Please click here for exclusive excerpts from Countdown. For more writings by and on Amitav Ghosh, please visit his website, amitavghosh.com, where this first appeared
Before my meeting with Asma, a friend had said of her: "If you put Asma on one side and a million men on the other, there would still be no doubt about who would win." I had expected someone larger than life, but Asma Jahangir proved to be a slight, diminutive woman with the wiry intensity of a tension cable. She is 48, the daughter of an opposition politician who was one of the most vocal critics of the Pakistan army’s operations in what is now Bangladesh. She spent her teenage years consulting with lawyers on behalf of her frequently-imprisoned father. "When my father was called to court was when we, his children, used to see him," she said. "For me the court was a place where justice was given and where you met your father."
For her defence of the rights of religious minorities, Ms Jahangir has received many death threats. Members of her family have been attacked and taken hostage, her home has been broken into. As we spoke, a unit of black-uniformed bodyguards stood outside, drowsing beside their kalashnikovs.
I said to Asma: "Travelling around Pakistan the last few days, I’ve really got a sense of impending crisis, really deep crisis. Do you think I’m wrong?"
"Well," she retorted, " I cannot recall any one month when Pakistan has not gone from crisis to crisis - and I mean from way back, from the 1960s up to now. But at that time (in the 1960s) the crisis was more related to domestic politics and it didn’t seem as though it was going to be insurmountable. Over the years I think people are getting the feeling that we have looked away from a lot of problems and we have got ourselves into a situation where it is becoming impossible for our leaders to take stock of things and to reconcile themselves to the fact that we have to change everything around for the country to survive at a comfortable level."
AG: What would you say needs to be changed?
AJ: First of all, the intrusion of religion and religious orthodoxy into the politics of Pakistan. This has never been resolved; there were always strange compromises. Secondly, the whole question of provincial autonomy (needs to be addressed). This has hounded Pakistan’s politics, even to the extent of having lost one part of Pakistan because of the majority-empowered province’s mentality of trying to push their decisions on others. Previously these issues were sort of muffled, or they had not come to the surface because there was always a dictatorship and the smaller provinces were threatened with being called traitors if they said anything against the federation or the power of the federation. With the democratic process - and I must give credit to the Press particularly - people have begun to speak up and a debate has been generated.
The added problem that we have is that Pakistan’s foreign policy was central to the Cold War. We have still not mentally reconciled ourselves, as a nation, to the post-Cold War scenario. We cannot think that we’ll make mistakes and somebody will come to our rescue. These rescue operations have finished, and that is something we have still not comprehended fairly and squarely. We always want to use some card or the other and it becomes a matter of habit. After this we will use the card of the Taliban and the Afghan situation; we will use the card of being an Islamic country which can go either way. But there comes a time when the world focuses on changes and people begin to leave you to your own devices."
AG: Meeting people here in Pakistan, I get the sense that there is a very powerful groundswell of anti-American sentiment. Yet Pakistan was one of America’s closest allies for much of the last half-century. How does one account for this?
AJ: The Americans supported Zia ul-Haq, who was one of the most ruthless dictators in our part of the world. They supported his Islamisation process until the American people woke up to what he was doing to women. When Zia ul-Haq came to power he was completely backed by the Americans to back the jihad in Afghanistan. The American centre used to send scholars to lecture us on this. To the extent that we’ve heard lectures there where scholars have told us how great Saudi Arabian society was, and that women could operate within their own sphere of life. After a while people said, well, if it is such a great and romantic system, perhaps the United States needs to import it themselves.
At that time we did not have that violent a society where kalashnikovs were easily available and we did not have this rampant a drug culture in our country. This all started with the Afghan war and the jihad. And this so-called jihad did create a very strong network of orthodoxy in our country and we are still suffering under that. So even liberals are a little bitter at the fact that these problems were created by the West. I’m not saying that one can rest on the premise that it’s the West that creates problems, and that it’s the West that can do away with our problems. We are to blame for our own follies. Except that in the case of Zia ul-Haq, it was not as though people here weren’t struggling against him. Several people got flogged, including lawyers. Several people got executed - even boys as old as fifteen. People went to jail. I do not recall any of my colleagues in the Human Rights Commission who did not go to jail at that time.
People like us are not happy with West-bashing. The Islamists are very militant against the West because they feel that the U.S. picked them up, they made them into the custodians of the country and now they’re backing off. So they feel let down on another level. They continue West-bashing to the point where they dub people like myself as Western agents, having conveniently forgotten that then years ago they were the ones who were the direct beneficiaries of the jihad policy of the West.
On the Constitutional Amendment proposing the establishment of sharia’a law in Pakistan:
AJ: If consitutional amendments are to be carried out, according to this amendment, it will be by a simple majority - in other words, twenty-seven members of the National Assembly could actually carry out a constitutional amendment. This is a mockery of law-making. So you could get up in the morning and hear that a constitutional amendment has been carried out that has an impact on me as a citizen, as a woman, as a lawyer.
AG: What will it mean for women?
AJ: It will mean that our lives will be in the hands of the federal government, which does not make me very happy.
AG: One of the things that intrigues me about this amendment is what sort of Islamic legal system is going to be put into place? Is it to be Maliki law or Hanafi law…?
AJ: Absolutely. It says that every sect can interpret it for themselves, which really means also planting sectarianism. How are they going to do it? If I am a Maliki and I’m married to someone who is Shafi’I? Then what personal law will apply? Mine or his? Or if I have a contract? If I’m a Sunni and I have a contract with a Shi’a? It’ll be pure confusion - it’ll be a free-for-all; it’ll create havoc for the legal system.
AG: From what you’re saying, it sounds as though the legal system will collapse.
AJ: It will collapse. The legal system will collapse, the judiciary will collapse. [We will be left] to the dictates of a handful of people.
AG: Would you say that what has happened in Pakistan is the result of having a very small ruling class?
AJ: Countries which have a ruling elite that is devoid of all values, which gives leadership only to the agenda that everybody is for themselves - that is the disaster of Pakistan. If you look at the ruling classes of Pakistan and compare them to the ruling classes of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, you will find very few people who are actually worried, who are actually taking an interest, who actually interact with the people of this country. They live like foreigners here. And that is I think the unfortunate part. Most of the ruling classes of Pakistan have always sided with the establishment. The few exceptions are freaks really. Even Mr Bhutto was from the establishment. Benazir is the first removed in one way. If you look at it that way, it’s pathetic.
AG: What could be the future of the Mohajir movement?
AJ: Let me say this - and there have been reports of the Human Rights Commission saying the same thing - every ethnic group has the right to make demands. You may disagree with them and say that they want more than their fair share. But disagreement has to be intellectual and it has to be through dialogue. The fact that we resist a movement to start with and begin with the lowest kind of attack on their integrity, tends to harden the situation. I or you may believe that this movement was put up; we may believe that this was a terrorist movement, but the responsibility of the government is to engage in dialogue, not to start dubbing them one thing or another. In every movement there are all kinds of people, and you want to bring a dialogue forward in order to encourage those people who want a peaceful settlement. I think there has not been enough reaching out. You can’t kill a movement through state terrorism, if I may use that word, because then you’re really strengthening the movement.
AG: To come to Kashmir, how do you think this issue could be settled between India and Pakistan?
AJ: Frankly, I don’t think the two governments are sincere about settling the issue. On the one hand, it’s a complicated issue whether Pakistan should be interfering or not. Pakistan gives the example of Bangladesh where people were really being oppressed and were going to lose many lives. If the government of Pakistan were to intervene I would be happier; I am not happy at the idea of vigilantes intervening.
It’s like me putting up an army and saying I want to fight a war in Bosnia. The answer I get to that is, no, Bosnia is not a disputed territory and Kashmir is. But let the government of Pakistan be in charge of what they are doing there. At the same time I have read, particularly in the past two, three years a number of reports, even by the Indian NGOs about the kind of intervention the [Indian] army has had in the Valley, and you cannot expect people not to be antagonistic - the number of people that have been killed, the number of women that have been raped. These are not exaggerated figures, because they have come from Indian NGOs themselves.
Unless those people themselves are in the process of dialogue you will not be able to have a long-lasting solution there. Because let us even presume tomorrow that India and Pakistan for whatever reason, decide the issue - it will not be closed. The issue will come up time and again unless there is an interaction with the leaders of the Kashmiri movement themselves. And perhaps the question then is who are the genuine leaders? A mechanism ought to be put in place - certainly not without India and Pakistan - to ascertain who are the genuine leaders there. [In the process] even their (the Kashmiris’ ] own perceptions of where they want to go may change. When people are confronted with [such a situation] then the rhetoric finishes. Then it is reality [that they are dealing with] and in a situation of [confronting] reality they may take a very, very different stance.
AG: You just said that the leaders in the two countries are not interested in solving the situation. What exactly do you mean by that?
AJ: In our country we feel that if we solve the situation with anything short of having Kashmir with us it will be very unpopular with the people of Pakistan because of the high profile that we have given this issue and because of the rhetoric that we have had. But Frankly it is not within Pakistan’s power to have both sides of Kashmir [with it] - even the Kashmiris may not agree with that.
So who wants to take that risk? [Especially] after the expectations of people have been raised that Kashmir will be a part of Pakistan? Similarly on the part of the Indians. The Indian government will not wish to see any part of Kashmir [leave] India’s hands [or even] go into neutral hands. And that is a risk they will have to take if they want to come to talks and say, okay, these talks are for a solution. It’s a messy situation where the governments don’t have the courage, the confidence, or the moral conviction to face the realities.
AG: Would you say Kashmir is the principal problem between India and Pakistan or would you say that problems would remain even without Kashmir?
AJ: I think if the Kashmir issue is solved tomorrow we would still have problems: we would have problems on our water disputes; we would have problems on our influence in the region. India is a very large country. India has political ambitions in the region. Ours is a smaller country, but because of our past history of being aligned with the USA and the policies we have had a hand in, we have got used to having an influence, which we are not likely to give up. We’ve got used to a strategy where we like to be seen as a very influential country.
Then there is a problem of perception. India wants to push a perception of South Asian identity; Pakistan wants a South Asian identity and yet does not want it. It wants to leave the door open to an identity as a Middle Eastern country. So I think even in terms of foreign policy there will be friction; in terms of hegemony in South Asia there will be friction. India unfortunately in the past has annoyed many of its neighbours.
If Pakistan tomorrow has a more reasonable leadership, a leadership that is looking toward South Asia as an identity, they have the possibility of more or less isolating India, which is going to make India very unhappy. So that historical animosity is not going to go away that quickly. That will only go when both countries recognise each other’s strengths instead of trying to exploit each others’ weaknesses.
The last point, which is very important, is that we have a large Muslim minority in India. And you have Hindus in Pakistan. And the question of minorities will always remain on the agenda of India and Pakistan. When the Muslims in Bombay are hit, it hurts the Muslims in Pakistan; when the Hindus in Sindh are persecuted it annoys India. So that again will be a point of friction. If there is keen interest in ending this animosity - and I would say this is very much linked with the Kashmir issue - both countries leadership must sign an accord protecting minorities."
AG: That’s a very good point. Now what about the nuclear blasts? What was your response when you woke up on May 11th and read about these blasts?
AJ: After the Indian test the debate was going on, on whether Pakistan should react in a similar fashion or not. Very few of us at that time took the stand that we should not react by testing a nuclear bomb. And there are reasons for it: the reason is that we should de-link our foreign policy from India. We cannot have a foreign policy just in reaction to India.
Secondly we felt that Pakistan was not going to gain anything by a test. That this was a good opportunity for us to go a separate way completely. More importantly, people like us are against nuclearisation. So you cannot condemn India for nuclearisation if you are going to follow the same path. And perhaps Pakistan should have taken the moral high ground at that point.
Frankly if I had had anything to do with decision-making, I would have said, let us take the moral high ground now. India with a new leadership that was seen as very conservative, I think Pakistan could have been seen to be a more reasonable country at that time.
If I had anything to do with the leadership of Pakistan I would have gone first of all to Tokyo and led a huge procession against nuclearisation; I would have gone to Ireland and led a procession against nuclearisation. Everywhere in the major capitals of the world you would have got strong support and it would really have decimated India’s image in many ways and brought Pakistan an image in the international community as a far more reasonable country.
And a leadership can always control domestic opinion, particularly in our countries. And the people of our countries - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh - are very wise in their perception. If you show to them how this issue is linked to your little kitchen at home, they understand it. How if we do this, you cannot have your aspirations of sending your child to school. But if we don’t do it, maybe we can fulfill that aspiration. I think put to the people like that - the people of our countries are not stupid.
There are always a few handfuls of people who are gung-ho; who would distribute sweets . But the same people who distributed sweets in India and Pakistan are the same people who would come out and riot when they saw an economic crunch coming close to them. To take that kind of extreme public opinion [into account] in deciding the life of a nation, is not wise for leadership.
AG: When these blasts happened in Pokharan, did you feel that they were an act of hostility directed at Pakistan?
AJ: Well frankly I felt angry. I felt angry at the Indian leadership because I felt that they were going to start a nuclear race in the region. And yes, I felt that my security was threatened. But I felt that if we do the same it’ll be doubly threatened. I have never felt so insecure, so unhappy in my life as [I was] after we tested our own nuclear device. I felt doubly insecure. I am not convinced of the argument that it is a deterrent.