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June 29, 2009

Understanding Pakistan

Dr. Sheila McDonough

Can Pakistan be governed? Freelance journalist James Traub poses this question in an April 5 'New York Times' article.

He begins by focusing on the immediate dilemmas of today: Can Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari cope as Americans would like him to do? Can he be trusted to make America safe?

The perceived threat to America is the 'raison d’être' of this sudden interest in this troubled South Asian nation’s history. But if one has a serious medical problem, one naturally wants to know whether one’s doctor is up to the task. To find out, one would search the record--has this doctor killed, or cured most of his patients? This is the angle of approach to the history of Pakistan-who are these people, and can we rely on them? The author comments that Pakistan is a mess. Does this mess mean danger for Americans? Where can the nervous West look for clues to the source of the danger and a possible cure?

That the danger is real, and the worry justified, is undoubtedly true.

On TV news channels, one sees comments, in the repetitive manner that Jon Stewart often satirizes, urging us all to worry about Pakistan. It seems that every commentator on every news channel frets in the same tone-what can we do about the mess of Pakistan.

Traub’s article is part of an emerging narrative, but who is formulating the narrative and why? Unfortunately, there is very little general information in the wider public about South Asia that might serve as a counterweight to some of the anxiety being cultivated. In fact, most North Americans don’t know how or why Pakistan was created. For those whose sons and daughters may have to go off and fight in South Asia, one would think this kind of information might be helpful.

Many of us can remember back in the days of the Vietnam War when similar concerns were emerging about the ability of the American-backed South Vietnamese government to cope. Then, too, American pressures led to juggling the leadership of an Asian country in hopes of finding a magic superman who could take over and run things properly. As we know, those pious hopes did not work out.

Yet, the lesson of those vain efforts seems to be lost on Traub. He’s still trying to figure out who could save Pakistan in the way that ‘Americans’ want. But what if the answer is nobody?

**I won’t speculate on the reasons why the narrative being created by Traub and the other commentators ignores obvious questions, but here are some that deserve answers:

*Why have the best and the brightest in Pakistan ended up in the army?

*Why has the army come to dominate the state?

*Why has a strong middle class not been created?

*Why has the economy not flourished?

*Why did Bangladesh separate from Pakistan?

*Was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto a martyred hero of democracy or an autocratic feudal lord?

*Why did the supposedly democratic Bhutto personally order his army to try to smash the people of East Bengal after they refused to vote for him?

Traub and the other narrative-creating theorists want to convey an image of Bhutto as a democratic hero, foully done in by a religiously conservative general. Is this part of the emerging myth of democratic heroes versus Muslim extremists?

In Khalid B. Sayeed’s 'Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change', an excellent analysis by a Canadian political scientist, the author is straightforward about Bhutto’s years in power. He says that the urban classes piled up resentment against Bhutto because his regime terrorized opponents by kidnapping family members and seizing property.

Bhutto was widely hated, and data on this is easily available. Benazir Bhutto always refused to see her father like this, but why does the Western press still buy into her personal myth?

Another excellent source for what politics was like in Pakistan is Salman Rushdie’s 'Shame'. This novel is actually about the conflict between Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq, the religiously conservative army general who had Bhutto killed. Zia subsequently governed Pakistan under military rule for 11 years. In the novel, written before the Taliban became an effective power, he falls to the ground thanking God because the Russians invaded Afghanistan. He tells his followers that the Americans will now arm the Taliban, and conservative Muslims will have vast power under their control. If Traub and others like him would only pay attention to the political insights of Rushdie, they would learn a great deal.

Michel Foucault said that one of the most important things to notice about any situation is what is 'not' said, and the most striking gaps in Traub’s narrative is the absence of any reference to India. When Traub does a quick overview of the last 63 years of Pakistan’s history, he writes as though major events-a complex story in which the military seized power three times, and a civil war broke up the nation-all took place mysteriously as a result of forces within the nation. The wider context is ignored.

Since I have lived and worked in both Pakistan and India, and even made a tourist visit to the beautiful valley of Kashmir back when that was feasible, I find this notion of ignoring the wider context strangely simple-minded. And misleading.

In Canada, we know that our border with our neighbor explains most things about us. In a similar way, it makes no sense to think about Pakistan separately from India. It is the relationship with her much stronger neighbour that explains almost everything about the creation, militarization, economic backwardness, and social turmoil in Pakistan.

Why can’t we talk about this? All four of Rushdie’s novels about South Asia focus on this issue. When Rushdie writes about Pakistan’s political leaders, he begins by telling us what happened to their families at the time the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. That history is crucial to each family and to the wider society.

What is called "identity politics" is an essential key to understanding these issues. One of the best explanations of identity politics and contemporary social conflict is the book by Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen entitled 'Identity and Violence'. There is much confusion in our culture at present about this word "identity." As used with reference to politics, the term does not mean the inner conscience of an individual, his or her most private sense of vocation and direction of growth, the source of personal strength and creativity.

Identity politics means the opposite of individual vocation and vision.

It means a group, tribal, national or ethnic identity that subsumes the individual into the mass. A lonely individual can think, but a member of a mob just riots.

Another lucid writer about identity politics is the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. He says that any real individual has a variety of social networks,friends, interests, hobbies, languages, skills and so forth.

These are all different, often unrelated, sources of pleasure, contentment and stimulation. But when this individual allows a system of abstract identity-religion, nationality, ethnicity, or whatever-to dominate his or her consciousness the real person is diminished and the puppet takes over.

Everything in life is now perceived through this abstract lens. Anything that happens is good or bad according to the abstract identity. The enemy, the "other," is identified as the enemy of the abstract cause, and has to be opposed by any force that works. A person totally caught up in this abstract identity tends to use any new information only to buttress commitment to the accepted identity.

The expulsion of the imperialists, and the creation of new nations, after World War II created in the minds of many people precisely this tendency to grab hold of an abstract identity. Strong emotional commitment to the perceived cause of the new nation developed. In the case we are discussing, the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in extreme forms of identity politics on both sides. The birth of the new nations involved massive transfers of something like 10 million people and much hysterical violence, the scars of which run deep. Not to see this as a significant factor in the grief that Pakistan has suffered is to be notably blind.

The question "Can Pakistan be governed?" needs to be addressed in the context of relationship with India. Because of the trauma of partition, Pakistan continued to feel threatened by India. The demilitarization of Pakistan is dependent on establishing better relations between these two countries. This will not happen until the situation in Kashmir is settled in a way satisfactory for all concerned. If this happens, and trade relations are normalized, there is reason to suppose that the democratization of Pakistan will occur more readily.

The two nations have fought three times over Kashmir. The violence has gotten worse, with the outbreaks in the 1990s more terrible than the preceding ones. This is what Rushdie’s novel 'Shalimar the Clown' is telling us about Kashmir. He is talking about the reality of living under military occupation for over 50 years.

So, when Traub and others worry about the militarization of politics in Pakistan, the fact that the army has come to dominate Pakistani life in many ways, they strangely do not ask the obvious question: If the perceived threat from India has caused Pakistan to become a state dominated by the army, can something not be done about this? One of the most surreal aspects of Traub’s analysis is that he seems to think that the army will somehow become less influential in Pakistan. Given India looming on the border, is that likely? The answer lies there in the 63 years since partition. Maybe Traub should have asked Rushdie what he thinks.

In brief, identity politics dominates political life in both Pakistan and India. As long as that is the case, each will focus on the other as the enemy. Pakistanis cannot imagine feeling secure as long as the threat from India is present in their minds. The other side feels like that, too, not least because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. When there is identity politics resulting from trauma as in this case of the violence that went along with the birth of the two South Asia nations, each side develops its own narrative.

For the past 60 years, almost every public debate between Indians and Pakistanis has taken the form of unyielding assertions from each side of its own narrative. Just as in a troubled divorce between two people, each can do nothing but reiterate the crimes of the other. When identity politics flourishes, each side develops in own narrative about what has happened, what is happening now, and what is likely to happen.

The dilemmas posed by mutually exclusive narrative theories are discussed in the book, ‘Shared Histories,’ by Paul Scham, Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund. This book was written jointly by a group of Israelis and Palestinians. They focus on ‘trauma-induced-dominant narrative’ as a key element in conflict situations. Unless each side can free its mind from the narrative embedded in its consciousness, movement towards a better situation is stuck. In order to get unstuck, the control exercised by the narrative over the brain must be challenged.

Scham and his colleagues argue that paying systematic attention to the narrative of the other is the best hope. If people can transcend their narratives, they can begin constructive problem solving.

One lucid exponent of constructive approaches to the problems of India and Pakistan is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi. His father, Devdas Gandhi, had been sent by his father, the Mahatma, to study at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a Muslim University in India. Devdas was thus educated by some of the best minds among the Muslims who had opted to stay in India. Devdas and Rajmohan have both been journalists in India, spending most of their lives writing about many of the issues of conflict resolution in South Asia. Rajmohan Gandhi earlier wrote an excellent study of the lives of the leading Muslims who had been involved in the birth of the two nations.

Rajmohan Gandhi has indicated that the South Asians should go next in a book entitled ‘Revenge and Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History’. His book is dedicated to his Muslim friend, the historian Iqbal Ahmed.

I would agree that the best hope for all of us lies in the reconciliation of India and Pakistan, and a transformed future in which neither side needs its nuclear weapons, or fierce armies threatening each other across the border. Rather trade, commerce, tourists, happy people should be flowing across the border, increasing the joy, prosperity and well-being of everyone concerned.

All this is possible.

One of the most basic needs is not only to transform the rigid narratives, but to get historians from each side to work together to produce a curriculum to teach a common history to peoples on both sides. Once that is achieved, someone like Traub could just read what 'they' say. I think he might be less worried about the mess if that happened.

* Dr. Sheila McDonough is an adjunct professor of religion at Concordia University.

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