Will it take a war to focus on Swat’s problems?
M J Akbar
There is a foolproof way of gauging mainstream America’s interest in the rest of the world: through the New York Times crossword puzzle. On August 11, the clue for 17-Across (three letters) was “Islamabad’s land: Abbr.” The discovery of Pakistan has begun. India is an older, but static and occasional story, glimpsed occasionally through “Agra”, routed either via the Taj Mahal or Slumdog Millionaire. Wondrously, Nehru still remains on the iconic shortlist, but the presence is fading.
Credit must go to the military obstinacy of the Taliban and the linguistic dexterity of Richard Holbrooke for widening American consciousness, in perhaps the same way that Saddam Hussein and George Bush made ‘Eyeraq’ part of the American language. It seems a bit odd that you need a war to become famous but that is the way with superpowers. Britain became a household word in Roma only after Julius Caesar dropped by to say hello. Swat will probably be the next name to worm its way into puzzles, and very useful it would be for anagrams as well.
What are the odds that in 10 years the Swat valley, often called the “Kashmir of Pakistan”, will be the favoured American destination in “Incredible Pakistan”? Perhaps, realism demands a reframing of that question. In 2019, will Swat be Kashmir or will Kashmir be Swat? God knows, of course, but He is strangely uncommunicative these days.
The Pakistan army will prevail in this year’s battle for Swat, but we are discussing the war. The Pak army is motivated by the most effective impulse in war, self-interest. A Taliban victory would destabilise the institutions that share power in Islamabad, and radically alter the character, objectives and strategy of the Pak armed forces. Its officers are content with the status quo. They want to use the mullahs when they need them; they have no intention of being used.
But it is already evident that Islamabad has not understood a fundamental fact of its civil war. Irrespective of the outcome of the conflict this year or the next, the ground, and therefore the battleground, has shifted. The Taliban revolt has not emerged merely out of sentiment for religion. It is also a struggle for a reorientation of the oppressive economic relations in Pakistan, the worst of which is the land-peasant equation. Muhammad Sufi and Baitullah Mehsud found support because they challenged the landlords who have enslaved the Swat valley and so much else of Pakistan. After over six decades of independence, Pakistan still has not had land reforms. Independence has not translated into freedom for the peasant. Islamabad, like the Bourbons, seems to have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. Now that the Army has taken control of many parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Islamabad is inviting back the landlords who were driven out by the Taliban.
In October 1949, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, founder-leader of the National Conference, called a special session of his party to confirm the provisional accession of the state to the Union of India. At the top of his agenda for a “New Kashmir” was land reforms. The twomillion-plus acres of cultivable land in the state was mainly in the possession of elitist Dogras and their jagirdars. A land ceiling of 22.75 acres was established. Farmers’ debt was brought down from over Rs 11 million to around Rs 2.5 million. Peasants who had been forced to mortgage their property because of high usury rates regained their rights; sharecroppers saw their share increase from half to two-thirds, while productions costs were now shared.
Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri Hindu, gave fulsome support to Sheikh Abdullah because, for him, poverty had no religion. Poverty alleviation and economic equity were the fulcrum of his secular, modern, dynamic “New India”. Nehru knew better than anyone else in Delhi that Hindus were the landlords of Kashmir. But for him the Hindu rich were no different from the Muslim rich, and the Hindu poor as deserving of positive discrimination as the Muslim poor. This is why he could force through land reform in large parts of India — although vested interests, and the inevitable compromises inbuilt into electoral democracy, sabotaged him at every step. The Nehrus and Abdullahs have been partners four times: in 1949, in 1975, 1987 and in 2009. The political relationship has veered from exhilarating promise to unmitigated disaster, although the personal equation has sustained itself well enough. Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi are the fourth set in a chain. They might consider a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of October 1949, not to recall the poisons that seeped into their politics, but the purity that gave us land reforms.
The mood of the moment is governed by self-satisfied establishments that have for gotten a basic pillar of nation-building, economic equity. Today’s talent hunt throws up those who have cleared crores of rupees, not created crores of jobs. This week, Delhi and Islamabad celebrated their 62nd birthday with salvos and speeches, while a different kind of gunfire echoes in Balochistan, Swat, and the Naxalite highway that began as a corridor. Enjoy the first, but learn from the second.
Appeared in Times of India - August 17, 2009