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Pakistan’s Liberals

What are we talking about when we say there are no liberals in Pakistan with whom we Indians can make common cause to further an agenda of peace and cooperation between the two countries? It is a point that needs some answering from us Indians since it was made by one of us in response to an article by Marvi Sirmed (‘We, the “delusional” liberals!’, Daily Times, July 25, 2011).
The answer depends on what we Indians think needs to be done in Pakistan to end its hostility towards India. (The converse is also true.) Broadly, these are two areas. First, end the 4G war that Pakistan has waged against us since the days of Punjab militancy. (Note Pakistan’s use of proxies and 4G warfare began with Punjab, not Kashmir. Further, Assam shows it need not end with Kashmir should Pakistan wish to bleed us.) Second, restore trade, commerce and exchanges between the two rivals to a level commensurate with the complementarities of the two economies. What we cannot, and must not, expect is that Pakistan will cease to compete with us in economics or diplomacy. Or that it will not use its leverage with China and/or the US to obtain the best possible bargain from us. That rivalry comes with the terrain. Lastly, there will always be a plurality of opinion within Pakistan. We cannot ever expect an across the board support for peace with India. A history of hostility, competing narratives, including an argument over the role of religion in politics, will never be resolved in a generation or two. So we must look for limited, specific goals where a commonality of interests might be found.
On the first issue of ending the 4G warfare, we must begin by noting that the liberals have come a long way from outright ‘stout denial’ of the war itself in Punjab to a grudging admission that the army has indeed used jihadis as proxies to bleed India, and that they continue to be used to further foreign policy objectives in Kashmir and elsewhere. That war has backfired. It needs to be rethought if not ended. The army’s double game in Afghanistan or Kashmir is unsustainable. This dynamic in the liberal narrative is internally driven. The objective is not so much peace with India but to contain domestic radicalisation and preserve personal freedoms. The idea is not to berate the army but to make it alter its policy. At the periphery, the narrative seeks to assert a realistic degree of civilian control over the army commensurate with institutional capabilities. There is also the recognition that India is not an existential threat but a self-created bogey. Can Indians support this narrative and add to it? That is the key question. The answer is yes but it also means being hands-off. The process must not only be internally driven but also seen to be internally driven.
The second broader issue for the liberal agenda is de-radicalisation of society. Putting religion back into the personal domain, ending covert and overt state backing of fundamentalists, modulating the ISI’s role in domestic politics, putting the army back into the barracks, unwinding the security state rhetoric are some of the issues on the liberal agenda. Again these are largely domestic issues. They are not intended to end the role of religion in public affairs, embrace secularism Indian-style or in any way diminish the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims. Nor should we expect it to be so. They are intrinsically reforms of the existing system, in many ways a reversal of the policy from the Zia years. They do not constitute a change in national strategy in terms of power projection, economics or diplomacy. They are intended to forestall a pariah status for Pakistan internationally.
Where is the pay-off from the overall national strategy that the Pakistan Army has pursued since the Zia years? How does Pakistan’s army see the scenario unfolding? What is the endgame as it sees things? Pakistan’s pay-off from the strategy has been predicated on: (a) acting as a trade corridor between India and Central Asia in terms of oil, etc, but a corridor that it fully controls; (b) playing off China and the US vs India to extract a bargain from all sides, and (c) hiring out its guns to whosoever can pay in the region. Is that about to change? No. So long as there is money in it, that game will continue, regardless of whether the military or civilians are in charge. The methods, process and intensity might change. The basic strategy is intrinsic to the dynamic and cannot change.
However, Pakistan’s liberals have staked out a case for change even in the basic strategy. The liberal narrative is that the trade corridor role is best played by normalisation of relations with India. And that the normalisation process must begin now. The argument between liberals and the army is more a case of what comes first — chicken or egg. It may be essentially limited in scope but it shows that possibilities for a better narrative exist.
Overall, we in India can support liberal efforts in reformulation of Pakistan’s domestic policy. These changes make normalisation of relations easier. Some in India question even the desirability of such normalisation. That is unfortunate. It is in our interest to restore a degree of flexibility in our dealings with Pakistan in the context of China’s efforts to ring us in. We are seeing the dynamic play out in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. Time we, too, made our moves. However, we must guard against expecting too much.
How, then, does one place the taunts, insults, and yes hatred, that goes with any effort at interaction between Pakistanis and Indians? These are part and parcel of our historical baggage. We must minimise them even as we recognise that they colour the relationship. Overreacting to them is just so much wasteful friction that generates heat but no light.
Liberals in Pakistan denote its endless possibilities. They are a poignant reminder of the subcontinent’s promise. They are not what is but what can, and indeed, must be. Their sincerity, integrity, love of their country and commitment to what they believe in is not in question. Their numbers may be minuscule but they keep the torch burning. And they have demonstrated a capacity to compel response from the Pakistani deep state that was simply unthinkable even a few years ago. Friendship with them is not an imperative but it would be churlish to deny them the respect they have earned for their forthright stand on issues in their domestic context. If they bring moderation to Pakistan, why not? More power to them. Let us cheer them on!

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Rakesh Jagwani
    August 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    The liberal in Pakistan is like Hrithik Roshan’s sixth finger, an oddity and utterly useless.

    Seriously, though, your article is well-meaning but there is no hope that Pakistan in its current form will revert to a civilian democracy that will stop trying to destabilize India. The Pakistani liberal is much like Geronimo: a lonely, tragic, even heroic figure… but doomed to die defeated.
    India needs to realize it is negotiating with drug dealing brain washers of suicide bombers. Threaten them with death and strike fear into their hearts.

  2. Anil Kumar
    August 17, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Hoping that relation between India and Pakistan will improve and somehow we will live like good neighbors is something neither Indians nor Pakistanis believe is ever going to happen. So I say lets leave it at that.

    Liberals in Pakistan?

    I think Indian politicians need to grow some balls and cut off all diplomatic ties with Pakistan. Pakistan will continue to support terrorism and we Indians can bang our head against the wall for some kind of support from Pakistan to curb the menace, it will never happen.

    So liberals or no liberals in Pakistan, we will continue to hate each other forever. As an Indian, it makes me happy to see that more and more people die in Pakistan because of religious fundamentalism. They should have realized this long ago that the weapon they chose against India was double edged. They bled us, and naturally now its their turn. So yea, more power to them. Lets cheer them on!

  3. WhatsInAName
    August 23, 2011 at 12:21 am

    “First, end the 4G war that Pakistan has waged against us since the days of Punjab militancy.”

    Not a single war has been waged by Pakistan against India. Indians have been fed strange info, firstly its their media, secondly, its their literature and thirdly maybe Bollywood.

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