Single-faith nation is an open invitation to Taliban

24 02 2009

Source: TOI

22 Feb 2009, 0000 hrs IST, M J Akbar

Breast-beating has its dangers. You could lacerate yourself while the assassin laughs all the way to the graveyard. The international lamentation
over the negotiated surrender of Swat in Pakistan to what might broadly be called the Taliban is high on moaning and low on illumination.

There is a symmetrical irony. Benazir Bhutto handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban. Her husband Asif Zardari might have laid the foundation stone of Talibanistan inside Pakistan by accepting Sufi Mohammad’s Tehrik-e-Nifz-e-Shariat Mohammadi as the law for the former princely state of Swat. This demand was first heard in November 1994, the month in which Kandahar fell to the Taliban.

Many questions demand answers. The Pakistani army has an estimated strength of 12,000 in the region of Swat. Why was it unable, or unwilling, to subdue an insurgent force of some 3,000? The Pakistani army is not a pushover. Why was it pushed over in Swat? Is the Pakistani soldier increasingly unwilling to confront an ideology it implicitly sympathises with? How much of such sympathy is shared by the middle-ranking officer, who entered the force during the seminal leadership of General Zia ul Haq? To what extent has Ziaism become the secret doctrine of sections of the Pakistani forces?

What price will Pakistan’s polity pay as the last civilian hope degenerates into a national heartbreak? The legacy of Benazir, the charismatic romantic, has been usurped by a semi-literate authoritarian who has seized executive power through a virtual coup against his own government. Zardari was elected to a ceremonial office, not an executive one. His principal achievement so far has been to make the era of Pervez Musharraf seem like a golden age. If she had been in charge, Benazir may have been able to mobilise her country’s youth by lifting the economy and offering a liberal horizon. Zardari’s ineffectual rule, wafting along compromise and mismanagement, can only create the space for a theocratic impulse that has been waiting to find its moment ever since Pakistan was born. Musharraf doubled the GDP of an insecure economy. Under Zardari, Pakistan is dwindling into a “basket case”, a term Henry Kissinger coined for the eastern half of united Pakistan. While Bangladesh is leaving that stigma behind, Pakistan is entering the vortex of the begging bowl.

Military chaos opened the door for the Taliban in Kabul. Could economic chaos open the door in Islamabad? Has Pakistan begun to realise that faith-based nationalism is not synonymous with peace?

The Frontier and North Punjab, the principal catchment areas of the Taliban, have had a Muslim majority for perhaps a thousand years. It is not widely known that Mahmud of Ghazni’s territories extended to what is roughly the line of the Indo-Pak border today. (This fact is not lost on terrorists who want to use Pakistan as a base from which to launch assaults on the heart of India.) But this area was never a single-faith entity. Hindus and later Sikhs created, along with Muslims, a dynamic shared culture that blossomed through partnership. The presence of the other also became an antidote to puritanism of any hue. The region was ruled successively by Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. No ruler, not even Ghazni, drove Hindus and Sikhs out. It was only after 1947 that the region became a single-faith hegemony, and from that point a breeding ground for theocratic militancy.

The power of a minority is rarely acknowledged by those who seek to turn it into an enemy. A minority is the yeast that enables the national flour to rise. Hindus and Sikhs were the yeast of the North West Frontier and Pakistani Punjab just as much as Indian Muslims are the yeast of Hindu-majority India. Their existence was a daily lesson in co-existence. Their absence has shifted the gears of social evolution and driven the people into rancid and arid territory.

Will the answers be more optimistic than the questions? That too remains a question.

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