Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven

Pakistan: A Hard Country


I had known of this book as it was being 'recommended' to me on Flipkart and maybe even Amazon but had decided against buying or reading it as had already done some amount of reading on Pakistan in Tinderbox, Pax Indica and Moderate or Militant. But fate, that slithery force, makes things happen despite of one's contrary decisions. The library in my office building had this stocked up right in front in the 'Management' section. Management? Probably in the hope that some political leader will come and pick this up to learn about how to or how not to manage a country. Dashed hopes apart, I picked it up.

"'Pak' in turn means 'pure' in Urdu, and so Pakistan was to be 'The Land of the Pure'", Anatol writes commenting on the idea of the Muslim state and adding that the term was coined by Rehmat Ali, and Indian Muslim student in Britain in 1933 in Urdu, "which started as the military dialect of the Muslim armies of the Indian subcontinent in the Middle Ages". The introduction of the book tries to hard to slice the commonly held 'wrong' perceptions about Pakistan. Various points discussed in the Introduction are debatable, but few are worth mentioning here. Anatol writes, "support for extremist and terrorist groups is scattered throughout Pakistani society and mass support for Islamist rebellion is present only in the Pathan areas - less than 5 per cent of the population". That seems like a valid point - the media especially after 9-11 and the
Afghanistan debacle has unnecessarily painted the 'whole of Pakistan' as extremist which is ready to take up arms at the whiff of a whistle against its enemies - whether USA or India. He says that the when terrorist attacks on India gain support amongst Pakistani mainstream it happens because of Muslim nationalism rather than Islamic extremism - again a valid point. He outlines three reasons that could lead to the overthrow of a state and that India shouldn't be very happy about it as it will lead to anarchy there and its diffusion here - a point well made and also cogently argued for in Shashi Tharoor's Pax Indica. The author says Pakistan is far more important than Afghanistan or Iraq right now because of the tentacles of extremists emerging out of Pakistan and the tightly knit community in UK. Possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan is a major deterrent for USA to attack Pakistan to force it to tighten the noose on Afghanistan. But the flaw begins right here. Is it too difficult to see that USA-Pakistan arms trade is, in no small measure, significant: $5.2 billion during FY 2002-FY2011 and has funded and trained more than 2000 Pakistani military officers (as per the latest Congressional Research paper here) and has recently issued a fresh waiver for arms trade with Pakistan. So would USA want to attack its own market? No. Then Anatol proceeds to debunk the theory that says that Pakistan will disintegrate the way it did in 1971. He says that the majority of the reason for that having happened is India rather than the ethnic and cultural differences that existed between the East and West of Pakistan. He doesn't disregard the differences in totality, but rather says that the grouping together of these two disparate regions divided by a 1000 miles of hostile India was a colossal mistake. But for a second, lets assume that India did not have a hand in the 1971 war - then would Bangladesh have been East Pakistan today as well? Meager chances if at all.

The author describes how Pakistan is a weak state and a strong society (a very similar argument was in Gurcharan Das' book). He says that like in most of South Asia, in Pakistan as well the majority of political parties are dynastic, "PPP (Pakistan People's Party) is the party of the Bhutto family; the PML(N) (Pakistan Muslim League) is that of the Sharif family; and the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Frontier is the party of the Wali Khan family". The weak state part I understand bu the strong society part, when applied to Pakistan, I don't. If the term would have been applied in the historical sense when India was undivided could have been apt and correct, but in the aftermath of Partition and given the way Pakistan's institutions function it is hard to believe. He explains how kinship has played a much stronger role in loyalties and has acted in the way of state building (just like in China as vividly detailed in Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order). But he takes support of a very irrelevant and amateurish example to prove it: that a menial person in northern India who may be in a position to help or harm you is addressed as Bhai-sahib. The origins of the coming together of the terms Bhai and Sahib may have been because of this, but today, in common parlance, the term Bhai-sahib is only used to call someone out with respect and not as a token of addressing someone as Lord! Anatol almost defends the dictators of Pakistan when he says that "a tiny handful of politicians have ever been executed in Pakistan" and the dictatorial standards have been mild when compared to elsewhere. He draws lot of comparisons between the brutality of corrupt institutions in India and Pakistan, and which to a great extent is true. He also covers the economy of Pakistan and its shortcomings (which is a much welcome analysis - because MJ Akbar totally ignored it in his Tinderbox and focused only on the narrative); the water crisis coupled with the burgeoning population ticker. He compares the Sayyids and Qureishis, "being (ostensibly) descendents of the Prophet and his clan", to the Brahmins of Hindu society in terms of their role and status.

Anatol draws the conclusion that because Islam was at it's glorious and magnificent peak before the British came to South Asia, which resulted in the former's decline, for the Muslims "to accept a subordinate position in what they saw as a future Hindu-dominated India".  This interpretation is again wrong - first, Jinnah and Muslim League gained substantial voter base only in 1942 and thereafter, until which they were not capable enough of dissecting the country into two. Had this been the case the Muslim League would have garnered huge support from the beginning itself. Second, though the roots of the division and creation of Pakistan had much older roots starting from mid-eighteenth century, but the culmination resulted only at the hands of Jinnah - and it is not very difficult to conclude from authoritative accounts elsewhere that Gandhi was tired of the fights of Jinnah and Nehru and reluctantly agreed, or rather didn't prevent or do enough, to prevent the division. Also, the clash of egos between Nehru and Jinnah is mentioned in most of the comprehensive historical accounts. His interpretation that Congress did not accept the League after it (Congress) got majority of the votes is biased, but at the same time he says nothing of how the thousands of Hindus who willingly or otherwise stayed back in Pakistan have been the worse of the lot. (Lot of Hindus in India give the reason that Muslims in India should be happy that they are not being made to suffer as much as the Hindus of Pakistan - this, again, is a view of hardliners and is parochial and self-defeating. Surprisingly Javed Akhatar had once questioned Arvind Kejriwal as to why was he being so negative about the state of affairs in India and then he asked him to be happy that he is not in Pakistan, for had he been there he couldn't have even raised his voice. Why would one want to compare one's country (and desire its betterment) with one that is far below it on developmental and other terms? Strange)

Anatol attributes the turning of Pakistan into a theological state to the early deaths of Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. So just by the presence of those two men it would have become secular as envisioned by Jinnah? Would the religious hardliners have never risen up? Unbelievable. And he attributes India's democracy to the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru lived upto the 1960's and formed a political dynasty strong enough to continue after him. Laughable. The basis of creation of Pakistan was religious, while for the struggle for Independence (for an undivided India) wasn't religious - and this has been easily ignored by the author. He says that most of the people are uneducated (and hence too weak) to demand anything from the government - they why is it a strong society? Also, would the government do beneficial programs (in the least positive sens) only when it is demanded from them? Then he compares and clubs Musharraf with Ayub and analyzes Bhutto and Zia separately and their performances. On the Pakistani army, he says it is a very organized, disciplined and honest force. The term "honest" is poles apart from the picture painted by other authors - that the army has a strangulating control over the functioning of the country, from schools to universities (not that such schools are not in India or other countries, but are merit based rather than on sifarish)

But let us not give up on this book so soon. The chapter Justice  is one of the best in the book. It talks about the multiple layers, not necessarily one above the other, that exist in the country. First is the State Law, then Shariah, followed by localized customs (which are as good as laws) like Pakhtunwali (similar to Khap or Panchayat). The role of the police is analyzed through a lens of empathy and a lot of similarities are drawn between the Indian situation and the Pakistani one. The grudgingly slow pace of court cases, the nexus between judges and lawyers, political interference in law cases and the demand of the law machinery for more autonomy - it ain't that different from what we constantly hear in India. I was happy to read this chapter as it made me aware of the unavoidable struggle between the Western concept of law and the South Asian one, which has existed since hundreds of years. But the only disappointing part in this chapter, like in all other chapters, is the frequent comparison of the worse state of affairs (of Pakistan) with bad state of affairs (of India). And it seems like the author is justifying every incorrigible situation in Pakistan by its similarity in India. Probably he is trying to draw out parallels between the two countries and conclude that as India (with all the flaws and inefficiencies) is not disintegrating and is not a failed state, Pakistan (more similar than dissimilar to India) will also not disintegrate and hence is not a failed state.

Rest of the book covers Religion, Military, Politics; then the provinces Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan; and finally Taleban and the Conclusion. The author doesn't surprisingly cover: Education, Media and Economy in Pakistan (though a few tidbits about taxation and business do appear here and there). Reading through the rest of the book it did present a realistic picture of the pull of contrasting forces int the Pakistani society and more or less is accurate in presenting the ground realities. However, the biggest shortcoming of the book lies in its conclusions and comparisons with India. He says that the West should stop conducting wars against the Muslim states whatsoever. The chapters are long with most of them around 40 pages and the narration is drab - but nonetheless informative in most of the places. Some hard-to-believe suggestions in the beginning take away half of the charm of the otherwise good book. If you can separate the chaff from the wheat, this book makes up for a good read on the facts but not so much on the conclusions and Anatol almost appears as an apologetic polemicist. (Not all facts though appear to be correct - he says Pakistan never helped the Taleban in Afghanistan. Maybe the State has never done it directly but through ISI - which has been written about so many times and not in the least by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars. On the conclusions side - he spots neatly dressed couples loitering around in Lahore and says this couldn't have been possible in a 'failed state'. Though he does however convince that Pakistan is not yet a failed state, but the causal observations he writes of are not remotely linked with the state of the State. Ecological disasters - mainly concerning water - and conniving US/India intervention can be the only two sources of a fallible existence of Pakistan, he states.) (Praveen Swami's review of the same book can be read here)

(Please note that I am not an anti-Pakistan Indian bigot who relishes in the failures of Pakistani institutions and the decay of its politics. That for only last six and a half decades have these divisions existed and the commonality of culture and practices have existed for over thousands of years is a fact I very well am aware of. I may dislike the Pakistani State only for the frequent wars with India and the constant threat of extremists wreaking havoc in India, but I don't dislike the people. Pakistan and India are similar on most of the counts, yet different on the others. What differences, if at all, exist amongst the people? All want the same - peace, security and welfare - and this has constantly come out with my interactions with Pakistani citizens on social networking sites. Of course, above the concept of nationalism is the concept of Imagined Communities, which can be discussed some other time.)


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