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Book Review
Pakistan under the generals
By Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: On the Abyss—Pakistan After the Coup
Publisher: Harper Collins, New Delhi
Year: 2000
Pages: 280
Price: Rs. 195

After what is widely believed to have been a failed summit at Agra, Indo-Pakistani relations are back to square one. It is not that much was expected from the talks in any case. Both Musharraf and Vajpayee have their own domestic constituencies to pander to, and neither would have been willing to brook any compromise on Kashmir, the single most crucial hurdle in the path of normalizing relations between the two countries. As the essays included in this book stress, Musharraf, despite being the military ruler of his country, is faced with tremendous odds that seriously constrain the freedom that he can exercise in attempting to inch towards better relations with India. The noted Pakistani critic, Tariq Ali opines in his contribution that the dominance of the Punjabi feudal and bureaucratic elite, as well as the Islamist right-wing and the army, stand in the way of any moves to improve relations with India. Pakistani nationalism has sought to define itself in opposition to India (a mirror opposite of Indian nationalism, particularly of the Hindutva variety), and thus moves to befriend India are generally viewed as compromising on not just Pakistani sovereignty and independence but, more crucially, on the very identity of the nation itself. Ali insists that a European Union-style South Asian Federation might actually hold the key to the seemingly hopeless quest for peace in South Asia.

Peace in South Asia is a must for the economic development of both India and Pakistan, says S. Akbar Zaidi, former professor of economics at the University of Karachi, in his essay. He cites facts and figures to show how highly skewed the income distribution pattern in Pakistan is (India, with its probably worse mass destitution, hardly fares better, though), in terms of class, region and ethnicity. He sees little hope for Musharraf in being able to stem the surging tide, warning that unless inequalities are redressed, civil war is certain, which might well take the form of ethnic conflict or religious radicalism. On the political front, he insists that as long as the army, the feudal lords and the bureaucracy continue to enjoy untrammeled powers, there is little hope for a genuine democracy to take root in the country. With the liberalization of the Pakistani economy, however, Zaidi opines, the country seems to be moving even further away from participatory democratic structures as income inequalities further widen, a point that is also made by veteran Pakistani journalist, Shahid-ur-Rahman in his aptly titled essay, ‘Who Owns Pakistan?’. Little wonder, then, as Aziz Siddiqui, join director of Pakistan’s Human Rights’ Commission, writes, Pakistanis, in general, do not seem to have responded negatively to the General’s coup, believing that it can hardly be worse than the civilian regimes that they have hitherto been subjected to. Possibly the most formidable barrier to improving Indo-Pakistan relations is the enormous clout that the religious right-wing enjoys in both India and Pakistan. Khaled Ahmed, consulting editor for the Lahore-based ‘Friday Times’, makes an interesting analysis of the growth of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, which are in the forefront of what they see as a ‘jihad’ against India. He argues that the Pakistani state has actively cultivated such groups to shore up its sagging legitimacy, and to pursue its goals in Kashmir. The collapse of civil society institutions, the failure of the Pakistani state in such crucial areas as medical and educational provision, and the influence of assertive Islamic movements abroad, in addition to a host of other factors, have made for the alarming rise of militant Islamist groups and a culture of violence that has wreaked havoc not just in Kashmir, but also inside Pakistan itself, with Shia-Sunni and intra-Sunni conflicts now assuming menacing proportions. Ahmed insists that one of the critical tasks facing Musharraf is to seriously attempt to reign in the militants. Never has the time been more appropriate for a more liberal and tolerant understanding of Islam, and, if one may add, of Hinduism as well. While acknowledging that Pakistan has to take serious measures to solve its own problems, Jason Burke, former South Asia correspondent of the London-based ‘Observer’, writes that being the bigger of the two countries, India must show sympathy and needs to find the necessary compassion and generosity to understand the dilemma that Pakistan faces. Likewise, Mani Shankar Aiyar also insists that dialogue is indeed the only way out of the impasse in Indo-Pakistan ties. But, as the collapsed Agra summit so clearly suggests, it must no longer remain a dialogue of the deaf.

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