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June 26, 2011

Page: 15/32

Home > 2011 Issues > June 26, 2011

Book Review
Hard statements, soft options

By MV Kamath
Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven; Allen Lane, Pp 560 (HB), Rs 599.00

WHAT, pray do we Indians know about Pakistan? For that matter we may well ask what, indeed, do Indians themselves know about their vast and varied country? The question is not rhetorical. We might say that those in India living close to Pakistan such as Punjabis, Rajasthanis, Gujaratis and Sindhis who come to India to re-settle themselves following Partition would be among Indians the most knowledgeable about our next door neighbour. But is that enough?

Pakistan can at best be known as a feudal country surviving under a feudal culture. According to Anatol Lieven, author of this remarkable enlivening book “a fundamental political fact about Pakistan is that, the state, who ever claims to lead it, is weak and society with its various forms is immensely strong” which is true, no matter how contradictory the evaluation may sound. The point is made that “anyone or any group with the slightest power in society, uses it among other things to plunder the state for patronage and favours and to turn to their workings of the law and bureaucracy”.

One is astonished to learn that barely one per cent of about 168 million of the population pays income tax and the wealthiest land-owners in the country pay no direct taxes at all! Pakistan is not a state. It is a devastating conglomeration of tribes and sub-tribes which maintain stability within the social system. The state may collapse but the society won’t.

Three aspects of this book stand out: One is a certain amount of objectivity exhibited by the author though at least once he gets off the mark when he avers that Pakistan “is, in fact, a great deal more like India – or India like Pakistan than either country would wish to admit”. That is a farfetched comparison. Hindu thinking is vastly different from Pathan, Baluchi or Waziri thinking.

The author says that “in the course of Pakistan’s sixty years history, there have been several different attempts to change Pakistan by one civilian and three military regimes … and they all have failed”. That cannot be said of India and Hindu people. India never has had any military rule nore is it likely to have it any time in the future. But that said, Lieven has some thoughtful ideas that come close to truth, as when he quotes Iqbal Akhund as saying: “The Pakistani Muslim thinks of himself as heir to the Muslim Empire, descended from a race of conquerors and rulers. There is, therefore, a streak of militarism in Pakistan’s ethos, even at the popular level”. And this is why, one supposes, it makes it hard for Pakistan rulers to make peace with India. But let this be said.

This book is about the best that has been published in recent times about Pakistan. It covers a full range of subjects like the delivery of justice, something peculiar to an Islamic state, the role of religion and the brutality associated with it, the role and place of the military and the corruption prevalent in the system and the army’s paranoia regarding India. Says Lieven: “On the question of support for terrorism against India, it is obvious that not just the ISI but the military as a whole is committed to keeping Lashkar-e-Taiba at least in existence ’on the shelf’.”

We learn a lot about the people and politics in Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the political parties operating therein, that is both enlightening and sobering. The bureaucracy, we learn, is completely under the thumb of the ISI. As Eieven notes: “One important group whom the ISI can influence very heavily is the senior bureaucracy, because a negative security report from the ISI will blast their career. This means that while ever since ZA Bhutto’s time, civil servants have been subjugated by the politician, there is no possibility of a serious movement to resist military influence or military take-over emerging in the bureaucracy”.

One picture of some ISI political tactics emerged in 2009 in bringing down the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 (Operation Midnight Jackal). This involved, among other things, bribing PPP deputies to defect from the party, and a whispering campaign to the effect that she was about to be sacked by the President for corruption and therefore that her MPs and Ministers should switch sides in order to keep their positions. Corruption was all-pervading. A former Finance Secretary of Pakistan in a conversation with the author made that clear. Thus, businessmen were given state loans and then allowed to default on them in return for favours to politicians and parties. Politicians protected corrupt officials so that they could both share the proceeds. As the Minister, Mehboob-ul-Haq told Lieven: “And every time a new political government comes in they have to distribute huge amouts of money and state jobs as rewards to politicians who have supported them… As far as development is concerned, our system has all the worst features of oligarchy and democracy put together”.

Lieven has no illusions about terrorists. As he saw it, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, madrasas sent many fighters first to the mujahidins in Afghanistan and then to the jihad in Kashmir; so groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, formely backed by the Pakistani military to fight in Kashmir have a strong presence in southern Punjab:. Association with the Kashmiri and Afghan jihads was absolutely critical to increasing the prestige of local militants. To understand Pakistan, one has to read a book of this kind written by an outsider with considerable and open respect for the country. The occasional nugget of information and comment often hits the mind hard.

Lieven though is clear on one thing: He says: “Unless the USA, India, or both together invade Pakistan and thereby precipitage its disintegration, the likelihood is that the country will hold together and that, if it eventually collapses it will not be Islamist extremism but climate change – an especial grim threat in the whole of Sough Asia – that finishes it off”. A bit hard to believe, but one is reading an expert on his subject who needs to be taken seriously. The coverage of the state is not total – the author hardly gives any information on education, for instance, but it is inclusive enough to command one’s attention, and find time to ponder over the future of our turbulent neighbour.

(Allen Lane, Penguin UK 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL,

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