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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Military-political discourse

Military-political discourse

By Dr Shahid Siddiqui

‘It is said that the Constitution is sacred. But more sacred than the Constitution or anything else is the country and the welfare and happiness of its people.’ — Iskander Mirza, Oct 1958.

‘The choice before us on Oct 12 was between saving the body —- that is the nation, at the cost of losing a limb —- which is the Constitution, or saving the limb and losing the whole body.’ — Pervez Musharraf, Oct 17, 1999.

THE above statements are taken from two speeches proclaiming martial law in Pakistan with the temporal difference of 41 years. But there is a striking resemblance between them.

During these five decades almost everything changed with the exception of the political discourse of the ruling elite. A similar logic with identical analogies has been chosen to get across the message. Why is certain vocabulary chosen, with certain syntax? What persuasive techniques are used to justify the action? How is language wielded as a tool for the purposes of persuasion and consent (Gramsci, Chomsky)?

In this article I would like to focus on the five speeches delivered on the eve of martial law by Iskander Mirza in Oct 1958, Ayub Khan on Oct 27, 1958, Yahya Khan on March 26, 1969, Muhammad Ziaul Haq on July 4, 1977, and Pervez Musharraf on October 17, 1999.

Before we proceed with the speech analysis, it is useful to appreciate the political nature of discourse which, according to Foucault, has a special kind of relationship with power; it is a two-way relationship as power gives credibility to a certain discourse and in return the discourse legitimises and justifies that power by creating a certain kind of social reality. Detailed commentary on the linkage of discourse and power can be seen in the works of scholars including Phillipson (Linguistic Imperialism), Pennycook (The Cultural Politics of English), Canagrajah, (Resisting Linguistic Imperialism) and Norman Fairclough (Language and Power).

It is interesting to see a similar discourse pattern in all these speeches. Watch closely how a rationale is built for martial law by painting a depressing picture of the situation, and the martial law authorities pretending that they have no ambition to take over but they have to take this ‘unpleasant step’, in order to save the country. The politicians are presented as villains who are unable to deliver and because of whose deeds the army has to come in. The recurring discourse pattern of the martial law speeches suggests a certain mindset of the military rulers who present themselves as the saviours of the country.

It is easier to understand the discourse patterns of speeches if we follow the principles of designing a good persuasive advertisement. There are three principles, propounded ages ago by Aristotle. They refer to logic, emotion and credibility. In these speeches, a proper rationale is established for take-over, rhetorical statements are studded to appeal to the emotions, and the credibility of the authority is established by praising the army. A bond is established with the people by expressing appreciation for them and condemning the other competitors (politicians) by stigmatising them.

Let us first look at the way that military action is justified. First a bleak scenario is painted and special efforts are made so that the audience is convinced about the hopelessness of the situation. The image of the country suddenly becomes a top priority. For instance, the country is ‘on the verge of ruination’(Mirza); ‘a perfectly sound country has been turned into a laughing stock’ (Ayub); ‘a state of panic has paralysed the nation’ (Yahya);’provocative circumstances’ (Zia); and ‘lost our honour, our dignity, our respect in the comity of nations’ (Musharraf).

After painting a bleak picture of the country the proponents of martial law make it a point to target the poor performance of the governments they have toppled. The politicians and the toppled governments are dubbed as evil creatures and all possible negative adjectives are used to refer to them. It is important to look at the descriptive phrases used for politicians, e.g., ‘mentality of the political parties has sunk so low’, ‘political adventurers, traitors, unpatriotic element, thirst for power, unpatriotic conduct’ (Mirza).

Significantly, politicians are tactfully bracketed with the evil groups of society, e.g., ‘the political adventurers, the smugglers, the black marketers, the hoarders’ (Mirza); and ‘the nefarious activities of the bad characters, disruptionists, political opportunists, smugglers, black marketers and other such social vermin, sharks and leeches’ (Ayub). Also, ‘when the political leaders failed to steer the country out of a crisis, it is an inexcusable sin for the armed forces to sit as silent spectators’ (Zia); and ‘last governments were intriguing to destroy the last institution of stability left in Pakistan’ (Musharraf).

After condemning the politicians, appreciation is showered on the army, e.g., ‘valiant armed forces of Pakistan, their patriotism and loyalty’ (Mirza); ‘army…which had served them so well with loyalty and devotion’ (Ayub); ‘they have always stood by the nation selflessly and gallantly’ (Yahya); ‘buoyant and momin armed forces of Pakistan’ (Zia); ‘I salute my soldiers and men for acting courageously’ (Musharraf). Like a smart salesperson a direct bond is instantly established with the people by praising them, e.g., ‘simple honest, patriotic and industrious masses’ (Mirza), ‘patriotic and good people, tolerant, patient, and rise to great heights when well led’ (Ayub); ‘dynamic and industrious people’ (Musharraf).

After describing the hopeless situation of the country and condemning politicians and the governments and admiring the army the next job in hand is to suggest that how ‘unpleasant’ a task it was to take over but with great ‘reluctance’ they had to take this action.

For instance, ‘the action had to be taken with utmost regret’ (Mirza); ‘drastic and extreme step, great reluctance’ and ‘onerous and unpleasant duty’ (Ayub); ‘he (Ayub Khan) called upon me to carry out my prime duty of protecting this country…’ (Yahya). Also, ‘I was obliged to…fill the vacuum created by the political leaders (Zia); and ‘I took over in extremely unusual circumstances — not of my making’ (Musharraf).

On every such occasion, the people are told that the action taken is in the great national interest, e.g., ‘in the interest of the country and the masses’ (Mirza); and ‘this step has been taken in your interest and in the interest of the stability of Pakistan (Ayub). Each martial law speech gives the perfect justification for the initiative offering a grand objective. These professed objectives are perfect examples of dramatic irony, e.g., ‘to restore democracy but of the type people can understand and work’ (Ayub); ‘to save the country’ (Zia); ‘I shall not allow the people to be taken back to the era of sham democracy’ (Musharraf).

The martial law speeches follow a set pattern. They suggest that the country is on the verge of destruction, condemn the politicians and the toppled government, pat the people on the back, lionise the army, describing the take-over as something ‘unpleasant’, emphasise publicly the ‘reluctance’ with which they had to take the action, suggest that the action is taken in the greater national interest, claim that the country has been saved by this action, and promise greener pastures for the masses. The regular continuity and consistency in the political discourse pattern of the ruling military elite is intriguing for students of language and politics.

The writer is a linguist and educationist and author of ‘Rethinking Education in Pakistan’.

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