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How scholars abroad view Pakistan

How scholars abroad view Pakistan

Author: Mohammad Waseem
Publication: Dawn, Karachi
Date: April 8, 2001

Conferences on South Asia held in England, the US, Japan, India or elsewhere bring out interesting observations about politics in Pakistan. Most analyses of foreign scholars revolve round Islam and military as the two leading factors shaping politics in this country. Others bring in the question of lack of growth of social sciences.

The sessions of foreign conferences on politics are usually reserved for comparison between India and Pakistan. Deliberations about the latter are thereby automatically put in a bad light in the context of a dichotomous model based on democracy vs military rule. At one end, there are observations expressing a patronizing concern about the problems of democracy in this country. Here, Pakistan comes out as a delinquent state which separated from India only to end up destroying the constitutional tradition developed during the previous century under the British rule.

At the other end, there is outright dismissal of the country's potential to develop participatory models of government, given the militaristic tendencies among its ruling elite.

Reductionism is at work all the time. It is not uncommon to see foreign analysts picking out the ISI as the ultimate arbiter of politics in Pakistan. But what about political parties, professional associations, various patterns of electoral mobilization and the role of the intelligentsia in general?

One is at pains to point out flaws in the arguments which single out the premier intelligence service of Pakistan for being responsible for deshaping politics single handedly.

And yet, scholars from universities and research institutes in the West who follow South Asian affairs closely tend to hold the ISI responsible for political instability of the last decade and half. It is an unpleasant experience to hear about the alleged involvement of the ISI in a variety of events, including making and breaking of governments in Afghanistan during the 1990s; putting together an anti-PPP coalition of parties called IJI under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif in 1988; seeking to undo elected governments through such activities as the Midnight Jackals Operation against Benazir Bhutto in 1989; and, coming down to the year 2001, getting the anti-Nawaz Sharif faction of the PML elected into various party offices.

In the same vein, military's corporate interests are considered to be the motivating force behind all efforts to take Pakistan away from democracy. Scholars generally focus on the way army under elected governments usurped policy initiatives from the hands of civilians pertaining to defence and foreign policies.

One tries to correct this impression by arguing that apart from the army, there is a sizeable middle class section of population - including the bureaucracy, professionals and businessmen - which similarly dislikes politicians.

However, the scholarly opinion about Pakistan in the world at large continues to concentrate on the phenomenon of Bonapartism within the army. One tries to argue that lack of democracy can be explained essentially in the context of regional politics, especially India-Pakistan relations. After all, being the weaker country and facing a bellicose India next door, Pakistan has been constrained to prioritize its policies in favour of internal and external security. That is why the ruling elite informally developed a doctrine: security first, democracy later. But not for half a century, argue these scholars. According to them, it is no more a transitory phenomenon.

They maintain that the army's penetration into economic, bureaucratic and transport sectors is phenomenal. One tries to argue against this position, pointing out that the constitutional tradition comprising the roles of the judiciary, political parties and institutions of civil society in general is formidable in terms of its hold on public imagination.

The counter argument focuses on the hard fact of military dominance as opposed to the mythical reality of civic imagination.

Western scholars argue that the task of scholars and diplomats from Pakistan is far from enviable. This is so because they try to sell something for which there is no market - a non-democratic dispensation. In this context, conference participants point to the official propaganda about the corruption of political governments.

The elected government of Nawaz Sharif was able to make a severe dent in the public credibility of Benazir Bhutto, as confessed by her. This despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif was accused of putting pressure on the judiciary and using underhand means to malign her and her government. And yet, the fact that his government enjoyed a high level of legitimacy worked in his favour. As compared to that, the accountability drive of the present military government has faced problems from the beginning because of the controversy about its legitimacy in the diplomatic quarters.

One is driven to one's wits end to build a positive profile of Pakistan against such odds in conferences abroad.

In recent years, politics of Islam in Pakistan has suffered from an extremely bad coverage in the world of media and academia.

Scholars are unusually vocal about condemning the alleged terrorism of jihadi groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The message of militaristic activities of these groups outweighs the message of Islamabad that Pakistan is a moderate Islamic state. Others from across the conference table consider Pakistan to be a sponsor of regional instability through its support for the Taliban.

For a Pakistani scholar, all this poses a difficult challenge. He can argue that for Pakistan what matters is not the religious content of the Taliban's message but their role in the restoration and preservation of the traditional ethnic balance in Afghanistan.

In the long run, this should pave the way for real political stability even though the current situation in that country in relation to ideology-related matters may not be satisfactory. Those unconvinced by this line of reasoning point to the apparently irrational extent to which the Pakistani ruling elite is prepared to stake the reputation of the country in the context of its alienation from the world community, including its long-term friend Iran.

Foreign scholars in academic conferences often refer to meetings between Pakistani diplomats and their counterparts in western capitals, media men or academicians. They are fond of making the point that these diplomats are under great pressure from their political environment which is rife with a spirit of hostility.

They claim that Pakistani diplomats find it very difficult to sell a military government or Islamic militancy to the western public. In some cases, they respond to the adverse opinion by simply underselling their country in general.

Sometimes, conferences on issues relating to South Asia are not attended by Pakistani scholars at all. One oft-quoted reason is the inability of scholars to make timely arrangements for their visit. Especially those from outside Islamabad face difficulties in pursuing their applications for a No Objection Certificate (NOC) through the maze of government offices. Procedural constraints back home virtually bar these scholars from participating in these conferences.

It is common to hear the complaint of conference organizers that suitable Pakistani scholars are hard to come by. Sometimes they are constrained to invite scholars without knowing much about their work or other credentials. This lands them in an awkward situation because these participants turn out to be deficient in terms of their knowledge and understanding of the issues under discussion and the idiom and style relevant to such discourses.

One question is repeatedly asked: is it true that social sciences in Pakistan are in a miserable state of development? Often this question is accompanied by an expression of fear that a particular academic discipline, may be history or sociology or philosophy, is dead. The lack of quality representation of Pakistan in terms of various disciplines of social sciences only add to the veracity of these statements.

What is the crux of the matter? Is it the crisis of civil-military relations? Is it the lack of sensitivity to the cause of democracy? Is it the lack of quality input from the diplomatic corps of Pakistan about the situation in the word at large? Is it the poor scholarship emanating from universities in Pakistan? Is it the myopic vision which sees development coming through science and technology without a comparable growth of social sciences?

Or is it the systemic inefficiencies of the state which hinder the availability of relevant scholars for participation in the world conferences? All these questions need to be addressed sooner than later.
 


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