Tariq Ali, Pervez Musharraf and the next Big Crisis


Rumours thrive in Pakistan.

The country has staggered from dictatorship to war to corrupt democracy, from frontline State against communism to frontline State against terrorism. With each new crisis, rumours fly that this is ‘The Big One.’

‘There are always rumours,’ laughed a Pakistani journalist reassuringly during one such crisis. ‘Government has fallen. Nuclear war is imminent,’ the rumours go.

Pakistanis have been able to deal with the tribulations of the post-9/11 world by reflecting that they have survived much worse from the 1971 civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh to the darkest days of the 1980s under the military dictatorship of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq. In Pakistan, the apocalypse has been frequently predicted, but has never arrived.

Even so, it is hard to resist the creeping feeling that the current travails of the current President, Pervez Musharraf, represent what might be ‘it’ the big crisis at last. Musharraf’s attempt in March of this year to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry triggered protests by lawyers and activists. Dozens have been killed in ethnic violence in Karachi, and in Islamabad a city that once rivaled Canberra in the bland and boring stakes Islamists have established a fiefdom within illegally constructed mosques and are conducting an ‘anti-vice campaign’ that includes kidnapping and ‘re-educating’ women supposed to have been engaged in the sex industry.

And while the US is rumoured to have become impatient with Musharraf blaming him for the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan a range of troubles are flaring in different parts of the country, all of them part of a larger crisis of legitimacy, not only for Musharraf but for Pakistan as a whole.

The first book I read by Left-wing activist Tariq Ali back when I was still at school was Can Pakistan Survive? So with Ali’s current visit to Australia for the Noosa Longweekend Festival and ‘Sydney Ideas’ (Sydney University’s international public lecture series), it seemed an appropriate moment to revisit the question. Ali said:

Pakistan is a nuclear State of 180 million people set in their ways so it probably will survive. But it needs to be given a proper federal structure, respect provincial autonomy, and see some sort of long-term deal done with India. And it’s very unhealthy that the military plays such a key part in the country’s politics. Pakistan will survive, but it should not carry on as it has done, because it is not in the interests of its people.

According to Ali, Musharraf’s Government is reaching the end of its natural life cycle, but it is difficult to be optimistic about what might come next. The two major civilian leadership contenders former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were thoroughly discredited by the corruption that dominated their respective times in office. Few Pakistanis regard them with any degree of enthusiasm.

There is much talk of a possible deal between Bhutto and Musharraf a move that Ali says would split her own Party. ‘People are becoming more and more cynical.’

Amid this cynicism, Ali sees the public outcry at the sacking of the Chief Justice as a positive sign. Chaudhry was responsible for a series of judgments that had not gone the Government’s way over issues such as the privatisation of State assets and the sinister issue of the growing number of ‘disappeared’ people last seen in the custody of the security services. This show of judicial independence was seen as an indication that he might not rule in the President’s favour over the ‘uniform issue’ Musharraf’s insistence on retaining the roles of both President and Chief of the Army. (Musharraf has called his military uniform his ‘second skin’ which cannot be removed; and he seems to regard himself similarly well-suited to the office of President.)

However, his attempt to sack the Chief Justice for alleged nepotism has generated an unexpectedly strong response, including violent street clashes. According to Ali, ‘This was essentially a limited, not a mass mobilisation. Ordinary people don’t care. But the professional middle class did use it to embarrass the military and demand the end of military rule.’ Ali sees this as encouraging:

It’s not related to religion, it’s not related to power, it’s just demanding a separation between the judiciary and the State.

While Ali is no sympathiser of the military regime, he believes it is wrongheaded to blame Musharraf for failing to act militarily to halt the resurgence of the Taliban in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan:

The Americans should know that it is not easy for any political leader in Pakistan to go around killing too many people. And Benazir Bhutto going on her knees before the US State Department, begging to be put into power saying, ‘I will be tough on the Taliban and its supporters’ how will she be tough, without the Army? When she was in power the first time, she sent the Taliban into Afghanistan!

The United States itself is responsible for the current mess in Afghanistan. They’ve been killing too many civilians. They’ve made the Taliban popular again by the way they’ve occupied the country, and then they’ve blamed Pakistan for things for which it isn’t really responsible. It’s a bit much to expect Pakistan to bomb its own tribal areas and kill its own people. It’s done so once or twice and the Army has suffered as a result. When you talk to some of the US lobby in Pakistan and ask, ‘What should Musharraf do? Should he go and kill ten thousand people?’ They say, ‘Yeah, he should!’

You don’t deal with religious revivalism by killing ten thousand people. It’s not going to work. Never does.

The key to the future is a properly funded, State-controlled education system. You can’t deal with the power of the madrassahs [Islamic religious schools] unless you have a proper alternative.

In the long term, Ali believes that the best hope for the region is a South Asian Union along the lines of the European Union with free trade and free borders. Within the framework of a South Asian Union you could find a solution for the autonomy of Kashmir and for the autonomy of the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. Ali said:

But in order for such things to be pushed through, you need politicians with some vision, and there are no politicians with such vision anywhere in the subcontinent.

I was about four years old when the Partition of India and Pakistan took place in 1947, but the stories one hears from the older generation are that they had thought it was inconceivable that this could take place. Even Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan thought that Hindus and Sikhs would be able to live in Pakistan that people would be able to come and go and he himself would be able to spend the summer in Bombay, his favourite city. But it was naïve of him to think that you could you create a State without this movement of populations. The massacres that accompanied Partition were among the worst since World War II. And the dead are not remembered by either side.

The country created amid so much bloodshed cannot be simply dismantled without similar violence, but a South Asian Union would, in Ali’s view, go some way towards restoring the pre-Partition sense of regional community. It is not easy to be optimi
stic about South Asia, he says:

One can only hope for certain changes over time. The survival of Pakistan is guaranteed by its nuclear weapons. The military is not going to allow the State to disintegrate because of the nuclear factors and neither is the West. But it’s a somewhat negative way to keep a country together.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.