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Where Democracy Is a Terrifying Business

July 16,2018 18:24

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 ...


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.

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