The Moment Has
By Shahid Javed Burki
There are moments
in a nation’s history when its leaders must
look at their performance and also around themselves,
take stock of the situation they and their country
face, and, if need be, adopt a new course. For Pakistan
such a moment has arrived. It was long time in coming
but a number of defining events occurred in October
and early November that suggest that the country
stands at a crossroads. My view is that the time
has come to adopt a new course and follow it steadily
till the past has been left comfortably behind.
October began with a devastating earthquake that
exposed Pakistan’s many weaknesses. Among
them was the government’s inability to quickly
gauge the depth of the crisis it faced and organize
itself to provide relief to the affected population.
The earthquake has already claimed at least 74,000
lives but the estimate of those who died continues
to increase. Three million people are homeless and
as winter approaches the number of dead will increase.
The country does not have the resources to pay for
rescue, relief, and rehabilitation and the world
community has proved to be ungenerous. How will
Pakistan deal with this crisis and what will be
the medium-and long-term economic and political
However, the earthquake produced some positive developments.
India offered $25 million in assistance to Pakistan
which Islamabad gratefully accepted. It also made
available its helicopters but Pakistan, understandably,
was not prepared to let their pilots fly them over
sensitive areas in its part of Kashmir. On October
29, India and Pakistan agreed to open five points
in the Line of Control to permit traffic from both
sides. This was the first manifestation of the appearance
of a “soft border” that President Pervez
Musharraf had spoken about on many occasions. Could
the acceptance of such a border ultimately lead
to the resolution of the long-enduring Kashmir problem?
Three weeks after the earthquake hit Kashmir and
Pakistan’s northern areas, a coordinated attack
by a group of terrorists killed 60 people in Delhi’s
busy markets on the eve of Diwali and Eidul Fitr.
There was a clear message behind these attacks.
Their perpetrators were not prepared to let human
tragedy be the reason for allowing India and Pakistan
to come together. The extremist Hindu parties in
India were no less relenting; they pointed their
fingers at Pakistan and accused it once again of
fomenting trouble in their country.
For once, both Islamabad and New Delhi handled the
situation with maturity. The government headed by
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reluctant to formally
involve Pakistan in this unfortunate incident. Nonetheless,
in a telephone conversation with the Pakistani president,
the Indian prime minister said that “he was
disturbed and dismayed at indications of the external
linkages of terrorist groups with the October 29
bombings”. He wanted Islamabad to be more
resolute in confronting the menace of Islamic extremism.
The Kashmiri dissidents, if they were involved in
the Delhi bombings, continued to press ahead with
the show of militancy. On November 2, they struck
in Srinagar and used a suicide bomber to kill five
people. The intended target of the attack was Ghulam
Nabi Azad of the Congress party who was being sworn
in as chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir.
He had replaced Mufti Muhammad Saeed of the People’s
Democratic Party who had governed the troubled state
for three years as a part of the power sharing arrangement
with the Congress Party. Will the militants succeed
in disrupting the slow progress Pakistan and India
are making in bringing a degree of normalcy to the
These negative developments notwithstanding, all
South Asian states decided to go ahead with the
13th SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Dhaka
in mid-November. This twice postponed summit —
once because of the tsunami and the other time because
of India’s reluctance to sit at the same table
as the Nepalese monarch who had assumed executive
authority in his country — is expected to
put the final touches on the South Asia Free Trade
Area before it is formally launched on January 1,
Several — but not all — of these developments
constitute trouble for Pakistan. Will they set back
the country economically, politically and socially
or will they be treated as challenges to be overcome
en route to strengthening Pakistan, providing it
with a firm institutional foundation on which to
erect a sturdy political, social and economic structure?
Before taking a look at these developments, I’ll
pause for a moment and discuss how Pakistan over
the years has slipped into the category of nations
that, simply stated, don’t excite the world
or are considered worthy of respect. These are hard
words to say about one’s own country but we
must confront the truth. The way President Pervez
Musharraf handles the events in October and November
will shape not only the future of his presidency.
It will define Pakistan’s future. The stakes
are terribly high.
For some time now I have been working on a book
I have tentatively titled Pulling back from the
abyss: Musharraf’s Pakistan. I keep postponing
the book’s completion for the reason that
internal developments keep on occurring and the
world around Pakistan keeps changing that force
me to reformulate my opinion about how the country
has changed since October 1999. I also keep on revising
my view of the trajectory Pakistan may follow in
I started out with the assumption that Pakistan
was rapidly moving towards a political, economic
and social disaster when the military under the
command of General Musharraf decided to intervene.
In fact, the situation Pakistan faced then was grimmer
than was the case in October 1958, March 1969, and
July 1977. On these three previous occasions the
military leader of the day claimed that he was stepping
forward to save Pakistan from collapse, or disaster,
or some other unpleasant fate. But history viewed
from heightened hindsight provides little justification
for these interventions.
Looking at all those events with better knowledge
of what was happening then, a historian can reach
the conclusion that the country would not have fallen
into an abyss had the military not intervened in
October 1958. Although I continue to admire President
Ayub Khan’s dedication to developing Pakistan
into a modern state and a rapidly developing economy,
it is certain that had he not thrown out the civilian
government and not abrogated the constitution, Pakistan
may have resolved some of the political issues that
continue to bedevil it almost six decades after
achieving independence. The “decade of development”
may not have happened then but growth may have arrived
later had Pakistan resolved some of the difficult
social and political problems it then faced.
This was what India did; following decades of what
was called the “Hindu rate of growth”
— a growth rate of three to 3.5 per cent a
year in GDP — the country was able to change
course and accelerate the rate of economic growth.
It is now variously described as the next economic
giant, the coming superpower. India did not deliberately
follow this grand strategy of first letting institutions
develop that could handle its enormous diversity
before pressing the economic paddle to the ground.
It just happened that India in 1947 and for a decade
and a half after that was led by people who had
enormous faith in democracy as the only way of handling
diversity. That belief paid off handsomely.
Pakistan, on the other hand, followed a different
but tortuous course. During Ayub Khan’s decade
of development it appeared that Pakistan had made
the right choice, putting economic growth ahead
of political development. In terms of income per
head of the population it overtook India during
this period. It also seemed set to become one of
Asia’s miracle economies. However, when a
political crisis came its institutions were not
strong enough to deal with it. The military was
ready to act once again.
In 1969, when the military moved in for the second
time, its intervention proved to be disastrous.
When General Yahya Khan stepped in, his predecessor
was on the way to negotiating an accommodation with
the opposition. But some opposition leaders —
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto among them — believed
that they needed another military interregnum to
facilitate their rise to political power. That turned
out to be the right calculation on his part but
then Bhutto’s ascendancy followed Pakistan’s
split into two states. Bhutto had seen, once again
correctly, that he did not have the chance to govern
Pakistan if the country remained united. Demography
stood in the way of political ambition. He engineered
the country’s split to ensure his own domination
of the political scene.
The third takeover by the military was also poorly
timed; in fact, the country would have benefited
from the political accommodation that seemed on
the way between the government headed by Bhutto
and the forces of opposition. Was it political ambition
that propelled General Ziaul Haq to take over power?
Or, had the military’s senior command, given
the rapid deterioration of law and order on the
street, become too restive to be ignored by the
chief of staff?
The Zia administration succeeded in some areas such
as bringing growth back to the economy but, in retrospect,
his legacy was extremely negative. Zia’s one
contribution was to bring fundamentalist Islam to
the country that had lived comfortably for centuries
with a considerably more benign form of the religion.
Pakistan is still dealing with the plants that sprouted
from the seeds sown by General Ziaul Haq.
Once again, viewing the past with the benefit of
hindsight, it is clear that Zia’s 11 years
rule left a terrible legacy for the country. It
created serious fractures in society, made it less
willing to tolerate dissent and religious differences,
and allowed Islamic extremists to organize themselves
into groups that were to eventually acquire not
only religious salience but also political and economic
This quick overview of three military takeovers
leads me to conclude that the men in uniform intervened
in politics at the time the country seemed to be
making progress in political development. Does this
conclusion also apply to the intervention by General
Musharraf on October 12, 1999? I will return next
week to this and other questions raised above. (Courtesy