What the centre can’t hold

I'm enmeshed in a strange fix.

My ability to hate intensely,

Has begun to weaken by the day.

— Kunwar Narayan, Ek Ajib si Mushkil

Love impels artistes to create timeless creations. But hate is much more powerful. It has made and unmade dynasties, expanded or contracted empires, and caused almost all the great upheavals of history. Life without love is terrible, but to live without hate is to endure the hopelessness of never rising above the mundane. The misery of a person without love or hate is so intense that it can force even a 79-year-old to take to the ravines.

By all accounts, Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan, the tumandar (chieftain) of the Bugtis, was not a nice man to know. His love for his people was superficial. And unlike the other two chieftains of Balochistan – Nawab Khair Bux Marri and Sardar Attaullah Mengal – he did not hate the establishment in Islamabad intensely enough to seek independence. All he wanted was a measure of autonomy traditionally granted to the nominal rulers of frontier tribes by the erstwhile Raj. That made him secessionist in the eyes of the Pakistani military; but at the same time, he was also condemned by his critics for being a pro-government opportunist, always on the lookout for a favourable deal.

Had the tumandar died in a family feud or of old age, he would have remained one of several colourful anomalies of Pakistani society – just another arrogant chieftain who claimed superiority on the basis of colonial-era land grants. Instead, the place, time and manner of his execution and burial have turned him into an icon of autonomy in an increasingly volatile Balochistan. The manner of Nawab Akbar Bugti's death has transformed him into a martyr for all Balochs. Alive, he was an instrument of legitimacy for the centre. Even his rebellion was an indirect affirmation of faith in the idea of Pakistan; unlike other sardars, he never questioned the fundamental premise of a religion-based nation.

In death, he has succeeded in adding one more question mark over the viability of a state bound by very little other than a common religion and conditional American largesse. Already, the tumandar's execution has begun to be compared with the political murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by General Zia-ul Haq. General Pervez Musharraf endorsed the comparison by congratulating the executioners of a sardar from a region where embracing death on a matter of principal is a mark of honour. In Balochistan, a hero is someone who stands up to power, while an idol is the one who dies defying central authority.

It will be a little early to conclude that Balochistan, too, will go the way of Bangladesh. But if aspirations of autonomy are not sympathetically addressed, power alone cannot keep Pakistan together for all times to come. The grievances of the Baloch – or any other population group, except perhaps the Punjabis of Pakistan – are genuine. Balochistan forms almost 42 percent of the landmass of the country, its population is only 7.5 million, and its natural gas is the mainstay of the national energy system; despite these factors, it is one of the most backward provinces, with negligible presence in national defence forces, bureaucracy, diplomacy, trade and industry.

The legitimacy of a state that survives on the basis of brute force can be extremely fragile – half the nuclear arsenal of the world could not keep the Soviet Union together. Only that unity that is forged on the basis of political consensus and widely-shared common destiny can hold. The idea of Pakistan should have been reinvented right after the December 1971 break-up and loss of the eastern wing. In all heterogeneous societies, federalism is the sine qua non of national unity. But Bhutto's vanity ("we shall eat grass but build the bomb") and the military's guilt-induced ferocity propelled the country instead on a confrontationist course. By becoming a proxy in the US's covert war in Afghanistan, its elite amassed enormous fortunes. Unfortunately, the lucrative drugs-for-guns deals destroyed the moral fibre that helps people of various ethnicities rise above their sectarian interests for the common good of the country. When everyone in authority is busy feathering his own nest, marginalised communities acquire the legitimacy to call for secession.

In diverse societies, voices of unrest, no matter how seemingly unreasonable or unjust, need to be heard with patience and understanding. But despite his sherwani and self-declared presidential presumptions, General Musharraf is no politician. He decided to do what he has been trained to do all his life as an elite commando commander. He decided to "sort them so fast, they wouldn't know what hit them". Well, they did not know, but the rest of the world does, and this does not augur well for the future of Pakistan. The general-president will be long gone from the pinnacle of power when hapless politicians of Pakistan's past and future are asked to deal with a secessionist western wing.

Centre shock

European models of autonomous individuals and centralised states – born out of fierce battles between ambitious warlords on the one hand, and all-consuming wars between nation states on the other, over several centuries – are difficult to replicate in Southasia. Despite a shared Indic civilisation, this is a region where boli (dialect) changes every four kosh (6.4 kilometres), and there is a different baani (lifestyle) every 10 kosh (16 kilometres). No empire of the past in Southasia – neither the Mauryas nor the Mughals – succeeded in forging a uniformity similar to China, where over 92 percent of the population is ethnically Han.

Ashoka could not make all Southasians Buddhists. The Shankaracharya failed to convert the entire Subcontinent to Shaivism. Bhakti and Sufi masters consented to create harmony in the diversity of faiths, rather than forcing their followers into exclusivist cocoons. The British tried to make English take the place of Sanskrit, but they too failed to penetrate different layers of indigenous cultures. All of this proves that states that do not respect the inherent multiplicity of the region and its sub-regions are doomed to fail.

Sixty years is a long time in the life of an individual, but amidst a civilisation at least 150 times older than that, modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are nothing more than mere experiments. Their structures need to be studied to learn lessons for improvement, not to stick dogmatically to models produced by England-trained barristers of the 1940s.

The function of the political centre in a pluralist society is necessarily complex. It has to be the moderator, facilitator and coordinator between diverse groups with conflicting interests. This requires so much effort and concentration that, in order to be effective, no central government can afford to spread itself as thin as do the establishments in Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad and Kathmandu.

New Delhi has tried a different formula, but with varying degrees of success over time. In the Hindi heartland, the satraps of the Centre enjoy a fair degree of independent authority. But the imperial mindset on Raisina Hill is too well-entrenched to allow its far-flung possessions in Kashmir and the Northeast any real autonomy. India's achievements in local government are noteworthy: the number of elected representatives in Panchayati raj institutions is said to be more than the population of Norway. However, unless provincial governments are equally empowered, local government units alone cannot meet the self-governance aspirations of the diverse population groups of India.

In the future, any central government in Southasia will have to learn to limit itself to four areas: protection of the commons, regulation of currency, improvement in communications, and the function of coordination. It may sound ironic, but provincial governments in 'centralised' China enjoy far more autonomy than the so-called 'states' of the Indian Union. In military-run Pakistan, provinces are showpieces put in place to maintain the façade of democracy. Had the Sinhala majority agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the Tamils, Sri Lanka would have saved itself from one of the fiercest insurgencies of modern times. Despite its apparent demographic homogeneity, Bangladesh too must learn to create sub-centres, to protect its territory from the peccadilloes of the vainglorious ruling class of Dhaka.

Gandhi tried, but hate proved to be stronger than his resolve to build a society based on love. Since hate cannot be wished away, there is only one way to reduce acrimony within and among nation states: devolve power, so that the capacity to inflict damage by a strong central establishment on others – as well as unto itself – is reduced to the minimum. Maybe then we shall begin to discover the goodness rather than the strength of each other. And only then we too shall discover the delectable pain of losing the ability to hate.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian