In the post cold war world, military dominance in Pakistan is more of a liability than an asset, said noted historian Ayesha Jalal while presenting salient features of her book The Struggle for Pakistan at the Mohatta Palace Museum on Friday evening.
Ms Jalal said her work attempted to tackle the contemporary narratives on Pakistan that existed at the international level, the narratives that suggested that Pakistan was a mistake, a failed state and an irrelevant state. Narratives such as these tended to flatten out Pakistan’s history, only taking present perspectives into account. Her book was an attempt to contest such narratives, she said.
Referring to her earlier work, her second book, she said sources available to her in 1980 revealed that the effects of the cold war had to do with the state of martial rule in Pakistan, and she stood by her research. Military dominance was the enduring feature of Pakistan in the country’s post-colonial history. She said her research was built upon not just opening up of archives but also revisiting literature written at the time of partition, including Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories.
Speaking on the points of analysis in her book, Ms Jalal first touched upon the topic of why Pakistan was created. She said it’s generally considered that religion was the main impetus for the creation of the country; though it may be true, it’s too loosely explained in history and little understood. In 1947, Muslims were divided into two hostile states, and a third came into being in 1971. Another generally considered notion was that the rot started with M.A. Jinnah’s death and Pakistan lost its moorings, but Gandhi had also died.
She argued that the military rise to dominance should be understood in the context of challenges of the cold war. Pakistan’s domestic dilemmas were inextricably linked to international conflicts, she said, and alluding to the dismemberment of East Pakistan mentioned that she was not fond of using the word ‘inevitable’ because “human beings make choices”.
Elaborating on the point of domestic dilemmas being linked to international conflicts, Ms Jalal said that institutional imbalances in Pakistan started to happen at an early stage of the country’s inception. She said during his 1968 visit to Dhaka, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asserted that Bengal autonomy was in the best interest of the country. He had even accepted four of the six points presented by Sheikh Mujeeb. The talks between Bhutto, Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujeeb were never abandoned; it was the military junta in Rawalpindi that shut down all prospects and considered war as a last resort. Mr Bhutto had an independent foreign policy as he forged a closer relationship with China and redoubled his efforts in having good relations with oil producing countries. He successfully held an Islamic Summit in Lahore on which the Jamaat-i-Islami capitalised as Maulana Maududi had ties with Saudi Arabia; and Saudi Arabia used the petrodollars windfall to counteract the influence of Shah of Iran. This led her to comment, “We forget that nationalism underlies the sectarian imposition… it’s [sectarianism] a complicated problem.”
Ms Jalal said Ziaul Haq’s military intervention heralded unprecedented change since no one had anticipated the longevity of that military spell. Here too international factors were at play as in 1979 some important events took place — the Iranian Revolution, Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, etc — along with the increase in the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought about a qualitative shift in Pakistan as the Afghan jihad gave a new lease of life to General Zia. Those who opposed the dictator included urban women who led street protests against his policies and a London-based group that wrote a letter to an America senator warning him of the dangers of funding and supporting Zia.
Ms Jalal said during the 1999 military coup, Pakistan was a different country — there was a crystallisation of new political dynamics: active judiciary, vocal media, conscious civil society, etc.
On the subject of whether the 2013 elections were free and fair, she said they were fair to the extent that Pakistan’s structural and existential realities permitted them to be. “A free and fair election will remain an aspiration, not a reality,” she said and termed the 2013 elections as an ‘important landmark’ because they took place in the face of Taliban terror. The TTP had set the tone for the campaign labelling democracy ‘unIslamic’.
As for whether terror could be overcome, Ms Jalal said it’s not going to happen in a great hurry. Giving the Arab Spring reference, she hinted at small similar springs in Pakistan on regional levels that the Centre dismissed as secessionists. She advised to the political mainstream to accept regional demands.
Discussing positive aspects of the country’s growth, Ms Jalal said the burgeoning popular culture drawn on rich artistic traditions in the midst of it all was a remarkable feat. A number of Pakistani artists were in the vanguard of creativity in the subcontinent. The contrast between collective failure and individual success was not novel, she stressed and iterated moderation versus extremism signified the battle for the soul of Pakistan. The dream existed and it would be expanded through literature and art, she said, adding that democracy was the hope that the people needed to depend upon to realise their thwarted aspirations.
Earlier, CEO of the Dawn Media Group Hameed Haroon introduced the author to the audience. Nasreen Askari hosted the event that was organised by the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh and the Mohatta Palace Museum.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2015