Rising, uprising Pakistan

Maruf Khwaja
13 May 2007

It would be tempting to explain away the latest turn in the continuing Pakistani saga of survival by saying that the cauldron which had been simmering on relatively low heat for a number of years has merely come to the boil. Iraq has so inured us to mass death by bombs and bullets that a mere forty-one dead (at the time of writing) in the course of a violent weekend in Karachi barely turns a head. It is true that unresolved matters cannot long remain so - and that something big has soon got to give. But such simplifications do not do credit to Pakistan, probably the most complex geopolitical entity of our time. As the blood on the streets dries, some of the complexity needs to be untangled.

Maruf Khwaja was born in India, was raised in Pakistan, has travelled and worked around the world, and now lives in England. He has been a journalist for forty years, and is the author of an unpublished autobiography, Being Pakistani

A full list of Maruf Khwaja's writings on openDemocracy:

"The Indian media: a response to Page and Crawley"
(9 August 2001)

"The suicide of fundamentalism"
(14 September 2001)

"India and Pakistan: states of mind, contests of perception"
(23 January 2002)

"Exploring the death wish" (17 April 2002)

"The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

"India and Pakistan: the cricket test"
(18 March 2004)

"Becoming Pakistani" (14 August 2004)

"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(28 July 2005)

"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures"
(2 August 2005)

"The growth of religious diversity: Britain from 1945 by Gerald Parsons"
(15 September 2005)

"Pakistan's mountain tsunami"
(11 October 2005)

"The Baluchi battlefront"
(1 February 2006)

"The Islamisation of Pakistan"
(12 April 2006)

"The veil of political Islam"
(13 November 2006)

"After Mumbai: back to the brink?"
(13 July 2007)

For there are many cauldrons on the boil in the troubled "land of the pure", as a brief list indicates:

  • the judiciary crisis, sparked by President Pervez Musharraf's suspension of the chief justice of the supreme court, Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhry, on 9 March 2007 - whose fallout includes the killings among rival groups on the streets of Karachi on 12-13 May
  • the older degh (pot) of the Taliban/al-Qaida insurgency, whose overflow into Pakistani society threatens to match the scale of those in Iraq and Afghanistan (only Pakistan is five times bigger in terms of the religious-political dynamite it contains)
  • tension on the Afghan border itself with erstwhile "allies" in the "war on terror" arrayed against each other; skirmishes between the neighbouring armies over a revived border dispute have taken a dozen lives
  • the Baluchistan uprising continues to send out smoke signals from blown-up pipelines
  • domestic political ferment caused both by continuing denial of a proper political process and of underhand government support and encouragement to both Islamic and secular hardliners to further harass and intimidate the opposition (so that if the scheduled October 2007 elections are ever held, they will be won by the military's stooges in at least the two larger provinces).

This combination of crises supports the prediction of many political analysts that 2007 is indeed proving to be the make-or-break year for General Pervez Musharraf. But if the leader's margin of manoeuvre is diminishing by the day, the reasons lie as much in the deep structures of Pakistani politics as in these diverse political difficulties. Musharraf might in principle be able to turn down the heat of one, several or even all these cauldrons. What he cannot do is address their source, which is - ultimately - the problem of Pakistan itself.

Behind the image

A new Pakistani satellite channel has joined the Tower of Babel in the skies over Europe, beaming government propaganda in the wake of the national logo across which flash the euphoric words "Rising Pakistan". For people like myself (a twice-over refugee, who has known only a "falling" Pakistan), the slogan looks like a feeble attempt to dispel painful images of a fragmenting country. In the vanguard of the project is the saviour-strongman Musharraf himself, whose projection of himself as a figure of stability and moderation to a sceptical world contrasts with his policy blend of cowardice and brutality in the domestic arena.

Musharraf can beat an abject retreat before the rampaging female jihadis of Jamia Hafsa demanding "instant Islam" ("They are our mothers and sisters in those burqas. Do you want me to kill them?"). Yet he has no compunction in sanctioning the disappearance without trace of innocent people, the firing on or torturing to death of Baluchi and Sindhi ethno-nationalists, or sacking the highest judge in the land for daring to ask where the disappeared folk have gone and why.

The contradictions between Musharraf's image and reality are, however, only the surface of Pakistan's dilemma. The conflicts raging across different levels of its society, more intense and hate-fuelled than ever, make the slogan "uprising Pakistan" more appropriate than "rising Pakistan" to describe the country's current condition. A state better known for its leaders' false promises, empty rhetoric, penchant for easy money and ready subservience to army takeovers has earned the description "failed". After sixty years of parlous, lurching existence it is its army and its possession of the atomic bomb (an Islamic one at that) that defines Pakistan's credentials to modern nationhood more than its achievement of any progressive social or political goals. As if that were not enough, it now has the Taliban on its side.

Pakistan's confrontations are deep and widespread: they pit government against (ineffectual) opposition, army against civil society, mullahs against laity, fundamentalists against radicals, progressives against conservatives, lawyers against a captive judiciary, ethno-nationalists against ultra-nationalists - while the Taliban-al-Qaida alliance is waging war on the world at large from its Pakistani redoubts.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Musharraf’s predicament, Pakistan's agony"
(5 September 2006)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan on edge"
(25 September 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: zero-sum games people play"
(6 December 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (19 March 2007)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state"
(12 April 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: sliding into anarchy"
(26 April 2007Most lethally of all, they pit the Sunni among Pakistan's 160 million people against its 30 million Shi'a. Murders and assassinations involving these groups continue. People are asking: how long before Iraq comes to Pakistan?In the west the Baluchi insurrection is gathering momentum. Baluch nationalists have recently discovered the suicide-bomb, and the gas-fields and pipelines there remain vulnerable. The northern quarter of the country is no longer in government hands: the Taliban-al-Qaida alliance rules most of the North West Frontier Province, while pro-Taliban Waziris seem to have got the better of their Uzbek guest-fighters in Waziristan, as the pact with the Pakistan army to let the Waziris be seems to be back in place.

Meanwhile, the western borders with Afghanistan remain porous - as they have to be, for smuggling is the livelihood of most inhabitants of the "tribal belt", and to facilitate that open borders are a prerequisite. The tribals don't like Musharraf's attempt to concretise the Durand line (the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan established by the British in 1893) any more than they care for Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. What Pakistani soldiers build overnight is therefore dismantled the next morning by Afghan askaris.

This continuing little drama hides a harsher reality. Karzai's endless complaints about lack of Pakistani cooperation in stopping Taliban infiltration is a cover for the revival of an old Afghan imperial ambition. Karzai - like his predecessors since before the Soviet occupation in 1979 - doesn't want the border fixed as Durand did; he wants it moved to the Baluchi coast. In the guise of wanting to re-unite Pashtun tribes split by the divison, he is looking for a "greater Afghanistan". With Musharraf's unwitting help he might yet get it.

A disappearing polity

The unresolved standoff with the chief justice and the escalation of violence in Karachi means that Musharraf is badly cornered. His characteristic response is to manipulate, even to the extent of being prepared to bargain in secret with Pakistan's permanent prime-minister-in-waiting, Benazir Bhutto. But rumours of a "done deal" involving the dropping of the corruption charges that deter Bhutto from returning to Pakistan were almost fatal to the ambitious ex-prime minister; Musharraf is poison to any sensible politician looking for a future in government.

What remains of the constitution is in tatters. So is the judiciary's credibility as a bulwark against injustice, the lawyers' valiant struggle on behalf of Choudhry notwithstanding. Pakistan's is a chronic litigant culture. People are no fools and lawyers no angels. But the disenfranchised political parties can do little more than hang onto their black coat-tails as the latter protest in the streets.

Elsewhere and everywhere, the lunatic fringe of Islam challenges the government. Its outrages multiply. A women federal minister is shot dead by a mullah for not wearing a headscarf (the third woman he shot in two years); the women of an Islamic school next to the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) are allowed to riot with impunity before the government is shamed into "action" (while imploring the culprits for a dialogue, then effectively capitulating to their demands).

In all this, there is one slender reed of optimism. It lies in the tenuous freedoms acquired by the new Pakistani media, manifested in a jungle of satellite television channels which have opened a completely new window on Pakistan. For the first time in their history Pakistanis are able to see themselves flaws and all, while ordinary people are expressing themselves with unprecedented candour. As hourly debates on "current affairs" push even pop-music programmes into second place, everything is being scrutinised and commented upon - albeit with a desperate keenness that suggests that people have little faith it will last long. For the first time, the demand for "more Islam" is being publicly resisted. The battle for Pakistan's soul and its future as a nation is being fought over in its rampant media. Politics, the state, and its doctrinal fetishes have failed Pakistanis - but their voices are not yet silenced.

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