Getting Pakistan Wrong

Published: 26th December 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th December 2014 11:05 PM   |  A+A-

Every major terrorist incident in Pakistan begets the same old Indian response. At such times analysts and media commentators are either clucking in despair at yet more evidence of a supposedly “failing state” or, barely suppressing their satisfaction at seeing Islamabad’s carefully tended tool of “asymmetric warfare” turning on Pakistan, cautioning against cultivating extremists lest there be blowback of the Peshawar massacre kind. The basic premise undergirding all such opinion mongering is that terrorist outfits having been nurtured variously by the Inter-Services Intelligence/Pakistan Army and/or the government of Pakistan, the Pakistani state can collar their creatures, bring them to book or, at least, get them to desist from outrages in India.

But such easy conclusions veil certain basic characteristics of Pakistan as it has evolved since 1947. A state founded on the basis of religion mandated religious cleansing with non-believers either pushed to the margins (such as the Christian and Parsi communities) and, in case this population was too large to minimise, with pogroms aimed at ridding the country of them, as happened with the Hindus and Sikhs after Partition. With the intention to obtain a religiously more homogenous nation and, owing to the supposed popular consensus on its foundational aspects, a more easily governable state as well, the Pakistani people ended up achieving neither of these aims.

The trouble was that Mohammad Ali Jinnah didn’t long survive the state’s founding and his design to make Pakistan a secular democratic state, along the lines Jawaharlal Nehru was crafting one in India, died a sudden death for lack of popular support. The underlying reason was that if Pakistan was merely to be a modernist and secular Tweedledee to India’s Tweedledum, what was the point in making Islam the differentiating factor and stoking religious sentiments for a separate state?

However, a Jinnah determined to get his Pakistan was reckless, conflating the Islamic faith of Indian Muslims with differences with the majority Hindus in culture and even cuisine. Jinnah told the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, visiting Delhi in 1946 that Muslims could not be expected to live with Hindus when the former ate cows and the latter revered them, a statement that belied a history of a thousand years of living together even if fist by jowl.

In every sense then Pakistan resolved to be different than India, with this synthetic differentiation having the most unfortunate consequences for nation building in that god-forsaken country. To the extent Jinnah’s democratic design survived it did so as a shell of participatory government hoisted on the newfound state. Except, the democratic ballast that substantial minorities provide a country was lost once the country divested itself of Hindus and Sikhs (who, incidentally, comprised a majority in pre-Partition Lahore, for instance). It made the ground fertile for politics in Pakistan where Islamic extremists could never muster the popular vote in elections but growingly defined the Pakistani state in religious terms. It followed that the more fundamentalist and extremist versions of “desert Islam” represented by the Wahabbi sect of the Salafi school gradually began edging out the more tolerant, easygoing, and syncretic Sufi Islam that was instrumental in spreading the religion in the subcontinent and was the glue holding an Islam-wise diverse Pakistan together.

The Islamic state that took shape began to be measured by the medievalist criteria of the early caliphates regarded as the “golden age” of Islam, entirely divorced from modern-day science, ethics and social norms. Religious minorities and liberal sections of society opposed to being thus dragged back in time were cowed down by Kalashnikov-toting religious goons with links to the “deep” Pakistani state. And political leaders were left subdued, compelled to express their support for the underway process of slow and halting Islamisation.

The break point for Pakistan arrived with the 1977 coup staged by General Zia ul-Haq. The former army chief General Tikka Khan, under house arrest when I met him in his Islamabad residence in December 1982, recounted how he had warned president Zulifikar Ali Bhutto against appointing Haq—“makkar mullah” (“hypocritical mullah”) he called him as his successor, even though Zia was the junior-most and placed at the bottom of the shortlist Tikka had drawn up on Bhutto’s instructions. Tikka rued Bhutto’s bad choice—“Qayamat ko kaun pehchanta hai?” (“Who recognises one’s own nemesis?”), and the rest, as they say, is history. While Ayub Khan brought the army centrally into the affairs of state in 1958, he had during his time at the helm kept the Islamists out. Zia, a “kutter” Muslim who during his college days at St. Stephens in Delhi was a strict namazi, was hewn out of different cloth. Once in power, he promulgated the nizam-e-mustafa, eased the Wahabbists in, and let the joy out of life of ordinary Pakistanis.

Then the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan happened and Zia cannily traded the nation’s newfound status as “frontline state” to extract from the US, inter alia, its acquiescence in China’s programme of nuclear missile arming Pakistan, helping it achieve notional parity with India. And the arms pipeline to the Afghan mujahideen managed jointly by ISI and the US Central Intelligence Agency to unsettle the Soviet occupation forces alerted Pakistan army to the potential of well-financed and equipped terrorist guerilla fighters to disrupt and possibly wrest Jammu & Kashmir from India. Elsewhere, an extremist group like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was found useful by the Muslim League (Nawaz) party, originally favoured by Zia, to strengthen itself at the grassroots in Pakistani Punjab.

In a global milieu grown less tolerant of terrorism, however, Pakistan army finds itself fighting Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan, but unable to demobilise LeT et al considered assets in Pakistan’s ongoing “asymmetric war” against India. The Sharif dispensation, meanwhile, cannot act against Hafiz Sayeed at a time when LeT muscle may be required to deflect the Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s direct challenge. Unless both the army and the political establishment in Pakistan realise terrorism, like peace, is indivisible, the prospects for genuine Indo-Pak rapprochement will remain bleak.

The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at


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