Ever since the 1990s analysts and authors have spoken about Pakistan’s multiple crises and referred to it as the failed or failing state. Pakistanis are prone to use this to argue that their country will never fail but those who write on the country know that it is only a matter of time. Tilak Devasher’s recent book ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’ (New Delhi, Harper Collins India, 2016) is one of the best analyses of Pakistan’s potential ‘multi-organ failure.’
Devasher, a former Indian civil servant who has conducted research on Pakistan extensively in the course of his work, tries to examine “the internal and external dynamics of Pakistan” to “explain why Pakistan is such a persistently troubled state and why.” His prediction that “without serious corrective actions, a tragic destiny looms” for Pakistan is likely to further upset Pakistanis who see such analysis as reflecting hostility towards their country.
There is, however, no hostility in Devasher’s must read book for those who objectively wish to understand both the long-term challenges of Pakistan as well as the way forward. Statistics don’t lie and facts do not change just because of patriotic fervor.
In 428 pages, Devasher delves into pre-partition history to examine in depth the key issues facing Pakistan on account of its unique identity and ideology as well as the skewed civil-military relationship. He methodically studies the myriad challenges facing Pakistan -- rising Islamization accompanied by religious violence, debilitating economic and environmental challenges and a rigid foreign policy based on confronting India even as it fosters dependence on a foreign power.
In one of the most poignant chapters at the end of his manuscript, Devasher quotes passages written by Pakistanis to capture what he calls “the tragedy of Pakistan – from the blood-soaked yet enthusiastic creation in 1947 to the present- day exhaustion and gloom and doom scenarios.” He traces many of Pakistan’s current problems to its creation.
Like scholars Farzana Shaikh (a Bangladeshi), Christophe Jaffrelot (a European) and Husain Haqqani (a Pakistani), Devasher notes that Pakistan’s identity crisis is rooted in the country’s origins. “Pakistan did not start on a clean slate,” Devasher notes. The heart of the problem facing Pakistan even seventy years after creation “continues to be a debate over the meaning of ‘Pakistani identity’. This was and remains a critical issue since Pakistan was a new country carved out of India and precisely for that reason had to be distinct from India.”
The fear that Pakistan would not survive and that India sought to undo partition led to the use of one religion (Islam), one identity (Pakistani, not ethnic), one language (Urdu) and one existential threat (India) to bind the country together. However, the dilemma has always been that “Pakistan came to be constructed by putting together geographical provinces who shared a common religion but had never before shared a common history, culture, language or ethnicity. They all had a strong attachment to their traditions and were resentful of any central control.”
It is often said that like Prussia, the Pakistan state does not have an army; its army has a state. Acknowledging that the army dominates the country, Devasher joins Aqil Shah, Christine Fair, Husain Haqqani and Ayesha Siddiqa in arguing that the army has been narrowly focused on defining Pakistan’s interests often ignoring other threats facing Pakistan.
Devasher, like Christine Fair, also asks the question of whether or not the army will ever change its policies towards India. “Even if, and this is a big if, the army is constrained to seek accommodation with India given the economic conditions of Pakistan, its visceral hatred for India is unlikely to change. Neither will it discard its strategy of bleeding India via non-state actors,” he concludes.
The reason, Devasher argues, is that the Pakistan army would need to re-examine its core beliefs like “Partition itself was unfair and is incomplete” and “India has not accepted Partition and, given an opportunity, would undo it.” Such fundamental rethinking appears difficult, if not completely impossible.
Devasher dedicates a large segment of his book to the WEEP (Water Education Environment Population) crisis facing Pakistan arguing that for its very survival Pakistan needs to do more on each of these fronts. Pakistan will become a water-scarce country by 2035 and “Pakistan’s economy is more water intensive and water dependent than that in any other country in the world.” Instead of blaming India for an unfair Indus Water Treaty, Pakistan needs to do a better job at water management.
Pakistan has one of the youngest populations in the world but this demographic dividend could turn into a nightmare “with a large youthful population that is unemployed and unemployable and will become fodder for the terrorist organizations.” Pakistan’s education crisis is not only the low literacy rate of 56 percent or that it has the world’s second highest out-of- school population of children. Pakistan’s educational curriculum has “factual inaccuracies and omissions,” promotes militancy and jihad, encourages prejudice and bigotry against religious minorities and other countries.
Pakistan’s economic crisis, Devasher argues, is not something that can be rectified in the short term by aid or quick solutions. It is instead ignoring “structural weaknesses that have not been rectified over the decades.”
In the end Devasher asks the multi-million dollar questions: Will Pakistan “ever give up its quest for parity” with India? Will Pakistan allow Afghanistan “to develop as a sovereign country?” Will the United States finally realize that its support has had a negative impact on Pakistan and so reduce further assistance? And if this happens will China then seek to take over or will China step back?
According to Devasher given the magnitude of problems facing Pakistan “a mere tinkering with issues will only make matters worse.” Pakistan has been at the edge of the abyss for a long time and does not seem ready to pull itself back anytime soon.