are the walls and we are the tigers. We are not the rulers”.

I pushed him to elaborate and he tutored me in his views. The military was a shield and a sword, both in times of peace and war. Its men and women are soldiers and administrators. The reason why things become better when military men take the reins of government is because generally this nation exists at the cusp of political chaos. They come in and bring order with them. They are administrators and thus bring back the discipline which is absent in non-military institutions. The result is that institutions begin to run in a manner roughly resembling what they are supposed to be. Naturally, a great proportion of tasks that have very few political connotations are thus performed as per routine. Most people credit the military for this performance and extol the political acumen of the generals. This is a mirage. The institutions, if run properly, would achieve these goals with or without the military, their presence is irrelevant. We are all soldiers and administrators by skill, we are not politicians, not as a rule. We are an important arm of the state and perform two important duties to safeguard the existence of the state; sword & shield. A ruler must be able to tie in all the other arms of the state that perform diverse but equally important tasks. It is this ruler who must have a vision of what the state should be and where it should be headed, thus providing all these arms of state a direction. This is what we lack. What the people need are leaders who can give them direction.

“We the military men can offer order, discipline and steadfastness, but, as a rule, we are not visionary statesmen. We need others to give us that”.

He went on to quote the names of friends, bureaucrats, academics and businessmen who shared his conviction. All of these people are waiting for someone worthy of their loyalty but can see no one. As the names rolled off his tongue I found him gripped with emotion, barely able to contain it as he spoke.

“You give me a man with a vision for the state and I promise you that every man in uniform will be willing to lay down everything, life and all, to realise that vision. Give us such a man and I assure you the world will envy your shield and your sword. Lead us and we will make you proud”.

The tears that rolled down his cheeks moved my very soul. When I left his company I felt ashamed that such a man had spent four decades being our shield and our sword and we, the people, had failed him.

I sit here now reliving the moments of my visits and can hardly believe that, despite our muddied history, these two men, the saintly civil servant and the iron willed soldier, still look towards their compatriots to give them the one entity that has eluded us all. It was of no consequence to both if the man or woman emerges from the aristocrats, middle class, traders, industrialists, labourers or professors. We are a people of academics, philosophers, poets, saints and soldiers and they all are willing to give their all for us yet we are making them wait for the only thing that they demand from us, the ordinary people; A visionary.