August Issue 2008

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 16 years ago

Tariq Ali was not the first one to pose the question, “Can Pakistan survive?” when he chose it as the title of his study more than 35 years ago. Since Pakistan came into being after a non-traditional process, fears of its mortality have been a part of its people’s psyche. Successive governments have kept this fear alive by using it to blackmail the people into surrendering to their inefficient and oppressive rule. However, anxieties about Pakistan’s life have never been so severe and widespread as they are today because ordinary citizens can see their country being caught in a battle that could prove fatal.

The question of survival is not equally relevant to all the three components of Pakistan’s identity — the land, the people, and the state. There can be no fear of the demise of the land of Pakistan. It has survived the ravages of time since antiquity and it will survive whatever may befall the state of Pakistan. Even if some parts of this land, or even the whole of it, get covered by water, it will only be submerged but will not disappear. Similarly, the people will survive as they have survived countless convulsions over thousands of years. It is only the state of Pakistan that can be subject to the laws of life and death.

The Pakistan state has been vulnerable all along because it was born with several serious internal contradictions that required extraordinary political engineering. First, it adopted the ideal of a modern, democratic and apparently secular polity, although the demand for its creation had been based on the religious identity of the subcontinent’s Muslims. Secondly, it upheld a federal structure in theory and followed the colonial model of a unitary state in practice. Thirdly, it assumed that a democratic system could flourish in a society steeped in feudal culture. Fourthly, a larger part of its population was in the disadvantaged eastern wing while the mantle of power was assumed by the privileged western wing with a smaller population. And, fifthly, the events attending the birth of Pakistan and the global environment during its formative years led it to develop an obsession with security to the neglect of many other requisites of a democratic state of contented citizens.

The accumulated failures of the controllers of Pakistan’s destiny in the different phases of its life have generated an unprecedented sense of despair among the people today. But before trying to figure out what the future holds for Pakistan it may be useful to examine how grave and complex the challenges stemming from the contradictions mentioned have become.

The first critical issue faced by Pakistan, even before the clerics’ volte face in claiming parentage of the state whose idea they had maliciously denounced and stubbornly opposed, was the Bengali citizens’ assertion of their linguistic and cultural identity. The matter was messed up thoroughly and one thing led to another. The gulf between the two wings grew wider as the state’s federal premises were consistently repudiated and the democratic rights of the majority population were arrogantly rejected. Eventually East Bengal was forced out of the Pakistan state, but the contradiction between the imperatives of the federation and the rulers’ preference for despotic centralism (not even benevolent centralism) has remained unresolved.

No lesson has been learnt from the follies that caused Pakistan’s break-up in 1971; indeed the state’s attitude toward less powerful units has become haughtier and even more irrational. Today, three out of the four units of the federation of Pakistan are more alienated from the centre than ever before. The institutions that could have cemented the bonds of federal unity — the parliament, the Council of Common Interest, the National Finance Commission and the defence forces — have all become sources of cleavage and conflict. Nobody can be blamed for declining to accept bets on the survival of a federal state whose constituents keep pulling in different directions.

However, the issue of the federating units’ rights has been superseded in seriousness by the rise of religious pretenders to power. While the founding father did argue that Pakistan was not meant to be a laboratory of faith, they undermined, wittingly or unwittingly, every secular strand of national unity. Their successors rose to power by flouting democratic authority and relied on religious rhetoric to legitimise their regimes. Being unfamiliar themselves with the liberal tradition of Islam, they allowed the conservative clerics to dominate the religious discourse. Each new constitutional text enlarged the political space for the forces of theocracy.

General Zia-ul-Haq’s decision to pervert the concept of jihad and install the conservative tribals as dispensers of sovereign rights made it possible for them to first claim a right to impose their writ in their mountainous hideouts and finally to seize Pakistan or a part of it for themselves. At the moment, Pakistan’s armed forces alone appear to have the capacity to thwart them but no one can say as to how long this cover will be available to the beleaguered state.

The state’s weakness in facing the threat from the north, which ironically used to be invoked for quite a long time, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to frighten the rulers of the sub-continent, has been compounded by its failure to resolve the democratic forces’ contradiction with the feudal social structures on the one hand and the praetorian adventurers on the other.

The political actors responsible for guiding the short and largely painless struggle for Pakistan had extremely limited exposure to democratic ideas. Many of them viewed the creation of a new state through democratic-sounding devices as a means of perpetuating their feudal privileges. The feudals that had been trained as the colonial power’s auxiliary force had little difficulty in guaranteeing their victories in electoral contests. So useful was feudal culture in depriving the masses of their right to power that even non-feudals that were catapulted into seats of power ran the state and its economy in the style of feudals. Pakistan remains a feudal state which is prepared to compromise with any claimant to share in power except the disadvantaged citizenry. By refusing to liquidate feudalism, Pakistan has condemned itself to the status of anachronism.

At the same time, the security apparatus created and maintained by the people by sacrificing their rights to education, health and material well-being became autonomous within a few years of independence. By the end of the fifties it had not only become free of the government’s administrative and financial controls, it moved into the state’s driving seat and has refused to leave it except for short vacations. The repeated assaults by the armed forces have made it impossible for political parties to acquire maturity of mind or become proficient in statecraft. This deficiency of the civilian establishment has reinforced the military camp’s belief in its monopoly over wisdom and patriotism. It always considered itself independent of the state in defence matters, now it chooses to help the civil government beat off threats to national integrity only on its own terms and in a manner of its own choosing.

Does the foregoing narrative of the Pakistan state’s plight leave any room for hope of its survival? Yes, it is possible to sustain hope for two reasons.

First, states are known to survive for long even when afflicted with dreaded diseases, only they become irrelevant to their hapless citizens until external or internal forces, or a combination of both, appear on the scene to save the state for a particular interest or replace it with a new state or with more than one state. Fortunately, that moment does not seem to have arrived as yet. One of the reasons is the discovery by powerful neighbours of their stake in the integrity of the Pakistan state. Except for some purblind tacticians masquerading as military strategists, Iran, India, Central Asia and China have ample reason to be wary of the rise of an aggressively Sunni, tribal jihadi state over Pakhtun territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even the Pakhtuns, except perhaps for the mercenaries among them, may not wish to be thrown back more than a few decades.

Secondly, the state of disarray and anarchy that is causing people acute distress is not due to lack of the Pakistan state’s potential for survival. It is largely due to non-utilisation of the national resources and instruments of recovery, and the possibility of their proper employment cannot be ruled out.

A dispassionate analysis of the problems Pakistan is facing will show that all of them, except for the siege by the jihadis, can be resolved if the various parties involved can convince themselves that it will be impossible to protect their group interests in the event of the state’s getting weaker or completely dysfunctional.

A serious and sincerely mounted effort to remove the federating units’ grievances can still restore the federation to health. What needs to be done is largely known. The provinces deserve maximum autonomy, a fair NFC award, an effective Council of Common Interest, stoppage of all military operations that are objected to by the populations concerned, and abandonment of what are perceived as plans and measures to grab land and other natural resources. The federation will become stronger and more viable if the provinces are allowed due freedom to develop themselves and to enjoy their due share in the running of the centre as well.

Once it is realised that the state cannot overcome the diverse challenges confronting it without the trust and active support of the people, it may not be impossible to bridge the many intra-state divisions. At the moment, there is a sharp division within the ruling coalition — the coalition parties and the rest of the political actors cannot see a common national goal, and the chasm between the civilian horde and the military establishment is posing the single greatest threat to national security. Whatever it may take, the ongoing fight between the various elements of the state must be stopped. Success in this endeavour will enable the state to harness its potential for rejuvenation.

However, unity of purpose among its organs alone will not enable the state to win public backing. That will be possible only through the mobilisation of the masses by the political parties. At the moment, the political parties are totally out of action. Meetings of parliamentary parties, if held at all, are meaningless get-togethers and there is little communication and consultation with the rank and file. An open and continuous dialogue between the state and the people is one of the foremost requisites for the state’s survival and progress.

An effective mobilisation of the people is also necessary to end the confusion in the ruling elite on the most effective response to tribal militancy operating under the cover of faith. A greater part of the population rejects the militants’ thesis and is convinced that their accession to power will entail indescribable misery to the people, generation after generation. But those holding this view are doing nothing to avert disaster. Those on the other side seem to believe that the militants are not in the wrong and that they can ride the tiger. Unless these people can amend their thinking, they are only arranging a feast for the tiger. The state’s survival hinges on evolving a rational response to the tribal onslaught.

All this may invite a comment that what has been offered is a wish list and not a practical way to salvation. This will not be wholly true because no situation is ever beyond correction if people take matters into their hands. Pakistan can survive if there are enough people around who decide to ensure that it does survive.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.