No new ideas
February 16, 2005
The Idea of Pakistan
Stephen Philip Cohen
Oxford University Press 2005
pp 382; Rs.495
The blurb on the jacket of Stephen Cohen's new book states: "Whatever be the choices which Pakistan makes for itself, possible future scenarios, which Cohen suggests, make this book important not just to political scientists, and strategic analysts, but also to policy makers, diplomats, journalists, defence personnel, business people, and the informed general reader." It could have also added this is also a book for those who know little or nothing about Pakistan. It is probably the best first book to read on Pakistan and an ideal textbook for undergraduates in a US University doing Pakistan 101 as a requirement for a major in South Asian studies. It will fill you in on Pakistan without making you any wiser. There is nothing new in it and if any of our policy makers, diplomats, journalists, defence personnel and strategic analysts were to find utility in it, it would only suggest that they are now serious about remedying their ignorance.
It is nevertheless a masterly effort that could serve a model for any aspiring Indian author wishing to a serious book on a serious subject. It does not have a single sentence that starts with "I think or I believe…" for it is not a book of opinions but a book that carefully analyses facts. It is extremely well researched, documented and is a treasure trove of information on Pakistan. The reader can find nuggets strewn about that will enrich one's perspective about Pakistan. One real beauty is on page 224. It reads: "The focal point of Punjabi domination was and remains the army. Seventy-five percent of the army is drawn from three Punjab districts (Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Campbellpur) and two adjacent districts in the NWFP (Kohat and Mardan). These districts contain only 9 percent of Pakistan's male population. The officer corps is drawn from a wider, more urban base but is still Punjabi, often the sons of junior commissioned officers." That Pakistan is dominated by Punjabis (57.7%) is well known, but even within the Punjabi homeland (25.8%) that it is three districts closely knit by clan and marriage that dominate the army tells us a lot about how that country remains so easily under the influence of the army.
It is well known that the Pakistan Army is the bedrock upon which the Pakistani system rests. Cohen writes that "for the foreseeable future, the army's vision of itself, its domestic role, and shaping Pakistan's strategic environment will be the most important factors shaping Pakistan's identity." Since that is so, the only influences capable of removing the blinkers on that vision are outside Pakistan - the USA and India. It is clear that the USA is not in a hurry to open that vision to the reality that is Pakistan today. Its posse in pursuit of Osama bin Laden needs a somewhat acquiescent Pakistan. Whether they are fully co-operating with the Americans is another matter for the Pakistan establishment is expert on handling the Americans. In the words of a young Pakistani woman (page 327), "Pakistani officials, like Pakistani beggars, become alert when they see Americans approaching." We also know that Americans seem to often find reassurance when palms are outstretched before them.
On the other hand India stands confused about what it is to do about Pakistan. Its policy making elite is torn by the sentimentalism of the Punjabi elite that has found refuge and notable influence in India's capital - Manmohan Singh and Inder Gujral are notable among them - and the irrationality of fanatical Hindu nationalists, many of who are also part of that elite. Though a warm nostalgia and implacable hate separate them they one in their opposition to the idea of Pakistan. Both see Pakistan as an integral part of Indian nation and still entertain some notions of a political union. The notion of forging a brotherhood based upon a cultural affinity and even history are not quite in consonance with the current reality.
The north dominated India; either of the Muslim rulers or the British Raj has been gone for over half a century now. The Indian and Pakistani Punjabi may have much in common, but that is not important to the rest of India. The idea of Pakistan or more importantly what it is now is well accepted in the rest of India. The Indian establishment caught in this cross currents of nostalgia and hate has thus still not convinced Pakistan of this dominant sentiment that prevails in India. What is so overwhelmingly important to the northerners like the Kuldip Nayars and Mubashir Hasan's in India and Pakistan is not so in the rest of India and it now seems even in the rest of Pakistan. India has generally sorted out its "Punjabi problem" with a vigorous democracy that has ensured a shift in political primacy. Pakistan is yet to do so and may not even be able to do so considering that it is so overwhelmingly Punjabi. This Pakistan is not a homeland for India's Muslims but more an Empire of the Punjabi Muslim. Yet India needs to help this Pakistan reshape its perspective of India. But the primeval hatreds of the Hindu nationalist only further tighten the grip of the Punjabi army over Pakistan.
Stephen Cohen acknowledges the help of "many Washington friends and colleagues who have generously shared their knowledge and insights." Most if not all these are the very people who shaped US policy towards Pakistan and thus Pakistan's towards India. These are all veterans of the Cold War and have remained generally suspicious of an India that wants to sit on the international high table but with a mind of its own. Most of them are well known and some like Selig Harrison are even well respected in India. But Polly Nayak among them deserves a special mention. She is an old intelligence hand and has just stepped out of the cold into the Brookings Institution, after recently retiring as the head of the CIA's South Asia section. She of course doesn't need to read the book. The CIA wrote most of it and look at the harvest South Asia is reaping? Dr. Manmohan Singh is fond of the quoting Victor Hugo as saying "nothing is as irresistible as an idea whose time has come." What Hugo wrote was actually somewhat different. He wrote: "On resiste a l'invasion des armees; on ne resiste pas a l'invasion des idees" (A stand can be made against invasion by an army; no stand can be made against invasion by an idea). The Americans continue to prepare Pakistan against invasion by an army, whereas India still seems incapable of invading it with an idea. "The Idea of Pakistan" doesn't offer any ideas on how to end this impasse.
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