Read the signs
Over the past few years, conversations about Pakistan within the Indian establishment have been marked by a certain triumphalism. Diplomats, politicians, and editors take satisfaction in the fact that of the two nations that were born on the same day 60 years ago, one is on the verge of becoming a failed state and is already a haven for terrorists, while the other is a stable, multicultural democracy.
Looking at the matter retrospectively, there is little question that this country has aged better. Except for a brief period of Emergency rule, between June 1975 and January 1977, India has remained a free society. Elections are held regularly and fairly, whereas across the border, elections are held rarely and are often rigged. Unlike Pakistan, India has nurtured a thriving community of writers and intellectuals. It also has a more robust cultural life, as expressed in music, dance, drama, and (especially) film.
A look at the past may cheer us. However, a consideration of the present and future should caution us against taking much satisfaction in Pakistan’s predicament. There are at least four reasons why we should be worried, rather than triumphant, at what is happening inside the nation with which we share a long border and with whom we have fought four short wars.
The first reason is that this nation is not only our exact contemporary, but also our close cousin. Our relationship is unique — but if it is to be compared to any other, it might be to the French and the British, or the Germans and the Austrians, likewise nation-states who have gone to war despite their shared culture, cuisine, music, and literature. Within India, only the hardcore followers of Nathuram Godse begrudge Pakistan’s right to exist. The rest of us recognize that it is, and must be, a nation with as much sovereignty and self-respect as any other. But also a nation with a special relationship to ours, since its citizens speak the same languages, hum the same songs, eat the same food, and play the same games.
The second reason is that the growing ethnic and civil strife in Pakistan might lead to a mass exodus out of that country, and into ours. Back in 1970-71, the civil war in East Pakistan brought almost 10 million refugees into India. A comparable situation in what remains of Pakistan might bring as many again.
The third reason is that if the political order of Pakistan is destabilized much further, there may be a vacuum that is taken advantage of by the extremists. The relevant analogy here is with Tsarist Russia in 1917. When that state collapsed, the Bolsheviks moved in and imposed their own arbitrary, illegitimate, and brutal order on the Russian people. In the same manner, state failure in Pakistan might provide an opportunity to al Qaida-like elements to seize control in Islamabad. Like Lenin, Osama bin Laden is a revolutionary with global ambitions, who seeks by force to impose his will, and his whim, on the entire world. But at least Lenin did not have access to atomic weapons. Were al Qaida to gain control over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the Americans will be only their second target — we shall be the first.
The fourth reason for us to be worried rather than self-satisfied at the current state of Pakistan is that there, but for the grace of the Indian Constitution, go we. The 8 per cent annual growth rate and the regular and fair elections notwithstanding, India is not going to become a superpower any time soon. To the contrary, India is a country whose political and economic faultlines run deep.
It has been said of Pakistan that since its birth, it has been bedevilled by its submission to the three As — Allah, the Army, and America. In the first and third of these respects it is, in fact, not very dissimilar to India. For the first four decades of Indian independence, religious bigots had little significance in the social and moral life of the nation. All this changed in the decade of the Eighties. The butchering of the Sikhs in 1984 and the killings and forced migration of the Pandits of Kashmir in 1989-90 were two events that punctured holes in India’s claim to be a secular state. So, and far more substantially, did the Ayodhya movement and the rising tide of violence against Muslims that accompanied it. Today, the political influence exercised by Hindu bigots in India is scarcely any less than that enjoyed by Islamic bigots in Pakistan.
Then there is America. During the first half of the Cold War, India skilfully played one superpower against another. During its second half, it aligned itself with the Soviet Union. However, in the past decade, India has come closer to the United States. The ties have grown at a personal level (chiefly because of the very large Indian diaspora), at a cultural level (as in the exchange of films and food), at an economic level (especially via the software industry), and at a political level. The first three kinds of ties are inevitable, and perhaps also necessary. It is the last kind that should be of some concern.
From 1954 (when the two countries signed an arms pact), until the day before yesterday, Pakistan was America’s Loyal Friend in South Asia. In recent years, however, sections in Washington have begun having doubts about the reliability and efficaciousness of their junior partner. Now, for the first time in living memory, India-lovers and India-lobbyists get a sympathetic hearing from Congressmen, senators, secretaries of state, and presidents.
These developments have been met with pure delight in New Delhi. When the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, men like Jaswant Singh salivated at the prospect of India replacing Pakistan as Most Loyal American Poodle. Now, some senior members of the Congress are as eager to step into the role. And some newspaper editors and business tycoons are even more enchanted by the prospect.
These (and other) advocates of ever-closer political ties between the US and India should look at what the friendship of America has done to Pakistan and Pakistanis. In that country, both Allah and the Army were given credence and hard currency by the Americans. Indians used to complain that the arms gifted by the US to Pakistan, while ostensibly aimed at the Soviets, were used against them instead. Meanwhile, the cash given for the same purpose was used to consolidate the Army’s hold over real estate, hotels, factories and clubs within Pakistan. Under the malevolent eye of General Zia-ul-Haq — by far the US’s favourite Pakistani ever — the country officially became an Islamic state, to validate which claim mullahs opened thousands of madrasahs to train (or indoctrinate) young men to become fanatics. All this was done on the US’s watch — in fact, it was courtesy the unending supply of dollars from the infidel that Allah and the Army were able to strengthen their hold over the Pakistani state and Pakistani civil society.
(In India, religious extremists mobilize around the name of Ram, rather than Allah. And they are also funded by greenbacks sent by America, albeit by American citizens who claim to be of the same faith as the fanatics at home.)
A week before the elections in Pakistan, I participated in a discussion organized by the BBC in New Delhi, which sought to elicit the ‘Indian’ point of view. The other panelists were all retired government officials; all predicted that the elections would be rigged, that the King’s Party would come to power, and that the Islamization of Pakistani society would proceed apace. Those who offered these predictions did so, as it were, with a smirk on their face.
These Indian triumphalists have been proved comprehensively wrong. The elections were fair, Musharraf’s stooges were routed, and the Islamic parties also lost heavily. One swallow does not make a summer, and one fair election is not going to make Pakistan a stable or properly democratic state. Still, their inability to read the signs in the country which (in all respects) is the closest to ours will, one hopes, make the Indian elite less arrogant and supercilious. Rather than sneer and scoff at a neighbour in trouble, they would be advised to look within, to repair and restore our own damaged institutions, to take pause at our own easy indulgence of religious bigots, and, not least, to be vigilant against the inducements and blandishments put before us by an expansionary superpower.