Review: 'Courting the Abyss' is a granular view of why Pakistan is the way it is
As Indian policymakers consider the next steps in India's Pakistan policy, they would do well to read Tilak Devasher's comprehensive account of that country and where it stands today in his just released book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss. Starry-eyed Indian liberals who light candles at the Wagah border would also do well to turn to the book for a reality check.
Beginning with the agonies of the subcontinent's Muslim community, in particular the northern and eastern elites, from coming to terms with the loss of political power to its insistence on maintaining parity with the Hindus, from retaining a distinctive if not antagonistic identity to the Hindus to the formation of Pakistan, Devasher covers the complex journey with skill and accuracy. Many of the ills that plague Pakistan lie in short-sighted decisions taken by the Muslim leadership in the aftermath of the failed revolt against the British in 1857.
Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the onetime ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, simply did not have a vision of a united, progressive polity based on non-denominational principles. A confused, theological polity such as Pakistan is the inevitable consequence of the failure of the pre-partition Muslim leadership. It is most striking in Pakistan's inability to create a positive, coherent identity for itself. The notion of a homeland for the Muslims has long been abandoned in favour of an Islamic state. The voices in favour of a moderate Islamic state are losing out; Devasher's account of Pakistan's descent into the embrace of fundamentalist Islamic doctrines wedded to violence is comprehensive.
The post-partition Pakistani leadership's paranoia about India led to the absence of a deeper understanding of the nature of polity that India was trying to fashion and, consequently, of Indian approaches to Pakistan. The bloodshed during the partition and the obsession to get the Kashmir valley - the obsession has since evolved into a national neurosis - required that a truly visionary leadership was put in place to make rational choices towards India. But after Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan's deaths, there was simply no one to fill the gap; those who made the decisions were myopic on India. The army filled the breach and with that institution in control of the security policies, whether ruling directly or not, Pakistan only relied on military power for its security.
The civilians came under the army's thumb and are still under it. Devasher is overly generous in assessing that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif or Asif Zardari had opportunities to cut the army to size. The fact is that the political class and the Pakistani people are convinced that India is a permanent enemy. The army feeds that notion and so long as that idea is imbued in the popular consciousness, the army's preeminence in Pakistan will continue. In this context, Devasher would have done well to examine the impulses of the country's civil society if for nothing else than the fact that the Indian liberal sets great store by it.
Devasher's account of the growing radicalisation in Pakistan and its manifestation in the rise of sectarianism, violent ideologies and terrorism, and its use by the Pakistani state traverses known territory. In this, mazhabs and ulema as well as funding from the Arab peninsula has played a substantial role. The absence of this line of analysis in the book is striking and needs to be addressed, perhaps in a later addition to the work.
Where Devasher breaks new ground is in his focus on the water situation in Pakistan, the state of education, economy and demography. These are seldom considered in scholarly writings on Pakistan. But taken together, they make for depressing reading as they indicate that the country with the world's sixth largest population and the eight largest standing army is in deep trouble. It is difficult to disagree with the author's assessment that Pakistan needs to go into "disaster management mode", but is not doing so. If the situation isn't being so addressed, it's suggestive of "multi-organ failure".
The fact is that until Pakistan changes its India policy and gives up the "Kashmir cause", it simply won't pay the kind of attention required by these critical issues. Thus Pakistani army's top leadership needs to read and digest the lessons of this section of Devasher's book in an unbiased way. They are, however, unlikely to do so and in that lies Pakistan's tragedy. South Asia and the wider region will bear the brunt of Pakistan's crises on these fronts, yet it can do nothing to mitigate them - that country alone can address these issues.
Devasher focuses on Pakistan's four principal foreign policy concerns - India, Afghanistan, China and the US. He profiles Pakistani objectives towards these countries as are reflected in mainstream Indian thinking on Pakistan's foreign policy. A reading of Devasher's account only reinforces the view that Pakistan looks at the world through the prism of its obsession with India. It evaluates every relationship from the perspective of its India policy.
On India, Devasher correctly notes that the basic Pakistani impulse is of wanting parity. But it realises that it cannot match India, hence parity has now come to mean denying India the advantages of its much larger size and resources. Strategies from the use of low-intensity war and other actions to undermine the Indian state to virulent anti-India propaganda are all designed for this purpose.
As a senior officer in the external spy agency R&AW, Devasher was known for his scholarly depth as much as for his operational skills. And he has brought his academic strengths to bear in this fine work that will make a significant contribution to the understanding of Pakistan.