Archive for May, 2009

Who would have thought…

May 21, 2009

that I would finally hear it from the Pakistani Ambassador on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show! I hope the ambassador does not get fired for saying what has been blatantly obvious for quite a while. Indeed, one can argue that it was obvious to the astute observer for at least a few decades, if not right from the beginning in 1947, that India did not pose the primary existential threat to Pakistan. In fact, it can be argued that, to the contrary, the whole notion of pakistan posed a significant threat to the notion of India. It was this fundamental belief that led leaders like Gandhi to oppose the division of India, but he made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs. He could not convince Jinnah that the dividing India was the wrong idea, and his attempts to convince Jinnah were construed by the hindu hardliners as appeasement. The British clearly had no incentive to get these answers right as they were more interested in getting out as quickly as possible, and in some ways I am glad they did because they had clearly over-stayed their welcome.

In fact, Pakistan has been the aggressor in three wars fought between the countries in 1948, 1965, and 1999. So much for India being the existential threat to Pakistan. Shashi Tharoor said it best: “Pakistan has nothing that India wants, India has something that Pakistan wants”. So, it is not in India’s interest to see Pakistan destabilized. However, it has been in Pakistan’s interest to see India destabilized. What I find amazing is that Parvez Musharraf goes on CNN on Fareed Zakaria’s show and says that Pakistan has to keep a large force on the Indian border because India made some noises about using force against Pakistan after Pakistan-based terrorists bombed the Indian Parliament and held Mumbai hostage for three days. He conveniently forgets that the pakistan army suffered probably the second worst defeat in the history of Pakistan in a war started by Pakistan under his command!

I think the primary existential threat to Pakistan is the fundamental notion of pakistani identity that is sufficiently different from the Indian identity. The reason I say this is that I am amazed at how much there is in common between Indians and Pakistanis. Every Pakistani I have met in my life, either in a university setting, or at work has had a whole lot in common with me. Now, of course there are differences, but they are no greater than the differences between a Keralite and an Assamese. I maybe a Tamilian who grew up in Pune, Kolkata, and Chennai, but, I could relate very well to Pathans from Islamabad or Lahore. Now, I know no one in Pakistan will probably agree with me, but, here goes anyways. The problem was that the set of folks who made up Pakistan in 1947, did not have enough in common to forge a national identity separate from the rest of India. At first, there was the distinction between west pakistan and east pakistan. In 1971, the erstwhile leaders of Pakistan, mostly Punjabi and concentrated in the west, did not believe that the Bengalis in east pakistan had the guts and determination to stand for their rights, miscalculated the Indian response, and caused the first split in the integrity of the idea of Pakistan. Indian sympathies lay with the bengalis, because guess what, those bengalis in east pakistan had family and generations of shared history and culture with the bengalis in India irrespective of their religion. Having said that, I can see how the paranoid Pakistani power establishment would have viewed the indian intervention in the bangladeshi war of independence in 1971 as the ‘Indian threat to Pakistani existence’.

In some sense, the events of 1971 increased Pakistan’s motivation to destabilize India. And when it became clear that using conventional methods such as fighting overt-wars would likely lead to repeated defeats, Pakistan resorted to encouraging separatist tendencies in India, may it be the Sikh separatist movement in the late 70s and early 80s, or the Kashmiri separatist movement since the late 80s after the sikh separatist movement ran its course with nothing to show but the tragic cost in terms of  almost hundred thousand innocent human lives.

What I think the powers in Pakistan need to realize is that the identity issue will not go away even if they get their wish with Kashmir. The Pakistani support for militancy in Kashmir has devastated the vibrant tourism industry in Kashmir. It has caused the non-muslims to leave Kashmir in droves. Prior to that, it was the restrictions on non-Kashmiris in Kashmir as envisaged in Article 370 of the Indian constitution that guaranteed that Kashmir would not benefit from the talents that were available in the rest of India, and the enterprising Kashmiris found more opportunities outside of Kashmir. When Pakistan with active CIA help succeeded in defeating and driving the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan leveraged the jihadi infrastructure it had created and re-targeted them at Kashmir. This is the reason why the terrorism problem in Kashmir sky-rocketed after 1989. Anyway, as the jihadis themselves are finding out now, the Indian Army did not bomb them out of existence like the pakistani army is trying to in the swat valley now. Of course, if India had remotely done any such thing, Pakistan would have been at the fore-front of the understandable International outcry about mistreatment of muslims. I just want to point out how tolerant the Indians have been and as a result, finally, I hope there are signs that Pakistan is beginning to see that India is not the primary existential threat to its existence.

What we are seeing in pakistan now, even after 60 plus years of being part of the same nation, is that there are significant fissures in the populace. The punjabis dominate the nation because they are more than 50% in terms of population, and 70% of the army. The others feel left out and because it is not a functioning democracy, and do not have a way of organizing their interests and getting them addressed systematically other than resort to violence. What is ironic is that the argument that was constantly made for partition was that the muslims were concerned that their interests would be overriden by the interests of the majority hindus in a pure democracy. This is a very telling argument, because what is happening to non-punjabis in Pakistan is what the muslim leaders thought would happen to them in the larger India. Co-incidence? I think not. I think it is essentially because the leadership in Pakistan never really believed in democracy and did not build up institutions that could support democracy where the minority voices have a role to play. On the contrary, in India, while most social wellness indices indicate that muslims, on aggregate, are behind the rest of the population, India has had two heads of state who were muslim, and while there have been many significant instances of sectarian violence, muslims do exercise their right to vote freely and are actively wooed by multiple political parties. Keep in mind, India still has the among the largest muslim populations of any country in the world.

I think history as of now, has played out in a way that is very different from what the founders of Pakistan envisaged. The sense I get is that the hindus  and sikhs who moved to India as a result of partition have assimilated quite well into the country. However, I am not sure that is the case with the muslims who went over to Pakistan. Why do I feel this way? There are political parties whose whole premise is to represent the interest of the Mohajirs who are precisely the folks who literally risked life and limb to move to Pakistan because they believed in the idea of Pakistan. See http://www.mohajir.net/PDF/Sharp-Eyed%20View%20of%20a%20Mohajir%20_%20DesPardes.pdf for a fascinating perspective of a Mohajir on the creation of Pakistan and related events. Of course, part of the reason is also that the Mohajirs wanted political power, and they had it for a while. They were after all, the ‘ruling class’, so it is not surprising that they sought political power, and more on that later.

The problem is that Pakistan has relied too much on the army to provide stability and therefore their identity. And as history has shown, armies need enemies, and India has been a convenient enemy that has been misused to distract attention from more pressing matters of state.The pakistani army apparently regularly told its soldiers that they were descended from ‘warrior tribes’ that had conquered india in the past, and that one pakistani soldier could take on 10 hindu indian soldiers and beat them. This may explain how Pakistan thought it could attack and win in the four wars, when in reality it lost two wars outright, and had very limited success in the other two. As Shashi Tharoor said recently: “The army has a state in Pakistan. Other states have armies”. The amazing part is that Pakistan wants more western support because the alternative is that the state will disintegrate into chaos, and the ‘nukes’ will fall into the wrong hands. What more evidence does one need for the lack of a coherent identity! Is Pakistan not precious enough for Pakistanis to unite on?

So, some of this begs the question, why did Pakistan come into being anyway? Now, I am going to provide an over-simplified version, but from all the research I have done into this matter, I cannot find a more succinct explanation. Essentially, Pakistan was formed because some elite muslim leaders could not bear the thought of the prospect of taking orders from democratically elected ‘hindu’ leaders because they feared that the hindu leaders may not ‘respect their religious sensitivities’. It is as simple as that. Another nuance, though not explicitly stated part of their argument was that prior to the British ruling most of India, most of India was ruled by muslim rulers such as the Mughals. In fact, the most vocal proponents of Pakistan in India were the muslim elite from northern india who formed the ‘Mohajir’ community in Pakistan. So, somehow, these folks felt that they were the ‘natural leaders’ of the populace, and it was more important to find a populace to rule over than to create a viable, vibrant state. This may also explain why they wanted Urdu to be the national language of Pakistan when it was the native tongue for less than 10% of the population. So what did they do instead? They convinced the British that the best way out was to create a new nation. Imagine, the whole idea of Pakistan began being discussed publicly only in the 1930s, and its proponents deliberately decided to magnify the differences as opposed to building on the shared history of hindus and muslims in the sub-continent. Now, I am over-simplifying, and I am sure there is a lot of blame to go around, but, the fact remains that what the muslim leadership probably thought that the threat of separation will give them more leverage, but I am not sure they were actually prepared for the consequences of actually getting their wish. In fact, with 60-plus years into the experiment, one can say at this point in time that chances are that they were actually not prepared, and the death of a couple of  leaders early in the history of Pakistan caused the destiny of millions of people to take a very different course within one generation. Not the characteristic of a stable populace with a clear identity.

From the beginning, Pakistan was intimidated by India’s relative size, and tried to define itself as something that India was not and actively courted US support to counter their perceived existential threat from India. Add to this the fact that the separation was clearly not in ‘the best of terms’. This reliance on US support had many unintended consequences including one that made the Army the most powerful political institution in the country. The Indians, on the other hand, were very leery of powerful countries because of the experience with Britain, and diligently avoided any reliance, especially military relationships with very powerful countries. This reticence, led to the so-called hindu rate of growth for a long time, but I think it was important for the country to build up its sense of stable identity, and ensured civilian control of the armed forces. Pakistan, on the other hand, did not have the luxury because two of its founding leaders, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan died within a couple of years of independence, and there was a leadership vacuum that was often filled by the army. So what was the consequence of that? The Army had to periodically rule the country, and Pakistan was seen as a close US ally. This alliance was very useful, especially to defeat the Russians and drive them out of Afghanistan, but after that, the Americans had to focus on other things such as the first gulf war, and the focus shifted away from Pakistan. The consequences of this in terms of the failure of Afghanistan as a state, the emergence of Taliban, and its consequences are only too well known to all of us now. What Pakistan did not realize is that this jihadi movement of their creation that they successfully used against the Russians and thought they could use to destabilize India has now turned on Pakistan itself. The recent blatant attacks in the Islamabad red mosque, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, etc., makes one wonder whether other pakistanis, especially the army, will follow the Ambassador and stop obsessing about India, and instead focus on creating a vibrant state that Pakistan should be if the sample of Pakistanis I have met is at all representative.

In summary, it was a potent brew of multiple self-interests that led folks to believe that the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was a good idea. Who were the people who paid the price for its creation? It was the millions of people who were displaced and were suddenly of the wrong religion in the wrong place. Imagine, you were a hindu or sikh in punjab, and your forefathers had lived there for centuries if not millenia, and suddenly someone somewhere decides that your village is now in Pakistan, and likewise for some muslim family in the indian part of punjab. Imagine, you have been punjabi for generations, and potentially trace your roots to when civilization took root in that part of the world thousands of years ago, and suddenly, you find yourself on the wrong side. Really traumatic.

Anyway, I hope one cannot just wipe out centuries, nay millenia, of shared history and culture by drawing a line in the sand and start behaving like sworn enemies for a few decades. This time of crisis in Pakistan, I think, is an opportunity for India to show its leadership in the form of sincerety and commitment to peace in the sub-continent and to re-inforce the point that a stable Pakistan is in India’s interest. Pakistan, on the other hand, has to be serious about beginning a sincere mutually beneficial relationship with India and has to stop using religion as a political tool to destabilize India. It has to find an identity that its folks are comfortable with, and if  it is a variation of the Indian identity, so be it.

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