The Praetorian Guard has risen
By M J Akbar
Third Eye - India Today
January 15, 2011
The fall of the Roman Empire can be attributed to the rise of the Praetorian Guard. The glory of Rome was rooted in democracy, a Greek idea which Rome converted into a variable political virtue which lasted precisely because it was variable in an age when arbitrary dictatorship demanded either obedience or subservience. Rome evolved from the control of the Senate to the grip of the palace, but its Caesars began to crumble once the mercury of human nature became more corrosive than the fragility of institutions.
The instruments of state might respect an Emperor who delivered stability and lucrative power, but once the ruler became counter-productive or unstable, a liability rather than an asset, respect turned to contempt. The army was in charge of the state's security, which was convenient for the Emperor, since that kept it out of Rome. The security of the Emperor was guaranteed by a local, professional force known as the Praetorian Guard. It was a matter of time, and not too much time either, before the Guard became the power behind and in front of the throne. The Ottomans had a similar force in the Janissaries, who were the guardians of the Turkish rulers: wisely, they were men picked from conquered lands rather than locals, so they could be loyal to just their ruler rather than clan, tribe or faith.
Empires are dead, or at least increasingly untenable; but even a modern polity needs a Praetorian Guard. In India we call it the Special Protection Group, created for a select band of ruling class VIPs rather than just a dynasty. Pakistan has its own and more appropriately named Elite Force. The job requires grit and courage, because implicit in its discipline is the compulsion to act as a human shield between the assassin and the leader. What happens when the shield becomes the killer?
What persuades a man to turn his gun upon his benefactor? In the case of Rome it was political power. There is a more troublesome reason now: ideology.
There have been two instances of ideological assassination in India, the death of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi died because he chose to challenge secession in another country; Indira Gandhi because she was determined to save her own nation's integrity. A desire for a theocratic Sikh state was compounded by anger against Mrs Gandhi's decision to clear the Golden Temple with the help of the Army. But India had diversity, space and a non-negotiable commitment to democracy that helped contain the Sikh insurrection.
The crisis in Pakistan is far more dangerous. Its nationalism is defined by religion rather than ethnicity. Its sovereignty lies in the will of Allah. Liberal Pakistanis often argue that the people do not vote for Islamist parties, but that is self-delusion; the majority believe that the country needs a theocratic law to protect its identity.
Perhaps those Pakistanis who do not want to see their nation slip into a descending spiral of extremist madness need to eliminate the more disturbing truth from the discourse. The danger to Pakistan lies not merely in the fact that a 21-year-old called Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri killed Salman Taseer with the calm demeanour of an executioner doing his duty to a higher law, but the fact that all his colleagues were complicit in the crime. It was collusive and collective. He had informed his fellow bodyguards of his intentions, and their response was admiration. He was neither stopped before the deed, nor brutalised after it. He went to prison like a bridegroom rather than a criminal.
Significant sections of influential Pakistanis threw rose petals in accolade. It is perhaps understandable, if not justifiable, that an imam could not be found to lead a funeral prayer, since the clergy believe Taseer was an apostate. But the political class, exceptions apart, did not have the guts to appear at his funeral. It is almost certain that Qadri will be treated as a hero in prison rather than a criminal, and that the judicial system will try and be as lenient to him as it can.
This is the crossroads moment for Pakistan. Evidence suggests that the traffic is increasing on the road towards a theocratic revolution that will eventually consume its children in sectarian civil wars. Courageous Pakistanis like the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman know that they have already run out of time, but they are being isolated by those who think compromise can buy them a few more years in power.
We are seeing, unless we are lucky, the future of Pakistan on the face of Malik Qadri. The Praetorian Guard has risen.