My latest report from Pakistan, a reflection on the nation on the 69th anniversary of the Lahore Resolution of 1940, was published in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Unleashed’ website today:
Ordinary People Power
Monday was Republic Day in Pakistan, the 69th anniversary of the moment when, under the Lahore Resolution, the idea of Pakistan was formally adopted by the subcontinent’s Muslim leadership. Seven years later, on August 14, 1947, the idea would turn into the reality of an independent state.
Not all of colonial India’s Muslims accepted the notion of a separate Muslim state, but around seven million, including an equal number of Hindus and Sikhs who were moving in the opposite direction, left their homes and often faced communal violence to join those already living in what is now Pakistan.
Pakistan’s 170 million citizens have been living with the consequences ever since.
Despite the calamities of partition, Pakistan remains a true melting pot in every sense of the word. There are several ethnic groups, although Punjab, the most populous and wealthiest state, has historically dominated the country. Religion is not uniformly practised here either: Islam may be the religion of around 90 per cent of the population, but practices vastly differ along sectarian, cultural and ethnic lines. While clashes between Shia and Sunni Muslims have been ferocious for some time, particularly since the Zia ul-Haq dictatorship that spawned the Taliban, Pakistan’s religious sects have generally lived harmoniously with one another.
Many of my own relatives, practitioners of the tolerant Hanafi tradition of Sunni Islam, have married into the Shia community.
There are small but significant non-Muslim communities in Pakistan too: there are believed to be around six million Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. One of the great shames of Pakistani society is the prejudice faced by these communities, particularly in the poorest non-Muslim neighbourhoods. When one small Hindu community of dalits or untouchables in Karachi showed me pictures of police brutality and bulldozers destroying their homes I was reminded of the Palestinian communities whose demolished homes I saw in the occupied West Bank.
But, like all countries, there is more to Pakistan than this prejudice. Many members of Pakistan’s minority communities have prospered, like the Hindu businessmen who greeted me in the offices of the Pakistan Hindu Council last year with tea and a picture of Mohamma Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, draped in a Pakistan flag. Or Taranjeet, a television news producer who proudly gave me a tour of the temple complex in Lahore where the great Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh is buried.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Pakistan has been the focal point for our darkest fears: a predominantly Muslim nuclear-armed state struggling to control a violent insurgency inspired by the most oppressive and puritan of religious impulses. That has generally been the explanation for the West’s love affair with Pakistan’s Army, the most powerful institution in a generally institutionally weak state. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, for instance, the United States has given the Pakistan Army $3.5 billion in military aid. Even the Australian Government has offered to provide military assistance to Pakistan.
The love affair with the Pakistan Army has helped maintain military rule for 33 of the country’s 62 years of the country’s existence. According to the noted military analyst Ayesha Siddiqua this long experience of military rule combined with the domination of civilian politics by a small group of elites has stunted the institutional development of a democratic culture in Pakistan.
Nor has the military response alone solved Pakistan’s Taliban problem. Rather than diminish the threat of Islamic militancy, military operations against the Taliban and like-minded insurgents have devastated already poor tribal societies – killing thousands and displacing at least 450,000.
Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry has called for a tripling of US non-military aid to Pakistan – around $7.5 billion over the next five years – to offset the reliance on the Army. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the British Foreign Office have announced similar, smaller projects.
Although there is a lively civil society and a remarkably free media, most Pakistanis live in extreme poverty while politics is controlled by civil and military elites that are close to totally unaccountable. The poorest and most undemocratic regions of the country are the tribal areas infiltrated by the Taliban. Literacy rates are lowest in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – around 30 per cent for men and three per cent for women.
Balochistan, physically the largest and most resource rich province in the country, is so under-developed that literacy rates are equally poor and the local economy rests largely on smuggling. Both regions are hotbeds for the Taliban.
So too is the Swat valley. A mere 100 miles north of the capital Islamabad, the restive mountains of Swat are beginning their first taste of de facto Taliban rule after a peace deal was reached between a local pro-Taliban group and the provincial government. Under the agreement the Taliban are to stop fighting in exchange for the implementation of Sharia Law.
Last week government-appointed judges in Swat were told to stay away from the provincial courts.
In an interview to a local outlet, local pro-Taliban leader Sufi Mohammad said the judges of the State were no longer needed because their pronouncements were no longer valid. Pakistan already has a Sharia, or Islamic law, court system; but even this is no longer recognised. The system envisaged by Sufi has one selling point: the hearings and decisions are swift.
Already, since last week, Qazis or religious judges appointed by Sufi have made a number of rulings: 30 decisions in one day alone according to authorities.
Under the old civil and common law system still used in most of Pakistan, legal process was mired in corruption and typically took several years. Now even the people of neighbouring Bajaur tribal agency want Sharia law.
At the same time as Swat was embracing its new legal system, the Government was reinstating Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and all other the judges removed by the country’s last military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. As I wrote for Unleashed earlier this year, Chaudhry is a brave and independent jurist who, before he was removed two years ago, exposed Pakistan’s elite to an unprecedented level of accountability. Support for his reinstatement enjoyed an equally unprecedented level of public support from rich and poor.
The message to the world this Republic Day could not be clearer – improving the lot of the ordinary Pakistani offers the best opportunity for defeating extremism.