Two sets of discussions on Pakistan, its politics and its political economy revealed a very different perspective on how the west (primarily London and Washington) sees Pakistan from its vantage point and, in surprising contrast, what and how Indian academics, policymakers and think-tank specialists see as the main questions facing Pakistan.
In a visit to Karachi recently, a well-known Pakistani scholar based in London spoke to a group of academics and other professionals at a private gathering and argued that the west sees Islam and especially the Taliban as central issues facing Pakistan. For both London and Washington, Pakistan faces a major threat from militant Islam and on how the Taliban have had a major impact on Pakistan’s development over the last decade or so. This view is, of course, widely shared by many, if not most, Pakistanis as well. However, some social scientists have argued that all the west sees in Pakistan is Islam and the Taliban, and there is very little understanding of social structures, relations of production and exchange – and that the actually-existing-Pakistan is seldom, if ever, examined or studied by social scientists in the west.
Moreover, because ‘security studies’, the misnomer that it is, pays so lucratively these days, a whole industry has developed in Pakistan with social scientists and other scholars spending months and years tracking ‘Talibanisation’ or ‘radicalisation’ or ‘militancy’ with every consultant in Islamabad now a ‘counterterrorism’ expert. It has become the only game in town. This dominant narrative has completely marginalised studies and understanding of what Pakistan really is, and every discussion on almost every topic, ends and begins with the Taliban.
I gave a series of lectures in Delhi recently, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia and at a venue where a number of former Indian generals, diplomats and academics were invited. The theme of my talks was the political economy of Pakistan and how this had had an impact on democratisation in Pakistan and on how social change was taking place and having an impact on Pakistan’s military and its relationship to democratic government in Pakistan. I gave a brief history of the process of democratisation and on how power had shifted away from the military towards civilian elected leaders between the period 2007 and 2014, and how the military had regained some of that lost power and privilege after attacks on Hamid Mir and more recently following the 21st Amendment.
Since I do not study or follow so-called ‘security’ issues, I did not talk about the ‘end game in Afghanistan’, nor did I spend much time on the Taliban and only mentioned it peripherally, perhaps citing a few Taliban-led attacks on the GHQ and the Peshawar school. I did argue that Pakistani society had become increasingly conservative in many ways, although there were strong contradictions and challenges to this supposedly uni-linear narrative as well, and I mentioned the ‘war on terror’ perhaps in passing.
After I returned to Karachi, I was asked by one of the participants to the evening mentioned above of how my lectures were received in India and how they went. After I gave him a synopsis of the sort of questions asked and about the debate that ensued, he asked: ‘Did the Indians ask about the Taliban?’ I thought this was a really interesting question and I answered that they actually did not, and were interested primarily in the role of the military in Pakistan and its relationship to the civilian government, the military’s control of the media, Pakistan’s internal politics, and such like. The Indian audiences, students, academics, policymakers, diplomats and generals weren’t all that interested in the Taliban narrative which dominates western thinking and analysis about Pakistan single-handedly.
Perhaps this was because I am a political economist and not a security or counterterrorism specialist and so my audiences did not ask about the Taliban. Or perhaps, because I did not give primacy to the Taliban (or even much room) in my talk, since I believe Pakistan is much more than just ‘the Taliban’ and seeing Pakistan through this narrow lens obscures all social and political developments and everything else in Pakistan. But having been made to think about this much more than I had planned, I suspect that ‘the Taliban’ is not India’s obsession as it is the west’s. Of course groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its off shoots are, but not the single lens through which Pakistan is now framed.
This was a refreshing revelation, and while Indian academics and policymakers do not really know much about Pakistan nor understand the new social processes and developments here, they were at least not obsessed with the Taliban the same way the west is.
The Indian scholars were more interested in increasing trade between the two countries, better relations with Pakistan’s civilian and military groupings – with an internally stable Pakistan more generally – and with peace on their western borders. Also more interesting was the fact that many Indian academics were reading Pakistani academics and scholars and Pakistani newspapers, not simply so-called western experts on Pakistan based in every think tank in Washington with such distorted and narrow views of Pakistan.
Perhaps Pakistani academics and scholars need to engage with their Indian counterparts far more actively than they do with those in the west, since our neighbours have a better and more sympathetic understanding of Pakistan than those in the west.