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[Broadcast by F S AIJAZUDDIN on BBC 3 Radio, 11 March 2014, 10.45 GMT]


To me, as a Pakistani, the Commonwealth is a unique phenomenon. Rather like the game of cricket, it has its own arcane rituals, its own mysteries, its own rules. It survives without any visible means of support, sustained by nothing more substantial than the goodwill and commitment of its member states.  It is a perfect diplomatic demonstration of mystical levitation.  

Think about it. Here is a group of 53 nations, almost all of them at one time or the other an unwilling colony, or under the protection of the British Crown. As soon as each of them achieved independence as a sovereign state, they opted to reconnect the very umbilical cord that had bound them to a mother country, once their colonial master.

That sort of behaviour among human beings would be diagnosed by psychologists as the Stockholm Syndrome.

What is admirable about the Commonwealth is not that it functions as well as it does. What is surprising is that it functions at all.

For example, it lacks the formal authority of the United Nations. It does not have a Court of Justice to resolve inter-state disputes, even though many of its members are inimical to each other. Of these, the most prominent are India and Pakistan who are still bickering over a decision taken by Great Britain in 1947. And all three are still member countries of the Commonwealth.

It could be argued that the Commonwealth had all the potential of becoming one powerful economic bloc. It could have, except that instead of teeth it had dentures.  It lacked the will and the commercial hunger that the other Commonwealth has – I refer of course to the Commonwealth of Independent States, once Russia’s satellites. And yet, our Commonwealth - in Winston Churchill’s seminal phrase: ‘that vast commonwealth of nations and communities in and around the ancient British monarchy’ – still survives.  

Through habit more than foresight, I suspect, Great Britain modelled the Commonwealth on the lines of a gentleman’s club, not dissimilar to the ones found in London’s Pall Mall. Membership was made voluntary but exclusive, subscription fees kept minimal, rules stringent, and infractions dealt with swiftly.

 \'We\'ve got to have rules and obey them,’ one of William Golding’s young boys says in his novel The Lord of the Flies. ‘After all, we\'re not savages.  We\'re English, and the English are best at everything.\'

Soon enough, Commonwealth countries began to behave like public schoolboys. They divided themselves into two groupings - the Biguns and the Littluns. And that is when the bullying began. Perhaps the most disgraceful example of this occurred most recently at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in November 2013, where Sri Lanka (despite being the host) found itself the target. It became the equivalent of Golding’s Piggy to ‘the Biguns’ (Canada and India) supported by Mauritius (‘the Littlun’). The three of them refused to attend the Colombo meeting, citing human rights violations in Sri Lanka as the reason. Not one of them had the courage to mention - even as an afterthought - India’s support to the Tamil separatists or the Tamil Tigers which had been going on for decades.   

As a Pakistani, I empathised with Sri Lanka’s predicament. We had already run that gauntlet in 1972. I remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after the 1971 war, quitting the Commonwealth. He wanted to register his remonstrance at India’s support for the Mukti Bahini and its role as the midwife attending the birth of Bangladesh. The ‘Biguns’ in the Commonwealth sided with India, dismissing his gesture as pure drama, as theatrical a performance as his stormy departure from the Security Council chamber in December 1971.

We remained out in the cold for almost twenty years before we were readmitted. In 1989, Benazir Bhutto – the first Muslim woman to be elected prime minister - was given an emotional welcome when she appeared at the meeting of the CHOGM and applied for re-admission. She was treated as if she was some sort of returning Prodigal Daughter.

Ten years later, in 1999, we in Pakistan found ourselves back in the dog-house. We were suspended again, but this time because General Musharraf had ousted an elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf had been careful not to impose Martial Law or to crown himself Chief Martial Law Administrator.  Instead, he coined an unusual title for himself – Chief Executive. However, that did not prevent the Commonwealth from seeing through the disguise. It noticed streaks of khaki in him and exposed him as a military usurper. And so for the second time, Pakistan was suspended again.

This suspension lasted five years. During that time, the Biguns got accustomed to Musharraf’s face, and so in 2004, they voted to readmit Pakistan.  Then, suddenly, three years later, Musharraf misbehaved by declaring an Emergency, and for the sins of the father, Pakistan as a country was suspended yet again.  No one in the meeting of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers that voted at Uganda to suspend Pakistan questioned how a nation per se could be held culpable for the actions of its self-appointed ruler. (After all, weren’t we – the citizens whose government had been hijacked by the military - the victims rather than the perpetrators of the crime?)

No one questioned how Musharraf’s obstinate refusal (and I quote from the Commonwealth’s charge sheet) ‘to resign as army chief, allow a free press, hold elections, and restore the power of the country’s judiciary’ was the fault of 170 million Pakistanis?

Or ironically, no one remembered that when Mrs Indira Gandhi declared a similar Emergency in 1975, India was not suspended from Commonwealth membership.

But then, Littluns are not expected to ask such awkward questions. When Biguns decide, Littluns are expected to comply.


I learned that the hard way at an English Public School where I studied in the 1950s. That 400 year old school in Hertfordshire is now famous for two of its alumni – the novelist Graham Greene who hated it, and Robin Knox-Johnston who gained fame by sailing solo around the world non-stop. I came away from the school with mixed feelings about it, but I recall vividly Sixth Formers senior to me behaving with brutish condescension towards us Fourth Formers, and we in turn being as callous with our juniors when it was our turn.

That school is now co-ed, but I suspect not much has changed in such schools. Groupings bring out the best (and the worst) in human beings. Why should one expect anything different from the Commonwealth?

Since Pakistan joined the Commonwealth as a founder member over sixty years ago, it has been suspended twice and readmitted three times. Any other self-respecting government would have taken the hint. Yet, if one was to ask our Government, it is gung-ho about staying within the Commonwealth. How else would our leaders get invited to dine with the Queen at Buckingham Palace?  

Ask the officer on the Commonwealth desk in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he will ooze with optimism. But the reality is that Commonwealth relations are handled by ‘Europe I’ and that the Commonwealth does not merit even a mention in the Foreign Office Year Book – the Organisation of Islamic Conference, yes; the Economic Cooperation Organisation, yes; the Developing 8 or D-8, yes; even the little-known Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – yes.  But the Commonwealth, NO.

Ask the man in the street and he will furrow his brows and wonder what you mean by the word ‘Commonwealth’.


Most Pakistanis are too caught up in their daily struggle against inflation, electricity shortages, gas rationing, overcrowding and under-employment to fret about what the Commonwealth can offer them.  Rather like the busy Arab who spread out his hand in the face of a visitor soliciting business, his five splayed fingers framing the question: ‘What is there for me?’, an average Pakistani could be forgiven for asking: ‘What is there in the Commonwealth for me?’

Obviously, for youth, the attraction lies in Commonwealth scholarships. Gradually, as the number of universities within the country goes up and their quality improves, the demand is for higher qualifications in fields of narrowing specialization.


Youth programmes have been given a new impetus with the establishment recently of its own Secretariat in Sri Lanka. Pakistan has contributed $100,000 towards its funding. Petty largesse, when one remembers that Asif Zardari, when President, donated $1 million to the shrine of Khawaja Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer (India).

For sportspersons, the Commonwealth Games are an obvious dress rehearsal for the Olympics.  Pakistan has participated though in only 11 out of the 19 Commonwealth Games, and even at these, sometimes the officials in the squad exceed the number of competing athletes.  

For businessmen, interest in the Commonwealth is on the wane. There are too many economic groupings to compete in, which explains why at a recent meeting on promoting Commonwealth trade, Pakistan sent only a token representation.

Parliamentarians share varied experiences with their localised versions of Westminster-style debates.  And of course, young students cut their teeth during Commonwealth Debating competitions.

Social issues such as Human Rights, Social Equity and Inclusive growth have entered the lexicon of Commonwealth jargon, as have Environment and Climate Change.

Perhaps the most significant development for Pakistan has been its inclusion (for the first time) in the CMAG or the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group – the very body that had suspended its membership in 1999 and 2007. 

If only because of the size of its population, Pakistan expects to be included amongst the Biguns. Yet, it is treated by the others as a Littlun. Gravitating against its pretensions are its erratic record as a democracy, its dyslexic efforts at economic development, and its lamentable disregard for gender equality. It is not a good idea to shoot schoolgirls in the head because they choose to go to school, or to murder female health workers because they want to administer polio drops to infants.

The Commonwealth will still be around by the time Pakistan is able to resolve these issues. In any case, there will always be a Commonwealth so long as there are countries that are willing to join it. But I have to admit that I am not encouraged at the moment knowing that there is only one applicant in the queue for membership – South Sudan.

Will Great Britain will be able to maintain its self-appointed pre-eminence in the Commonwealth? I am not sure. It is too distracted by whatever is happening in Europe and across the Atlantic.   

Will there be a Commonwealth around to celebrate its centenary in the year 2049? I wonder. The Commonwealth was a by-product of the Second World War. Now that the Cold War is over, the continuity of the Commonwealth will depend upon the direction that regional polarisation takes.  It is a modern given that regional groupings have begun to matter more and more. For a country like Pakistan – a Littlun – the policies of the Biguns like China, India, Russia, and the United States will remain of crucial significance: China because of its well-camouflaged imperialism; Russia because of its Romanov wealth in minerals; India because of its determination to achieve recognition as a First World country; and the United States which at times behaves like a wounded Cyclops that cannot distinguish between terrorists and human collateral damage.

Pakistan may feel comfortable being in the Commonwealth but it is like having a feel-good talisman – its efficacy lies when it is put to the test. And in that, Pakistan has reason for feeling disappointed. It feels that it has been betrayed more often by the members of the Commonwealth than it deserved. What is the point, many Pakistanis ask, of being a member of a club that has a revolving door?

It is said that Pandit Nehru (by that time prime minister of India)  endeared himself to his British counterpart Harold Macmillan (then on a tour of India) by asking him: ‘Do you think the Romans ever re-visited their colonies?’

After its fall, the Roman Empire left behind Latin, Roman Law, Roman civics, town planning, aqueducts, but no Roman Commonwealth. It is a tribute therefore to the British that they did have the courage to re-visit their former colonies, that they were able through the Commonwealth, to sustain a relationship with those countries which had many a reason to hate them.


But I believe, above all, it is to the credit of the member countries themselves that they have maintained the form, the substance and the spirit of the Commonwealth. That, after all, is what British clubs are all about, and that may help explain why the Secretariat of the Commonwealth is still in London’s Pall Mall.



For BBC3 Radio. Recorded at BBC Lahore, 24.2.2014


12 March 2014
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