Change it’s hard to believe in


THE ceasefire in the Pakistani vallety of Swat and the prospect of a peace deal between the provincial government and Maulana Fazlullah’s Taliban faction has spurred contradictory reactions, ranging from expressions of joy, relief and tentative optimism to selective scepticism and outright condemnation. This is not surprising, given that the precise nature of what a final agreement may entail is shrouded in confusion.

 

The official version of the narrative suggests nothing much has been conceded beyond a longstanding demand for a more efficient system of justice in the Malakand Division. Its designation as Sharia is little more than a colloquial quirk: in effect, it means a change in nomenclature rather than a judicial regime radically at variance with the national norm. Furthermore, this is a change that was endorsed by civilian regimes in the 1990s. Even so, it will be implemented only after the militants have laid down their weapons.

 

That makes it seem like an attractive proposition, a small price to pay for restoring serenity in Swat Valley. In fact, it’s hardly a price at all: a speedier legal process can hardly be construed as an unreasonable demand.

 

But this obviously isn’t all that the Taliban have been fighting for. Their broadly positive reaction to official overtures suggests that whatever has been offered to them via Maulana Sufi Mohammed, Fazlullah’s father-in-law and the head of the ominous-sounding Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi, goes some way beyond what has publicly been revealed. At the same time, they have offered no hint of a willingness to lay down arms. And a week into their tentative 10-day truce, the Taliban kidnapped the head of the district administration, Khushal Khan, ostensibly in order to discuss pressing matters with him.

 

Meanwhile, President Asif Zardari, responding to American concerns about developments in Swat, has reassured Washington that the concessions offered to the militants are a temporary tactic – a comment that can only add to the uncertainty. It suggests a disconnect between the aims of the federal government and those of the provincial administration, which has been dealing directly with Sufi Mohammed and professing sincerity in its desire to make the proposed deal work.

 

There are essentially two short-term possibilities. The greater likelihood is that the agreement will flounder before it can be implemented, in which case the current hiatus will soon be forgotten as the mayhem of the past two years returns. The alternative is an arrangement whereby Taliban types have a much bigger say in how the region is run. 

 

The latter is potentially the more dangerous scenario – as any number of commentators have pointed out, it will encourage doctrinaire Salafists in other parts of the country to seek similar leeway through violent means. What’s more, the Swat experience reinforces the impression that bands of militants are capable of outmanoeuvring much larger military contingents. Zardari has complained that the Taliban are bent upon overthrowing the country’s constitutional government. Permitting them to establish their writ, directly or by proxy, barely 100 miles from the national capital is unlikely to serve as a deterrent.

 

America’s designation of the proposed deal as a form of surrender may be based on a close reading of the small print that has thus far eluded public scrutiny, but its broad opposition to any sort of negotiations with militants does come across as hypocritical, given its theoretical support for deals with the Afghan Taliban. The advent of the Obama administration, meanwhile, has led to a surge in  attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas by unmanned aircraft. It was hitherto assumed that the drones were launched from Afghanistan, but it has emerged that the deadly flights originate from a base close to Islamabad – which clearly devalues the official protestations about these flights.

 

It has long been suspected that the complaints are intended exclusively for domestic consumption, and last week’s attempt to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud was evidently prompted by suggestions from Islamabad. Be that as it may, the drone attacks are generally accepted as a necessity by sections of Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia, on the basis that they target Al Qaeda and related militants, who are otherwise capable of operating with impunity in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

 

However, the extent to which that is true is disputable. Anonymous American and Pakistani intelligence sources every now and then announce the demise of such and such “high-value target”, often citing names that have never previously been mentioned. The dozens of others who die in these attacks remain nameless. “We can’t,” India’s previously hawkish Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Rajya Sabha last week, “imitate certain other countries … Many innocent lives are being lost every day.” And every innocent life lost translates into fresh recruits for obscurantist causes.

 

Mukherjee’s welcome change of tone has been followed by the revelation by Steve Coll in latest issue of The New Yorker that, in three years of secret negotiations, Indian and Pakistani officials came tantalizingly close to a paradigm-changing agreement on Kashmir that would have transformed the disputed area into an autonomous region, with the Line of Control gradually losing its relevance. Apparently the deal fell through because, from March 2007 onwards, General Pervez Musharraf’s authority began ebbing away him as he entered the most indefensible phase of his presidency.

 

It is possible, of course, that Musharraf lost the support of his primary constituency – the army – precisely because of the covert dealings with India.

 

Under the present circumstances, it’s unlikely anyone can pick up the pieces. The same, soon enough, may be true of Pakistan. There can be little question that Mohammed Ali Jinnah would have been profoundly disappointed by the trajectory of the country he founded. So, for that matter, would Allama Iqbal, the poet who reputedly spawned the idea of a separate Muslim nation in the subcontinent.

 

Notwithstanding the reverence accorded to Iqbal in Pakistan, his visceral distrust of the Muslim clergy is often overlooked. I was reminded of this last week when the eminent Marxist historian Professor Victor Kiernan followed in the footsteps of fellow lifelong communist and Urdu scholar Ralph Russell, who died last September at the age of 90. Russell was a Ghalib expert. Kiernan, who lived to be 95, was equally fascinated by the subcontinent and leaves behind erudite – if not particularly poetic – translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Iqbal. 

 

This week’s epigram comes from the latter, as translated by Kiernan:

Rise, and from their slumber wakes the poor ones of my world!

Shake the walls and windows of the mansions of the great!

… Banish from the house of God the mumbling priest whose prayers

Like a veil creation from Creator separate!

 

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