Pakistan’s plight and what needs to be done

Ramaswamy R. Iyer

It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the democratic experiment in Pakistan has failed but is there not a grain of truth in that statement? In this difficult situation, democratic India, specifically the media, civil society, and the intellectual community, can work to make a constructive difference.

Readers who are inclined to ask what the ‘plight’ of Pakistan is and why we should worry about it are requested to suspend judgment for a while and read on.

In a sense, the ‘plight’ of Pakistan is very good: it has brought off a diplomatic coup of sorts. Not long ago, the world responded with horror and dismay to the terrorist attack on Mumbai, sympathised with India in its hour of grief, agreed with it that the trail of terror led to places and organisations in Pakistan, and joined it in asking Pakistan to act against the sources of terror in that country. Pakistan has managed to get out of that awkward situation cleverly.

By pretending to be the injured party, frightening its people with the imminence of an Indian attack, and mobilising them to ‘defend Pakistan to the last drop of their blood,’ creating a fierce war hysteria and raising the temperature, Pakistan has shifted international attention away from the attack on Mumbai and its sources. It has revived old anxieties about the possibility of war between two nuclear-armed countries. Even our ‘friends’ have begun to advise both India and Pakistan to observe restraint. Pakistan gleefully announces that “our common friends are trying to defuse tension.” India and Pakistan have been neatly equated. Now Pakistan itself is sanctimoniously calling for de-escalation. It has successfully out-manoeuvred India.

However, consider the change within Pakistan. The initial civilised official Pakistani statements of shock and promises of cooperation changed to negativism (‘Pakistan not involved’; ‘Where is the evidence?’). Outside the government, Nawaz Sharif, who had earlier called for introspection, made a second statement very different from the first and closer to the government line. The Pakistani media turned angry. Prompt and spontaneous expressions of sympathy and solidarity with the people of India by ordinary citizens and intellectuals in Pakistan were overtaken by an upsurge of nationalist fervour and a return to perceptions of India as the enemy.

Anti-India feelings swept the country. The people of Pakistan, who had been critical of army rule and had voted for democracy, suddenly seemed to place nationalism first: all kinds and categories of people seemed to close ranks behind the flag. Even Pervez Musharraf, during whose presidency Pakistan’s relations with India did improve to some extent, found it necessary to caution India that Pakistan could defend itself against attacks; doubtless he wanted to demonstrate conformity to the prevailing national mood.

How did this volte face happen? Leaving aside relatively superficial explanations such as the contention that the hysterical broadcasts by the Indian TV channels in the early stages caused anger, or that the world’s accusing finger made Pakistan uncomfortable and then angry and that defensiveness turned into aggressive nationalist assertion, we must look deeper.

Consider the outcome in Pakistan: the incipient democracy has become fragile; the newly elected civilian government has been crippled; the fight against the Taliban and the extremists, if it was ever serious, has been suspended, and the Taliban has offered to fight alongside the army; the Pakistani army and the ISI have become stronger; and ‘civil society’ has been rendered virtually irrelevant (or so it would seem). It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the democratic experiment in Pakistan has failed and that the country is back under army rule, but is there not a grain of truth in that statement?

One does not wish to suggest that there was a carefully engineered plan to bring about precisely this result. But one can certainly say that the developments in Pakistan suit the army and the ISI very well. The Pakistani army chief must be chuckling to himself and echoing Cromwell’s famous words: “the Lord God hath delivered them into my hands.” Judging from the results, the attack on Mumbai seems to have been a boon to the Pakistan army and the ISI: nothing better could have happened from their point of view. The unfortunate people of Pakistan are unaware that they have been cynically manipulated.

Against this background, what should India do? There has been a good deal of discussion of the options open to the Government of India and an abundance of advice. This article does not propose to add to it. Instead, it wants to focus on what civil society, the media, and the intellectual community can do.

The situation is pretty unpromising now. The Pakistani media are angry with their Indian colleagues, and civil society in Pakistan has for the present been marginalised. However, all is not lost. The Pakistani media have many perceptive and independent commentators, and at least some of them must be feeling uncomfortable at having been unwittingly co-opted by the army. There must also be many thinkers, social activists and campaigners for human rights, women’s rights, and so on, who are appalled at the virtual collapse of the democratic experiment and anxious to do something about it.

This writer would strongly urge our media to remove misunderstandings and re-establish the kind of relationship that used to exist not long ago between them and their Pakistani counterparts. It is also necessary for our civil society institutions and individuals who have in the past been active in promoting people-to-people contacts not to abandon that effort in despair, but to look for opportunities to do whatever they can to pursue those initiatives.

Why is this important? The answer is that in the long run, India and Pakistan have no option but to learn to live together in harmony, or at any rate with an absence of disharmony. The strengthening of some kind of democratic rule in Pakistan is important not merely for the welfare of that country but also for sensible relations with India. Six decades of indoctrination and the poisoning of people’s minds with manufactured history and anti-India venom need to be undone. That is among the important long-term answers to the problem of terrorism directed against India from Pakistani sources.

It is difficult enough to bring that about even in a democratic Pakistan; it would be much more so in a Pakistan run by the army, assuming that a military government would want to do this. We must do what we can towards that long-term objective of harmony.

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