INDRANIL BANERJIE , THE ASIAN AGE
Published : Feb 24, 2017,
Scholarly works can often obfuscate issues of real importance, whereas the unfettered vision of a person actually dealing with a subject can often prove illuminating. It is a matter of difference in attitude between a theorist and a practitioner, like that of an art critic and an artist. This book, in that sense, is a practitioner’s view of Pakistan, uncluttered by academic nuances and scholastic precedence. It is also devastatingly lucid.
Pakistan: Courting the Abyss by Tilak Devasher, a former officer in the Cabinet Secretariat, provides a clear, at times even blunt, appraisal of Pakistan, its past and present failings, and in doing so draws attention to the issues of significance. From its tortuous past to its economy, Islamisation and military imperatives, Pakistan is scrutinised painstakingly in an attempt to prise open the roots of its maladies.
The thrust of the author’s argument is negative as can be gauged from the book’s title and is based on the premise that Pakistan is a failing state inexorably hurtling towards a precipice. The author cannot be faulted for being pessimistic given that many within Pakistan share a similar view.
“Born at midnight as a sovereign, independent, democratic country, today it is neither sovereign, nor independent, nor even democratic…Today Pakistan is dangerously at war with itself once again. “The Federation is united only by a ‘rope of sand’,” the author quotes a retired Pakistani bureaucrat writing in The Dawn newspaper.
The voices of despair from within Pakistan are haunting. “We, the pigeons with eyes wide shut, are riding a vehicle that is heading towards the edge of a cliff. Rather than opening our eyes, seeing the obvious and asking the right questions, we are too fearful to even look at the monster we face,” Ali Malik, Daily Times.
“…We have lost track of the original purpose of the creation of the country.
More Muslims live in fear in Pakistan than in India and thousands more Muslims have been killed in Pakistan on religious and sectarian grounds than in India since independence,” Yaqoob Khan Bangash, Express Tribune. Yet, Courting the Abyss isn’t a doomsday book either.
While Pakistan’s present day trajectory is certain to end in catastrophe, the author believes that doom is not inevitable and the Pakistani leadership, if coerced by the international community, can pull itself out of the hole it has dug for itself.
In fact, the author seems to believe that the collapse or failure of the Pakistani state cannot be good news for the region and the world. His analysis focuses on what went wrong and mostly leaves the prescriptions for others, particularly the leaders of that country.
The author’s arguments rest on the premise that Pakistan’s problems are fundamental and stem from the very foundations on which it was erected. The book begins with the Pakistan movement, which was sponsored by the British to counter the Congress politically but which ended up in the tragic partition of the Subcontinent and the beginning of the process of Islamisation of the newly created country.
What makes the book particularly compelling is the fact that its chapters, which include Islamisation, terrorism, civil-military relations, education, economy and so on, are not strung together by facts alone but have a strong argument running through each of them. At every instance, the author tries to make a point and mostly succeeds.
For instance, the chapter on Pakistan’s economy is not merely descriptive but suggests that there is a fundamental imbalance in its workings.
“Pakistan’s economic growth since the 1950s has been marked by a persistence of periodic crises and bailouts, and by high volatility in growth rates due to a ‘stop-go’ growth model. Not surprisingly, economic crises seem to have become a norm for Pakistan”. Why this has happened is what the chapter is all about. If Pakistan’s economy has not collapsed, it is because of external assistance.
“Pakistan has been avoiding an economic collapse narrowly not because of any structural changes or policy initiatives of its own but because the international situation has allowed it to monetise its geographical position,” writes Devasher. “Thrice in the last seventy years, Pakistan has been bailed out by the US just as it was going over the brink, all three times when the army was ruling. And all three times, rulers have not used the opportunity provided by foreign bailouts to make the necessary structural changes to put Pakistan on the path of sustainable growth.”
Devasher’s research has uncovered many half-forgotten facts, buried over the decades, such as the misgivings Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah expressed towards the end of his life. Jinnah, writes Devasher, “died an exhausted man, unable to even get a functioning ambulance to take him from the airport in Karachi to his residence… According to Sarila, if Col Elahi Basksh, the doctor who attended on Jinnah during the last phase of his illness in August-September 1948 at Ziarat near Quetta, is to be believed, he heard his patient say: ‘I have made it [Pakistan] but I am convinced that I have committed the greatest blunder of my life’”.
Whether true or not, Devasher’s insights into Pakistan are provocative. Those in India who think they know a thing or two about Pakistan, will find much in the book that is both startling and thought provoking.
The writer is an independent commentator on political and security issues