Fu­tures from His­tory

Pak­istan is con­fronted by enor­mous chal­lenges that can be over­come by a de­ter­mined and ra­tio­nal lead­er­ship. All that is needed is im­prov­ing the state ap­pa­ra­tus.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Il­han Niaz

In or­der to un­der­stand where we are go­ing it is im­per­a­tive that we be cog­nizant of the broader his­tor­i­cal pat­terns that have un­folded on the South Asian can­vas and see how the present sit­u­a­tion stands in com­par­i­son. In broad out­line, the recorded his­tory of South Asia be­gins with the ad­vent of the Mau­ryan dy­nas­tic em­pire around 320 BC and con­tin­ues in patches un­til the rise of the Delhi Sul­tanate in AD 1206. From 1206 on­wards, the record is much bet­ter and im­proves the closer one gets to the con­tem­po­rary era.

What this record re­veals, even in its out­line, is sober­ing if not chill­ing. From 320 BC to the present day, a time span of 2300 years, South Asia has known, at best, 500 years of ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment and rel­a­tive peace. These 500 years cor­re­spond to the peak pe­ri­ods of ma­jor em­pires (Mau­ryas, Gup­tas, Delhi Sul­tanate, Mughals, and the

Bri­tish Raj). The rest is taken up by dif­fer­ent de­grees and kinds of chaos. Closer to home, be­tween AD 1000 and AD 1800, the ter­ri­to­ries that presently com­prise Pak­istan were sub­jected to 70 ma­jor in­va­sions and count­less re­bel­lions and raids.

Even the most dy­namic and ag­gres­sive regimes strug­gled to keep one step ahead of chaos. Ak­bar, for in­stance, crushed 140 plus re­bel­lions dur­ing the first 40 years of his reign. Au­rungzeb spent the bet­ter part of his reign try­ing to crush re­volts in South­ern In­dia. The Bri­tish Raj that even­tu­ally suc­ceeded the Mughals faced con­stant prob­lems along its fron­tiers and re­peated re­bel­lions in the heart­land, in spite of its re­gard for in­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, the rule of law, mer­i­toc­racy, civil­ian supremacy, and its seed­ing of South Asia with the ba­sic pre­req­ui­sites of con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy.

With the ter­mi­na­tion of the Bri­tish Raj in Au­gust 1947, South Asia broke up into war­ring states de­ter­mined to ex­ac­er­bate each other’s in­ter­nal prob­lems even as they failed to cope ef­fec­tively with their own. Since 1947, the gen­eral tra­jec­tory of South Asia is to­wards greater po­lit­i­cal and ad­min­is­tra­tive chaos set against the back­drop of un­sus­tain­able and un­con­trol­lable de­mo­graphic pres­sure. To some ex­tent, the in­sti­tu­tional legacy of the Bri­tish Raj has mit­i­gated the sever­ity of the re­turn to ar­bi­trari­ness and chaos in In­dia. In Pak­istan, how­ever, the sit­u­a­tion is con­sid­er­ably more grim and re­flects the South Asian pat­tern of chaos spread­ing from the out­most re­gions as the cen­ter goes un­der, some­what like a chap­pati be­ing eaten from its edges. For Pak­istan, there are, in this broader con­text, three pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios.

The first, which is al­ready upon us in many re­spects, is that the state ceases to ex­ist as a means of im­prov­ing the lives of its cit­i­zens and de­liv­er­ing pub­lic ser­vices. In this sce­nario an un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal sys­tem ex­hibit­ing high lev­els of corruption and mis­man­age- ment may con­tinue to pre­side over a so­ci­ety in which pub­lic ser­vices are steadily break­ing down. The rich will be able to move into gated com­mu­ni­ties, hire pri­vate se­cu­rity, pro­duce their own util­i­ties, and send their chil­dren and sur­plus cap­i­tal abroad. The rest will stew in their own juices with­out elec­tric­ity, gas, wa­ter, law and or­der, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion/health care, but with mo­bile phones and tele­vi­sions to com­mu­ni­cate and heighten their per­cep­tion of de­pri­va­tion. The state will not, how­ever, have the ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pa­bil­ity to re­spond to this de­pri­va­tion, no mat­ter how many times civil so­ci­ety stages demos or peo­ple burst into protest. This can be called the nom­i­nal state sce­nario.

The sec­ond, which is not yet upon us but may ma­te­ri­al­ize in the next 5-15 years, is that the state ma­chin­ery breaks down and the coun­try de­scends into crim­i­nal an­ar­chy with lo­cal mafias and sec­tar­ian fa­nat­ics carv­ing out their own spheres of in­flu­ence (a con­di­tion re­ferred to as parakan­deh-shahi in the Per­sian po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion). Pak­istan will con­tinue to ex­ist as a car­to­graphic and diplo­matic re­al­ity but its ad­min­is­tra­tive writ will cease to op­er­ate ex­cept for the can­ton­ment ar­eas and a few other key re­gions. In this sce­nario the for­tunes of the state might be re­vived by in­ter­ven­tion from two sources, to­gether or sep­a­rately. One is that a mil­i­tary sav­ior emerges and pur­sues sal­va­tion by the sword. The other is that the most mo­ti­vated el­e­ments in Pak­istani so­ci­ety, the re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists, over­come their mu­tual dif­fer­ences, and fill the vac­uum. This fu­ture can be called the no­tional state sce­nario.

The third sce­nario is one with which many are al­ready fa­mil­iar ow­ing to the West’s well-known if ex­ces­sively para­noid fears of Pak­istan be­com­ing a failed state – a gi­gan­tic Yu­goslavia-like en­tity with hun­dreds of nukes and le­gions of mil­i­tant ob- scu­ran­tists de­ter­mined to build a ji­hadist utopia guided by an op­er­a­tional cal­cu­lus in­com­pat­i­ble with the logic of de­ter­rence and in­ter­est-based state­craft. This pro­jec­tion can be called the su­per­nova sce­nario and would have truly global im­pli­ca­tions if it were to emerge. Once again, hardy and re­li­giously mo­ti­vated war­riors would de­scend on the Indo-Gangetic plain bring­ing in their wake chaos and ter­ror a fore­taste of which was pro­vided by the at­tack on Mum­bai in 2008.

One of the ba­sic de­fi­cien­cies that the Pak­istani elite is af­flicted by is sheer ig­no­rance of South Asian his­tory. More in­ter­ested in the na­tional se­cu­rity and democ­racy and de­vel­op­ment dis­course, hardly any­one in po­si­tions of au­thor­ity cares to know about this part of the world. The re­ac­tion then of Pak­istan’s ed­u­cated to the cri­sis that threat­ens to over­whelm the state varies be­tween delu­sional op­ti­mism and a long­ing for mir­a­cles that “should” hap­pen and a de­spair­ing cyn­i­cism. Ow­ing to our well-es­tab­lished ca­pac­ity for cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, the two of­ten co-ex­ist hap­pily in the same in­tel­lect.

The point to un­der­stand is that the fu­ture is nei­ther ab­so­lutely pre-de­ter­mined nor com­pletely ran­dom and sub­jec­tively al­ter­able. Pak­istan is a deeply trou­bled state con­fronted by enor­mous chal­lenges that can, how­ever, be over­come with grim de­ter­mi­na­tion and ra­tio­nal lead­er­ship. The way to deal with these chal­lenges is to im­prove the qual­ity of the state ap­pa­ra­tus, which, in South Asian his­tory, means im­prove­ment of the ex­ec­u­tive arm of the state. That can only be done if our lead­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als stop mind­lessly par­rot­ing fash­ion­able clichés and learn ra­tio­nal lessons from our tragic his­tory so that we can al­ter its course. The writer is the au­thor of ‘The Cul­ture of Power and Gov­er­nance of Pak­istan, 1947-2008 .’ He is cur­rently an As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of His­tory at the Quaid-i-Azam Univer­sity, Islamabad.

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