Is it possible to change the narrative in a country where most “people would rather gloss over inconvenient truths or be content with blaming different villains for their country’s plight? Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, says it is important to do so and one must examine the causes of Pakistan’s persistent dysfunction. Haqqani lives in the US and was in New Delhi recently to launch his book,“Reimagining Pakistan”. National Herald’s Ashlin Mathew caught up with him for a conversation. Excerpts from the interview:
Why have you decided to reimagine Pakistan?
The idea of this book was born in a conversation many years ago, when Salman Rushdie said, “If nations are imagined humanities, Pakistan is poorly imagined.” There were some valid criticisms about how Pakistan was created in a hurry. The generation before us had to suddenly stop being Indian and start being Pakistani; they needed an ideology. I am a Pakistani by birth, so I don’t need it.
So, I thought how I could contribute to the process of reimagining Pakistan. The good thing about imagination is, that what is poorly imagined can be reimagined. That is why I wrote this book. As a kind of thought-provoking, idea-generating exercise. One thing is certain that the next 70 years of Pakistan have to be different from the last 70 years of Pakistan for the people of Pakistan to be genuinely prosperous and happy.
Do you think that is feasible?
I think nations can change very quickly; quite often entrenched attitudes do not change easily. But when they change, they change quickly; we saw that in the case of Soviet Union, Japan after the Second World War and China under Deng Xiaoping. China is run by the Communist Party, but it is run like a capitalist country. At the end of it, it is all about political vision.
In my experience, not many people in Pakistan spend time developing vision. A lot of Pakistani politics is about day-to-day outmanoeuvring of each other. And it goes back to the earliest period of Pakistan. Very few people who took part in the Pakistan struggle wrote books before the Partition. Somebody should have. Nehru wrote, Gandhi wrote; in case of Pakistan, there was nothing – no vision. If no vision existed then, can we have some vision now? I think the time is ripe right now.
Husain Haqqani: “It is important for many people in Pakistan to realise that a military-run judicial system, is not a judicial system. A political system that is constantly being manipulated and manoeuvred by Generals and judges will result in ineffective governance and poor politics”
You say the problem was in the conception of Pakistan? How do you hope to change that narrative?
Basically, it is important for people of the country to hear the real history and not the contrived history. The fact is that it is time to recognise that a lot of things were left unsaid before partition. I’m not the only one who says this. Ayesha Jalal, the historian, points out that in the 1945-46 period, the Muslim League deliberately kept its programme vague so as to appeal to all kinds of people; the more religious ones and the secular ones. But, we can try to clear things up. There are other countries which have clarified things, re-envisioned themselves and moved forward. So, why can’t Pakistan?
The way for a nation to move forward is to hear alternative courses open to the country. Unless and until multiple ideas are put forward, you will never have genuine, democratic choice. If you go on saying there is only one view, then you are actually trapping your people into moving in one direction.
Is a part of Pakistan’s problem embedded in the global Muslim problem?
The Muslim world is also going through a phase of stagnation and an unwillingness to rethink both historic and current issues. That said, there are stirrings in the Muslim world; when the crown prince of Saudi Arabia invites people to rethink, then maybe for a country that is partially democratic, has come out of a democratic country (India) and that has given birth to another country that is democratic (Bangladesh), it should not be difficult.
Can the Army in Pakistan ever be contained?
I think the Pakistan Army, like any other army, considers itself to be patriotic and a patriotic army maybe doing what it is doing because they believe it is in the country’s best interests. Maybe even they will be forced to rethink. By their own polices, they have forbidden discussion in Pakistan on Pakistan’s weaknesses. So, Unicef announces that Pakistan has the world’s highest infant mortality rate; if you watch Pakistan television channels, very few have discussed it. Everyone is discussing Nawaz Sharif and the Army is saying its own thing. There must be some Pakistani military officers, who will say, “Why do we have the world’s highest infant mortality rate?”, “Why are be lagging behind in education?” In a way, I am like the kid who told the emperor that he had no clothes.
Husain Haqqani: “I think the mullahs and jihadis would be less significant actors if the Pakistani deep state didn’t prop them up”
As we speak, Nawaz Sharif has been barred from holding an office for life. They have done it to the Bhuttos and now Sharif…
Well, Pakistani judiciary, for a very long time, acted as a subsidiary of the Pakistani military. The fact remains that their decisions of a political nature have not necessarily changed Pakistan’s politics. They have only postponed the inevitable. They sent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to gallows, but that didn’t stop Benazir Bhutto from becoming the Prime Minister. They can disqualify Nawaz Sharif, but they cannot stop his party or members of his family to continue to be influential.
I have my differences with Nawaz Sharif. He and I don’t get along; twice at least he caused me great grief. Once by putting me in prison in 1999 and then by going to the Supreme Court for the ‘Memogate’ case. I have my disagreements, but I think, sometimes, one should not worry about who you like or dislike but worry about what you dislike.
It is important for many people in Pakistan to realise that a military-run judicial system, is not a judicial system. A political system that is constantly being manipulated and manoeuvred by Generals and judges will result in ineffective governance and poor politics.
How serious is the nuclear Pakistan state and can it be contained?
Pakistan’s nuclear status is an important part of Pakistan’s current national narrative. I don’t agree with those who say that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not safe. The real issue is, ‘Is the Pakistani state going to remain in safe hands forever?’ Extremists cannot take over the nukes unless the extremists take over the Pakistani state. And my point is, in 1950 someone wrote, the extremists won’t even come close to power, but now they are more than ever close to power. So, never say never.
Mullahs and Jihadists are a part of the major problem. How do you handle them?
I think the mullahs and jihadis would be less significant actors if the Pakistani deep state didn’t prop them up. Look at the protests that were organised by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) – 3,000 people in Islamabad. If anybody else had 3,000 people, the police would have come, dispersed them and sent them home. But, for them Islamabad was shut down, because the Army said they wouldn’t be able to disperse them. Similarly, Hafiz Saeed; you think he can win an election? He can’t. The point is, it is the state’s willingness to make them look larger than they are.
Husain Haqqani: “Young Indians being able to get on a train and say they were going on a holiday to Pakistani mountains, young Pakistanis saying they were going to go to Kerala… Why can’t that be our future?”
You have been persona non-grata in Pakistan. Do you think that will change?
My being anti-establishment is not going to change until the Pakistan establishment changes its views. When they call a person a traitor the first time, a lot of people take it seriously. Now, when they have called hundreds of thousands of people traitors for a long period of time, the law of diminishing returns comes to play. So, yes, they have the power. I would rather not go to prison or end up dead or end up missing like many people in Pakistan. I would rather have my voice outside. I am now at the point where I’m not bothered by epithets that emanate from Pakistan against me. Everybody misses home, but I am someone who has reconciled to his situation.
Do you think India and Pakistan can become friendly neighbours?
Part of my task for myself is not only changing the discourse on Pakistan in Pakistan, but also convincing enough Indians to not talk about Pakistan’s disintegration, but to wish for Pakistan to be reimagined.
Frankly, India and Pakistan can have a relationship like the United States and Canada, which is what Mr Jinnah said they would have. So, it may come 70 years too late or maybe in another five years, but it will benefit both India and Pakistan.
Pakistan can then be a looser federation of its nationalities, which guarantees the rights of Sindhis, Balochs, Pashtuns, Punjabis and Muhajirs, and everyone else who lives in that country, instead of being a centralised Islamist state. But, it might get there sooner if more and more Pakistanis can be convinced that Indians do not wish them ill.
One of the messages I come to India with is ‘I understand your concerns, I understand your anger over Pakistani support for terrorism, but we are your neighbour, so wish that we change rather than wish that we disappear’.
There is less than 5% of trade between us. Look at the opportunities. A Pakistani student being able to study in India and vice versa, Pakistani doctors being able to treat Indian patients, Indian doctors being able to treat Pakistani patients.
Young Indians being able to get on a train and say they were going on a holiday to Pakistani mountains, young Pakistanis saying they were going to go to Kerala… Why can’t that be our future?