"Every country has a military, but Pakistani military has a country," so goes a popular adage in Pakistan, which says something about the tremendous power of the armed forces in that country. The military has ruled Pakistan more than half of the country's existence and its interests go beyond the traditional barracks of any military force. The Pakistani military, better known as the "establishment" in the country, has people in politics, industry, civil society, media and even among extremists, who collectively make sure its interests are best served. Despite its own murky past, the military and the pro-establishment sections in civil society together have carefully manufactured a narrative that paints the establishment as a "modern, stable institution" in an otherwise failing state. Saadia Toor is challenging this narrative in her essay, "The Neoliberal Security State", in Dispatches from Pakistan, a collection of essays and poems, edited by Madiha R Tahir, Qalandar Bux Memon and Vijay Prashad.
Ms Toor is particularly critical of the liberal understanding of the military that the forces are an agent of progressive social change and economic development in Pakistan. "The claim that Pakistani military can not only produce political and social stability, but also somehow be an agent of democracy can only be the result of willful (indeed, willed) ignorance," she writes. Those who see the army as a modernising force tend to forget the fact that it was Zia ul-Haq's regime that went overboard in appeasing the extremist elements in Pakistani society.
Like Ms Toor, several Pakistan-based authors are cross-examining the contemporary problems of this nuclear-armed South Asian nation and their historical roots and future implications in Dispatches from Pakistan. The book, which opens with a poem of Habib Jalib that calls for redeeming "the country from the blind", offers a counter-narrative to the Pakistan most of us know from mainstream literature. The essays in the book deal with a host of issues ranging from the military's role in Pakistan's life to feminism to nature conservation. It's basically critical of the economic trajectory the Pakistani state is following, irrespective of who's leading it.
The popular psyche in Pakistan is that the civilian rulers are corrupt and the military is a better manager of the economy. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf, who returned to Pakistan last month after years of self exile, underlined this claim when he said the state of the economy was much better when he was ruling the country. However, Ayesha Siddiqa, in her essay, "The Generals' Labyrinth", tears apart this argument by saying the army's interests in Pakistan's economy is more like a "choke-hold, strangling initiative, encouraging patronage and cronyism, and producing large-scale distortions and inefficiencies." The free market policies of successive governments, be it civilian or military, have had severe implications for the well being of Pakistan's vulnerable sections.
Today's Pakistan is a land of problems. The leading political parties are corrupt and inept in solving the country's challenges, the army has its own interests to be served, progressive social movements are not gaining momentum, sectarian tensions are on the rise, militants are growing in strength and more and more people are hit by economic hardships. While the book doesn't suggest any magic bullet for the country's problems it attempts to diagnose where Pakistan erred. The military, a nativised commercial class, which is rooted in the informal economy, and the religious right are the main constituents of power in today's Pakistan, writes Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, in his chapter, "New Wine in Old Bottles". These three agents are "sociologically and politically interlinked, and generally share an interest in maintenance of established ideological and political hierarchies," he adds, suggesting that the existing order is systemically vulnerable to solve the country's problems.
Does this mean the state has failed and Pakistanis should give up all hope? Neither the book nor contemporary Pakistani history suggest so. Several chapters in the book discuss in detail the efforts being taken by progressive sections in the society to build a more equitable, less violent Pakistan. On the other hand, the fact that the Asif Ali Zardari government became the first democratically elected government to complete its term, amid all these problems, is no small achievement. Will the new government be able to rupture the dominant power equations in Pakistan to bring about a real change in the state of affairs? Well, it's anybody's guess.
Unlike most recent books on Pakistan, Dispatches... doesn't predict a collapse of the state. Rather, its focus is on Pakistan's survival potential. As the editors of the book write: "Survival is a technique, living is an art and Pakistanis have become masters in both."
DISPATCHES FROM PAKISTAN
Edited by Mahiha R Tahir, Qalandar Bux Memon and Vijay Prashad
Leftword Books; Rs 450