History’s Warriors

Indian Express, June 3, 2004

General Pervez Musharraf has publicly acknowledged what most informed Pakistanis have known all along. The attempts on his life late last year involved junior members of Pakistan’s armed forces, some of whom apparently share the ideology of the global Jihadi movement that General Musharraf says his military government is now committed to rooting out. According to Pakistan’s General-President, there is no cause for moderate Pakistanis to worry. The individuals involved in the conspiracy were just a handful of misguided individuals ‘‘brainwashed’’ into believing that killing General Musharraf would be an act of faith.

The terrorists seeking to kill General Musharraf are the same people who kill Shias in mosques and believe that everyone other than their small band of believers is part of a conspiracy against Islam and Pakistan. That Islam and Pakistan are under constant threat and the global system functions under some grand conspiracy of the yahood-o-hunood (Jews and Hindus) is believed by a large segment of Pakistan’s population. The Pakistani education system and the Pakistani establishment’s conventional wisdom are partly responsible for this collective state of mind. When so many people are convinced that only ‘‘enemy agents’’ block the renewed glory of Islam, it is easy to persuade some of them that the country’s current ruler may be one such ‘‘agent’’. If General Musharraf is truly concerned about the danger extremism poses for Pakistan, he must look at the real source of extremist thinking in Pakistan’s political culture.

For years Pakistan’s establishment has fed a fictitious account of history to its people. Young Pakistanis are taught not to question cliches about their nation’s greatness. Alternative world views are discouraged. The result is general ignorance about causes and effects and a tendency to believe in an ‘‘only if’’ approach to life. From ‘‘Only if the British had not patronised South Asia’s Hindus’’ to ‘‘Only if the Americans would keep their commitments and help Pakistan get Kashmir’’, simplified formulae obstruct analytical thinking.

The simplifications and self glorification has been an essential ingredient of the establishment’s strategy for controlling Pakistani society. Unfortunately, it also has unplanned consequences especially when the establishment is forced to make a U-turn in policy, as has been the case since September 11, 2001. At least some of those brought up to think that soldiers of Islam can’t be defeated except through the treachery of their own are applying the notion to the establishment itself.

Although General Musharraf has reacted to the brainwashing of his would-be assassins, he has given no indication that he understands how this brainwashing is a product of the lack of free discourse in Pakistan. Not long ago, General Muhammad Aziz Khan, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee said in a widely reported speech that Muslims have never been defeated in history except through the treachery of some within their own ranks.

This historically incorrect account matches the version of events in Pakistani textbooks, which convince junior school students that the British defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal in the battle of Plassey in 1757 was made possible only by the defection of another Muslim Nawab, Mir Jaffer of Murshidabad. That the British might have had superior armaments and that Jaffer’s decision to support the British might have been the result of their military superiority rather than the other way round is not held out as an option.

Ironically, the British Indian army that defeated Siraj-ud-Daula’s forces was the predecessor to the professional army that Pakistan inherited from British Raj at the time of independence in 1947. But the military’s role as Pakistan’s institution of last resort has necessitated a certain image building of the Pakistan army. Although military regiments routinely trace their origins to British times, Pakistani people are told to support the army as soldiers of Islam and not as a professional force.

From the battle of Plassey to the surrender of Pakistani troops at the end of the 1971 war, none of the major events in the history of Muslim India is openly discussed for fear that it would somehow jeopardise a fragile national identity. Brigadier A R Siddiqi, a well known columnist and former head of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) has documented the military’s image building exercise in his book The Military in Pakistan: Image and Reality. Among other things, the book recalls the efforts at intellectual regimentation undertaken by the Bureau of National Reconstruction (BNR) created by Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The BNR, writes Brigadier Siddiqi, was ‘‘a most skillfully designed instrument of brainwashing through a combination of public relations and intelligence’’.

As a result of the establishment’s brainwashing, every defeat in South Asian Muslim history is blamed on external factors, not on bad strategy. Take the widespread anti-Americanism as an example. Most Pakistanis believe that the US let Pakistan down by not fulfilling its commitments under the bilateral defence treaty of 1954. The feeling can be traced to the 1965 war with India, when the US suspended supplies of weapons to both belligerents instead of coming to Pakistan’s assistance. But the historic record, now available in the form of declassified papers (some of them edited by Roedad Khan in the book The American Papers), shows that the US had objected to the use of American supplied military equipment during the Rann of Kutch war in April 1965. If the US was unwilling to let its equipment be used against India in April, it was unrealistic on the part of Pakistan’s generals to expect American support when they embarked on the adventure in Kashmir in August 1965. But instead of facing the realities of international relations, the Pakistani establishment continues to fuel anti-Americanism.

History is not the only sphere in Pakistan where genuine information has been replaced with tendentious accounts. Pakistani public opinion is routinely mobilised on false expectations in relation to Afghanistan and Kashmir. Conspiracy theories demonising Hindus and Jews are widespread even after General Musharraf has publicly announced his desire for good relations with India and for the possible recognition of Israel.

Some of General Musharraf’s closest aides have privately expressed the view that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could not have been the handiwork of Al-Qaeda and may have been undertaken by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. General Musharraf still periodically claims that there was nothing wrong with Pakistan’s past support for the Taliban. Pakistan’s disenfranchised people are fed a regular diet of slogans, rhetoric and fantasy. General Musharraf’s recent ultra-nationalist statement that the Commonwealth should be proud to have Pakistan as its member is one recent example.

Pakistan cannot become a modern, functional state until its culture of rhetoric and brainwashing is replaced by genuine pluralism. Pakistan’s establishment brainwashes its people in an effort to foster a top-down religious nationalism, arrogates to itself the right of defining Pakistani identity and national interest, and describes its critics as foreign agents. In such an environment, why is it surprised if some extremists go a step further and consider some of the establishment’s top guns as ideologically impure?