The future of Pakistan

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The Idea of Pakistan by Steven Philip Cohen; Oxford University Press, 2005; pages 382, Rs.495.,

LIKE all else around it, the academic world has been transfigured by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and their terrible aftermath. One consequence has been an unprecedented explosion of scholarship on Pakistan and the region around it. Owen Bennett Jones' Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, Hassan Abbas' Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism, and Christophe Jaffrelot's edited volume A History of Pakistan and its Origins are among the notable examples of this wave of production; to this list, one could add the compelling works of Giles Dorronsoro and Steve Coll on Afghanistan.

Like much of his work, Steven Philip Cohen's The Idea of Pakistan accords primacy to the questions that lie at the core of post-September 11 debate on Pakistan. How stable is the Pakistani state? Is there a risk of the state disintegrating in the face of ethnic and religious challenges? How much of a threat are Islamist political formations, as well as their supporters within the military, likely to pose to it in years to come? How likely is Pakistan to be able to negotiate successfully the economic challenges before it? And what prospects are there for the emergence of a durable, democratic political system in that country?

Cohen begins his narrative with a brief account of the formation of Pakistan. From the outset, he argues, the Pakistan movement bequeathed to the country multiple, often conflicting, identities: one that was culturally Indian, even if in opposition to Hindus; as a reborn version of the Mughal states; as an heir to the Raj; as a flag-bearer of the destiny of the wider Muslim ummah. Battered by multiple crises in the first few decades of its existence, notably but not only confined to the secession of Bangladesh, Pakistan never wholly succeeded in arriving at a comfortable sense of its raison d'etre as a nation-state, or in reaching a point where the question itself did not matter.

In Cohen's argument, the Army, the political parties, political Islam, regional identity and the economy hold the keys to Pakistan's future. His analysis of the Army is likely to be of particular interest to Indian readers. Building on one of his earlier books, The Pakistan Army, Cohen examines the class, regional and political character of its officer cadre with considerable care, as well as their complex relationship with both the West and Islamists. Pakistani doctrinal thought, notably its embrace of terror and its pursuit of sub-conventional warfare against India, is a consequence of its relationship with both political Islam and the United States, Cohen perceptively notes. Much of what the Pakistan Army practised in Kashmir, for example, was legitimised by Islam, but many of its practices developed on the U.S.' studies of guerilla warfare. Where the U.S. was interested in suppressing such wars, Pakistan saw opportunity in them.

While Pakistan's Army is unlikely to be hijacked by Islamists, he argues, it is also improbable that opportunities to harass India will be passed by. Its opportunistic alliances with Islamists, too, are likely to continue. Given the Army's vision of itself as a guardian of Pakistan's ideological frontiers, it is important to ask what might happen if the dtente process leads to a point where the Army's central role in the affairs of the state comes under serious question. Cohen records the existence of concerns within Pakistan's military establishment about the course of its foreign policy. "Regardless of what may be desirable," Cohen argues, "the Army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan."

ANOTHER issue of interest to Indian readers is the future of Pakistan's political system. History provides some illuminating insights into President Pervez Musharraf's vision for Pakistan. Much of what Musharraf stands for, Cohen notes, draws on those of another military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Musharraf's notions of basic democracy have served to weaken both the political system and the bureaucracy. As Pakistan's Army has demonstrated no greater ability to solve the nation's problems than other institutions, the challenges to its authority are likely to mount. How the Pakistani state negotiates these tensions will be key to the future. Will it lurch towards the religious Right? Resort to greater authoritarianism? Or democratise?

Although religious fundamentalists do not command the mass constituency needed to pose a serious threat to the existence of the state, Cohen believes that the turbulence in Pakistani society makes it likely that "the recruiting base of its Islamist radicals is likely to expand". At once, the closing of doors in the West, particularly to non-resident Pakistanis, has meant that growing numbers of people find the notion of "a civilisational war between Islam and an unholy Christian-Jewish-Hindu alliance" plausible. As with the potential Islamist influence on elements in Pakistan's armed forces, this could have a serious long-term impact.

In his introduction, Cohen admits that his study of Pakistan has provoked feelings of both "hope and frustration". Once regarded as a model for emerging states - bureaucrats from East Asia used to visit Pakistan prior to 1971 for lessons in economic development - the country now faces severe economic challenges, notwithstanding the massive flows of Western aid that have pulled it out of its perilous situation of 2001-02. Nonetheless, its educational system is in the midst of a serious crisis, and the government's efforts to improve administration and end corruption have yielded only limited gains.

Cohen's work is remarkable both for its lucid argument and historically grounded scholarship. Those who seek an apocalyptic vision of clerics storming the controls of Pakistan's nuclear bombs will be disappointed. So, too, will be those in India who believe that an authoritarian Pakistan offers the prospect of peace, as also some in Pakistani who thought that the rise of a Hindu nationalist government would bring peace.

Like the world around it, Pakistan is in a fluid, fast-changing position which contains within it a vast array of possibilities. India ought to be paying close attention: but not one of the recent works on Pakistan has been written by an Indian author, a sad reflection on the interest we exhibit in things that ought to be our pressing concern.

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