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Whither goest thou, Saleem Shahzad’s Pakistan June 3, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Kumar, Vikas, Pakistan , trackback

Vikas Kumar

In January, when Ahmed Rashid commented on “Pakistan’s very unhappy new year” little did we know that Osama bin Laden would be found “hiding in plain sight” in a safe house in a garrison town close to Islamabad. Osama’s death, the subsequent “revenge” attacks, and the ongoing trial of Tahawwur Rana in the United States have put Pakistan under the spotlight like never before. But public debate has focussed entirely on the international implications of terrorist camps in Pakistan and what the international community can do to save a failing nuclear power from itself. There is hardly any discussion on whether Pakistan can save itself. And if we ignore apologists for extremists, who believe that the world rather than Pakistan has to change, then even domestic debate within Pakistan has only highlighted the impossibility of change or at least change from within. Honestly speaking, one cannot be blamed for being pessimistic about Pakistan, particularly after the gruesome murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative journalist who was probing the relationship between the state and extremists.

The prospect of Deobandi-Wahhabi extremists taking over the Pakistani state is now giving sleepless nights to policy-makers across the world. But is it indeed time to conclude that domestic resistance to international terrorism and Islamic extremism breeding within Pakistan is impossible and the feared takeover is inevitable? Not yet, because the demographic mosaic of Pakistan rules out the possibility of countrywide dominance of extremists. Let us begin with religion. The Shias account for about a fifth of Pakistan’s population and a bewildering variety of small, heterodox Islamic communities dots the south-western, western, and northern borders of Pakistan. But even among Sunnis, the Deobandis and related Wahhabi extremists have a smaller following than their arch rivals, the Barelvis, and other traditionalist Sunni communities that are at home with Sufism.

Ethno-linguistic diversity complicates the scene further. Punjab dwarfs all other provinces in terms of population. However, Punjab is not a monolith and is divided between Punjabi and Seraiki speakers. Sind, Pakistan’s second largest province, which is proud of its rich heritage that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilization, is not that small either. This results in polarization or at least limits homogenization. The ethnic minorities that account for two-fifths of Pakistan’s population occupy more than three-fourths of its area. Noteworthy are the Balochs, who account for less than 5 per cent of the population but are spread across almost half of Pakistan. The Baloch territory is rich in a variety of natural resources (like natural gas, coal, copper, and gold) and contains almost three-fourths of Pakistan’s coastline, home to key naval bases. But the Balochs have never been at peace with Islamic nationalists and extremists from Punjab. The late Nawab Akbar Bugti, a well known spokesperson of Baloch interests killed by the Pakistani army, is known to have said, “I have been a Baloch for several centuries. I have been a Muslim for 1400 years. I have been a Pakistani for just over 50”. Ironically, the national language Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 10 per cent Pakistanis, mostly mohajirs (lit. partition refugees from North India), is under threat from provincial languages in a nation-state forged among other things to protect Urdu.

Unsurprisingly, the Punjab and NWFP-based Deobandi-Wahhabi extremists, who favour Urdu and Arabic, find it difficult to penetrate Shia, Barelvi, and Sufi communities across Pakistan and the provinces of Sind and Balochistan, which together account for more than half of Pakistan’s area and population and almost its entire strategic depth vis-a-vis India.

The bulwark provided by the ethno-linguistic mosaic is buttressed by cultural diversity. There is a rich and thriving variety of liberal voices in the cultural sphere, which the Deobandi-Wahhabi extremists can never penetrate due to their dislike for South Asian languages (other than Urdu) and un-South Asian aversion to beauty and music. For instance, deeply syncretic Sufi vocalists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen and their pop counterparts like Salman Ahmed and Atif Aslam transcend religions and languages and have a far greater fan following in Pakistan (in fact, South Asia) than slash-and-burn mullahs. Abida’s Bulleh Shah reminds us of the Pakistanis for whom the constitutional establishment of Islam is an avoidable evil because neither they are Sunni nor Shia, but their heart burns for both. In a dry land, where all signs of happiness are lost, they are immersed in an ocean of compassion. Ghulam Ali’s Hungama against the mullahs reminds them of the truism that religion exists because of and for us. And, contrary to stereotypes these liberal and progressive voices make themselves heard in Pakistan because after the celebrated Marxist-poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz they do not complain if someone snatches their ink and pen for like Saleem Shahzad they have dipped their fingers in the blood of their hearts.

These other Pakistanis are not exceptions rather they are exemplars of a different Pakistan that celebrated the 75th martyrdom day of Lala Lajpat Rai (2003) by naming a street after him in Quetta, the city that allegedly hosts the Taliban leaders after their ignominious ouster from Kandahar. More recently, this Pakistan commissioned its first Sikh officer in the army (2007). He was commissioned in the town of Abbottabad, where Osama was found “hiding”, by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who is now unwilling to dispense with “pliable” terrorist assets. This Pakistan continues to cheer non-Muslim cricketers. It is a different matter that one might have to convert to Islam to become the team’s captain. It also inducted a non-Muslim as a federal cabinet minister for minority affairs (2008), whose campaign for amendment to the archaic blasphemy laws led to his daylight assassination earlier this year. Despite being forced to renounce modern education it steers clear of madrasas.

Pakistan is an end in itself for these other Pakistanis. Not because they are Muslims and Pakistan is an Islamic state but because it is their nation and now it is too late to change labels. The song Yeh Mera Pakistan (This dear country of mine) in the rock band Jal’s album Boondh poignantly reminds us of the pain of the other Pakistans that “want a better future, just like us”, which have been systematically suppressed by the Pakistani state chasing geo-strategic mirages. On the other hand, Pakistan is merely a nuclear shield, a means to a larger goal for the extremists. Interestingly, the extremists were not in favour of formation of Pakistan. It was the secular leadership under Jinnah that championed the cause of Pakistan. But once formed, Pakistan provided a constitutionally and militarily secured laboratory to the extremists, who lost no time to realize what an opportunity it was.

In fact, like Israel, Pakistan is one of the very few modern states formed in the name of religion. The founding fathers of these states were secularist. However, over time both states acquired pathological objectives and now find it difficult to be at peace with themselves or their neighbours. But unlike Pakistani extremists, the growing ultra-orthodox groups in Israel are constrained because the secular elite are the key to the West, whose support is indispensable for the Jewish nation’s survival. More importantly, the Jewish secular elite are as old as any of their Western counterparts. But in Pakistan the secular elite was small to begin with, had hardly any historical roots, and was new to (West) Pakistan as most of them had migrated from India in the late 1940s and 1950s. The novelty and demographic and historical insignificance of the secular elite in Pakistan severely constrained their capacity to make Nehru-Gandhian demands of their countrymen. But what is unfortunate is the ease with which they compromised to perpetuate their position at the cost of socio-economic development of their country.

Unsurprisingly, to an outsider the Land of Pure is a land of contradictions, an impenetrable chaos. But the contradictions and chaos arise in the first place because no group can permanently suppress others, which should be a cause of hope for the well-wishers of Pakistan. But people in the countries affected by international Islamic terrorism understandably do not have patience for these nuances and justifiably demand a quick-fix solution. And their leaders equally justifiably fumble for an appropriate response. If the moderates are offered an olive branch the extremists conveniently hide behind them. However, if force is deployed against extremists the moderates fight at the forefront in the name of nation.

Unfortunately, it is not clear if and how we can support or promote a secular, nationalist resistance in a way that does not end up boosting the extremists. However, if one is prepared to accept that Pakistan’s demographic-cultural mosaic is a persistent constraint on the ability of extremists to dominate the sixth most populous country of the world then one should have faith in the possibility of domestic resistance to extremism. As long as Pakistan is chaotic and abounds in contradictions there is reason to be optimistic of its unaided recovery. At least, I am optimistic. Those who have lost heart due to the unfortunate developments of the last few decades forget that a few decades is nothing in the history of a people.


1. Sarthak Gaurav - June 6, 2011

Quite a brilliant exposition of how the existence of socio-cultural diversities can counter the overrun of a chaotic state by extremist forces. Fundamental lessons in understanding how identities are forms, beliefs are sustained and how multiple equilibria and disequlibria co-exist in the real world. The blend of contemporary and historical factors in analyzing the imbroglio in Pakistan is indeed an eyeopener. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this wholesome piece that is informative to the core. Great job!

2. Nagendra Kumar Maurya, Assistant Professor - June 11, 2011

A country formed on the basis of religion, will not be able to setup a secular state. However, culture, traditions and languages are such forces which check extrimists to fulfill their ambitions. An excellent description of current state of Pakistan.