A Flawed Idea
By M J Akbar
Indians and Pakistanis are the same people. Why then have the two nations moved on such divergent arcs over the last six decades? The idea of India is stronger than the Indian, and the idea of Pakistan weaker than the Pakistani. Multi-religious, multi-ethnic, secular, democratic India was an idea that belonged to the future; one-dimensional Pakistan was a concept borrowed from the fears of the past. India has progressed into a modern nation occasionally hampered by backward forces. Pakistan is regressing into a medieval society with a smattering of modern elements.
Pakistan was born out of the wedlock of two inter-related propositions. Its founders argued, without any substantive evidence, that Hindus and Muslims could never live together as equals in a single nation. They imposed a parallel theory, perhaps in an effort to strengthen the argument with an emotive layer, that Islam was in danger on the subcontinent. Pakistan's declared destiny, therefore, was not merely as a refuge for some Indian Muslims, but also a fortress of the faith. This was the rationale for what became known as the "two-nation theory". The British bought the argument, the Congress accepted it reluctantly, the Muslim League exulted.
The Indian state was founded on equality and equity: political equality through democracy, religious equality through secularism, gender equality, and economic equity. Economic equality is a fantasy, but without an equitable economy that works towards the elimination of poverty there cannot be a sustainable state. India, therefore, saw land reforms and the abolition of zamindari. Pakistan has been unable to enforce land reforms. India and Pakistan were alternative models for a nation-state. Time would determine which idea had the legs to reach a modern horizon.
The two strands within Pakistan's DNA began to slowly split its personality. The father of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, thought he had produced a child in his own image, but his secular prescription was soon suppressed. His ideas were buried at his funeral. His heirs began to concede space to mullahs like Maulana Maudoodi who asked, in essence, that if Pakistan had been created to defend Islam, then who would be its best guardians?
After some debate, the first Constitution in 1956 proclaimed Pakistan as an "Islamic" state. It was an uneasy compromise. No one cared (or dared) to examine what it might mean. The principal institutions of state, and the economy, remained largely in the control of the secular tendency until, through racist prejudice, arrogance and awesome military incompetence it was unable to protect the integrity of the nation. The crisis of 1969-1971, and the second partition of the subcontinent, which created a Muslim-majority Bangladesh out of a Muslim-majority Pakistan, forced Pakistan to introspect deeply about its identity.
Perhaps the last true secularist of this Islamic state was the Western-Oriented-Gentleman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to power in 1971, preached emancipation from poverty and did not mind a spot of whisky in the evening. By the end of his six years in office, he had imposed prohibition. The ground had begun to shift even before the coup that brought Gen Zia to power.
Zia had the answer to his own question: if Islam was the cement of Pakistan, how could you expect the edifice to survive if the cement had been diluted. Islam became the ideology of the state, not as a liberal and liberating influence, but in its Wahabi manifestation: compulsory prayers in government offices, public flogging, the worst form of gender bias in legislation, the conversion of history into anti-Hindu and anti-Indian fantasy, a distorted school curriculum, with "Islamic knowledge" becoming a criterion for selection to academic posts. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the excuse for the adoption of "jihad" as state policy as well as a medley of irregular forces, liberally funded by American and Saudi money. The madrassas became not only the supply factories for irregular soldiers, but also the breeding ground for armed bands that are holding Pakistan hostage today.
If it had been only a question of an individual's excesses Zia's death could have been a swivel moment for the restoration of the pre-Zia era, particularly since his successor was Benazir Bhutto. But in the quarter century since his sudden death by mid-air explosion, no one in Islamabad has had the courage to change the curriculum or challenge the spread of the madrassas. There are now over 20,000 of them, with perhaps two million students, most (not all) of them controlled by extremists. Worse, prompted by thoughtless advice, Benazir engineered the rise of the Taliban and helped it conquer Kabul. The children of Gen Zia are now threatening Islamabad. Sometimes a simple fact can illuminate the nature of a society. During the 2005 earthquake, male students of the Frontier Medical College were stopped by religious fanatics - their elders - from saving girls from the rubble of their school building. The girls were allowed to die rather than be "polluted" by the male touch. This would be inconceivable in India.
For six decades, power in Pakistan has teetered between military dictatorship and civilian rule. When the credibility of civilians was exhausted the people welcomed the army; when the generals overstayed their welcome, the citizen returned to political parties. Pakistan is facing a dangerous moment, when the credibility of both the military and politicians seems to have ebbed beyond recovery. How long before the poor and the middle classes turn to the theocrats waiting to take over? The state has already handed over a province like Swat to Islamic rule. Men like Baitullah Mehsud, Mangal Bagh and Maulana Faziullah are a very different breed from the mullahs who have already been co-opted and corrupted by the system. They have a supplementary query which resonates with the street and the village after 9/11: why is Pakistan's army fighting America's war against fellow Muslims? Any suggestion that Pakistan might have become a much larger base for terrorists than Afghanistan ever was is met with the usual response, denial.
On the day that terrorists attacked Sri Lankan cricketers, I had a previously arranged speaking engagement at a university in Delhi before largely Muslim students. I began with the suggestion that every Indian Muslim should offer a special, public prayer of thanks to the Almighty Allah for His extraordinary benevolence - for the mercy He had shown by preventing us from ending up in Pakistan in 1947. The suggestion was received with startled amusement, instinctive applause and a palpable sense of sheer relief.