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Thursday 12 January 2017

Book review: A spy-eye view of Pakistan

Pakistan: Courting the Abyss
By Tilak Devasher
(HarperCollins India, 2016)
450 Pages, Rs 599/-

In our country, where practically everyone who reads a newspaper regards herself as an expert on Pakistan, and library bookshelves groan under the weight of little-read tomes lamenting the oddities of our neighbour, former spymaster Tilak Devasher has pulled off a coup in presenting a book that will actually be read widely.

That is because Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is more than just a historiographical recounting of Pakistan’s birth and subsequent journey. It is also a pacy, entertaining, anecdote-enlivened account that paints a multi-hued, if depressing, picture of our neighbour. Devasher draws extensively from documented history and primary records, but what sets his book apart from earlier scholarship on Pakistan is his invaluable experience as a “special secretary, in the cabinet secretariat” --- bureaucratic code for the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) --- during which time he handled the Pakistan folio as well as Kashmir.

In the introduction itself, we observe the author’s knack for the telling anecdote. It starts by contrasting Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s triumphal arrival in Karachi, when he flew in from New Delhi in August 1947; with his lonely flight from Quetta just a year later, when a consumption-ravaged Jinnah, now weighing just 70 pounds and confined to a stretcher, was received by a solitary ambulance at Karachi airport. The ambulance broke down en route, stranding Pakistan’s Qaid-e-Azam for two hours by the roadside until another ambulance could fetch up. Jinnah died the same night.

Devasher asks: “If, indeed, he (Jinnah) could have anticipated the Pakistan that exists today, would he have striven so relentlessly to create it in the first place?”

The author has wisely chosen not to address his topic chronologically (which would have resulted in another potted history), but to devote each chapter to a specific facet of Pakistan. He starts with describing the Muslim League’s agitation for Pakistan, postulating that the creation of that country became inevitable only on June 6, 1946, when the Indian National Congress refused to accept a federalised India with a high degree of autonomy for Muslim-majority states. He highlights British deviousness in fomenting Hindu-Muslim antagonism, quoting Winston Churchill’s infamous comment that Hindu-Muslim antagonism was “a bulwark of British rule in India [without which] the united communities [would join] in showing us the door.”

The author traces how an opportunistic Jinnah induced the British to back the Muslim League against the more unbending Congress, using every trick in the book, including Direct Action (street riots, with mass killings) to get his way. Pakistan’s future leaders like General Ayub Khan would observe the success of Jinnah’s strong-arm tactics and conclude: “As a general rule Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of blows delivered at the right time and place. Such opportunities should, therefore, be sought and exploited.”

Next, Devasher analyses Pakistan’s creation of an artificial national identity that straddled five pre-existing nationalities --- Bengali, Baluch, Pakhtun, Sindhis and Punjabi --- within the geographical boundaries of the new country. Painting the new nation as the inheritors of the Mughal empire was problematic: the most potent and visible symbols of Islamic power and grandeur remained in India. Furthermore, for the Baluchis, Sindhis and Pakhtuns (inexplicably, the author calls them Pashtuns, an Afghan descriptive) the Mughals symbolised oppression and tyranny. Eventually, as Devasher convincingly explains, a concocted “Nazaria-e-Pakistan” (Pakistani ideology) was arrived at, blending Islam, Urdu, centralised administration and the India-threat. Inevitably, large parts of Pakistan, including its most populous province, East Bengal, felt excluded, with disastrous consequences to follow.

Revealingly, the quest for an identity even ropes in Jinnah, who had never spoken of an ideology for Pakistan. Yet, as the author notes: “the Pakistan school curriculum documents insist that the students be taught the Ideology of Pakistan as enunciated by the Quaid.” So delicate is the subject that the Curriculum Document for primary educations mandates that: “The Ideology of Pakistan be presented as an accepted reality and be never subjected to discussion or dispute.”

Like most studies of Pakistan, Devasher’s volume lavishes attention on the Pakistani military. His task is made easy by the recent publication of several excellent works on the subject, such as Military Inc., by Ayesha Siddiqa; Crossed Swords by Shuja Nawaz; and Fighting to the End, by C Christine Fair. Civil-military relations are dealt with in detail, with praetorian generals having intervened four times to seize political power and directly ruled Pakistan for 34 of its 69 years. Selected writings by Pakistani generals highlight the undisguised contempt in which they hold the political leaders, such as this gem from Field Marshal Ayub Khan, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine: “The former politicians are no problem to us now or in the near future. We have taken good care to spare them the usual tragic fate of those overtaken by revolutionary upheavals. On the contrary, we are content to treat them as a big joke, just as they turned a perfectly sound country into the laughing stock of the world.”

Devasher further cites Ayub: “We must understand that democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy, we must have a cold climate like Britain.” Another praetorian general, Zia-ul-Haq, wrote: “In Pakistan neither anarchy nor Westernism will work. This country was created in the name of Islam and in Islam there is no provision for Western-type elections.” General Musharraf stated: “I have a belief that democracy has to be modified to an environment; that is the reason for my retaining the power of dismissing an assembly.”

The author points out that, though the days of old-fashioned military coups might be over, the generals retain control over the levers of power through the mechanism of the “soft coup” --- by controlling apex committees that monitor the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism. The political leadership has played along, ceding oversight to the army, in exchange for being allowed to continue in power.

This volume also takes a deep dive into Pakistan’s religious and sectarian quagmire, which has birthed a multitude of armed, extremist and ideological groups; going for each other’s throats on a continuing basis. The author ascribes this rising tide of violence to the politicisation of religion by successive rulers, tracing sectarianism back to the anti-Ahmediya protests in 1953, and then the “Sunnification” drive of General Zia-ul-Haq. The author convincingly concludes: “Where Jinnah and [Prime Minister] Liaquat [Ali Khan] erred was to think that religion could be exploited for a secular objective and once that objective was met, religion could be sidelined.”

Another section undertakes a so-called WEEP analysis, surely a tongue-in-cheek acronym, which stands for water, education, economy and population metrics. “Collectively, these issues strongly suggest a looming multi-organ failure in Pakistan”, says the author, concluding that these issues would be primary factors in impelling Pakistan towards the abyss.

In the final section of his book, Devashar examines Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan, the United States and China, with every significant element of these engagements directed towards obtaining or creating parity with India. An early example of that quest for parity was Pakistan’s strenuous efforts, in the run-up to the May 1950 visit of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to the US, to ensure that Liaquat was received as grandly as Jawaharlal Nehru had been earlier. The author could also have recounted that, when Lord Louis Mountbatten was negotiating the partition of India with Nehru and Jinnah in the summer of 1947 in the Viceregal Lodge in Simla, the Muslim League leader insisted that a second door be knocked into Mountbatten’s office so that he could enter simultaneously with Nehru.

The book, as its title suggests, paints a bleak picture of Pakistan’s future. To be sure, most economic, human development, social and security indicators justify pessimism. One respected international benchmark, the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, says Pakistan is in a state of war, with more than a thousand conflict-related deaths occurring annually. While the figures, expert analysis and international opinion all support Devasher’s conclusions, a lingering question remains: why do most visitors to Pakistan come away with the impression of a country that is not really falling apart. It would appear that countries like Pakistan, founded on religious or ethnic nationalism are, in fact, not as fragile as one would imagine.

Devasher’s book is recommended as a contemporary, historically grounded primer on Pakistan and what ails that country. Although it comes from an intelligence professional --- a notoriously pessimistic tribe --- it is a relatively detached study, making its points with an interesting combination of history, logic and pithy anecdotes. It will surely be read widely in India. It is hoped that it will attract attention in Pakistan as well.


  1. Unfortunately, many book by Indians on Pakistan rarely tends to paint an accurate picture. I guess its a way of justifying India as a nation and why partition was a mistake. I get the feeling most Indians simply do not understand Pakistan or its people. What they understand are the muslims in India or think Pakistanis are like them but rarely the indigenous people. This is true even for Indian Muslims, who come across Pakistanis in the UK and are surprised how different they are.

    I was surprised when I first started interacting with Indians and Paksitani's for research, I ask a simple question where they are from: Pakistani's generally say Pakistan or my parents are from Pakistan but Indians tend to say Bihar, Punjab, Gujrat, Kerla, or a name of the city but rarely India. The other easy observation is that Pakistanis tend to put another Pakistani first but with Indians its the opposite. They have this togetherness, a sort of brotherhood, they call each other bro or cousin, I guess this is the reason that that country stays together. Its all the small inter-connections, at family, tribal, regional levels. It is also rare to see Pakistani family interacting with an Indian family, even when they live 2 doors away.

    The best book I have read on Pakistan is by:

    Pakistan: A Hard Country Paperback – March 6, 2012
    by Anatol Lieven (Author)

  2. Pakistanis are mostly hypocrites...tey talk good things and show a sacrosanct Islamic angle but their actions are hopelessly running the other way.
    They talk a lot of meaningless fuss and rarely their educated talk goes beyond propaganda about Isla and the kafir set (India and Jews with Christians occasionally thrown in). Most of them rely of the western authors to placate their national insecurities.

    Like the guy above...just keep sleeping with happy pills :D


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