Friday, April 24, 2009




The short answer is: probably no one! The Pakistani political and religious establishment is too compromised, too corrupt, too effete and has lost all credibility to stand up against the Taliban. The civil society is practically non-existent and so doesn't count for anything. The ordinary man on the street has hardly any stake in the current system and therefore is unlikely to put his life on the line for its preservation. The military is either sympathetic to the Islamists or too scared of them.

And yet not many Pakistanis are willing to admit that there is now a real possibility of a Taliban takeover of the Pakistani state. One reason is that in true subcontinental style, everyone expects someone else to save him from the depredations of the Taliban. Not only is there a touching, almost blind, belief in the power of the state to defeat the Taliban, there is also a somewhat misplaced confidence that the people of Punjab, Sindh, and even Balochistan, will never accept the Taliban version of Islam. But the problem is that neither the state nor the society seems to posses the vitality, strength, commitment and resoluteness that is needed to take effective and aggressive counter-measures against the marauding Taliban. Indeed it is nothing short of delusion to rely solely on the assumed strength of the Pakistani state and the inherent aversion of the Pakistani society to the Taliban for ending this scourge.

    A couple of years ago I was having a conversation with a Pakistani friend about the growing attraction of radical Islam in Pakistani society. This friend, who has done pioneering work in documenting the origin and growth of jihadist militias in Pakistan, tried to explain to me that my fears about talibanisation in Pakistan were over-blown. He said Pakistani society will never accept the Taliban brand of Islam. According to him, Pakistani Pakhtuns were very different from Afghan Pakhtuns because of their long interaction with British and also their exposure to other cultures in Pakistan. The Baloch, he said, were not enamoured by radical Islam and gave more importance to ethnic nationalism which protected their identity than to pan-Islamism that sought to subsume it. The Punjabi and Sindhi society was deeply influenced by Sufi saints that dissented against the doctrinaire Islam of the mullah.

It appeared to me that my friend was putting a lot of faith – perhaps a little too much – in the store of the outright rejection by the Punjabis and the Sindhis of the stone-age tribalism and barbarism that the Taliban represented. I couldn't help pointing out to him that the cultural values, social mores, and philosophical syncretism that he thought would act as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islamism were all based on and drew inspiration from the teachings of a long line of great Sufi poets and saints, the last of whom walked these lands some three hundred years ago. Since then there has been neither any ideological and philosophical challenge nor any impelling societal rejection of those who advocate a literalist, if obscurantist and extremely intolerant, interpretation of Islam. I wondered if the Sufi influence was now wearing thin and being replaced by religious dogmatism towards which more and more people in Pakistan seemed to be gravitating.

Interestingly enough, the immense popularity of Sufi syncretism in Punjab and Sindh grew partly because it represented dissent against the established religious and political order of those times. In the past doctrinaire Islam symbolised the established order; today it represents dissent, empowerment, and a revolutionary break from the rapacious social, economic and political system that is unjust, unfair, unequal, and unable to even show any light at the end of the tunnel. The liberal interpretation of Islam is now the preserve of the Pakistani elite and establishment.
The hard line and literalist Islam represents the huge underclass of Pakistan which sees Taliban as deliverers. Ironically, the descendants of Sufi saints today comprise the ruling class of Pakistan, and the Islamist insurgency (talibanisation) is, in a sense, a revolt of the underclass against the current system, and by extension, against the Islam propagated by the Sufis.

Despite this, many people
think not just in Pakistan but also in Indiathat Punjab at least will never accept talibanisation and will react very violently to the Taliban. But the sooner people disabuse themselves of this notion the better because when the Taliban mount pressure, Punjab will simply capitulate and collaborate. This is so for three reasons: one, the Taliban will not be seeking a 'no objection certificate' from Punjab before they impose their version of Islamisation. The acceptance or otherwise of the Punjabis is quite immaterial. Those who resist the Taliban will simply be butchered and the others will fall in line; two, Punjab has no history or culture of resisting invaders and marauders from the North-West. The only Punjabi ruler who fought and defeated the Pakhtuns was Maharaja Ranjit Singh; finally, a huge section of the Punjabi population actually identifies with and subscribes to the Taliban type of Islam. Over the last few decades, Punjab has become more orthodox and fundamentalist. The signs of this tectonic change in Punjabi society can be seen everywhere, only one needs to admit this reality.

Adding to the power of the Taliban is the prevarication and ambivalence of the political class on the issue of Islamisation. Not a single politician or political party is willing to stand up and speak in favour of secular laws over Islamic laws. Even members of the only political party to openly oppose the Nizam-e-Adl regulations in Swat – MQM – take the position that as Muslims they are all in favour of Shariah and that their opposition is to the manner in which Islamic laws are sought to be imposed by the Taliban and to an extent the Taliban interpretation of Islamic laws. The irony is that parties like the ANP that claim to be secular have used their secular credentials as a license to accept and even promote Talibanisation and not had to face opprobrium for taking such a retrograde step. What the Pakistani politicians can't seem to understand is that their failure to take a clear position on the issue of Islamisation effectively lends legitimacy to the stance of the Islamists. After all, if everyone is willing to live under Shariah then the only question that remains to be decided is who will decide the version of Shariah to be imposed. How this question gets answered – through democracy or by force of arms – is altogether another matter.

Even if the people and the politicians were to somehow reject the Taliban, they would have to depend on the Pakistan army to fight and defeat these barbarians.
But the army doesn't seem inclined to fight. Perhaps this is because the rank and file of the army has come around to the view that only the Taliban
can ensure an end to the craven subservience of the military top brass and the political establishment to the US. There are also suspicions backed by some evidence that the army is playing a double game on the issue of Taliban. While it makes a show of fighting them, it also appears to be facilitating them and using them to for achieving political and strategic objectives.

Pakistan today resembles the Mughal state in its last days. No one ever imagined that the Mughal state would simply disappear, even though it was losing territory and authority all the time. The Mughal nobility was least bothered with the withering away of the state. The nobles shamelessly indulged in power games to win the favour of the emperor and be appointed the Wazir while foreign invaders were knocking on the door of Delhi. Then it was Delhi, today it is Islamabad. The adversary then were the Pakhtuns led by Ahmed Shah Abdali, today it is the Pakhtuns (and a smattering of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chechens, Punjabis and others) led by a Taliban confederacy.


    <1325 Words>                    24th April, 2009





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