28 November 2006

"Pakistan: Eye of the storm" by Owen Bennett Jones

Owen Bennet Jones was BBC’s correspondent in Pakistan for three years till 2001.

His book is a wonderful way to understand Pakistan. It is not a typical chronological list of facts. It is a set of nicely grouped perspectives on the issues in Pakistan’s politics: the power players – army, politicians, feudal lords; the public opinion issues – Kashmir, Bomb, Bangladesh, Muhajirs; and their impact on Pakistan so far.

The reader can pick any chapter and start with it.

It is difficult to write a book about Pakistan (or India) without leaving in the reader’s mind a sense of disappointment at a biased perspective. Was partition the right thing to do? Different views may emerge based on who you ask.

It is even more difficult for a British author to keep a balanced perspective on the history of the sub-continent given the influence in his own ambience. Is Winston Churchill a wise statesman or an arrogant imperialist? Different views may emerge based on where you ask.

The author seems to have struck a fine balance between multiple views.

However, in a few instances, the author disappoints:

Pakistan does feel insecure about India’s intentions. The religious divide is a thin argument since India has more Muslims than Pakistan; and they are not raring to quit India. The divide stems from a public opinion that got shaped by the shameful violence during partition; that got nurtured after the partition by the army and politicians in Pakistan as a pet hate agenda for self serving reasons. Today, no politician or general in Pakistan can take a softer friendly stand towards India and survive in Pakistan. This is true to a lesser extent for politicians in India too. Feeding a public opinon for political convenience and in turn being fed by it is the vicious cycle that Pakistan has gotten into. The author misses this point and suggests that Pakistan’s insecurity stems from India responding to Pakistan’s invasion in 1965 by crossing the border and coming to occupy Lahore; and from India’s role in liberation of Bangaldesh. This world-view befits a public relations spin master and not a political journalist.

Pakistan’s view is that Mujahideens causing mass deaths in Kashmir are “freedom fighters” and not “terrorists”. This view suffers from several fallacies:
(a) Pakistan’s claim as homeland to the sub continent’s Muslims is not valid any more. Not after 180 million in East Pakistan walked away. Not after 200 million Muslims have stayed back in India and have played a big role in India’s growth. Pakistan has lesser Muslims, 150 million, today than either India or Bangladesh.
(b) The Mujahideen are trained and equipped by the State of Pakistan. This is low intensity proxy war. Not freedom fighting. Not terrorism.
(c) The Mujaihideen are not citizens of Kashmir. They are "outsiders" coming in for a shared religion. They sincerely believe they are fighting for the noble cause of their religion. They believe religion prevails over the State. This view raises challenges to several States. In the end this may prove to be a bigger challenge to Islamic States than other States.
The author’s sympathetic description of the events in Kashmir as “tribesmen crossing the border to fight for their muslim brethren” reflects one view reasonably well; but ignores an opposite view that may have a greater dosage of wisdom.

Pakistan’s army, in the words of Benazir Bhutto, has a better track record in fighting its own citizens than fighting other armies. The army’s response to this potential for doubt is made up of: (a) a signature tactic of proxy war – in defeat there is a cover of deniability; and in success there is glory and (b) lack of transparency on events during the war and a “spin” that could obfuscate truth. The author is willing to be a facilitator. Did Pakistan’s army lose its positions in Kargil? Or, did they walk out because Nawaz Sharif ceded to pressure from the US? The author says that Indians claim Pakistan army was dislodged in 80% of the positions before Sharif met Clinton; but “neutral” observers, relying on Pakistan sources, believe that India had dislodged Pakistan in just 12 of the 132 positions implying that the army won it and politicians lost it. Neutral observers relying on Pakistan sources? There are better neutral analyses like Arthur J Tellis’ book “Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella”.

The author parrots a view he heard in Pakistan army: that Pakistan army uses tribesmen in its engagement with India because the Indian army is more afraid of the tribesmen than Pakistan’s regular army. Steve Coll in “Ghost wars” has a different story. Officers in Pakistan army preferred to get posted to the Western front than the Eastern front where they need to meet the tough professional army from India.

Aside from these minor biases, the author has done a very good job in portraying Pakistan’s history and the issues this young nation faces.

26 November 2006

"The true face of Jehadis: Inside Pakistan's network of terror" by Amir Mir

Several Pakistanis have written courageously critical analysis of intolerant dictatorships and terrorism in Pakistan.

Hassan Abbas’s book “Pakistan’s drift into extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s war on terror” and Hussain Haqani’s book “Pakistan between Mosque and Military” are two good examples. So are Tariq Ali’s “Clash of Fundamemntalism” and “Jehad and Modernity”.

However, Hassan Abbas and Hussain Haqani were part of Pakistan’s politics and policy for a while and have written their books from the safe shores of United States. Tariq Ali wrote his books from the free and safe environment of England. (To be fair to Tariq, the man who inspired Rolling Stones to write their song “street fighting man”, he was critical of Pakistan even when he lived in Pakistan; but his family moved him to the UK for higher education and his years in Oxford have only rendered him a more balanced and more respected critic. Yet his best books were written when he was in the UK).

Amir Mir is different. He lives in Pakistan. He is no politician and has the reputation of being Pakistan’s leading investigative journalist. It is quite difficult for Amir Mir to be honest without fear of reprisal – by the State, by the power brokers or by the offended terrorists. It is difficult to “not belong” in Pakistan. Imagine if its Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had to swear in public that he was instructed in his childhood by a certified orthodox Sunni cleric to avoid the dangerous allegation of being a Shiite.

Amir Mir’s courage in writing this critical analysis of Pakistan’s network of terror while living in Pakistan is a vindication of his love for his country.

Elected prime ministers as well as Military dictators are influenced by “public opinion”. One conforms to it to win popularity. Another conforms to it for “legitimacy”. Public opinion in Pakistan hovers around "religion" and "Kashmir".

The Jihad of the 1980s in Afghanistan ended up empowering the “religious right” as a major influence of public opinion in Pakistan. The religious right used zakat funds to harvest a crop of fighters willing to die for pet causes. United States was myopic to believe communism is worth thwarting using communalism. Pakistan’s ISI provided the institutional framework to assemble all this together and execute the objectives.

The current Jihad against a wider array of enemies – the United States, Israel, Afghanistan and India is an improved version with a public opinion even more supportive of religious right and intolerant of alternative view points. The State is trying to be a supporter of international opinion in containing terrorism and a supporter of Pakistan public opinion by not overdoing it. End result: an assorted list of small groups, all equipped with very powerful motivation to destroy civilization elsewhere for causes the groups firmly believe are moral and honourable.

Amir Mir provides a mosaic of news about the rise of various terrorist groups, their pet causes, operations etc.

The picture one gets makes one feel sad for Pakistan. Because terrorism has always failed in achieving its objectives and has alienated the vital support of public opinion to causes that otherwise would have been very moral and very supportable. On the other hand, terrorism has rarely failed to suppress quality of life at its point of origin. This is true of almost every theater where terrorism was practised.

Amir Mir is rightly frightened of terrorism’s impact on Pakistan.

19 November 2006

"Shameful Flight" by Stanley Wolpert

This book is about the last years of British rule of India – an unwise partition, an incompetent colonial government, and a botched up migration leaving bitter legacies. The author is UCLA’s Professor Emeritus teaching history with several other books about India to his credit.

The book is outstanding for many reasons: It is written in an easy style that would force you to read it one go, quite rarely seen in books covering history. Yet the book has sufficient background research that can only be expected from UCLA’s professor of history. It has a balanced presentation of facts by a scholar far removed by geography and time from the events.
Stanley Wolpert provides some interesting insights:

British rule of India is a tale of incompetence:

In 1943, India produced 50 million tons of food grains – enough to feed its population of 400 million. Yet 1.5 million people died of starvation in Bengal that year primarily due to mismanagement.

Bengal’s governor Herbert and Viceroy Lord Wavell pleaded for food grains. Britain’s war transport minister Baron Frederick James Leathers kept 6 million tons stored in ships in Indian Ocean but did not spare it for the starving. Wavell’s report to an uninterested Prime Minister Churchill says “the famine in Bengal was largely due to ministerial incompetence”.

The incompetence was acknowledged in London as well. Churchill’s Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery confesses in a private letter to the Viceroy Linlithgow “nothing has convinced me more than the Cabinet meetings…. of the fundamental incapacity of a British cabinet to try and govern India”.

Viceroy Wavell condemns Churchill four years later after sitting in one cabinet meeting: “He hates India and everything to do with it. Winston knows as much of the Indian problem as George III did of the American colonies!”

British rule of India is a tale of political insensitivity.

The best example of this insensitivity is Winston Churchill’s peevish telegram to his Viceroy asking “why Gandhi has not died yet?” after releasing the Mahatma from prison because of medical conditions. Not a class-act in international politics.

Partition could have been avoided with greater wisdom in Indian/British leadership.

In 1937 provincial elections the Congress won clear majority in six of the eleven provinces. Jinnah’s Muslim league failed to win a single province. Jinnah appealed to Nehru to agree to a coalition Congress-League ministries in the multicultural provinces. Nehru refused and retorted that there were only two parties left: “the British and the Congress”. Jinnah devoted the next ten years to create Pakistan. If Nehru had pursued an “inclusive style of politics” there would have been no opportunity to “divide and rule”.

1946 offered another opportunity to unite. British Secretary of State, Lord Pethick Lawrence advocated a coalition cabinet (made up of Congress and Muslim League) that decides by consensus (as coalitions normally do) and not by majority vote. Nehru declined to cede parity to Muslim league and share power. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad sadly reflected in his autobiography that “Jawaharlal’s mistake in 1937 had been bad enough. The mistake of 1946 proved even more costly”. This resolved Jinnah to insist on partition.

Britain played the “divide and rule” card to the long term detriment of India. Viceroys were quick to ignore good examples. Chief Ministers Sikandar Hayat Khan and Fazl-i-Husain governed Punjab province by using local patriotism and common language to unify the multi-religious Punjab society. It was the same Punjab that recorded the largest death triggered by inept governing.

British rule had no strategy to deal with partition.

Britain, as a colonial ruler, has a history of shameful behaviour. In 1942, when Britain exited Burma “the civil administration suddenly collapsed and those in charge sought their own safety. Private motor cars were commandeered for the evacuation of Europeans, leaving their owners stranded. …. The city of Rangoon was left at the mercy of …. hardened criminals”. There was no thought for life after British rule.

Months ahead of independence most of the British staff were evacuated to Britain leaving no credible law enforcement mechanism for the infant governments of India and Pakistan to deal with the migration induced violence and death.

Mountbatten was aware of the likely violence and the lack of a plan to deal with this. Though Cyril Radcliffe’s maps with the boundary lines of India and Pakistan were ready earlier, Mountbatten kept it under lock and key until the pageantry, splendor and photo opportunities of the Independence day were over and the British could no more be blamed for the violence or the ineptitude with which it was handled. His reasoning: “the earlier it was published, the more the British would have to bear the responsibility for the disturbances which would undoubtedly result”. Reasonable opportunity to manage the migration was denied for the sake of glory.

Says Bengal Secretary John Dawson Tyson, “Mountbatten’s focus was on withdrawal in fairly peaceful conditions….. the India after 15 August will not be the kind of country I should want to live in”

Rear Admiral Viscount Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Mountbatten expressed what he thought about the way he had done his job in India to BBC’s John Osmon in 1965. Thirty nine years later Osman says that though he dislikes using vulgar slang, the only honest way of reporting accurately what the last Viceroy said was “I fu….d it up”.

Stanley Wolpert concludes that both India and Pakistan are still saddled with the bitter legacies of Great Britain’s hasty, shameful flight.

Excellent book.