Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Death of imagination
Husain Haqqani: Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State, Harper Collins, India, 2018
Husain Haqqani is no stranger to Pakistani (or global) audiences. Student leader, journalist, political activist/operator, Ambassador, author, he has worn many hats in his life. Currently he has chosen to live in self-imposed exile in the US in the wake of the Memogate case that eventually, for all its sensationalist hype, ended as a damp squib.
In recent years Haqqani has penned a number of books on Pakistan. His latest offering, Reimagining Pakistan, offers a succinct analysis of Pakistan’s recurring crises throughout its history, their roots, how they played out and, perhaps most importantly, the mindset that runs like a common thread through all of them. Arguably, according to Haqqani, it is the ruling elite and institutions of the state that have self-deluded themselves regarding the realities surrounding their country, thereby setting off what he terms the March of Folly (virtually blindfolded) that has reduced Pakistan to the pass it confronts today.
Merely listing the “disconcerting highlights” of Pakistan’s history, as Haqqani does, serves to focus minds on what has gone wrong and why with the Pakistan dream. Consider this list: four wars, one genocide, loss of half the country amidst the secession of the majority of the population (one more bad first amongst many), several proxy and civil wars, four military coups, multiple Constitutions (with the present modified-over-time 1973 Constitution just managing to hold the field), long periods of non-constitutional rule (including military regimes and authoritarian civilian ones), frequent religious and sectarian discord and conflict, repeated economic failures (rooted in the dependent model adopted early after Independence and continuing), numerous political assassinations (including, arguably, the hanging of a former prime minister), unremitting terrorism (the product of the jihad project), and, last but not least, chronic social underdevelopment.
Pakistan came into being in 1947 as a result of the struggle for independence for the Subcontinent from British colonial rule accompanied by a bloody and unsettling Partition that witnessed the biggest human migration in history, drenched in communal bloodshed and slaughter. It was an odd country, its two wings separated by a thousand miles of (hostile) Indian territory. Mired in the insecurities of the new state because of the wrenching events of Partition, the ruling elite chose to construct a state on religious foundations and a unitary view of the diverse ethnic and linguistic groups (nationalities) that the new country had inherited. This Unitarian ideological construct (one nation, language, holy book) not only flew in the face of the realities of shared history, languages and cultures, it laboured under the grip of powerful institutions inherited from British colonialism. These institutions, the military and bureaucracy, emerged as the dominant oligarchy soon after Independence, sidelining and relegating to a secondary status the civilian political class (including the Muslim League, the party of Mr Jinnah that had led the fight for Pakistan). Over time, the bureaucracy lost out in this rat race and what we have today is unalloyed military domination of state and society. One adjunct consequence of this development was the structure of post-colonial internal colonialism in the federal structure of the state in which a strong Centre and Punjab lorded it over the other federating provinces. This distorted distribution of power (and therefore privilege) is at the root of the breakaway of East Pakistan and the recurring nationalist insurgencies in Balochistan (currently the fifth, not third, as Haqqani erroneously writes) and nationalist struggles for rights and against their suppression in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In the light of this, Haqqani poses the critically important question whether it is viable in the long run to ignore ethnic and linguistic diversity, the potential for conflict between religious sects, modernist and obscurantist definitions of Islam (with arguably the 1974 Constitutional Amendment to declare Ahmedis non-Muslims sounding the death knell of scholarly Islam), and the cost of maintaining conflict with India (impacting economic development and providing the justification for military domination in a national security state). The last motivated the ruling elite and post-colonial institutions of the new state to seek an alliance with the West that meant different things to, for example, the US and Pakistan. For the former and its western allies, the fight against Communism was the foundation for the alliance and the largesse that flowed to Pakistan as a result. But when it came to the crunch, it emerged that for Pakistan it was its defence and security needs against India that held sway and priority. Thereby hangs the tale of the troubled client state relationship Pakistan has had with the US-led West.
The military-bureaucratic (later just military) oligarchy that came to dominate Pakistan soon after it came into existence reflected and disseminated a national narrative that smacked of a paranoid state (despite acquiring nuclear weapons later) espousing a persecution narrative coloured by conspiracy theories. This mindset resulted in a volatile, authoritarian national security state that has repressed dissident or critical views, particularly, but not confined to, those of the Left. A significant omission in an otherwise excellent analysis of this mindset and its consequences by Haqqani is his failure to examine the impact on politics of Conspiracy Cases in Pakistan’s history. The first, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, provided the justification for banning and repressing the Communist Party of Pakistan from 1951 onwards. The second, the Agartala Conspiracy Case, arguably laid, among other factors, the foundation for the breakaway of East Pakistan. The third, the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case, alienated and embittered the Baloch people to the point where today every thinking person belonging to that province yearns for independence, having given up any hope of an acceptable future within Pakistan. As a result of this shift in thinking, thanks to the establishment, Balochistan today resembles nothing more than a black hole from which no light or news can escape.
Haqqani argues that the ambiguities in the demand for Pakistan were intended to rally the diverse Muslim community in undivided India in both Muslim minority provinces (where support for Mr Jinnah and the Muslim League was strongest) and Muslim majority provinces (where the opposite held true). But after Independence, Mr Jinnah’s successors chose to continue relying on Islamic sentiment if not religious nationalism.
This evolved into a persecution narrative that still holds sway today and feeds richly into conspiracy theories (of which there is a veritable moveable feast in Pakistan). The outcome of paranoid attitudes could not but produce the kind of volatile, semi-authoritarian national security state that Pakistan became. The defensive attitude of Pakistanis to all criticism flowers as extreme indignation, as though there are enemies (real and imagined) behind every bush and under every bed just waiting to destroy Pakistan. These stances militate against debate on alternative paths but also end up denying the deficiencies of the state.
Finally, Haqqani poses the theorem that a different, less paranoid, more objective approach to our history and subsequent developments after Independence could help change the way Pakistanis imagine their nation-state (rooted as this is in false consciousness) and help change reality rather than remain permanently bogged down in denial.
A contradiction in terms, Pakistan remains a dysfunctional, insecure nuclear-armed state that needs to be reimagined if its people’s future is to be put on the path of betterment. While this argument of Haqqani’s is rational and valid, he may have missed an important development in Pakistan in recent years because of his absence abroad. That development is the crisis in, if not death of, imagination in Pakistani society (honourable exceptions notwithstanding). Is reimagination, a desirable goal, possible in the face of this intellectual moribundity?