by C Uday Bhaskar
Title: Pakistan: Courting the Abyss; Author: Tilak Devasher; Publishers:HarperCollins Publishers; Price: Rs 599/-
India remians the inflexible bête-noir for Pakistan, yet there are few books by Indian authors that have sought to interpret the prodigal neighbour in a holistic, informed and empathetic manner. Tilak Devasher is the exception to this norm, and his 392-page book is valuable addition to the literature on the subject.
In his introduction, the author refers to his ‘fascination’ with Pakistan, which began with childhood stories he heard from his father, who served in the Royal Indian Air Force in undivided India and had fought in World War II with colleagues who later went on to ‘head the Pakistan Air Force’.
A history student who later joined the cabinet secretariat (the external intelligence services), Devasher focused on the Indian neighbourhood, and what was a childhood fascination became a professional calling. Post-retirement, the author decided to “write a holistic book on Pakistan that would encompass the ‘exciting’ issues and the ‘boring’ ones to analyse why Pakistan was hurtling towards the abyss”.
And it is a slow, but inexorable hurtle towards the precipice—the most recent indicator being the suicide bomber terror attack in Lahore (February 13) and the kind of Pavlovian knee-jerk reaction it generated. Predictably, the government absolved itself of any responsibility or involvement in the grisly Sunni-led sectarian terror pattern that has emerged over the decades, paradoxically with tacit state support.
Divided into seven lucid chapters, Devasher provides a composite picture of the genesis of Pakistan. The first few pages of the book encapsulate the tragic charade of the founder—Mohammad Ali Jinnah—and the sui generis state he created, devoid of national history or a common language, but wedded to a fragile state identity predicated on religion. In a pithy vignette, the author dwells on the nascent triumphalism of Jinnah, his inglorious death due to an ambulance breakdown and the manner in which his last rites were conducted to mask the fact that he was a Shia converted from the Ismaili sect.
To the ‘poignancy and depressing contrast’ between the Jinnah vision of Pakistan and what it has now become, one could add the element of make-believe and the reflexive denial syndrome that constantly animates the Pakistani narrative. This began with the carefully-orchestrated elision of Jinnah being non-Sunni; and the refusal to accept the enormity of the east Pakistan genocide. And the Pakistani collective now believes that every act of sectarian domestic terror is instigated by a foreign hand!
The gradual transmutation of the Jinnah dream towards an Islamised state that prioritised the Sunni faction and the many contradictions embedded in this narrow definition of Pakistani identity has its origins in the Objectives Resolution of March 1949. As per this seminal resolution, sovereignty belonged to God and all the principles of governance would be derived from Islam.
This sectarian cleavage rendered the minorities vulnerable and the 1953 anti-Ahmediya riots in Lahore marked the beginning of a blood-soaked spiral that continues to this day—the February 13 violence being the most recent instance. Devasher draws attention to the Justice Munir report and its candid conclusions about the inherent contradiction between the Islamic religion and the normative framework of a democracy.
The Munir-Kayani report concluded rather bleakly that “a democracy, based on the will of the people, was incompatible with an Islamic state”. The structural fissures that plague Pakistan were alluded to unambiguously in the Munir report, where attention was drawn to the lack of consensus among the ulema (clergy) and their inability to agree to a common definition of who is an acceptable ‘Muslim’ in Pakistan.
The absurdity is conveyed in the section of the Munir report that notes: “The net result of all this (disagreement) is that neither Shias nor Sunnis nor Deobandis nor Ahl-i-Hadith nor Barelvis are Muslims…”—and this in a state that derives its rationale and identity from the Islamic religion!
The Zia years and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan consolidated two domestic trends that have reduced the normative democratic space for the hapless Pakistani citizen—the capture of political power by the army and the domination of the Saudi-derived Wahabi form of Islam in the polity. In short, Pakistan became the tail-wag-dog exemplar, with the army subordinating the state and the citizen to retain its primacy.
Introducing the WEEP model of analysis, the author reviews four determinants—water, education, economy and population (hence WEEP)—and the precarious/alarming status of each of them in today’s Pakistan. Rich in empirical data, Devasher notes ominously that “collectively, these issues strongly suggest a looming multi-organ failure in Pakistan…and will be the primary factors impelling it towards the abyss”.
The last section of the book reviews Pakistan’s engagement with four interlocutors—India, Afghanistan, China and the US—and the manner in which the Pakistani army has defined what constitutes the ‘national interest’ and how it will be pursued. The GHQ in Rawalpindi has played the US-China card deftly and benefited from the umbrella of both these benefactors.
It is persuasively averred by the author that the army’s domination in Pakistan “is unlikely to change without a dramatic makeover of the Pakistan state itself—something that is not in sight right now”.
Devasher’s concluding chapter is akin to the dark cloud—with a slender trace of a silver lining. He warns: “As of now, the only road that Pakistan seems set on is towards the abyss.” But the sliver of hope is also added: “ Ultimately, it is when Pakistanis, especially the military, understand the issues involved, understand that what is at stake is nothing less than the very survival of Pakistan as a state that perhaps the first tentative step would be taken in reversing its tragic trajectory.”
Some straws in the wind are encouraging, but could be ephemeral—for instance, new Pakistani army chief General Bajwa cautioning the army to focus on its military role and leave politics to the elected representative.
The arrival of President Donald Trump in the White House has also introduced an element of anxiety in the Rawalpindi calculus. Hence, the contour of the abyss—and what lies beyond it may compel the power brokers to ask the “right questions about what real security entails and what it means to be a Pakistani, and realize the benefits that would accrue from being at peace with itself and its neighbours”.
It will be an unmitigated tragedy for Pakistan—and by extension the region—if this objective and well-meaning exhortation remains a pipe dream.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)