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Ayesha Jalal | Confronting notions on Pakistan

The historian on how incumbent problems in Pakistan have been shaped by the self interests of US, Russia, India and Afghanistan

Jalal says the resolution of the Kashmir dispute requires a mutually acceptable settlement between India and Pakistan that takes into account the aspirations of the people of these contested regions. Photo: Hindustan Times (Hindustan Times)Premium
Jalal says the resolution of the Kashmir dispute requires a mutually acceptable settlement between India and Pakistan that takes into account the aspirations of the people of these contested regions. Photo: Hindustan Times

(Hindustan Times)

Lahore: Most visitors who braved the aftermath of a bomb attack to attend the Lahore Literature Festival murmured in between breaks about how a sense of bleakness and foreboding disappears in Lahore as one continually encounters the liveliness, brilliance, goodness and generosity of its people.

The city is rambunctious, colourful and noisy like the rest of the subcontinent. Much like India, a visitor can either take an instant liking to the huge chaos, or run away from it. It feels at once strangely secure and deeply unstable.

“One has to continually erase so much of what has been read and heard about this country in order to arrive at the messy truth of the present moment of Pakistan," says Ayesha Jalal, one of Pakistan’s leading historians and an eminent global South Asian scholar.

“You really have to come here and live its daily contradictions to understand the reality of modern day Pakistan," adds Jalal, who is the Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University in the US where she teaches both in the history department and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She has also taught at Harvard and Columbia University.

Jalal, an elegant woman in her mid-fifties with a feisty intellect and sharp tongue, was born in Lahore. Her father is Hamid Jalal, a senior Pakistani civil servant, and she is the grandniece of the renowned Urdu fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto.

She explains that when she moved to New York as a teenager, where her father was posted at the Pakistan’s United Nations mission in 1971, she had difficulties reconciling the official narratives of the Pakistani state with daily news reports of atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan army in then East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh.

“This led me to ask questions about Pakistan’s history and self-representations, which in time came to define my research interests."

A respected global academic and author today, she has written provocatively about Islam, Jihad, Pakistan and South Asia. Her latest book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, is about the “struggle for the soul of Pakistan". She says she wrote it “to challenge the present notion that Pakistan is a mistake, a failed, and irrelevant state."

“This notion that because Pakistan was born in bloodshed, it is inevitable where it is today is nonsense. There is nothing inevitable about it."

Jalal is of the view that key figures in Pakistan’s history made considered choices. And studying them closely with a view to learning from their mistakes can change the course of the country. Few have studied more closely or accurately the pain of Pakistan’s birth and its tragic evolution into a present day “global hub of terror" than Jalal.

She constantly challenges leading voices, within and outside Pakistan, that want to settle for “easy analysis" of one of the most complex geopolitical juggernauts facing the world today.

“Pakistan can never really be understood properly by looking at Pakistan only. Its history and incumbent problems have been shaped, in a large part, by the self interests of countries like America, Russia, Afghanistan and India."

While urging the global community to acknowledge their role in Pakistan, Jalal also relentlessly forces Pakistanis to “confront their history" with greater honesty in order to carve out a better future.

She is disturbed by the idea that “in Pakistan students are mostly taught ideology and not history, which has led to brainwashing and distortion of facts".

“Blaming the foreign hand is no longer a viable option," she says. It’s a road to a dead end."

Jalal worries that there is a creeping insularity in Pakistan today, which, she says, must be overcome by engaging more vigorously with the world, taking into account the self-interest of other nation states.

“Pakistan can shed its reputation as a hub of extremism by changing the security driven narratives of national interest that have justified meddling in the affairs of Afghanistan, and sustaining a proxy war in Kashmir to the grave detriment of its own political stability."

When asked what Pakistan can do to resolve tensions with its neighbours, she says: “A negotiated peace on the disputed border with Afghanistan is needed soon. Also, it must take concrete steps to resolve the Kashmir conflict with India. This can go a long way in helping Pakistan overcome its insecurity complex."

Jalal, who has been awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, one of Pakistan’s highest civilian awards, comes across as someone who is at once fiercely critical of Pakistan and is one of its strongest advocates.

“Even as Pakistan’s future looks bleak to the world, its youth are bursting with promise and optimism just like any other neighbour in South Asia. The world should engage with it, and invest in it."

Jalal is doing her part. For the last five years, she has come back to Pakistan to teach one semester at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The course on South Asia is taught with a video link to Tufts University.

She points out that it is as rewarding for the Tufts students to interact with some of the best and the brightest in Pakistan as it is for the LUMS students to get to know their peers globally.

She is delighted that technology has opened a small window for the two worlds that often clash and misunderstand each other.

“A common virtual classroom instantly shatters stereotypes. It forces everyone to look more honestly at each other. This is the way forward for a better future," she says.

Pakistan’s future is no doubt a source of constant debate in the global media and so much of the world is nervously watching as it grapples with issues of terrorism and strife. “To understand the present, one must go back to the past, and interpret it accurately."

At the Lahore Literature Festival, one theme that kept emerging was that Pakistan is a country of unresolved paradoxes; a nation that is intoxicated with its own version of history in which fact and fiction have mixed easily over time to advance the politically convenient narratives of its dictators, generals, and democratically elected leaders.

Jalal takes serious issue with this and uses history as a tool of resistance to shatter enduring myths that keep Pakistan alienated from the global economy.

“So much of Pakistan’s narrative and present-day issues stems from its tortured birth," she says. “Many myths abound. But perhaps the most enduring has been the notion that Pakistan was created solely in the name of religion. This ignores the critical role of regional political dynamics, most notably in Punjab and Bengal, and has led to blanket justifications of giving religion a central role in the affairs of the state."

Jalal believes the state’s effort to enforce a monolithic Islamic identity as a political tool needs to be challenged. She says it does not do justice to Pakistan’s people and its culture.

“States have a problem with multiple identities that co-exist, people don’t. Pakistani people in various provinces live their multiple identities effortlessly every day and are comfortable with it."

Still the country’s problem with the co-existence of Islam and democracy runs deep and does not seem to have an easy exit in the near future. In many ways, it seems like a tortured body that is groaning in its own pain; some of it self created, the rest inflicted by the self-interest of nation states for who Pakistan has been both an opportunity and a threat for over six decades.

“The world cannot afford to simply give up on Pakistan. An isolated Pakistan will more likely fulfil the prophesy of terror. The Lahore Literature Festival was our answer to terrorism and we are grateful to the global community who attended it in big numbers."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Are you optimistic about the future of democracy in Pakistan?

Pakistan’s turbulent history reveals that democracy, however flawed, is a necessity rather than a matter of choice. Military governments, too, have needed to give themselves a civilian face in order to claim a semblance of legitimacy. Even as it is grappling with religious extremism, regional dissidence and a swarm of political and economic challenges, this is the moment when there appears to be some prospects of Pakistan leaving the state of martial rule behind.

What gives you cause for optimism in the midst of monumental challenges of terrorism and governance facing Pakistan today?

The people of Pakistan are rejecting Taliban’s terror machinery and stand more united than before. The 2013 elections marking the first ever constitutional transition from one elected civilian government to another is an important milestone in Pakistan’s history. The endorsement of democracy by the largest voter turnout in four decades was an encouraging sign. But the voters have also registered a stern warning: they want elected governments to urgently attend to the task of governance and will not hesitate to protest and vote them out if they falter and fail.

How can the Kashmir issue be resolved in your view, and is it likely in the near future?

A resolution of the Kashmir dispute requires a mutually acceptable settlement between India and Pakistan that takes into account the aspirations of the people of these contested regions. This does not appear to be on the horizon, given the political dynamics in both countries and, in the case of Pakistan, also the need to satisfy the concerns of an all-powerful military.

With the US withdrawal from neighbouring Afghanistan set for the end of 2016, is the Pakistani military finally being forced to change its past policies?

The military operation in North Waziristan and simultaneous swoops by paramilitary forces to apprehend militants holed up in key urban centres, with the assistance of the intelligence agencies, does appear to suggest a change of mind to some degree. But rooting out militancy completely will be a long and arduous process. For now, the military is focusing on denying the militants a base from where to send trained killing machines to the rest of Pakistan. With the 2016 deadline fast approaching, the Pakistani military has decided to put boots on the ground in the strategically vital northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. However, the military operation is just the beginning. It will have to be followed up by a political solution and development initiatives to facilitate the return of more than half a million people who have been displaced by the military operation in North Waziristan. In the meanwhile, the possibility of battle-hardened militants filtering into cities and creating havoc is a real fear.

What has been Pakistan’s biggest dilemma to date? Why is it unable to join the global economy?

Most countries end up deciding on a political system, whether it is democratic or authoritarian, Islamic or secular. Between the broad parameters of this commonly agreed system, citizens can then argue their differences. But, unfortunately, Pakistan to date, has not effectively managed to unanimously agree on what this common system should be. We also need to establish the supremacy of democratic institutions that can interface and effectively moderate conflicts between establishment and civil society. That’s what modern, civilized societies do.

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Updated: 13 Mar 2015, 12:56 AM IST
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