COVER: Contextualising contemporary reality

29 Nov 2015


A Pakistani tank on the move during the War of 1971 — White Star Archives
A Pakistani tank on the move during the War of 1971 — White Star Archives
The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience 

By Christophe Jaffrelot
The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience By Christophe Jaffrelot

IT’S sad work sifting through the titles of recent writing on Pakistan: one former foreign correspondent states “wrong enemy”; others settle for “hard country”; still others sprinkle titles with the ominous “hunt” or “siege” or at the very least “struggle” or “conspiracy”. If the country were judged on titles alone, the conclusion would be a grim one, Pakistan emerging as a sinister and sub-human sparring space for erstwhile super-powers and their strategic shenanigan of the moment.

Christophe Jaffrelot’s The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience does on initial encounter portend something similar; paradox and instability dangling close to the usual negative adjectives. A book, however, must not be judged by its cover, and in this case its title is redeemed not only by the notable addition of “resilience”, but also, and more importantly, by its content. Here is a book that doesn’t just dabble in Pakistan’s messes, but provides thorough and enlightening genealogies for them; in short, it is the sort of book Pakistanis, or anyone at all interested in more than a trite terror and torture account of the country, absolutely must read.

Jaffrelot begins with this: “Pakistan was born of a Partition that overdetermined its subsequent trajectory not only because of the difficult relations it developed with India, but also because this parting of ways defined the terms for its collective quest for identity”. The idea of an overdetermined trajectory, a set of conditions at creation that would consequently mould an arriving future, is an ominous one, not least because it justifies a sort of fatalism that has long been the basis for inaction. Jaffrelot, however, presents it as a possible explanation, which, if confronted, not only contextualises contemporary reality but can be the basis for a corrective that could free the future from the past, if such freedom is in fact desired. Jaffrelot then identifies three sets of tensions that have overdetermined Pakistan’s future. The first “can be summarised by the equation Pakistan = Islam + Urdu. While all the ethnic groups of Pakistan could identify with one variant or another of Islam, they could not easily give up their linguistic identity all the more so because it often epitomised full-fledged nationalistic sentiments (or movements). The centralising impetus of the federal government hence was set up at the outset, as an oppositional force to these sub-identities.”

The second tension “pertains to another form of concentration of power that the army officers and the politicians have developed over the course of time.” From the outset, Jaffrelot explains, Pakistani society has “been in the clutches of a civil-military establishment which has cultivated the legacy of the pre-Partition Muslim League in the sense that it was primarily interested in protecting its interests and dominant status.” The consequence of this for the country that was created was the persistence of vast inequalities and a social conservatism that is the typical subtext of an elitist rationale. The fights for democracy, sincerely fought by some politicians, have, owing to this, never quite been able to dislodge the civil-military establishment that was and continues to remain stalwart and unapologetic in pursuing its own interests. Progressive reforms, when they have been pursued in Pakistan, have borne the brunt of this, failing miserably, either owing to co-option or because their champions often ended up being autocrats themselves.

Jaffrelot’s self-restraint in enumerating the “role of Islam in the public sphere” as the third tension, as opposed to a predictable first, is as endearing as it is erudite. Jinnah, he points out, looked at Islam as a “culture” and “considered Muslims of the Raj as a community that needed to be protected. They were supposed to be on par with the members of the religious minorities in the Republic to be built”. Jinnah then envisioned the country to be created as a multicultural state that would negotiate a cosmopolitan equality for all flavours of religious diversity that would lack protection under the existing Raj. This conflicted with the vision of clerics and fundamentalist groups who wanted a “state where the members of minorities would be second-class citizens”. As Pakistanis now know well, this theoretical distinction, perhaps superfluous or ignorable when Pakistan was an idea, is what stains the streets with blood today.

Jaffrelot slices the spasmodic domination of one of these over the other thus: “Until the 1970s the first approach (Jinnah’s) tended to prevail. But in the 1970s the Islamist lobby (whose political parties never won more than one-tenth of the votes) exerted increasingly strong pressure”. Their ability to do so predicated, first, on a nation left insecure after defeat in the 1971 war, second because “the use of religion was part of Zuflikar Ali Bhutto’s populist ideology which associated socialism with Islam,” and third, and perhaps best known, Gen Ziaul Haq’s use of “religion to legitimise his power and to find allies among the Islamists”.

External forces contributed to the decline of multicultural Pakistan: Bhutto’s early support of Afghan Islamists as a foil against Pakhtun nationalism and then the Soviets, followed by Gen Zia’s support of the same, and finally “the proxy war that Iran and Saudi Arabia fought in Pakistan from 1970 onwards”. What follows is a dense but deft examination of each of these premises, not chronologically, but as separate portions, each of which contributes a third to the whole. It is a study that is impressive, not simply for its scale, but for it’s bolstering of argument with meticulous collection of data. One example is Jaffrelot’s discussion of how the aftermath of the 1857 Rebellion against the British Empire, one in which both Hindus and Muslims participated, ended up being more squarely blamed on Muslims who were then deprived of participation in the colonial state.

In the United Provinces, where much of the educated Muslim elite then lived, the British invested heavily in creating a new “middle class” that drew from a Hindu population eager to educate their children in government-run schools. In turn, in 1860, in the immediate aftermath of 1857, the British glibly introduced new requirements for civil service candidates, a literacy test for police conscripts and an administrative exam for “tahsildars”, all in the name of “modernising the civil service”.

In effect, of course, it meant the Muslims who had made these professions their mainstay now found it difficult to qualify or continue. The statistics told the story: “while Hindus and Muslims represented respectively 24.1 and 63.9 per cent of the clerks in the subordinate executive and judicial services in the United Provinces in 1857, the share of the former rose to 50.3pc in 1886-7 and 60pc in 1913 while that of the latter [dropped to] 45.1 and 24.7pc in the same period.” The numbers, quite simply, tell the story, a strain of the narrative that Jaffrelot correctly identifies as crucial to the separatist movements that would eventually lead to the creation of Pakistan.

Weaving through the years, Jaffrelot connects the vagaries of the present with the wars and wounds of the past. The issue of Islamic legislation has been a core goal of Pakistani Islamists since 1970, but under Jaffrelot’s lens it emerges as inherently tied to the colonial endeavour. Tracing the syncretic origins and spread of subcontinental Islam, he showcases its variety and diversity, and the inherent plurality of the faith as it existed prior to the arrival of the British. Their arrival led to the impetus to codify what was diverse and plural into statutes that represented doctrinal singularities. This massive effort to convert diversity into statute that was then used to govern a colonised population has also been documented by Bernard S. Cohn in his book Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India where he documents how diverse religious practices were distilled into “Mohammedan” and “Hindu” personal and other laws by British rulers who knew little of their context. Muslim clerics, even ones arguing for Sharia law as statute today, fail to reflect on these very colonial conceptions of the singularity of Islamic law.

As Jaffrelot explains at the outset, “The Pakistan paradox” is a “sociological interpretation of the Pakistani project,” one that emphasises “the societal and cultural parameters that defined the Muslim elite during the Raj”. Those constrictions may seem distant to the Pakistanis of now, but under Jaffrelot’s wing their repercussions can be seen echoing through the Pakistani present. In the section entitled ‘Jihadism, Sectarianism and Talibanism’, Jaffrelot recounts the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, who was associated with 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, were both arrested in Pakistan.

Then president Pervez Musharraf faced considerable external and internal pressure to crack down on the “dini madaris” that were seen to be sheltering and producing religious extremism. Musharraf tried to do just that on Jan 12, 2002, when it was announced that “all dini madaris as well as their foreign students had to be registered by March 23 and that all terrorist outfits would face speedy trial courts”. It was a brave effort, but many if not most of the suspect outfits simply re-emerged under new names.

That task, of regularising religious education and bringing it within the administrative provenance of the federal government, and cracking down on the terrorist groups that are anti-state and anti-tolerance continues today. Just as the pro-reform Muslims who first confronted the fact that they were being left out of the empire’s plans for future governance, the Pakistani Muslims of now are unwilling to truly grapple with complicated questions. The Muslims of the post-1857 Rebellion years insisted that the religious schools to which they sent their children were in fact providing all the education necessary. They too balked at coming under the auspices of the new British controlled state.

In contemporary Pakistan, this central question of what counts as a school and whether religious education must be disseminated parallel to ‘modern’ education that first arrived under the British is a question that remains as pressing and insoluble today. In its most recent and bloody iteration, it was posed when militants attacked the innocent children of the Army Public School in Peshawar. Their rationalisation: that dini madaris in the tribal areas were being similarly targeted by the Pakistani military. Should both be considered schools; is a modern school a capitulation to some colonial origins; is a madressah a repudiation of learning itself?

The Pakistan Paradox is an exemplary book with a thesis whose depth informs and illuminates. Jaffrelot’s analysis, for its care and consideration, use of varied sources and attention to chronological detail, is of an increasingly rare kind in a world dominated by instant experts pouring out hollow sound bites on demand. It is also a brave book, one that does not fall to the tantalising temptations of marketing by making one aspect of the country, its connections to terror or its possession of nuclear warheads, central to its substantive inquiry into its past. To a world comfortable with and habituated to seeing Pakistan as an easy fall guy, a presence on which to pin the region’s many misfortunes, The Pakistan Paradox presents the gaps and chasms in their understanding — the length of the book is a reflection of just how many these are. To Pakistanis, the book presents a challenge, a call to confront via the cartography of historical knowledge, the constraints written into the moment of its creation. Jaffrelot has presented Pakistan’s paradoxes; the choice of making them empowering ones belongs, of course, to Pakistanis.

The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience


By Christophe Jaffrelot

Random House, India

ISBN 978-8184005745