Where the Raj lives on!!
Colonialism bequeathed an unfortunate sense of
entitlement to South Asia’s soldiers!!!
IMRAN KHAN seemed weary, but otherwise in good form. Enthroned at his official residence, Pakistan’s prime minister tossed out well-rehearsed bromides about his plans for a naya or “new”Pakistan. He was just hitting his stride when an unsmiling, crisply uniformed soldier marched in, tapping his watch. Mr Khan begged for a few more minutes before mumbling excuses and following his minder out. Later, at an informal gathering, an ebullient general assured journalists that “my boss the PM” was fully in charge of the army and intelligence services, and that they were all “trying to convert Pakistan from a security paradigm to a development paradigm”. A cabinet minister nodded and chuckled obsequiously as the general spoke.
THE GENERAL’S home, a colonial mansion dotted with photos of children at elite foreign universities, is located in Rawalpindi, the older twin city to Pakistan’s purpose-built capital, Islamabad. More specifically, it sits on a military base which is itself inside a cantonment. These exclusive garrison-suburbs are a peculiar feature of South Asian cities. India has 62 of them spread over 200,000 acres, Pakistan 43 and Bangladesh 30. As bubbles of leafy comfort ambered in pre-war gentility, complete with flower-sprinkled traffic circles, manicured lawns, tennis courts, officers’ messes and servants’quarters, cantonments are among the least-altered holdovers of the British Raj.
THEY ARE also an urban planner’s nightmare. The low-rise, low-density zones have in most cases long since been engulfed by crowded, bustling cities. Yet municipalities have little say over how cantonments are run. Intended for an alien army of occupation, they remain protected by sweeping pre-independence edicts. A military area that includes golf courses, officers’ housing, lavish headquarters for different service branches and an entire air base slashes a Manhattan-sized slice out of central Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Residents of Navy Nagar in Mumbai tee off onto lush fairways facing the Arabian Sea next to some of the most expensive property in the world. Far inland in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, the armed forces occupy not only a huge cantonment, but three-quarters of the Red Fort, another spectacular Mughal-era monument.PAKISTAN’S ARMY is still occupying new territory. The Defence Housing Authority (DHA), which was created in 1980 to support veterans and their families, has used its land-appropriating powers to build a sprawling property empire. In Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, it owns the entire district of Clifton, a swanky suburb with half a million residents and 15km of beachfront.DHA phases I-XI take up the entire south-east quarter of Lahore, the second-biggest city, including the main business district. “By introducing modern designs in construction of houses, infrastructure and essential associated facilities it has infused a new life in ‘Defence Living’, that is beautifully energetic, attractively vibrant and conveniently livable,”gushes the DHA’s website.
PAKISTAN’S SUPREME COURT is less enthusiastic. In a recent ruling that admonished theDHA for ignoring orders to open its accounts to public scrutiny, a judge remarked that the agency “seems like a government operating within the government”. Another judge was harsher: “You people run your business by using widows and martyrs as a shield, and you pocket royalties in their name.”In his cantonment mansion, the general scoffs at such rebukes. The DHA relieves the government from supporting veterans, he says. Besides, it is the country’s biggest taxpayer.
IN INDIA it is civilians who call the shots. Bureaucrats and politicians often enjoy perks, including gracious colonial bungalows, that are every bit as grand as officers’. There is greater public scrutiny, too: a recent government report took the army to task for failing to collect more than a decade of rent from a deadbeat tenant. Yet India’s army, every bit as spit-and-polished as Pakistan’s, if not as commercially unrestrained, does enjoy other colonial indulgences. A raft of special laws, some of them holdovers from emergency rules the British imposed during the second world war, allows its soldiers near-impunity in parts of the country that are deemed to be troubled. Following a terrorist attack on an army convoy in Kashmir in February, the army has simply closed the road involved for two days a week, even though it is the main highway through a valley with 7m residents. The echoes of the Raj are not lost on the locals…
(THE ECONOMIST, MAY 11th, 2019)