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Sneering at Pervez Musharraf

We have much to learn from Pakistan's failures in mixing religion with nationhood, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2007 03:48 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

It’s a story I have told before so forgive me if you feel a sense of déjà vu. But somebody needs to explain to me why Pakistani leaders are happiest meeting the press early in the morning at so-called power breakfasts.

<b1>The Agra breakfast hosted by General Musharraf is notorious because it led to the failure of the summit. But many years before the General embarrassed the Indian media by getting a PTV cameraman to record all the sycophantic things that many of India’s leading editors said to him over their cornflakes, Farooq Leghari, another Pakistani President, had also lectured us over breakfast.

I am something of a hawk on Pakistan, so I’m never the most popular person in the room at these events. In Agra, I angered the General by telling him that we had no reason to trust him because he was, after all, a military dictator who had been the architect of Kargil. I like to believe that I was politer to Leghari, but he was not pleased either.

The breakfast was held at the Maurya in Delhi and after the President had lectured us on the right of the Kashmiri people to democratically determine their own fate, I got up to ask Leghari a question.

India prided itself on being a democracy, I said. So, most thinking Indians were embarrassed, to varying degrees, by the way things were going in Kashmir. We had interfered in the electoral process over the years and no matter how many excuses we offered, there was no denying that there had been appalling human rights violations by our security forces.

But, I said, I was not sure that Leghari or any Pakistani leader had the right to object. Whatever Pakistan’s claims to fame, democracy was not one of them. It was a country that had been ruled by the military for at least half of its existence. So, I always found it a little bizarre to hear Pakistanis talk about the democratic rights of Kashmiris.

Besides, I continued, he wasn’t really talking about democracy at all. If Pakistan really believed in self-determination for Kashmir, then would he be happy if the Kashmiris voted to have nothing to do with either India or Pakistan and chose independence? Surely, that’s what self-determination was really about?

The President was short. The subcontinent was divided on the basis of the two-nation theory, he said. The religious basis of the two-nation theory meant that a Muslim state should have joined up with Pakistan. We were denying the Kashmiris their desire to join their friends across the border. As far as he was concerned, independence was not an option.

So it wasn’t about self-determination at all. It was about territorial annexation on the basis of religion.

You can dismiss the story by saying that this conversation took place a long time ago, that Leghari did not prove to be a figure of any lasting consequence, and that Pakistan now has a more nuanced position on Kashmir. (Equally, we’ve now conducted fair elections in Kashmir and the human rights situation has improved.)

But I thought back to President Leghari and his dismissal of self-determination in favour of a religious concept of nationhood, when I saw General Musharraf on television eight days ago. If you viewed the General’s 50-minute-long temper tantrum, ineptly disguised as an address to the nation, then you will recall how dismissive he was of democracy.

After he had finished shouting at the hapless people of Pakistan in Urdu, he looked straight at the camera, switched to English and said he would now like to say a few words to “our friends in the West”. The General was straightforward: the world should recognise that Pakistan was not in a position to implement Western-style democracy because this had taken the West centuries to master while Pakistan was a young country. Moreover, the West should forget about human rights in the traditional sense of the term. This too, was somehow linked to Pakistan’s status as a youthful nation.

Earlier, the General had gone on and on about Islamic extremism and the terrorist groups who were now out of control. They were so daring, he spluttered, that they were even active in “the heart of Islamabad”. (Ah, I thought cynically to myself, he means that they should restrict themselves to the heart of Srinagar — or New Delhi.)

The context was different and the twist was the absolute opposite but, over a decade later, Musharraf was still dealing with the twin issues that his predecessor, President Leghari, had raised: democracy and religion.

<b2>I don’t suppose we need to worry too much about Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir now. How can any Pakistani government demand democratic rights for the people of Kashmir while denying them to the people of Pakistan? How can any Pakistani government protest at the use of the military to fight terrorism in Kashmir when it has more or less declared martial law in Pakistan for exactly the same reason? How can Pakistan complain about human rights violations when the General himself has cheerfully tossed human rights out of the window on global television? And as for India’s oft-repeated claim (regularly rejected by Islamabad) that Islamic extremism springs from the same groups on both sides of the border, Pakistan seems on the verge of accepting that too — which is why the General needs an anti-terror mechanism more than we do.

It is instructive that after the initial flurry of excitement surrounding Manmohan Singh’s peace initiatives, nobody in India seems to care very much about them. It is a measure of our growing self-confidence as a nation that we no longer see Pakistan as a serious threat (except, perhaps, on the cricket field) or worry too much about the prospect of another war.

Yes, we are concerned about the terrorism that General Musharraf and his predecessors unleashed on India, but we recognise that this is no longer an India-specific problem. Pakistan is the centre of global terrorism and this hurts the rest of the world nearly as much as it damages us. And judging by the General’s temper tantrum, it has all rebounded quite badly on him as well.

But, it’s not enough to gloat at this moment of crisis for our terrorist-exporting neighbour. We need, first of all, to consider what is in India’s best interests. Four years ago, Benazir Bhutto told the HT Summit that India should demand democracy in Pakistan because “democracies do not go to war with each other”.

This is not actually true. Active Pakistani support to the Kashmir militancy began when Benazir was Prime Minister. The Taliban and their brand of murderous Islamic extremism were both promoted by Benazir’s government. And no matter whether he was kept fully in the picture or not, Nawaz Sharif was the democratically-elected Prime Minister when the Kargil War took place.

My suspicion is that Pakistan has reached a stage where all governments — democratic or military — have lost control over events. I don’t think that things will be very different if either Benazir or Nawaz Sharif come to power.

In the circumstances, it’s not difficult to see why our Foreign Office seems to be backing Musharraf — he is a lying, old rogue, but he’s a lying, old rogue we know.

However, if we do refuse to support the Pakistani people in their fight for self-determination and azaadi, then we need to accept that, as a nation, we are willing to condone the denial of democracy in other countries if it suits our own interests. In which case, are we so different from the US? And should we feel so bad about India’s refusal to openly back Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma? The Burmese generals may be less lovable than General Musharraf and his Punjabi pals, but there is no real moral difference between the two.

And finally, it’s not enough to pat ourselves on our collective back over the success of Indian democracy. (Obviously, Musharraf has not worked out that both our countries are the same age. If we are mature enough for democracy and human rights, then why isn’t Pakistan?)

The experience of the last 60 years has shown that while Indian democracy can heal most disputes (Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Mizoram, Punjab etc), the majority principle is not an adequate safeguard of the rights of religious minorities — as I suspect the Gujarat elections will prove in a few months.

We have much to be smug about when we look at Pakistan’s failed experiment with democracy. But we also have much to learn from its failures in mixing religion with nationhood. If India is to become one of the great nations of the 21st century, then democracy is not enough. We need liberalism. And we need a just and thoughtful secularism.

One reason why I was able to get up and challenge both Leghari and Musharraf after they’d finished lecturing us is because I knew we were a fair society that aimed to treat all citizens, regardless of religion or caste or creed with respect, dignity and justice.

Lose that moral advantage and we lose the moral right to sneer at Musharraf.

First Published: Nov 10, 2007 21:46 IST