“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow

The Boiled Frog

Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

19 July 2010

The slow erosion of plurality, secularism and shrinking political and economic space for the disfranchised has created the situation that exists in Pakistan today. Kashmir seems to be slowly but surely headed the same way.

One doesn’t need to be a South Asia specialist to be concerned about the alarming situation in Pakistan. Its economy is in doldrums. The political situation continues to be grim: While a ballot box produced a civilian government, the country nevertheless continues to be run by military generals, who not only control its internal security and defence, but also its foreign policy, strategic assets, and a large part of its economy. The law and order situation is growing worse by the day – frequent sectarian violence has now reached the heartland of the nation and appears to be a precursor to a nascent civil war. The country is being drawn into a somewhat reluctant war (at America’s urging) against Islamic zealots who are trying to enforce Nizam-e-Mustafa region-by-region and attempting to steal its nuclear weapons.

The latest identity crisis in Pakistan is a culmination of 60 years of misgovernance by civil and military authorities bound by a common suspicion that India is their only real enemy. Given the situation emerging on the ground, there is a growing belief that Wahabism is slowly eroding Pakistan’s South Asian identity by pushing it towards the Middle East. This change did not happen overnight. In fact, the shift was so slow that many Pakistani intellectuals and artists who took pride in their heritage and culture as a South Asian nation with its eclectic mix of various religious faiths, multiple philosophical approaches to life and life styles, and liberal attitudes towards gender identity, etc. failed to recognize the shift in cultural landscape until it was too late.

It is not that the warning signs were hidden — just that they were ignored. When Hindu and Sikh populations started diminishing rapidly, no one seemed to care. When Pakistan repudiated Jinnah’s vision and started officially classifying some Muslim faithful as heretics, warning bells should have gone off. When the Pakistani Army started indoctrinating soldiers as Islamic warriors, it conveyed a message that was overlooked. When “blasphemy laws” were enacted, it generated no rage among the elite (and so-called secular) majority. When people started battling each other in streets of major western cities in Pakistan, and names likes Sipah-e-Sahaba and Tehrik-e-Jafria were still relatively unknown, most sectarian violence in Pakistan was brushed off by local civil society as mischief created by “paid Indian agents”. And finally, when Kashmiri militants were trained and dispatched to create mayhem and unleash violence on the Indian side of Kashmir, not only was that mission deemed as a “sacred duty” but many willing Pakistani civilians, along with its security forces, fully supported the jihad against India.

Today, the violence that was engineered to bring death and destruction elsewhere has come home. Pakistan literally is being torn apart by a civil war that is pitting Sunnis against Shias, Islamists against Sufis, and the army against radical Islamists fighting to enforce Nizam-e-Mustafa. Given that Western generals and politicians are micro-managing Pakistan’s ruling elite with their own agenda and objectives, Pakistan’s future is more dependent than ever on foreign authority and finances. It is a sad picture.

Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent analyst and visiting scholar from Pakistan, recently gave a talk at Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, one of the leading think tanks dealing with South Asian matters, which highlighted some of the above. “It is too late for Pakistan to turn back from the path that it has embarked on,” she said. “The nation’s political and strategic culture is hostage to three As – Army, Allah and America. The country that Pakistan was envisaged to be at the time of its creation by its founder does not exist anymore, nor can we go back.”

I thought long and hard about what Dr. Siddiqa said. She is no amateur. She recently finished her tenure as the Senior Visiting Professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her background is equally impressive. She received her Ph.D. in War Studies from the King’s College, University of London, and has taught at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, and at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Her scholarly books on Pakistan’s military are universally recognized for intellect and details. She painted a dismal picture of Pakistan’s future.

Her observations about the behaviour of Pakistani intellectuals and secular civil society, who failed to take notice of slow changes in the social and religious landscape around them, reminded me of the classical tale about boiling a frog in a pot. If a frog is thrown in a pot of boiling water, it will invariably jump out of the pot and try to save itself. But if the same frog is thrown in a pot of cold water that is heated very gradually, the frog does not realize it is being cooked, and sadly by the time the realisation dawns, it is too late to jump out because of its ebbing strength.

I could feel Dr. Siddiqa’s pain about Pakistan. It made me equally concerned about the worsening political and social situation in Kashmir. Is Kashmir getting “cooked” slowly without anyone realizing it? Or directly put: Do Kashmiri intellectuals realize how rapidly social and religious landscape is deteriorating around them to the point that Kashmir valley is slowly turning into a mini-Pakistan?

Dr. Siddiqa said a few other things in her lecture that were equally disturbing. She conducted a poll among students in the top 10 elite universities of Pakistan. These students, mostly belonging to the ruling elite (wealthy feudal families or senior military officers with mostly secular upbringing and life style), will eventually define the future of the nation. Surprisingly, the poll results indicated that these students, coming mostly from liberal backgrounds, valued their pan-Islamic identity as more important than their national or even family identity, and while a majority of respondents agreed that “al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization,” a resounding majority also agreed with the Pakistan government’s decision to strip “Ahmadis” of their Muslim identity, and most respondents (potential future leaders) viewed only Sunnis as true Muslims. It conveys a very disturbing trend in Pakistan that is increasingly hostile to pluralism, religious tolerance and minorities.

Can such disturbing trends evolve in Kashmir? I believe that depends on who is assessing the situation. I have noted an increasingly shrinking space for religious minorities in Kashmir who fled Kashmir two decades back. They are unlikely to return given the unsettled situation in the valley today. The civil society in Kashmir, unlike the civil society anywhere else in the world, is mostly engaged in a political discourse, and does very little to highlight the plight of the needy, the infirm and the under-represented sections of the society. Consequently, most non-political issues are brushed under the rug, and any sectarian strife is conveniently soft-peddled as the work of “various agencies” just as in Pakistan everything is conveniently blamed on “Indian agencies”

There was something else that Dr. Siddiqa said which applies to Kashmir as well and disturbs me even more. She said as the Pakistani government liberalized media licenses, the media, while becoming “freer” has also turned less “independent”, and most op-ed pieces harp on repetitive themes. As a result, not only has the public debate shrunk to a narrow point of view, but there is a concerted effort to organize, control, and manipulate the “national narrative” so that major news events are interpreted in a certain way leaving no room for any debate, challenge or diversity in views and opinions. This struck a chord with me. In the two recent cases of social unrest in the valley that I have analysed in detail, dealing with the Amarnath Shrine agitation in 2008 and the Shopian tragedy in 2009, I noted that even though there were no explicit facts to support the serious allegations raised by the vehement protesters in the valley, yet the “narrative” in Kashmir was tightly controlled in the media to reflect a consistently identical interpretation of events that was not borne by known facts but clearly conveyed a certain political agenda and outcome.

It is easy to brush off any inference that Kashmir is going to turn into another Pakistan. In fact, Kashmiris would rather not be associated with Pakistan, as determined by the opinion poll conducted by the Chatham House in 2009 on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), and released in May 2010. On the Indian side of Kashmir, only 2% opted to join Pakistan (28% opted to join India, whereas 43% opted for independence), but the reality is reflected in the hold that Islamists have over Kashmiri society today. Many will argue that Kashmir’s real problem is a public desire for “azadi”, but a truly independence-seeking public would be inclusive and bring all constituencies and diverse interests on board. That is not so in Kashmir where the anti-India liberation movement is stridently radical and fundamentalist in its outlook and appeal. Indeed, harvesting religious sentiments is the “low hanging fruit” that even so called pro-India political parties in Kashmir find convenient to pluck, reinforcing a subtle agenda to capitalize on the narrative that is increasingly strident and pan-Islamic in its undertones. Just as many consider Pakistan’s “war against terrorism” as an aggravating factor in the already tense situation in Pakistan, the same can be said about Kashmir where law and order issues aggravate the social and cultural shift towards deepening radicalism.

Are the two “hot spots,” Pakistan and Kashmir, similar? There are some startling similarities. Pakistan suffers from a lack of land reform, where a feudal class is deeply entrenched in ruling the country with support from the military. The two entities have numerous times switched their roles in running the country, but in so far as the common man in Pakistan is concerned, the results are similar whether it is the economy or the law and order situation. In Kashmir, a successful land reform occurred just after independence, but feudalism reared its head through political snobbery that was created by the Article 370. The law that was introduced in the Indian constitution to preserve Kashmir’s indigenous identity and heritage has been consistently abused by political oligarchs in the valley to preserve their feudal control by deliberately seeding and manipulating alienation among the public, while replacing good governance with nepotism, corruption and shady deals.

Like in Pakistan, the political entities in Kashmir switch their roles in running the state from time to time, but from a common person’s perspective, the results are the same — be it the economy, the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots or the law and order situation. Just as America is propping up Pakistan’s economy by a large infusion of outside capital, so is the Indian treasury contributing to prop up Kashmir’s sputtering economy. In both cases, lack of private capital is driving the local economy into the ground resulting in high unemployment, turmoil among the youth and an increasing sense of despondency and desperation. The results are obvious on the streets of Pakistan as well as Kashmir.

Kashmir is already simmering but it will sooner or later come to a boil. While an entrenched political class is harvesting raw public emotions without offering any alternatives for better prospects, the fact of the matter is that restoration of a sound economy is essential to a bright future. But it is not simply a by-product of repeated hartals and curfews, which are punitive enough to disrupt even a most robust economy. Kashmir suffers from an anaemic economy mainly because it is unable to attract private capital needed to invest, create jobs, develop infrastructure and build a bright future. What makes the situation even more pathetic is that Kashmir is part of a country which is universally acknowledged as a growing economic power in this century. While India continues to provide the highest per capita funds to Kashmir on a nationwide basis, public sector funding alone cannot, and will not, solve Kashmir’s growing needs for a robust future.

The reason for Kashmir’s isolation is of its own making. For example, Srinagar sought to have an international airport which is now operational. But there are no international flights in and out of Kashmir, except those that the national public sector carrier, Air India, may schedule (if at all). One major private Indian carrier attempted to start international flights, but the business model required the airline to absorb the loss (since the route will generate only a small volume of air traffic) through a profitable return in the core business of the carrier’s parent company if it could substitute imported hops by growing hops in Kashmir. The company sought the state’s help in securing lease for land for growing hops (since the Article 370 disallows direct non-state investment in real estate), but the state government (along with the civil society) rejected the deal because growing hops was deemed “unIslamic” and the deal fell through.

Yet another example is how a leading multi-national industrial conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai wanted to set up an “international class” graduate business school in Kashmir in accordance with the wishes of its deceased founder, but had to retreat after years of trying because of excessive control and interference demanded by state authorities. Similar projects in Srinagar, Gulmarg, and elsewhere have been rejected because outside investors want fool-proof legal and administrative instruments to protect and control their investment like the private sector does anywhere else in India or overseas. But Kashmiris are unwilling to make the constitutional and legal changes in state laws necessary to attract private capital from sources willing to create new jobs and revitalize Kashmir’s economy.

Will the situation in Kashmir degenerate to the point where civilians are battling with security forces, and various factions and sects are bombing each other on a daily basis? I hope not, but an important factor that will eventually answer this riddle is whether Kashmir’s civil society rises above its self-serving needs and works towards the promise of a “national good” with political and social accommodation for minorities, women, poor and the disabled.

Dr. Siddiqa has coined a label, “latent radicalism” to explain seemingly contradictory beliefs among well-to-do Pakistanis that profess a contemporary outlook but are actually saying one thing and believing in something else. An example she provided was how Pakistan is rationalizing its internal budget and putting the onus on making fundamental changes — like the revision of school text books dripping with religious bigotry — dependent upon American and European funding, rather than an internal priority under the national education budget. I noted a similarity in that thinking about the rehabilitation of displaced Pandits which, interestingly, the J&K government does not want to be part of its internal budget and planning, but under a separate allocation from the central government. Apparently Pandits, as much a state subject as the majority community in the valley, are children of a lesser God.

The slow erosion of plurality, secularism and shrinking political and economic space for the disfranchised has created the situation that exists in Pakistan today. It may sound far-fetched today, but Kashmir is slowly but surely headed the same way unless the intelligentsia realizes that pointing fingers towards the South or the West will not solve their problems. In the words of a legendary American politician, Speaker Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

This article also appeared in the Outlook (New Delhi). Please click here to view the same.

To check out the presentation by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa at the Stimson Center on 8 July, 2010, please click here.

About Me

Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.

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