Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blind Faith

Byline by M J Akbar: Blind Faith

If you want to understand Pakistan today, try and imagine this scenario in India. It is 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale escapes during Operation Bluestar and disappears into an inaccessible range of the Himachal Himalayas. The Indian armed forces cannot find him; although Delhi will never admit it, Bluestar is a failure. The militants, operating under the command of General Shabeg, regroup, their loyalty to the ideological leadership of Bhindranwale reinforced by success in battle. Anger against Bluestar arouses the Sikh peasantry to the kind of fury and passion it displayed during Banda Bahadur’s war against the Mughals. The young take up militancy in self-generating numbers, making casualties irrelevant to the insurgency. Bhindranwale remains in regular touch with the insurgents, who now have safe sanctuary in certain gurudwaras, since the Indian government is hesitant to invade sacred space after the counter-productive calamity of Bluestar.

Simultaneously, inspired by Punjab, a violent jihad explodes in Kashmir, far more intense than the conflict that lacerated the valley in the Nineties. The Kashmiri jihad finds its own leader, and works in coordination with Bhindranwale. India’s military and paramilitary forces are so deeply engaged in the battles of Punjab and Kashmir that they have to thin out their presence along the China and Bangladesh borders, opening up options for those in the neighbourhood who are hostile to India’s unity.

By 1996, the Indian armed forces are battle-weary at the base and defiant at the top. They have grown tired of civilian politicians and parties that do not understand the meaning of "a free hand". When a fractious coalition patches together a government in Delhi, the Prime Minister is unable to provide any direction at all. He spends more time plotting to survive than planning to save India’s integrity. Kashmir’s jihadis taunt Delhi daily, and take a heavy toll on the armed forces. By this time, the South also has become vulnerable, with the LTTE finding friends on the mainland and terrorism becoming a constant threat in Tamil Nadu. Assam is ablaze. There is a coup in the name of national unity. The general who becomes India’s dictator is widely welcomed by the nation.

By 2000, however, the Army dictators have proved no better than the old politicians, and in the process destroyed the credibility of the democratic institutions by swearing in stooge politicians into their government, which naturally is headed by a toothless "Prime Minister". In fact, the government has lost control everywhere outside Srinagar, Ludhiana, Jullundur and Chandigarh. 9/11 saves the Indian dictators because they rush help to the America-led Nato invasion of Afghanistan, and follow it up with division-strength support to the American invasion of Iraq.

America guarantees the security of the China border. Pakistan is not a serious threat except for its encouragement of the surrogate war, and Bangladesh too weak to challenge India militarily.

By 2005, prices have steepled, the economy has tanked, the nation is in disarray; defence swallows up the budget. If the insurgency has not succeeded it is only because of the will of the Indian people, the sacrifices of the soldiers and an extraordinary geopolitical advantage: India has space. The Army can rely on supply lines and fresh recruitment; it can fight behind the Beas when necessary and at the Jhelum when it wants to. But the dictators have become deeply unpopular, and cannot hold back demonstrations that become more massive by the day. There is domestic censorship, but the world press cannot be prevented from reporting the turbulence. The generals are forced to call for elections. They are scheduled for the first week of January 2008.

The politicians return, some from jail, some from exile, some from hibernation, for the bitter campaign of December 2007. The insurgents choose their targets…

I could go on.

But let us pause to remember the martyrs who did not let India succumb to anarchy. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi must head the list, but there are thousands of officers, jawans, policemen and civilians on that roll call of honour. There are leaders who are now forgotten: Sant Longowal and Beant Singh, the chief minister of Punjab for instance. There are leaders who are still with us: Who can afford to forget the fight that Farooq Abdullah put up against three years of unprecedented militancy in Kashmir?

The forces at play in Pakistan are, of course different, but the end result is a gathering anarchy. Pakistan is teeming with ideologues, banded under dozens of banners, each with its private army, who are determined to turn it into a theocratic state. Parallel forces operate within an informal alliance, their agenda overlapping; jihadis against the West, principally America; an Osama bin Laden still alive and officially untraceable, but in command of his armed sectarians; Taliban warriors who control regions on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Add to this a polity wrecked by inept civilian politicians and an obstinate military high command, and you have a cauldron brewed by the witches of misfortune.

Benazir Bhutto lost her life in a nation that has lost its moorings and is in danger of being marooned.

This phase of its history began with the judicial assassination of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, now known to the people as the "Shaheed Baba". It will not end with the death of the "Shaheed Beti".

General Zia ul Haq, motivated by personal insecurity, was the first dictator to use death as an instrument of state policy. He was not the first general to stage a coup. But Ayub Khan ran a soft regime. Yahya Khan did not hang Sheikh Mujibur Rahman even though the charge was treason.
After Zia, the path to power became paved with peril and stained with death. The Afghan war changed the local dynamic. The gun was no longer in the custody of the state. It was handed, with the collusion of America, to non-state actors. They have not returned the gun. It has gradually become part of the culture of politics. Benazir Bhutto did not create the Taliban, but she gave it a nation and an unstoppable momentum by launching it in Afghanistan. The bullets, or those shards from bombs that killed her, have debilitated her country and broken yet another hope in a nation desperately in need of some.

Benazir’s friends will remember her with affection; her followers with pride; both will live with tears. Others will ponder over the cruelty of the angel of death, who is meant to take away exhausted lives but seems to hover mercilessly over those who have returned from despair. Benazir had matured enough, according to those close to her, to dull the edge of error. Rajiv Gandhi was plucked away at the very moment when he might have blossomed again. Serfs of this merciless angel arrive from anonymity to shift the course of history.

Blame is not a game, and yet it must be played out if only to seek some semblance of an answer, the only nutrient that can revive the fading embers of hope. Pakistan needs the courage of introspection. It did not introspect when an unknown assassin ended the life of its first Prime Minister, in Rawalpindi as well, Liaquat Ali Khan. It cannot afford complacency. Pakistan must look beyond the names of individuals to eliminate the forces that diet on havoc. Will it do so?

India is in comparative calm, but surrounded by nations at war with themselves. The calm is comparative, for Naxalites are asking for change from within the heart of India.

There is one immediate lesson ahead of many larger ones that will emerge with thought, analysis and an honest look at the mirror. It is simply this: Terrorism is an unmitigated evil. Long before terrorism can wound an enemy, it destroys its masters. If the governing elites of South Asia do not understand this stark, simple fact, they will gouge out their own eyes. Blind elites cannot see either a horizon or a mirror. Who can the blind lead, except the blind?

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