State of the FATWAT

Issue 21 - Dec 2008

Salil Tripathi


IT MAY seem incredibly arrogant to wonder about Pakistan’s fate when the city of my birth—the one I still call Bombay—is in flames. But such is my task as I reflect on two recent books about Pakistan–my former colleague Ahmed Rashid’s book, Descent Into Chaos, which is an account of the post-9/11 history of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and The Duel, Tariq Ali’s polemical take on the state of Pakistan, in particular its relations with the United States.

Pakistanis have some justification in wondering at the apparently disproportionate attention: why does an attack on their premier hotel—the Marriott in Islamabad in September—lead people to question Pakistan’s future, when a similar attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in late November—does not provoke such a reaction about India. Is it due to a bias? Or smugness?

Mr Ali’s book offers some answers. While he is not a fan of India’s democrats, he values its democracy. He recognises early, that unlike Pakistan’s leaders, India’s founding fathers had earned the credibility of the masses by leading the country’s freedom struggle. They went to jail, and in the eyes of millions of Indians, they were heroes. In contrast, Pakistan’s leaders had not earned such adoration from the people, and as Mr Ali points out, few had a coherent idea of what a faith-based nation-state might look like. (Some wanted separation in order to avoid being dominated by Hindu businessmen; others had not thought through the impact of Muslim migrants who would come from India.) And because they had no mass base, it became easy for the military to intervene whenever it willed. The result is a debased polity. 

An unaccountable military was able to divert resources to its uses, and the venality and corruption of its civilian leaders made many Pakistanis hanker for the firm rule of the army. With neither the military nor the politicians able to provide a moral core, many Pakistanis turned to the people Mr Ali refers to as “bearded lunatics”, or fundamentalists. The result has been catastrophic dysfunctionality.

And that dysfunctional nature is responsible for the chaos that prevails over Pakistan’s western border. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 gave some Pakistani generals the access and power they had not dreamt of—of being able to dictate events way beyond their borders, driving in “unmarked cars” and armed with “a packet of Dunhill”, as the novelist Mohammed Haneef memorably describes Pakistan’s ISI. Some felt proud in creating a genie they’d hopefully tame —the Taliban—the others delighted in being “pin-up generals” from Leavenworth, as Mr Ali describes them.

Mr Rashid does not forecast a break-up of Pakistan, but the future he describes is bleak. Mr Ali has been forecasting Pakistan’s break-up for a long time now—since the 1980s, when after the separation of Bangladesh, he asked: Can Pakistan Survive? (For those sins, his books were banned in Pakistan). Not daunted by that, he has continued to raise questions about Pakistan’s future, challenging the government and exposing its follies.