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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 50, December 3, 2011

Turning the Corner in the Subcontinent

Friday 9 December 2011, by Uttam Sen

When the Pakistani Interior Minister announced in the Maldives early in November 2011 that the Indian Government was free to hang Muhammad Ajmal Kasab if it found him guilty,1 the trammelled big picture underscored the plight of the marginalised. There were voices that reminded the authorities that the law was meant to be an objective, discriminating, secular instrument based on universal standards rather than the assumed licence of a particular party to pick and choose who should be served up for retribution. But in effect that appeared to be the case as the establishment made good use of law and diplomacy to keep the putative networks of terror out of harm’s way. Delegated on-the-spot perpetrators of wanton killing could be pinned down with the benefit of evidence after due observance of their legal prerogatives. But they were small fry at the mercy of the elements, more red herring than the big fish. Democratic processes could not so easily bring to book the long arm that stretched to include the seemingly incorporeal figures beyond the reach of accepted human conduct. The intricacies of ground reality sometimes passed the range of formal public discourse. The distinctions between the legal and extra-legal, state and non-state, or terrorist and conformist, were not as clearly defined in practice as in precept. Nor were the subtle or imperceptible shades of overlap. But it still did not signify that the denial of basic entitlements could popularly be par for the course in any milieu.

Prima facie, Kasab’s guilt could arguably be qualified by “the lack of knowledge or under-standing that results from the omission of ordinary care to acquire such knowledge or understanding” (culpable ignorance). In a collateral construction, people brainwashed and motivated into trans-gression of norms they did not recognise and which in their hallucination constituted perfectly sound, even heroic, endeavour, met the condition. But when it was subject to the exception of reckless homicide in which a person acted negligently or demonstrated reckless disregard for life, forfeiting the right to his own, he was being left to his own devices, conceivably because the State could not endanger its legitimacy as a law-abiding entity. The conundrum of people facing extreme deprivation being exploited to widen the circle of misery holds sinister potential. It would stand to reason that even valid punishment for a Kasab (inevitable and necessary as it was) would not represent progress towards any kind of solution. The disembodied spirits (some of whose tangibility has not increased despite their presence in a Lahore court as 26/11 suspects on the strength of evidence provided by India) could strike again, immune to the results for people on both sides of the border.

But a paradigm shift could be imminent with Pakistan’s ruling dispensation faced more starkly than ever before with the urgency of cutting its coat according to its cloth. The elite had always felt the compulsion of encouraging causal agencies (like vicarious self-determination and unflinching theocracy) to boost public morale and security without corresponding investment in primary human capital when its own external political and economic equations necessarily moved in the direction of multiple geopolitical objectives that had little to do with the common man. The tiger it had created and was hard put to dismount as a consequence would, however, be spon-taneously tempered if the force of external circumstances now predicates its moderation. The Islamic universe is being swept by unprecedented questioning, like the rest of the world, under the aegis of new-found means of communication and social networking. Without discounting the sometimes structurally fragile and porous nature of such movements, the power of despotic backlashes, and the by-play of various forces straining to seize the day, the gradual advance of popular choice has emerged as an indelible factor. The global financial turbulence is also typical of the way things are, sometimes anticipating fresh approaches. Strategic modifi-cations follow by reason, for example, if the Americans want to distance themselves from terrorist hotchpotches that are fast losing their currency, India in its own interest would make limited adjustments, as the Pakistani establish-ment appears to have recognised, resulting in the overtures of November, 2011.2

THE larger issue is that of releasing the common man from the constraints of “face” and passion that were his recourse to dignity and survival, particularly after they had been organic features overlong; the interlude, if facilitated to a timely and dignified conclusion, could have served its purpose and paved the way for the future.3 The fortunate reality is that left to themselves a people with proficient intellectual and cultural endowments would find their own level and governance to protect the vulnerable, by some accounts the soundest index of social viability. There is reason to believe that variants of “guided democracy” had seldom allowed that to happen in the past, and with the growing penury of the God-fearing masses, Byzantine trails of sustenance (sometimes riches) came to be subsidised by terror as the operational clearing agent. The inflexibility and complication in that respect can be reduced considerably by restoring the civilisational continuum (in the West as well as the East) without too much fanfare. Anxieties could be reduced through the remission of ancient antipathies. There was a time when the extremist threat in Punjab appeared to be permanent, terrorism in Sri Lanka had become endemic, as had violence in Ireland and Angola. Their resolution did not always provide the best deal for the worst affected, but the tension abated all the same.

Additionally, there is now a universal thrust towards reassessment in which at least one school of thought advocates equity in terms of functioning as the antidote to a swirling financial vortex. The guiding principle of pursuing material prosperity by exploiting the earth as a bottomless pit always carried the intimation of trouble but never held as true as today. Nature’s diminishing returns will hit the poor the hardest. The plausible spin-offs include the urgency of people in transition questioning a priori assumptions that can delay their transformation, one of which is that they continue to be convulsed by the turmoil created by covert nexuses with chameleon-like properties. The connections might just be crossing their sell-by dates. The latent capabilities of traditional systems of entitlement and livelihood close to nature and the resources in question have been sedulously documented and present the remedy to the deprivation and dependence that afflict us and could be applicable to most of rural South Asia. Catholicity of discourse would reorient information and thinking to the emerging possibilities. The stimulus to prioritise the agenda could notionally come from a relatively objective source, for example, the influential subcontinental Diaspora with its bird’s-eye view. Political criticality could assume a scientific magnitude as when “a property or phenomenon suffers an abrupt change having enough mass to sustain a chain reaction”. What the situation demands is information and evaluation to identify the train of events and their mutation.

The manifestations are already at large, beginning with cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party’s impressive political rally in Lahore and his interview with the celebrated Indian television journalist, Karan Thapar.4 In some quarters, the significance lay more in the marked acceptance of his egress by Pakistan’s establishment-compatible public opinion (unlike in the past) than the airing of his known “liberalism”, leading to an interesting response.5 Was the military propping up him and his party as a civilian caretaker or, even better, (as) the acceptable face of a popularly elected future government?

President Asif Zardari’s alleged involvement in “Memogate”, the matter of a surreptitious note soliciting American military help in the event of a coup after May 2011, for onward transmission to Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, subse-quently leaked, was the stuff of the transitional insecurity that was already upon Pakistan. A realpolitik-oriented military would have hoped to oversee the customary in-house adjustments through yet another resilient dispensation in Islamabad. But the prospects of a one-party electoral sweep appeared bleak, despite the suspected backroom stratagem of setting up the Tehreek-i-Insaaf (which has not registered legislative representation yet) against Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) in the heartland of Punjab. The idea of internal tinkering to suit the protagonist in the fresh picture would thus, if not fall apart, at least prolong the chaos. Two countervailing features included the possible break with a long tradition, which would be impractical, and enforced conformity with a country and system that are products of rigorous domestic equivalence. Contradictions were bound to surface.

IT is somewhat ironic that such a prosaic interregnum should overtake the nationally-dominant arts and manners that shone the brightest with the ability to confront reality through the twilight of the Mughals when cultural-literary consciousness held its line. The dichotomy of a beleaguered state and society having to dismantle its inner structures of terrorism at the behest of global capital and at the same time take to a force reinventing contem-porary economic relations, can be painful to behold but not past resolution by its native synergistic genius, if allowed to flow. Autocracy and intimidation are unfortunately not the best facilitators. Despite the contested lineal exclusivity to the Mughal bequest, Pakistan needs to invoke the spirit that produced some of the greatest literary compositions beyond the religion of the court (for example, the Ramcharitmanasa by Tulsidas); but it was not in Aurangzeb’s time. Indian Muslims and non-Mughals had also contributed to the imperial splendour.

But openness is a two-way traffic. The ability to take the rap and overcome one’s own blind spots is also of the essence. Thus, for instance, the perception that as an upstream state India is appropriating more than its due of the Indus river waters might come as a revelation to most Indians. Even more, the spectre of militancy arising from the issue. For the record, the objective assessment of a leading Western journal clears India of most (though not all) charges.6 Within India we are familiar with the intricacies of water sharing (for example, the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) and the human tendency of lower riparian states to feel persecuted. The resolution in the end is mostly political management. But the laws of nature tend to balance out and India is the downstream state in the east where the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra are located in China. These problems will deepen with population growth and greater demand for water.

Pakistan’s “deep state” with its shadowy linkages is domestically rationalised on the basis of the country being chronically on the brink. However, sharing and experiencing its feelings are not quite the same as discharging its agenda. Broadmindedness could be as much a historical legacy as the agency for problem-solving. China too is investing in the skills of soft power, of cooption rather than coercion to attain objectives. Even business and management faced with exceptional situations are adopting creative approaches that may not be available in traditional step-by-step logic. There is much to commend lateral thinking grounded in the singularities of a region or neighbourhood to arrive at remedies. In that vein, the Pakistani kite-flying via Imran Khan, warts and all, should be given the attention it deserves.

There is, of course, a third and important factor, briefly touched upon, that is generally given short shrift. The young middle class urban-professional constituency that gave Pakistan’s former cricket captain such a rousing reception may not ultimately manage to decisively tilt the scales in his favour, but has the benefit of being, on an entirely different conceptual axis, aspirants to a global community and its standards of living. Large numbers of China’s “million millionaires”, encouraged to pursue apolitical vocations and keep out of trouble after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, are applying for migration! South Asian youth may not buck that trend. But sea turtles also tend to return and while in circulation create business opportunities through language and kinship networks that are one of a kind and perform wonders for national coffers, particularly in times of crisis. Their worldviews could create common ground across traditional rivalries. Yet politics, literally the knowledge of being a citizen, could home to roost again, a thought that the worldwide profusion of spring fever has not always plumbed to perfection. Politics and the market cannot be mutually exclusive. Seeing the flux through would be a balancing exercise, to be endured with fortitude, till the optimal level is struck.

A well-considered appreciation of geo-politics, of which demography and economics are important components, would give Pakistan the salience denied it by geography. India and China have to be approached symmetrically. A repre-sentative democracy would then be a realistic proposition, or so latter-day discourse suggests.


1. According to a PTI report datelined Islamabad, November 10, 2011, the Pakistani Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said that Kasab was a terrorist and should be sent to the gallows.

2. Apart from the imagined display of accommodation on Kasab, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, spoke about a “shrinking trust deficit” after talks with her Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, in the Maldives.

3. “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them”: Carl Gustav Jung (Memories, Dreams, and Reflections); the axiom should hold good for society as a whole.

4. Imran Khan has been making all the right noises, from the determination to eliminate terrorism to going easy on Kashmir, and delicately posing the issue of water resources. But for the bad press beyond the establishment and the already converted, he could still make an impression

5. Qamar Ali, ‘The dream of a new start in Pakistan’, The Hindu, November 21, 2011.

6. ‘Unquenchable thirst’, The Economist, November 19, 2011.

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