Pakistan is crumbling, Is India Prepared?
Reports from Pakistan indicate that institutions of the state are heading for collapse. The Indian leadership represented by the inept troika of Sonia-Manmohan-Rahul seems indifferent, concerned about protecting family interests before national interest.
Column by N.S. Rajaram
Leaders disappear as crisis looms
A strange thing happened in the week following Pakistan’s atrocities on Indian soldiers: Chiefs of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force issued strong warnings to Pakistan while the Sonia-Manmohan-Rahul troika that is being held up as UPA’s top leadership was nowhere in sight. Only later, much later did Manmohan Singh come up with the feeble response “Business as usual is not possible” though no one could make out what it means. In the Indian setup the civilian government is supposed to lead and armed forces to follow— but leadership was totally absent during the recent crisis.
The worst of it is the Government’s sense of priorities in this time of crisis— a crisis across the border that could lead to the dissolution of Pakistan. One Maulana Tahirul Qadri, a Khomeini-like religious figure has come to center-stage calling for the overthrow of the Government. No one seems to know who is behind him, the Army perhaps, or if ex-cricketer Imran Khan is playing a double game. It is no ordinary crisis but an existential crisis. The outcome in Pakistan cannot fail to have impact on India, severely testing its national security. Yet no one in the Indian Government seems concerned.
With the Government virtually in retreat, heavy responsibility now falls on India’s security forces. In the circumstances the Government in should have stood firmly behind them by sending a clear message to Pakistan. What one saw was the opposite: complete silence on part of the ruling troika, with the Army and the Air Force chiefs having had to issue warnings that should have come from the highest levels of the Government. After more than a week came a feeble statement from the Prime Minister, while the ‘Crown Prince’ Rahul Gandhi pulled a disappearing act, which has now become habitual for him whenever there is a crisis.
It is worth contrasting this with the Government’s hyperactive performance a couple of months ago when Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra was embroiled in a real estate scam that allowed him to turn a few lakhs into hundreds of crores in a matter of months. Leaders from the ruling party fell over themselves defending legitimacy of Vadra’s business. And this included P. Chidambaram, the second-most senior member of the cabinet, and the PMO chipping in giving Vadra a ‘clean chit’! Does this indicate Government’s priorities? Was this what the PM meant when he said ‘business as usual’?
To return to the crisis across the border, it was not unexpected. In fact it was predicted years ago by several authors including the present writer. It was widely reproduced under the title Meltdown in Pakistan. The Indian establishment ignored it as it also ignored articles by others including one by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic Monthly in September 2000. It is reproduced below with minor changes since what we are witnessing is essentially the scenario predicted. Even if the Government doesn’t care the people of the country should be informed.
Pakistan— border without a land
Here is the reality: Pakistan is now a state on the verge of collapse. While world attention is focused on the so-called ‘nuclear flashpoint’ of Kashmir, the State of Pakistan is being overwhelmed by forces of history and geography. A state with less than a tenth the resources of India, Pakistan is forced to fight insurgencies on its frontiers perhaps ten times as great. It is only a matter of time before the institutions of the state totally breakdown. And this is because of the fundamental irrationality of Pakistan, which is less a state than a turbulent frontier that a small Punjabi elite is attempting to hold together. This is the picture that emerges from a masterly study of the state of Pakistan written by Robert Kaplan, arguably the world’s leading reporter on the region (‘The Lawless Frontier’, The Atlantic Monthly, September 2000).
Here is what it means in simple terms: a fierce and fundamental conflict is taking place in the borderlands of Pakistan— in the Northwest Frontier, Baluchistan and even Sind. This has set the state of Pakistan on a course of irreversible dissolution. And this is due to the “accumulation of disorder and irrationality” that is yet to be understood. And the jihad in Kashmir is a consequence of this fear of a crumbling state— mounted in the hope of providing a unifying theme to unite forces of the frontier that are implacably hostile to the Punjabi ruling establishment.
Border problems are nothing new, but in the case of Pakistan they are of an altogether different dimension. The reason is simple: Pakistan is made up mostly of border regions with a small Punjabi core. The rest of Pakistan—the rugged Afghan-border regions of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, the alkaline wasteland of Sind, and the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountains embracing Kashmir—has never been subdued by the British or anyone else. It is a small chunk of India (Punjab) latched on to a huge and hostile border region. It is a total mismatch.
Disorder and irrationality
This could be an oversimplification but Kaplan’s basic insight is valid: Pakistan is made up of a vast and turbulent desert frontier with a small Punjabi core; this Punjabi core is closer to India than to its vast borderlands. This unruly desert frontier is what a Punjabi elite and a sprinkling of Mujahirs (like Musharaf and the Bhutto family) are trying to rule, while holding up Islam as the unifying force. But this has not made the people on the frontier hate them any less, for Islam always has led to divisions with each side claiming the other to be impure.
Pakistan’s answer to this encirclement was to create the Taliban through which to control Afghanistan itself in the name of ‘strategic depth’. This was facilitated by the war in Afghanistan, which the CIA financed and the Pakistani ISI managed. This obscured for a while the fundamental irrationality and the chaos that is inherent in the makeup of Pakistan. The flow of foreign money, especially during the Afghan War, obscured also its economic fragility— of the small productive Punjab trying to support the vast unruly and unproductive frontier. The Cold War and the Afghan War gave Pakistan an exaggerated sense of importance. Pakistani leaders and the elite failed to recognize that they were needed only to do a dirty job that Americans didn’t want to do themselves.
[Sic: Now pilotless drone aircrafts are doing the job, killing thousands of Pakistanis in the process. NSR]
So the Taliban, now a state-within-the-state was created to deal with this irrational situation. This has now come back to haunt it in the form of Afghan refugees and lawlessness on a scale that has overwhelmed the Pakistani establishment. The problem is rooted in history and the geography of the region. Foreign aid and rescheduled payments can only prolong the agony; they cannot alter the geo-strategic reality or the inherent irrationality of Pakistan’s composition.
It is also independent of who is in power— the military or a civilian government. The frontier tribes recognize neither. Nor do they care to be ruled by plainsmen from the Punjab— be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or the British. This is the basic force of history that the Punjabi ruling elite calling itself Pakistan is fighting against. The outcome of the struggle is a foregone conclusion. It follows a historic pattern: a weak state in the Punjab has always succumbed to forces from the northwest. A strong state of which Punjab is a part has always turned back the invader. So the only hope for its Punjabi heartland to survive is to be backed by the strong state of India.
With such mighty forces at play, it is clear that a Punjabi-Mohajir elite in a slender sliver of land cannot hope to control a vast and ‘lawless frontier’— as Kaplan puts it. The only natural boundary between this frontier-land and the plains is the Indus River, which leaves Pakistan with no strategic depth. The question therefore becomes one of survival— not exercise of authority. It also shows the futility of India placing trust in any Pakistani leader, in the hope of achieving peace in the region. No leader can control either geography or the forces of sectarian hate and violence that dominate the region. In the face of this, Manmohan Singh’s platitudes like ‘business as usual’ and the ‘peace process’ sound hollow even pathetic.
It is only a matter of time before the Pakistani state crumbles under the weight. When that happens, all of Pakistan will become a ‘lawless frontier’. The only institutions left in Pakistan will be the madrasas —or Islamic schools—that turn out something like half a million ‘students’ a year fit for nothing except jihad. Their first targets will the elite at home. They are already running the state in Afghanistan and much of Pakistan. Left unchecked, they will soon control all of Pakistan. The consequences for the region can be cataclysmic, and India should prepare for the inevitable outcome: once they gain control of Pakistan, India will be the target.
Pak hostility, Indian vacuity
So here is what India will be faced with in the not too distant future if not already. The state we now call Pakistan will be whittled down to Punjab and the regions east of the Indus River, struggling to protect itself from the forces of unruly frontiers controlled by warlords great and small in search of loot. This is what institutional meltdown will amount to. By one of those coincidences of history, this institutional meltdown in Pakistan is accompanies by a parallel meltdown in governance in the Indian establishment: Manmohan Singh seems clueless, Sonia is silent and Rahul is nowhere in sight.
The Indian intelligentsia is hardly better. It is living in fantasy world, carrying candles to Wagah border and calling for ‘confidence building measures’ (and making money on the side being on various committees and NGOs). This was brought home to me in a recent exchange with highly regarded ‘historian’ who claimed that the greatest contributors to India in the century were Gandhi and Nehru! What is their relevance today other than the Partition and the Kashmir problem (and the dysfunctional Planning Commission)?
An important point to note is that Pakistan will not crumble quietly. It is too steeped in hate and violence to disappear like the former Soviet Empire. More likely, it will be like former Yugoslavia. Eventually the land beyond the Indus will return to being the frontier it has always been, and the Punjabi-Mohajir colony calling itself Pakistan will be struggling for survival. Its enemy will not be India but the Talibanized network of ‘schools’ and its hate-filled ‘students’ trying to undermine and even destroy the Punjabi elite.
To see what will be like, one has only to look at what happened to the Afghan elite after the Taliban took over. And in Punjab the hostilities are infinitely greater. They are rooted in the historic hostility of the frontier nomads towards the settled people of the plains. Appeal to Islam will not save them, for what the Punjabis are up against is the geo-strategic reality of the region. And this is what has shaped their history. And they have made the situation worse by creating and sponsoring the Taliban.
Here is the historic pattern previously alluded to. Whenever there was a weak state in the Punjab region, it has fallen before invaders from the northwest. This was the case when it was invaded by Darius, Muhammad of Ghazni, Timur, Babar and Nadir Shah. On the other hand, whenever the Punjab was part of a powerful state, it has turned back the invader. This is what happened when the Greeks, the Huns and Afghans in the time of Ranjit Singh tried to invade the planes.
Here is the question before India: can she let these invading forces cross the Indus and turn West Punjab into a wasteland? The only way for Punjab to survive is to let the frontier be frontier and work with India. This means giving up its Kashmir obsession. Is the Punjabi ruling elite capable of such vision? As one Pakistani (Punjabi) journalist told Kaplan, “We have never defined ourselves in our own right— only in relation to India. That is our tragedy.” This thin strip of land, West Punjab cannot survive on its own without India’s help.
Is the Indian leadership capable of driving home this truth to the Punjabis calling themselves Pakistanis? Silent Sonia, vanishing artist Rahul and Manmohan Singh in dotage— can they even conceive of such a possibility? Or are they too preoccupied with family matters to pay attention to the future of the nation and the region?
In the final analysis, India can no longer afford the luxury of being a soft state led by soft leaders, continuing to avoid hard decisions and actions. A soft state at this critical juncture in history may also face a meltdown like Pakistan. At the very least India will have to protect itself against the spillover from the chaos across the border. It will call for skills very different from protecting real estate scams.