The Political Context of Shame

Adam G. Wenger '92 (EL 34, 1991)

It is said that General Hyder was at first reluctant to move, doing so only when his collegues gave him the choice of deposing Harappa or falling with him...On the morning after the coup Raza Hyder appeared on national television. He was kneeling on aprayer mat, holding his ears and reciting Quranic verses; then he rose from his devotions to address the nation...What, leatherbound and wrapped in silk, lent credability to his oath that all political parties, including the Popular Front of "that pluckiest fighter and great politician" Iskander Harappa, would be allowed to contest the rerun poll?...Raza Hyder, Harappa's protege', became his executioner, but he aldo broke his sacred oath, and he was a religious man...Arjumand Harappa was packed off to Rani at Mohenlo...Chairman Iskander Harappa was detained. [Passage from Shame, p. 245-246]

This excerpt from Salman Rushdie's Shame describes the political turmoil that engulfed Raza Hyder and Iskander Harappa following Raza's coup against Harappa's government. Earlier in the novel, on page 72, Rushdie writes: "Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairytale, so that's all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken either." Viewed simply in the context of the frequent censorship directed at government-criticizing works of art, this passage strikes the reader as a sad comment on the restrictions and pressures on many writers; however, when this passage, combined with the description of Raza Hyder's rise to power, is juxtaposed with the actual events taking place in Pakistan in the five or six years prior to the publication of Shame, Rushdie's writing becomes much more than a satirical disclaimer. Indeed, it assumes the chilling urgency of a man facing the repercussions of exposing the truth behind recent politics in Pakistan. For, without a doubt, the thinly-veiled characters and happenings in Shame, especially in terms of the political situation, actually took place. Raza Hyder is General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq: Iskander Harappa is Zulkifar Ali Bhutto: Arjumand Harappa is Benezir Bhutto. here then, is the non-fictional account essential to the understanding of the significance of the aforementioned passages from Shame.

In 1947, Pakistan seceded from India, and lost East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1972. Following this civil war, Zulkifar Ali Bhutto, who earned his degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford--where he developed his taste for fine tailoring and vintage wines (Newsweek, Oct 29, 1979)--assumed the leadership of the country and became prime minister. Bhutto promised openness, hope, land reform, family planning, and Muslim leadership. In 1973, his government adopted a new constitution and established the Pakistan People's Party, despite being opposed by a strong Islamic faction and military establishment. As his rule progressed, however, Bhutto's rule became more repressive (Nation, Aug 14, 1978). He "obliterated the line dividing affairs of the PPP with those of the state, abusing the government machinery by involving civil servants in political and electoral matters" (Atlas World Press Review, Dec 1978), and, although he gained 60% of the vote in the March 1977 election, he was accused of vote fraud and overthrown in a bloodless military coup by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq (Nation, Aug 14, 1979). Zia insited that his sole purpose in overtaking Bhutto was to stage free elections, and he planned to do so in October 1977; however, in September '77, Zia imprisoned Bhutto and charged him with the botched 1974 murder plot against a PPP dissident named, ironically enough, Ahmad RAZA-Kasuri (America, Apr 21, 1979).

Bhutto spent months in a filthy, tiny cell before being released, emaciated beyond recognition, to stand trial, only to have the trial rigged twice, the judge publicly proclaim his guilt prior to conviction, and the "witnesses" detained until they fingered Bhutto (Nation, Aug 14, 1978). The witnesses changed their stories time and time again. Regardless of the protests and the pleas for clemency from such figures as Carter, Brezhnev, and John Paul II, Zia's guards entered Bhutto's cell at 2 a.m. on the morning of April 4, 1979--four hours before the appointed hour--and carried out his hanging with the utmost secrecy. It was said of Bhutto later that "for all his frailties, he belonged to the small company of men who are preoccupied with leading their countries into the modern world" (America, Apr 21, 1979).

Following Bhutto's hanging, protests broke out, and Zia promised a free election with the PPP, now lead by Bhutto's striking 26 year-old daughter, Benezir. Educated at Harvard, Benezir inherited her father's aristocratic arrogance as well as his brilliant, emotional manner of speaking. But in October of 1979, Zia once again canceled the elections and placed Benezir and her mother under house arrest (Newsweek, July 23, 1979).

As of March, 1981, General Zia was running an Islamization campaign, designed to win over the country's conservative clergy, and siding with the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami ideology. His army's field investigation units are responsible for internal security, his powers remain unchecked by legal provision, and he has cracked down on lawyers in Pakistan. On March 25, 1981, General Zia dismissed 19 judges who refused to accept his order into the constitution which restricts the civil courts, outlaws all political parties except his own, deems the advocacy of any secular ideology to be a crime, and gives him the power to amend the1973 constitution at his will. He became an all-powerful, unchecked dictator.

Obviously, these events match those in Shame. This is the non-fictitious context of the few years before, and during, the writing of this novel. It is a testament to the courage of Salman Rushdie that his novel documents the situation in Pakistan so accurately. Just as Rushdie generously intersperses the events in Shame with his won intruding voice, so does he underline this "modern fairy tale" with the actual political crisis dividing Pakistan. Both Rushdie's voice and Pakistan's problems are too powerful to ignore.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV