BOOK REVIEW- Pakistan: Courting the Abyss,


DR. AMBREEN AGHA, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs New Delhi

INDIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS JOURNAL- Association of India Diplomats

The recent lynching and killing of a young Ahmadi University student, Mashal Khan (23), on 13 April 2017, in the Pakistani tribal Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over charges of blasphemy indicates the culture of “intolerance and violence [that is] not a new phenomenon; [and] dates back to the origins of Pakistan itself” (p. xvii). This is the subject of Tilak Devasher’s book, Pakistan: Courting the Abyss. While reading its first few pages, one is compelled to ask: what is it that has led to the silencing of all debate in Pakistan? Are ongoing military operations a solution to the “totality of the malaise” inflicting Pakistan? To find answers to these questions, Devasher’s book provides a comprehensive account of a country that ‘faces problems internally’ and how it “poses [threats] externally to the world” (p. xxi).

Divided in seven main sections and eighteen chapters (excluding the Introduction and the Conclusion), the book opens with Devasher’s “fascination with Pakistan” as a child when he heard stories of two Air Force officers, who served in the Royal Indian Air Force during World War II and had fought together with his father. These two colleagues of his father in undivided India later went on to “head the Pakistan Air Force” (ix). As he reminisces about the memories of his childhood, a curious Devasher gets engaged in understanding the contrast between the sophisticated aesthetics of the elites in Pakistan, which include television and sports, and the harsh realities of its political, economic, and religious development.

A student of history, the author later joined the Cabinet Secretariat, specialising in security issues pertaining to India’s neighbourhood. He decided to “write a holistic book on Pakistan that would encompass the ‘exciting’ issues [as well as] the ‘boring’ ones to analyse why Pakistan was hurtling towards the abyss” (p. xi). It was this fascination with the paradoxes within Pakistan that led him to write “a book about Pakistan” (p. xi).

The book opens a Pandora’s box, starting with the agonies, insecurities, and anxieties of the Muslim community in an undivided India, the politics around the Pakistan Movement, the birth of the Muslim nation, the tussle for power between the political class and military dictators, and the eventual dawning and unfolding of the Islamisation Project which, according to the author, is part of “The Superstructure” section (p. 141). However, this reviewer would argue that Islamisation, which is the political ideology of Pakistan, should be understood as ‘The Base’ upon which ‘The Superstructure’ is built, wherein all aspects of the society interact – sometimes converging, and diverging on other occasions.

Nevertheless, the author in this section delineates the hurtling trajectory of “Islamisation and the Growth of Sectarianism” (p.143) in the country. In his opening remarks in the Chapter on Islamisation, Devasher traces the beginnings of this issue to the founder of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

…Jinnah demanded a separate homeland for the Muslims so that they could practice Islam, free from being swamped by the Hindu majority. His successors, civil and military, have all, in varying degrees, strengthened the Islamic character of Pakistan, either out of conviction or opportunistically for political survival. A plethora of Islamic political parties, groups, and organisations ensure that the Islamic nature of Pakistan is reiterated on a daily basis (p.143).

In attributing the responsibility for employing religion in statecraft to Jinnah and his early successors, the author also elaborately comments on the internal contradictions in Jinnah’s views on the nature of the Pakistani state. There are instances in history where Jinnah stated on record that Pakistan “would not be a theocratic state and that the state had nothing to do with one’s religion” (p.144). In his famous address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (11 August 1947), he aligned himself with this thought of a non- theocratic state, and asserted,

We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one state … you will find that in the course of time, Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims … in political sense as the citizens of the state.

However, Jinnah’s later two statements – one during the Muslim League Council meeting in Karachi on 14-15 December 1947, and the second on 25 January 1948 (just months before his demise) – were quite different. In the first gathering in December, he clearly stated that “Pakistan is going to be Muslim state based on Islamic ideals.” Similarly, in his January speech, he said that Pakistan’s Constitution would be based on Islamic laws to “make Pakistan a truly great Islamic State” (p. 145).

While writing about the history of Islamisation of Pakistan and about the various speeches delivered by the founder of the nation, Devasher raises an important question on the imposition of Shariah: “whose Shariah will it be?” (p.142). This question does not have a straightforward answer in the book. It is left for the reader to find the answer to this crucial question at a time when Pakistan is at war with its home-grown terrorist outfits like the Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that aims to replace the Constitution with TTP-derived Shariah.

The problem of terrorism is not limited to the domestic sphere; in fact, Pakistan has been involved in the export of terror, not limited to neighbouring countries like Afghanistan and India but also beyond. On the issue of terrorism, the author starts with the remark made by the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during a press conference in Islamabad in October 2011: “You can keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbour. Eventually, those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.” While domestic terrorism has claimed 60,772 combatant and non-combatant lives between 2002 and beginning of July 2016 – according to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) – international terrorists, like Mohammad Hafiz Saeed, have been living with impunity in Pakistan, despite “openly and repeatedly” giving “calls for jihad in Kashmir” (p. 187). Saeed, along with other ideological heads of extremist organisations, moves about openly across Punjab, including the Provincial Capital Lahore and the Federal Capital Islamabad, calling for jihad in the infidel states.

While discussing “The Provincial Dilemma” (pp. 69–96), Devasher describes the coming together and the consolidation of various ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities under the one overarching and unifying force – Islam.

The dilemma was that Pakistan was created by putting together geographical provinces which shared a common religion but had never before shared a common history, culture, language or ethnicity. All of them had a strong attachment to their traditions and were resentful of any central control. Not surprisingly, while the Bengalis managed to get away, elements of the Baloch, Pakhtun, and Sindhi have been struggling to free themselves from the grip of Punjab.

Apart from these grinding issues, Devasher’s major contribution is the introduction of the WEEP Model of Analysis that focuses on the country’s water issue, education emergency, economic crisis, and population growth. In his WEEP Analysis, the author discusses the water crisis in Pakistan, which is the result of population growth and complete neglect of water infrastructure. However, the water crisis has been conveniently attributed to India, and its failure to comply with the commitments of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed between the two countries.

Fortunately, the matter has been set at rest by chairman of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) who, while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Water and Power on July 9, 2015, said that India was using less than its allocated share under the IWT (p. 224).

Similarly, on issues of education, economy, and population, the situation is equally grim. Pakistan ranks 113 out of 120 in the Education Development Index, and is in an education emergency, which is “the result of decades of neglect of education sector” that was “hijacked to achieve ideological and political goals in line with the thinking of the elites, especially the military” (pp.241–242).

As violence continues in the country in the forms of blasphemy, vigilantism and sporadic killings and despite the implementation of National Action Plan and Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the indications are that the problem in Pakistan is that of its narrative, which can neither be controlled nor eliminated militarily alone. Devasher suggests two ways “to make Pakistan modify its behaviour”:

The first is forcing Pakistan to behave, not through appeasement and inducements but through forceful non-military action, such as reducing, if not stopping multilateral and bilateral financial assistance …The second option is to wait for Pakistan to collapse under its own weight (p.390).

Warning that “if the army were to obstruct civilian control or the politicians were to fail the country again, Pakistan’s tryst with the abyss is sure”, Devasher closes on a pessimistic and a course-corrective note by quoting poet Muhammad Iqbal: “If you do not fathom, you will be destroyed, O people of Pakistan, Even your story will not endure in the stories of the world” (p. 392).

The book covers various internal aspects of Pakistan. It is comprehensive in its narration and quotes heavily from the available literature on the subject, making it more of a reiteration of thoughts and ideas on Pakistan. As earlier stated, the book provides a comprehensive account of a country that “faces problems internally” and “poses [threats] externally to the world.” Owing to the richness of citations, the book is an important addition to the available body of work on Pakistan, and is recommended for policy makers, scholars, and the academia.

The title of the book, ‘Courting the Abyss’ dramatises the perilous situation that Pakistan finds itself in today. However, it should be acknowledged that, despite internal fissures and failures, many other ‘fragile and failed states’, have continued to stay in existence – though perhaps not in the shape that they were originally designed to be. Pakistan may slip into that category.




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