The fixed fight
Mohammed Hanif, author of the extraordinary novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), wrote a stinging essay in the Times of India in early January called “Ten Myths about Pakistan”. Failed state, religious country, hater of India: these are only three of the misconceptions about Pakistan that have succeeded in sustaining animosities and bloating military budgets. For almost forty years, Tariq Ali has tried to break down these myths. His Pakistan: Military rule or people’s power (1970) offered a sophisticated history of the country, concluding with an accurate prediction regarding the break-up of the state. Feroz Ahmed, the activist and intellectual, described this work as “the first book on Pakistan, published in the West, that is not based on the stereotyped ‘analysis’ of Pakistan’s history in terms of palatial intrigues and Bengali versus Punjabi rivalry. It is the first attempt in which the role, aspirations, and struggle of the Pakistani masses have been put in a proper perspective.” Ali was only 27 when that book appeared – and was, unsurprisingly, quickly banned in Pakistan.
Thirteen years later, Penguin released his second book about his native land, Can Pakistan Survive?: The death of a state (1983). Far more polemical than its predecessor, it bore all the marks of having been written during the era of Zia ul-Haq. The Zia dictatorship, Ali wrote, “has brought all the contradictions of the Pakistani state to a head. Lack of political democracy, economic inequality, and the oppression of minority nationalities have become deeply embedded in the consciousness of a mass which increasingly begins to question the very basis of the state.” At the end of the day, while the people did not abjure their nationality, the state did walk away from the people. For instance, the already meagre state provisions for the growth of social democracy were dismantled such that the working poor and the very poor had to take their medicine and alphabet from the organisations of the faith. From Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to Zia, dictators pass on; but so too do the talents of the bourgeoisie, whose livelihoods and innovations are squandered for the sake of government-military contracts. This is a fact well illustrated in Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc. (2007), another recent book that the Islamabad government has banned.
After two solid innings, Tariq Ali has decided to take on a third. Padded up and bat in hand, he strides to the crease with The Duel. Much like his two previous books, this one reiterates the history of Pakistan to make two important points: that the Pakistani elite, and its various political parties, do not aspire to social democracy; and that the United States builds on this failure of imagination to push its own bilious agenda on Southasia. The ruling class, Ali writes, keeps “permanent vigil” to ensure that “the lower classes of the Muslim population never receive an education that might lead them to challenge [the elite’s] monopoly of power.” Tellingly, the literacy rate in Pakistan is between 41 percent and 54 percent – in China it stands at 90-98 percent, and 62-74 percent in India.
Made up of 22 sprawling families and their untutored élèves, the Pakistani ruling class not only failed in providing education and health care, it also myopically “never possessed a reliable political party capable of controlling the masses”. The two main outfits – the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League – are not only hierarchically run by two families, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, respectively, but they are also undeterred by matters of principles and programmes. Despite such immense power, Ali finds, much to his chagrin, that the leaders of the two parties cannot be hailed for their wits. “The predicament of Pakistan,” he writes, “has never been that of an enlightened leadership marooned in a sea of primitive people. It has usually been the opposite.”
Going back to Hanif, he is right to point to the myths that exude from coverage of Pakistan. Yet the sense of being a country labouring under misconceptions and prejudice from without is not all fantasy. It is also reflected in the emotional state of the ruling class, whose sense of isolation from the masses is only challenged by its members’ relationships with their servants and shopkeepers. Being secluded from reality, the civilian and military ruling class seeks refuge in its American benefactors. The Afghan war, from 1979 onwards, came as a godsend as it flooded the country with Gulf money, as well as American funding and allegiance. Zia managed the crisis to the short-term advantage of the ruling elites: the Soviets, and India, provided the external enemy; the madrassas and the military camps provided what amounted to social welfare; and the mullahs went after all those whom they deemed un-Islamic (including women). The jihad across the Khyber and the jihadi institutions became the refuse dump for the aspirations of the masses during this period.
Zia’s death in 1988 may have ended the military dictatorship, but it did not bring democracy. The elite now ruled through the two main political parties, who traded places throughout the 1990s and squandered any opportunity to bring the masses into organised politics. It was their cumulative failure that effectively summoned Pervez Musharraf to take charge in 1999. By Ali’s estimation, the Bhutto-Sharif era of the 1990s was but an interregnum; it proved that, without substantial change, “there is no serious political alternative to military rule.” The Americans wanted stability: the tall leader on a white horse, with a whip long enough to reach the unruly citizenry. What they got was a military leader ultimately unable to control the land.
What Ali does not point to, and which would make sense given the centrality of the Afghan wars on either end of the 1990s, is the role played by Kashmir during this period. Veterans of the Afghan jihad left the area after the war came to a close and went home – to Chechnya, the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – with an inflated sense of their own purpose. Pakistanis and Kashmiris who worked with the Jamaat-ud-Dawa went into the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which turned its attention to Kashmir. They began to attack sites within India, injecting their toxic ideology into the indigenous Kashmiri struggle, which had been led by the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front and other groups in the Tehreeki Hurriyat Kashmir. Their actions sought to take advantage of the tinderbox that had been created by the Indian military. Within the Pakistani state, meanwhile, the Zia dynamic reached its own combustion point when Musharraf took the reins. Although maligned later, he was welcomed initially – and not only in the salons of Islamabad and Lahore, but also in New Delhi and Washington, and indeed by sections of Pakistanis turned off by the Bhutto-Sharif dance.
Ali’s withering criticism of Pervez Musharraf, and of the post-9/11 cataclysm within Pakistan, lies at the heart of The Duel. Thrown over a barrel by Washington, the generals had to pretend to wash their hands of the jihadis in prosecution of the ‘war on terror’. The generals followed the Prussian theory of Auftragstaktik: senior officers gave the juniors the general line of the march, but then allowed the subordinates to understand the policy as they saw fit. Some sections of the military honestly believed that its links to the jihadis had been cut, even while others continued to pursue the Zia agenda. The jihadis’ social base is a consequence of the grotesque inequalities in Pakistani society, but their instrumental ability comes from their relationship to the shadow state (on this, Shuja Nawaz’s Crossed Swords, published last year, is valuable). “The threat of a jihadi takeover of Pakistan is remote,” writes Ali, although the threat itself is a productive way for the enfeebled elite to remain in power, and to mercilessly bomb the civilian inhabitants of the frontier areas that border Afghanistan.
Musharraf is now gone, but his successors remain familiar: the Houses of Bhutto and Sharif are firmly back in the saddle. Traditions of democracy and social justice persist in Pakistan, and it is these that drove the civil-society protests undertaken by a broad cross-section, extending from judges and lawyers to farmers and fisherfolk and others, in 2007. This is the other history “that refuses to be repressed”, in Tariq Ali’s words, try as the powerful may to suppress it.