Book Review: Dying to serve – Militarism, Affect and Politics of sacrifice in the Pakistan Army by Maria Rashid

Maria Rashid writes a seminal book. While much has been written on ‘why’ Pakistani army dominates Pakistan, in this book Maria Rashid analyses ‘how’ the Pakistani army dominates Pakistan. She examines in some detail the the discourses, policies and practices that the military enunciates and puts in place so that the right ‘affect’ is created which in turn helps in creating the ideological hegemony that Pakistani armed forces enjoy over the Pakistani nation.

The Pakistani army celebrates the commemorative event of ‘Youm-e-Sauhada’ (Y-e-S) or Martyrs day on April 30 to pay tribute to its dead soldiers. This event serves as an important instrument of narrative building for the Pakistani military as the defender of Pakistan’s physical and ideological frontiers. The master narrative of this event is the idea of rishta (relationship), a recurrent theme. The slogan in the 2011 Y-e-S was “One force, One family, One nation.” This rishta operates at two levels, first among the soldiers, their families and the institution of the military and second between the self-sacrificing military and the nation. The Y-e-S event held in the General Head Quarters (GHQ) of the Pakistani Army in Rawalpindi, is managed by the ISPR and is televised live. It is fascinating to see the detailed planning that goes into the management of this event and in the ‘branding’ of martyrdom. The event managers of the ISPR put up a spectacular show where grief is ‘managed’ in just the right dose, the aim being to ‘manufacture the authentic’ as the major in-charge of the event confided in the author. So we have extensively tutored fathers of the dead soldiers stating on stage that if he had ten more sons he would willingly give them to the military. There is an interesting episode in the book wherein the heavily tutored father, after his testimony gave a thumbs up to the Major in charge of the event. Since the grief of the ‘azeem mayen’ (great mothers) produces the largest ‘affect’, they occupy a pride of place in this ceremony. Paradoxically, she is expected to grieve as well as not to – ‘shaheedon ki mayen roya nahin karti’ (mothers of martyrs don’t cry), the conductor of the show states. The aim is to tug at the heartstrings of the audience i.e. those attending the show and the citizenry at large watching on TV. The audience in the show are allowed to grieve freely and visibly, their grief telecast live. This telecast become the instrument through which public emotion is manipulated, the grief of the army internalised as the grief of the nation and the rishta between the ‘self-sacrificing’ military and the nation at large established. The theme of the military as a self-sacrificing institution is reiterated repeatedly to inculcate a sense of gratitude amongst the people. In a video poem titled “tum ye kaise kar lete ho?” (how do you do this?), when the narrator asks a soldier as to how he takes upon himself all the problems of the nation and makes them his own, the soldier responds by saying that he does it because of the support of his nation and family.

What is interesting however is the difference in prominence that is accorded to the dead in comparison to the War Wounded People (WWPs) in Y-e-S ceremony. While the military does acknowledge the wounded soldiers, there is a tendency to keep them in the background. The WWPs did not make an appearance in these Y-e-S ceremonies until 2012 wherein they formed a part of the audience. While a short documentary was dedicated to them in 2013 and 2014, they have since disappeared from the ceremony. This is so because the military sees itself as a macho organisation that protects. Able and complete bodies are integral to this narrative of a macho ‘protector’. WWPs with incomplete bodies invoking pity instead of awe, who need help and protection as opposed to the narrative of the ‘protector’ military makes the army anxious. WWPs also have the cost of war inscribed on their bodies and unlike the dead, on whose behalf the army speaks, they can speak for themselves, fuelling further anxiety. Therefore, Pak army tries to shield them from public view. Several restrictions are placed on media persons meeting them, no meetings being allowed without the prior consent of ISPR. If permission is granted, military officers are present during interviews and journalists are asked to submit the video/article to ISPR for review before being aired or published.

To further reinforce the view that the military is a self-sacrificing institution, it ensures that the liberal monetary compensation packages it gives to its dead or the WWPs are largely kept out of public discussion – almost as if it is irrelevant.  The military fears that any public discussion on the compensation packages risks the sacrifice becoming transactional. By not discussing it, the military presents these sacrifices as something which can only be compensated by continuous allegiance.

The Pak army not only fights for the possession of the soldier’s ‘body, mind and heart but also his ghost’. The dead soldier’s funeral is managed in a way not to be seen as an ‘aam’ (regular) death, but that of a self-sacrificing ‘shaheed’ (martyr).  Elaborate standard operating procedures (SOPs) are defined for the management of the funeral. The funeral is not only elaborate but also spectacular, inspiring awe and gratitude in ordinary people. Like in Y-e-S, here too the military continues its obsession with how grief is handled by family. Mourning should only display ‘appropriate’ level of grief, not excessive. Family members are requested not to cry too much for the ‘shaheed’ (martyr). They can also be prohibited from seeing or touching the body if it is mutilated or severely injured, the coffin being sealed and guarded before funeral. Of course, when chance presents itself, the family members do defy military dictats. The book contains a poignant story of a mother whose son was killed in the Kargil war opening the glass case and touching the body of her heavily bandaged son, while the soldier guarding the coffin was away.

Islam plays an important role in the Pakistan army. War is defined as Jihad and those killed in the wars are shaheed. The Pakistan army recruits a ‘khateeb’ (cleric) who is a civilian staff but is subject to the same rules, regulations and discipline as any other soldier. Interestingly however, the awareness and motivation course that deals with Islam is taught not by the khateeb but by the JCO’s and the NCOs. He has no say in the course content or its delivery. So the role of the khateeb is reduced to that of a morale booster and motivator for the troops.  Thus, the Pakistani army has instrumentalized Islam, it being used as an instrument to promote the goals of army defined nationalism and warfighting. It is not studied as a religion or theology.

This narrative of the armed forces as the defender of Islam created new dilemmas and unease when the armed forces carried out operations against the Taliban. The problem was compounded with influential clerics and political leaders refusing to accord the status of shaheed to those Pakistani soldiers/officers who died fighting the Taliban. Maria found that the villagers around the districts of the Salt Ranges, which traditionally provide the bulk of recruits for the Pakistan army have found interesting mechanisms to resolve this dilemma. Soldiers who die fighting the traditional enemy i.e. Hindu India, are categorised as ‘asal shaheed’ while those killed fighting the Taliban are designated as ‘watan ke liye shaheed’. Much to the relief of the Pakistani army, those killed still are ‘shaheed’.

When asked why they continue to seek a job in the military, villagers around the Salt Ranges highlighted two reasons: gurbat (poverty) and pucci naukri (permanent job). Once recruited in the military, the rigorous training they undergo converts them into a different creature, creatures who outgrow their previous attachments and develop new love and pride for their units, platoon and regiments. They are now indoctrinated enough to consider the army a sacred profession.

This book is a must read for those interested in the Pakistani military and the reasons for its domination over Pakistani polity and society. One cannot but be amazed at the meticulousness with which the Pakistani military manages to control and shape the narratives in its favour.


Video blog of book review : “Dying to serve – Militarism, Affect and Politics of sacrifice in the Pakistan Army” by Maria Rashid.

Here is my new video-cast in which I review the book “Dying to serve – Militarism, Affect and Politics of sacrifice in the Pakistan Army” by Maria Rashid.

In my view this book qualifies as a seminal work for while we have reams of literature on ‘why’ the Pakistan military dominates Pakistan, this book, explains as to ‘how’ the Pakistani army exercises its complete hegemony over Pakistan – the policies, narratives, mechanisms and practices that produce the ‘affect’ for domination.

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