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The Pakistan ‘Problem’ in a Larger South Asian Context

and 06.20.14

The Pakistan ‘Problem’ in a Larger South Asian Context

and 06.20.14
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Pakistan has been bleeding for more than a decade. Governments can rarely sustain themselves when anarchy is prevalent as in this region of South Asia. It has been labeled: a failed state, the most dangerous country in the world and a breeding ground for religious radicalism, etc. What ails Pakistan? What makes it stand apart?

First, religion is a powerful rallying force in Pakistan. An obscurantist version of religion bordering on frenzy, and the violence that it breeds has combined effectively with sectarian intolerance to render the country completely lawless. The almost diabolical nature of puritanical religious ideology inspired by Salafism and Wahabism has given sacral and pre-eminent legitimacy to madrassas and their instructors’ mission in these schools-turned laboratories of faith.

But doesn’t religion operate with the same potent force in most other South Asian societies? An overwhelming majority of riots in India have been religiously inspired, with the state conniving variously with the ‘majority community’ to unleash violence on its minorities. Sikhs in Delhi (1984), Muslims in Gujarat (2002), Christians in Kandhamal (2008), serve as three examples, in a long list. The only difference is that unlike other South Asian states, Pakistan has the name ‘Islamic Republic’ enshrined in its Constitution, even though its founder, M.A. Jinnah, strongly emphasized that ‘we are starting with th[e] fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.’

And yet India and even Sri Lanka and Bangladesh for their much-touted claim to being secular and equidistant towards their communities, constitutionally or otherwise, have been no less Hindu, or Sinhala. Religious minorities in India, be they Muslims, Christians, or even minorities within Hinduism: the Dalits (the untouchables), continue to be marginalized in the public domain, especially in terms of their representation in public institutions. Narendra Modi, the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, an Indian state that witnessed an organized and state sponsored program of its Muslim community in 2002 — when Modi first took over the reigns of the government and is now the newly elected prime minister.

In 1984, in yet another organized genocide that killed more than 2,000 Sikhs, the perpetrators were shielded by the state. India has brutally crushed uprisings that have sought to contest its centralized character, whether in northeast India or among the tribal communities in central India. In Kashmir, where a popular movement seeks a complete secession, India responded by placing several hundred thousand armed forces to quell the resistance. Nowhere in the world, not even in Iraq at the very height of the US involvement has such a huge army resided within the civilian population. And mind you, over the last six years the Kashmir movement has been almost completely non-violent.

In a recent episode, Kashmiri students were forced to vacate a technical university in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and then slapped with sedition charges by the local government for having committed the grave crime of mildly applauding a Pakistan win over India in a game of cricket. Yet India is the biggest democracy on earth. If holding elections is the only criteria that identifies a democracy, then India surely has some credentials. On the other hand, Pakistan has struggled to hold elections on a consistent basis. Sri Lanka also holds ‘elections’ and by that logic is therefore, also ‘democratic.’ However, its human rights record much like India’s would challenge the ‘democratic’ description.

So the question is what makes Pakistan different from the other states in this so called ‘democratic’ group? Conversely: if Pakistan cannot justifiably its claim to be a democracy, how can India and Sri Lanka? Reason number two: Pakistan is at odds with what is termed ‘modernity.’ Just like many other Muslim majority countries in the world, Pakistan has also failed to reconcile modernity with its native traditions. While the society is willing to embrace the benefits of technology and other material comforts that come along with modern life, there is very little healthy engagement at the ideational level. But here again Pakistan is no exception. Despite increasing urbanization and growing awareness, caste hierarchy continues to be strongly practiced in India.

Institutions like the Khap panchayats — quasi-judicial bodies mainly in north India that pronounce harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, often bordering on regressive measures to modern problems — have enormous power and legitimacy. In fact the chief minister of Haryana, in northern India, described Khap panchayats as “NGOs” and a part of Indian culture.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right wing Hindu group that espouses a homogenous cultural and political ideology: Hindutva, has millions of adherents across India. Much like madrassa schools in Pakistan, RSS has also set up a chain of schools. In the last three to four decades, thousands of varieties of these schools have mushroomed. Ram Puniyani, a well-known human rights activist, speaks about the culture of hatred that these schools subscribe to.

The political scientist, Christophe Jaffrelot, has written about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. He quite rightly observes that “people (in India) have developed a culture of economic achievements. They are only after money and are much more interested in a managerial form of government rather than democracy.” What is equally harrowing is that even in West Bengal — which has had a strong and a supposedly progressive leftist government for decades — Dalits and Muslims, despite their large concentration, are barely represented in education or employment.

To quote Jaffrelot again: “For the moment, you don’t hear too many Dalit voices. Look at the newspapers. Who are the Dalits whom we hear? We hardly come across the arguments of Dalit intellectuals on, say, Reservation. There are Dalit intellectuals but they have been made invisible.” In short, the ‘modernity problem’ is not exclusive to Pakistan alone. What makes Pakistan stand apart from a state like India? One of the important factors is the way India and Pakistan have been and are portrayed in popular and western media.

In a whole range of popular writings and other narratives, India, unlike Pakistan, is often visualized as a land of diversity; a region where all kinds of people, and all kinds of religious beliefs, sects and denominations exist and have existed for ages. These descriptions are legitimized not only by Indian ideologues like Nehru and Tagore, but also by Western Orientalists. Pakistan on the other hand is seen as void of any civilizing factors although at some point it was very much part of their legacy. On the other hand Pakistan is recognized as a homogenous society where politics is principally informed by religion. Unlike the term ‘Pakistani culture’ which evokes an odd and unknown word, ‘Indian culture’ is a very acceptable and legitimate expression.

Post-colonial states in the Indian subcontinent share the same colonial burdens and are engaged in the same set of issues: governance, political culture, asserting identities, majority/minority, communalism, violence, poverty and inequality, corruption, compromised judicial systems and their inability to carve out stable modern nation-states. While these states may not always share the same political visions, nonetheless everyday politics in many of these states operates in more or less similar ways. Pakistan is therefore, no exception and does not stand apart from its other South Asian neighbors!

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