Saturday, December 29, 2007

60 years of chaos, convulsions

Dec 29, 2007

Bloodshed plagues Pakistan from its birth as secular state to one mired in religious conflicts
By Ravi Velloor
BORN amid bloodshed when it was cut away as a separate nation for Muslims.

Proclaimed an Islamic state less than a decade after being founded on secular lines. Damaged again when its eastern wing broke away to become Bangladesh.

A frontline state and ally for the Western alliance, which fuelled the Islamic insurgency with weapons and training to roll back the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now, linked by its former backers to almost every terrorist act in the world.

A political system that alternates between democracy dominated by a feudal, effete elite, and spells of military rule. Three wars with India.

Pakistan's 60-year history has been a story of periodic convulsions. Events of the past year, with terrorists striking freely at the heart of the establishment in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, have raised doubts over the very survival of the nation itself.

The country's problems date to its inception when it was carved out as a separate homeland largely for Muslims of northern India wary of life in what they saw would be a free India dominated by Hindus.

The new state, founded in 1947, was unwieldy from the start.

To begin with, it had two wings, with East Pakistan more than 1,500km away and home to the culturally proud Bengalis, who chafed at being ruled by the Western wing.

Urdu, the national language of the new nation, was native to none of Pakistan's provinces. A state founded on the energy of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of northern India came to be dominated by Punjabis, particularly in the powerful military.

The shocks would come early. As many as a million people may have died in the Partition riots when Muslims travelling to their new homeland met Hindus going the other way.

Then came Kashmir. Going by the logic of the Partition of India, Pakistan had assumed it was a matter of time before Muslim-majority Kashmir joined it. Yet Pakistan's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah, seeking to have a health cure in Kashmir shortly after Pakistan was born, was told by Kashmir's Hindu maharaja that he was not welcome.

That set the stage, in 1948, for the first fighting over Kashmir, whose ruler hastily signed on to India.

The Kashmir thorn has festered since, holding back a full consummation of ties and impeding faster development of both nations.

Mr Jinnah, either unaware that his Pakistan dream would materialise, or in hope that, once partitioned, ties would soon return to normal, had bought property in New Delhi as late as in 1946.

Today, each country gains gratification from pricking the other. (India, for instance, does not allow Pakistan's consulate in Mumbai to operate out of Jinnah House in Mumbai. And Pakistan has held back from giving India that most elementary building block of trade - Most Favoured Nation status.)

Because of the lasting fear that Indians had never reconciled to the Partition and would seek to undo it with force, Pakistan's military has always had an overwhelming influence over national life. In 1958, the country went under military rule for the first time when General Ayub Khan staged a coup. The general led the country to war with India in 1965.

Military rule would continue until 1971, when Gen Ayub's successor, General Yahya Khan, led the nation to a bitter defeat at the hands of India. That war, a cathartic moment for post-independence Pakistanis, saw the birth of Bangladesh as a breakaway state, thanks to Islamabad's political bungling in East Pakistan. India then seized the chance to fuel the liberation movement and break up its rival.

The split would weaken Pakistan forever, leaving it sprinting to develop a nuclear capability that would provide adequate deterrence.

Disgraced, the military allowed a civilian government under Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ms Benazir's father, to take power. But Mr Bhutto was deposed five years later by his handpicked army chief, General Zia ul-Haq, and hanged in 1979.

Gen Zia set the nation and the army on the path of Islamisation and held power until he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. Ms Benazir Bhutto then came to power for the first time.

Under Gen Zia's watch, thousands of Muslim radicals trained and were armed in Pakistan's tribal areas to take on the Soviets in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies supplied the weapons and money.

Once the Afghan war was over, the radicals came in useful for Ms Bhutto to press India over Kashmir. For the next 10 years, power alternated between her and another feudal lord, Mr Nawaz Sharif. Both were known to run corrupt administrations.

In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf toppled Mr Sharif and has ruled Pakistan since. Support for the Taleban continued. Then came the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

Threatened with obliteration by the US, Gen Musharraf did a policy about-turn, withdrawing support for the Taleban and attacking the tribal areas that sheltered a variety of Islamic radicals, including Al-Qaeda militants.

Those who link Pakistan to every attempted terrorist strike forget the chain of events that led a largely moderate Muslim state to take on such rogue colours. The results are frightening enough: Every moderate politician in the mainstream parties of Pakistan is under threat. So too is President Musharraf, who has escaped three assassination attempts.

The military's credibility has been dented severely. The tribal regions are spiralling out of control. Sindh, Ms Bhutto's home state, could again turn restive after the assassination of its favourite child. The gangrene is spreading and could be fatal.

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