‘Pakistan is likely to continue its state of stable instability,’ says historian Farzana S...

‘Pakistan is likely to continue its state of stable instability,’ says historian Farzana Shaikh

Pakistan knows what it stands against, but what it stands for remains obscure, says the London-based historian and author of ‘Making Sense of Pakistan’

Pakistan is often called a “security state”, one in which the army has a country rather than a country having an army. Farzana Shaikh, London-based historian and author of ‘Making Sense of Pakistan’, however, argues that Pakistan’s problem is that it is an “insecurity state”, defined more by what it is opposed to than what it stands for. Excerpts:

How does one understand the events of the past few weeks in Pakistan? The Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, but protests broke out and she couldn’t be freed. Prime Minister Imran Khan said he wouldn’t bow to extremists, but the government caved in and signed an agreement with them.

Well, the judiciary is just one branch of the state. While the acquittal was a landmark judgment which should have been praised, but without an act of Parliament changing the blasphemy laws and [making them] less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that led to Asia Bibi’s incarceration for more than a decade, we will have many more such cases. Parliament and the government must support this judgment, heed the message they have sent out that the law itself is flawed and open to abuse. Instead, there is abject capitulation. Mr. Khan is making a habit of making grand, progressive statements and following them up by backtracking. We saw this over the appointment of Atif Mian as an economic adviser, when the government made him step down within three days after protests from extremists. Similarly, he promised to bring the “might of the state” to bear on those questioning the judgment, and within days his government caved in and signed a peace agreement, which was just an “appease agreement” with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) promising not to oppose a review petition against Asia Bibi’s acquittal and move to stop her from leaving the country to where her family is. The TLP hasn’t stopped its threats despite that.

Such surrenders have been seen in the past too, so what is new now? Is Pakistan heading towards becoming a full theocracy, like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?

I don’t think so. I don’t see the state being taken over by a Taliban-type clergy. Pakistan is not Afghanistan, for better or for worse. The military will not countenance the prospect, nor would the international community. There is some truth in the old adage about Pakistan being “too important to fail” which its leaders have used to their advantage. It is a nuclear weapons state in a tough neighbourhood, and the great powers are deeply engaged with Pakistan for Afghanistan. There is a sense of frustration with Pakistan, but it is unlikely to change that engagement drastically in the short to medium term. Pakistan is, in fact, likely to continue its state of ‘stable instability’, which is built into its structure because of the perennial tension between the military and the political classes, and that of Islam’s relationship with the state.

Yet the contradiction remains, that religious parties haven’t won a large majority of votes in any election, including the most recent one this year?

They don’t win many seats. But ultimately it doesn’t matter much, because they have the clout to set national agendas, as we are seeing at present with the Asia Bibi case. The reason they can do that is that mainstream parties are now appropriating the discourse of the religious right. The manifesto and campaign of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and also the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and to a lesser degree the Pakistan Peoples Party on issues like blasphemy and women… their stance is indistinguishable from extremists. On issues like blasphemy which are seen as the index of the good Muslim against the bad Muslim, we see mainstream political parties using the language of political Islam. So instead of religious parties entering the electoral fray, we must look at so-called moderate mainstream parties radicalising their discourse.

Is Pakistan’s creation the heart of the problem? That a state built on religion alone, and I think Pakistan and Israel are always used as examples of that, is structurally problematic?

Structural constraints are one part of it, but culture, which is much more difficult to analyse, is a bigger part. You could argue that Pakistan’s civil-military tension stems from the fact that it was a small country next to a powerful, hostile neighbour. The perceived threat from India gave Pakistan’s military an importance it may not have enjoyed otherwise. You might say that that was the case in Israel as well, but it didn’t go the same way because Israel’s political classes at the beginning, like David Ben-Gurion, etc, subscribed to a secularism that set a different foundation for that country, one that understood that civilian supremacy was paramount in a way that didn’t happen in Pakistan. The military took power much too early in Pakistan’s history for democracy to have the same effect, and became not just a political player but one that was able to use politics to increase its economic reach and become a corporate entity with significant assets as well.

Even so, unlike perhaps in other military regimes, the Pakistani military appears to have also had a tradition of institutional stability, and each Army Chief, regardless of how powerful he seems at the helm, eventually hands over to the next one. How do you explain that? So General Pervez Musharraf, General Ashfaq Kayani, General Raheel Sharif seem extremely in control, until one way or the other they demit office.

Well, Gen. Musharraf did falter and stay on. But this is an important point. Every time a new chief takes over, we are told that he will be different, more committed to democracy, peace, and so forth. And then he seems much the same as the previous ones. The military institution is much stronger than the chief. A maverick like Gen. Musharraf who tried to mould the institution was eventually slapped down from within the military. The unity and coordination of the Corps Commanders is truly impressive and the institution must not be underestimated. This is not the army of a banana republic, this is a hugely sophisticated operation run by men who have honed the politics they play to a fine art as well.

In your book, you say that no foreign policy for Pakistan is more central than the relationship with India. Yet, we now have seen a decade without any sort of substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan. Is there any pressure inside Pakistan to change that, to try to accommodate India’s concerns on terrorism, for example?

Yes, it is unprecedented that there have been no talks for a decade, and I must say I am pessimistic that that will change. I think both India and Pakistan are in a difficult position over talks. The past experience of talks, the rebuffs, the impact of local politics and elections… and frankly no one has come up with a way to break this deadlock. Many ask about third party mediation, especially over Kashmir. But Kashmir is not just a territorial dispute, Kashmir is very fundamentally tied to the self-image, the identities of India and Pakistan. India sees retaining Kashmir as vital to its secular credentials. Whatever Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh maintain, India’s secular Constitution aspires to be the law for everyone: Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. In Pakistan, its claim to be built as a nation representing Muslim India is compromised by not having Kashmir, and it is seen as the unfinished business of Partition. Jinnah didn’t give Kashmir much attention until it was too late because he expected it would fall into Pakistan’s lap. He was more interested in the borders of Punjab and Bengal, and dealing with the internal tensions in Sindh and Pashtun areas. All of this is to say that even if a third party were to get involved, it would go nowhere. At the government level, I think it is a hopeless situation. But I was interested by a piece I read here that advocated allowing visas to Pakistanis to visit India. India can then create a lobby in Pakistan that would counter the hypernationalism narrative borne out of ignorance of India. And vice-versa. If they can relax visa regimes, we might see some change, but at the level of the two states, I can’t see any shift. If a decade has gone without talks, who can tell if another decade won’t also pass the same way. There is also the issue of Afghanistan, where Pakistan will not budge. The truth is, regardless of Trump’s threats, or Russia and China’s interventions, the source of the problem in Afghanistan is the conflict between India and Pakistan. Everything else is a sideshow.

Is there a way of handling Pakistan on the issue of terrorism? The world, including India, appears to have tried every tack, from incentives to threats and financial pressure, but with little success. How does one “make sense of Pakistan” on this issue?

There is no one single formula. Many like to refer to Pakistan as a “security state”, one dominated by the military. But I choose to describe it as an “insecurity state”, one that is profoundly unsure and uncertain of itself. We know what we stand against, that is India. But what we stand for remains obscure and is a subject of contestation. That is extraordinary. The phrase “nationalism without nation” encapsulates this negative identity Pakistan has, of the opposite to India. We were led to believe that Islam would be the cohesive force, but as we have seen, religion is the source of division in Pakistan.

As far as terror groups are concerned, look at one example. Both the U.S. and other countries like China have said they won’t help Pakistan with its debt repayment crisis. But that means Imran Khan had to go and speak to Saudi Arabia. Now, Ahl-e-Hadith groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad receive support from Saudi Arabia. And it was noticed that the ban on them was lifted just about the same time it promised the government a bailout. So in these circumstances, one has to consider the benefit of taking a hard line and dropping out of Pakistan. On Pakistan, therefore, you need joined-up and united thinking in the world than on any other problem, and unfortunately joined-up thinking is in short supply at present.

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