The problem of Pakistan

The following article is by a regular contributor to the blog, Chaste. The article is a comprehensive analytic exploration of the extent of problem that we face in Pakistan, and a considered exploration of the possible alternatives.

I will first sketch the history of and the situation in Pakistan, and then suggest a range of options. Throughout the piece, I will use “Jihadist groups” as an umbrella term for groups including the Kashmiri terrorists, LET, UJC, AQ, Taliban, and the like. My apologies to those who see Jihad as an internal spiritual struggle; I cannot think of a more efficient term.

In 1965, Old Pakistan tried unsuccessfully to annex the part of Kashmir that fell to India during the spoils of independence / partition. Six years later, in 1971, an East Pakistan (Bengali) based party won national elections. Because the party was East Pakistan based, the West Pakistan dominated military refused to recognize the election results, and launched a coup. What followed was an incredibly bloody suppression of a Bengali insurgency. The West Pakistani military action caused the killing of about 1.5 million people in a space of nine months; that would average out at five thousand killings every day during the whole of those nine months. These are controversial numbers, difficult to verify, so I have halved the numbers claimed by Bangladesh. Ten million Bengalis became refugees in India. India started to support the insurgency, and Pakistan declared war on India at the end of 1971. With the help of Bengali insurgents, India forced a surrender of Pakistani forces in the area, and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.

In nearly forty years of independence, Bangladesh has coexisted peacefully with both Pakistan and India, viewing neither as a threat or even a rival. It should be noted here Bangladesh’s population is roughly equal to that of Pakistan, and is about 90% Muslim. On the other hand, West Pakistan took ownership of the identity of Old Pakistan – viewing India as a rival and a threat, and itself as the lands of the Muslims of the subcontinent. It did this despite having just lost about half of its population to Bangladesh, and being reduced to a nation of Punjabis, Sindhis, and a host of peoples in the mountainous Northwest of the subcontinent. West Pakistan chose to overlook its slaughter of up to three million Bangladeshis (West Pakistan would point out in its defense that it murdered and raped a disproportionately high number of Hindus). Instead, West Pakistan held India fully responsible for the breakup of Old Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. West Pakistan (henceforth Pakistan) forged a new Pakistani national psyche, which dramatically reinforced India as Pakistan’s existential nemesis. Pakistan forthwith embarked on its project to acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons project was easily accelerated in the 80s because the West was happy to look the other way. In exchange, Pakistan channeled Western money to Jihadist forces, among others, in order to overthrow the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. The channeling of vast moneys through the ISI made it much more powerful, even as it was radicalized both by its common cause with Jihadist forces, and by the Islamization under General Zia.

The end of the 80s saw Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the successful conclusion of anti-Soviet action in Afghanistan by the alliance of the West, the Jihadist forces among others, and Pakistan’s ISI. The former gave Pakistan carte blanche to pursue any military action against India short of a frontal assault; the latter placed at Pakistan’s disposal, a considerable Jihadist force and the bureaucratic / political structure (ISI) to manage these forces. Pakistan decided to capitalize on the sense of grievance in the Muslim majority state of Kashmir over two instances of opportunistic behavior by the Congress party earlier in the 80s (the Congress had behaved similarly in most other Indian states). Accordingly, it set up extensive terrorist training camps in Pakistani Kashmir, and unleashed a violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Indian Kashmir. One of the first actions of this insurgency was to carry out an ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir valley. This insurgency has continued since, claiming on average three thousand lives every year. Pakistan’s usual rationalization for supporting this partially Jihadi insurgency is that it helps defend Pakistan by keeping a large part of the Indian army tied down in Kashmir. This reasoning is patently absurd: India could retain territorial control over Kashmir during any hostilities with a fraction of the army it currently needs to maintain law and order. Besides, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent should forestall any hostile intentions India may ever have had. Meanwhile, among the various groups that Pakistan supported to a greater or lesser extent, the Taliban not only consolidated its hold over most of a fractious Afghanistan, but also became a reliable ally of Pakistan until 9/11 shook things up a little.

The past two decades in Pakistan have been characterized by an unstable political equilibrium. There are three important political factions: The Bhutto party with its base in Sindh, the Sharif party with its base in Punjab, and the military with its base in a combination of raw power, and popular dissatisfaction with the extreme corruption in the other two political factions. Neither the Bhutto nor the Sharif faction has compromised on their core interest of corruption: neither party has indicated an interest in good governance as a means of staying in power. The military, though more interested in good governance than the others, has not compromised on its core interest of absolute power – has not accepted any power sharing as a means of co-opting ambitious civilians. All three factions share the national consensus about supporting the violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Kashmir. All three have a similar approach to the Taliban, namely, that they are a core ally of Pakistan who must be protected even as Pakistan needs to guard itself against some of their excesses. All three also approve of groups, which carry out bombings of movie houses, markets, commuter trains, and the like in major Indian cities every few months. The most “spectacular” of these were the attacks on various targets in Bombay including the Taj Mahal hotel and the Victoria Terminus railway station.

For those inclined to deem this a rather harsh assessment of Pakistani political players, consider the following sample of responses (largely from moderate parties or moderate military figures at a time when Pakistan had great external pressures and incentives to act moderately:

  • General Musharraf cut deals with the Jihadi forces by ceding parts of FATA to them and allowed other Jihadi groups like LET full freedom to operate in Pakistan; all this despite the fact that these groups supposedly tried to assassinate Musharraf himself on at least three different occasions.
  • When Ms. Bhutto was assassinated by Jihadi groups, her party directed blame at elements in the government allied to those groups rather than at the groups themselves. Part of this was because it was more expedient to blame the government (governing party) during an election campaign. But part of it is also because of the reluctance to openly criticize Jihadi groups. This latter construction is reinforced as Ms. Bhutto’s widower recently concluded a deal with the Taliban in which the government ceded the Swat valley to the Taliban. The Taliban has promptly taken control of the lucrative emerald mining operations in the area.
  • For several weeks after the Indian government released the names and addresses of the Bombay attackers, the Pakistani government refused to admit that any of the attackers was Pakistani. Indeed, Mr. Sharif was raked over the coals when, within a couple of weeks, he acknowledged that the captured attacker at least was Pakistani. Along similar lines, in the wake of the recent attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, a Pakistani minister promptly blamed the Indian government for carrying out the attacks. The MO of the Pakistani political establishment is always the same: while they vehemently condemn terrorist attacks (thereby giving the appearance of sanity), they rarely attribute it to any group (other than the Indian government). This lack of attribution preempts any obligation to publicly condemn the Jihadi groups.
  • When faced with Jihadi groups induced instability: increased suicide bombings in Pakistan including in Punjab, the tenseness surrounding the attacks on Bombay, the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, the ceding of Swat to the Taliban after a vicious campaign including wide spread school burnings, and the like crises, the Bhutto faction responded not by trying to undermine the Jihadi groups, but rather by trying to undermine the Sharif faction. Accordingly, they have packed the courts with partisans, and recently both Mr. Sharif, and his brother (the governor of Punjab), were disqualified from running for office. The Bhutto faction backed down only after massive street protests threatened its own hold on power.

The foregoing represents what we can expect from the Pakistani political establishment under any modification of business as usual. The reason for this is simple if rather uncomfortable, namely, that the central and defining element of what it means to be Pakistani is a hatred of India. This is not to suggest that every single Pakistani Muslim hates India (only an overwhelming majority do), or that it is a consuming passion (most have more immediate and concrete matters to preoccupy them). Rather, the view that India is Pakistan’s existential nemesis is assumed to be a self-evident truth. This has made hatred of India the preeminent national value. Establishing extreme anti-Indian bona fides has become a surefire shortcut to legitimation for any group whatever. Any Jihadi group knows that it only has to establish its anti-Indian bona fides (by fighting in Kashmir, bombing Indian civilians, or in any other way) to have carte blanche to do anything in Pakistan (including killing Pakistanis). As long as the extreme anti-Indian sentiment and the legitimation shortcut exists, and it will under any business as usual scenario, Pakistani Jihadi groups will be ineradicable.

But is the current unstable equilibrium satisfactory for the primary stakeholders? I will focus only on Pakistan, America, and India (Afghanistan is powerless to effect any change, so I will ignore it). All three stakeholders have grounds for dissatisfaction. Pakistanis are dealing with a deteriorating and unstable equilibrium. Extremists have struck in the heart of Punjab, the Pakistani army is often engaged on the front at the frontier, and Pakistan has become the centre of much unpleasant international attention. America has sunk a lot of money and prestige in its Afghanistan operation, and would dearly like to proclaim it a success. There is also a significant if quite minor security angle to the American operation. India has become more integrated into the global economy. Spectacular attacks like those on international hotels in Bombay are likely to jeopardize India’s status as a business and investment destination much more than the mundane attacks on commuter trains and movie houses.

Yet it may be more than arguable that the unstable equilibrium is preferable to the unknown consequences of any action that would disrupt business as usual. It cannot hurt to remind ourselves of the different responses of India and America to comparable attacks. India has largely taken them in its stride without making a big fuss. As a consequence, it has continued to maintain an 8% growth rate even as several hundred people are killed every year in bombings, and a few thousand in Kashmir every year (the latter are primarily Kashmiris unsympathetic to the Indian cause). A severe disruption of the status quo could have the highest cost for India since it shares a long and at places an unmanageable border with a nuclear Pakistan (think dirty bombs), not to mention that its important cities are within range of Pakistani missiles.. Gaurav has suggested that India can reduce the adverse effects of spectacular attacks on India’s international image as an investment destination by a few careful media regulations. Starving western (and probably Indian) media of video feeds would turn these from “spectacular” attacks to mundane deaths and killings worth only perfunctory coverage.

America has already paid the price for disturbing a stable if unpalatable equilibrium in Iraq. Indeed the primary victory of the 9/11 attackers was in knocking America off balance psychologically. What should have been no more than a $200 billion loss has turned into a multitrillion loss (the worth of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks was only about $20 billion assuming the rather generous $6 million per life used by the government in its usual cost benefit analysis). America could settle for maintaining a nominal, internationally recognized client regime in Kabul. America could check Jihadi forces by retaining the right to bomb targets of interest all over Afghanistan. Under such an arrangement, even if the Taliban held parts of the country (nonhostile warlords would hold most of the rest), they would not be much more of a threat to American security than they are now. In the alternative, America could actually try to win hearts and minds by helping the people of the area. No one in the region save the Jihadi forces regard America as an existential nemesis: indeed, America has been a friend of several Afghan groups in the past and present, and has been Pakistan’s most loyal ally for decades. Unfortunately, this is not a practical solution since America will need to spend significant money in helping the region’s peoples. The American people and foreign establishment have shown themselves far more willing to spend $100 billion on killing and occupying a people and their lands (it is called “supporting the troops”) than spend $1 billion on helping those people.

Pakistan has little to lose from the unstable equilibrium. It can revel in its national identity as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims by nurturing extreme Islamic groups, and by continuing to be a thorn in India’s side by supporting a partially Jihadi insurgency in Kashmir, and terrorist attacks by Jihadi groups in India. Pakistan will not need to acknowledge its role in the slaughter of millions in Bangladesh, fulfill its duties as a nuclear armed nation, or face the consequences of exporting terrorism to other countries.

But what if the unstable equilibrium ceases to be an equilibrium, and becomes a slippery slope where the Jihadi forces have a real shot at getting power in Islamabad? Though still very improbable, this scenario is not as outlandish as it was even a couple of years ago. If Pakistan were not nuclear armed, the world might have allowed the struggle between fundamentalist and moderate groups to play itself out over the customary few decades. However, its nuclear status ensures that the world will not leave Pakistan alone if there is a threat of a fundamentalist takeover. Such is the price to be paid for becoming a significant power! With this in view, I will discuss some of the measures that can be taken by outside players (America and the international community) to forestall this outcome. It should be understood that these measures should be considered only when the equilibrium is seriously threatened, or if there is a very high chance of the measure succeeding. The equilibrium persists because Islamic fundamentalists have never garnered significant support in the key provinces of Punjab and Sindh, which contain close to 80% of Pakistan’s population. It will not be seriously threatened unless extremist parties gain significant support in Punjab. Currently, they hold around 1% of the seats in Punjab, and received just over 2% of the nationwide vote. However, we must remember that the government of NWFP surrendered Swat to the Taliban despite the extremists winning just over 10% of the seats and votes in NWFP. Thus, “significant” support which should trigger the softer option means anything approaching a double digit share o the vote, and “substantial” support which should trigger the hard line option means a vote share well short of the 29% that gave the PMLN a near majority in the Punjab.

The softer option is to exert extreme economic pressure on Pakistan to achieve definite outcomes. The economic conditions must include generous aid on the one hand, and extreme sanctions including extreme trade sanctions and denial of practical access to international financial institutions on the other. The outcome sought should amount to no less than a revamping of Pakistan’s identity. This would include among others: taking strong action against all terrorist groups, surrendering all listed government officials to an international court to face charges of supporting terrorism (the names of a few ISI officials submitted by America to the UN can be the starting point for such a list), a settlement of all outstanding issues with India by a date certain (de facto acceptance of the status quo), and a revamping of the education system to exclude not only extreme Islamism, but also extreme anti-Indian sentiment. Pakistan has a recent record of changing the course of governments through popular pressure. A sufficiently tight squeeze on all sectors of society couple with generous incentives and an effective public campaign could well deliver even such a radical shakeup. These would doubtless be seen by Pakistan as humiliating conditions, and an assault on its national identity. But one must also remember that the right to support and orchestrate terrorist attacks in India has been seen by Pakistan as a nonnegotiable part of its national identity. A very mild version of this option is seen in the Obama administration making significant aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan stopping its support of groups, which carry out terrorist attacks in India. Even this version, which only asks Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups (as distinct from taking action against them), has become quite controversial.

The more hard line option involves a redrawing of the regional map, and a dissolution of Pakistan. The redrawing would create ethnic nations in the area. Thus, Punjab, Sindh, and most of Baluchistan would become their own nations. Northeast Baluchistan, NWFP, and FATA would be joined with southern and eastern Afghanistan to form a Pashtunistan. The rest of Afghanistan would form its own nation, or choose to be absorbed into neighboring nations like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Iran, based on regional demographics. There would have to be a solution for the Pakistani regions of AK and FANA, which will not ally them with Punjab. The military action would need to be NATO based, and exclude India to avoid a nuclear incident. Naturally, this solution should be implemented only when the extremists gain substantial support in Punjab.

Though this is a high risk strategy, there are a couple of reasons why it is likely to deliver the best long term outcome for all the peoples involved. The two most prominent recent examples of failed states falling to Islamic extremists are Afghanistan and Somalia. Both were riven by ethnic or clan factions. Since the primary role of traditional governments is to reallocate resources, a factionalized nation is much more likely to be unstable due to competition among the factions for a larger share. Islamic governments hold out not only the prospect of religion as a unifying force amid the actions; they proclaim that their primary role is the establishment of an Islamic way of life. This is what made the Islamic fundamentalist regimes (the one in Somalia was not particularly intolerant) remarkably stable until they were overthrown by foreign invasions. Pakistan also has strong regional factions, which would find an Islamic fundamentalist regime attractive in difficult circumstances, and find self-determination attractive if it can be easily achieved. As mentioned before, Islamic fundamentalism has a greater draw for Pakistan, which sees itself as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims, and which sees largely Hindu India as its existential nemesis.

I have mentioned before how the visceral anti-Indian sentiment among Pakistani people gives any groups that attack India and Indians a shortcut to legitimation. This visceral anti-Indian sentiment is unlikely to survive a dissolution of Pakistan. The largest postdissolution nation would be Punjab with a population around 8% of the Indian population, and an area barely a quarter of the current Pakistan. The fiction that this nation comprises the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims would be even more difficult to maintain. Any credible rivalry with India will be equally unrealistic. The new nations would likely settle into a pattern of peaceful coexistence similar to Bangladesh. Like Bangladesh they will derive their national identity from internal cultural history rather than by positing an external nemesis. Western hopes about Pakistan have always rested on the hypothesis that the moderate peoples of the Punjab and Sindh can be leveraged to defeat the Jihadi forces in the frontier regions. However, given the virulent anti-Indian (and increasingly anti-American) sentiments, the Jihadi forces have found it much easier to manipulate the sentiments and resources of Punjab and Sindh. There is no chance that this situation will change organically in the next few decades. Dissolution of Pakistan will starve the Jihadi forces of the logistical, human and technological resources of Punjab and Sindh. They will therefore become much less dangerous, and their smaller inconsequential state will be easier to manage. The moderateness of the people of Punjab and Sindh, when freed from the polarizing influence of anti-Indian sentiment in a postdissolution situation, will likely create modern secular nations concerned with economic progress.

The three broad options I have laid out here: the status quo, the softer option of squeezing the Pakistani people to deliver an overhaul of their institutions and identity, and the hard-line option of the redrawing of the regional map are not necessarily preferable in a descending order. Indeed, the probable outcomes would make them preferable in an ascending order. It is primarily my risk-averseness and cost benefit analysis approach to civilian casualties that makes me rank them as I do. It is important to understand that if Pakistan starts sliding down a slippery slope, the mild half-hearted policies that have marked the international approach to Pakistan hitherto will be dangerously ineffective. The options I have outlined here are among the more credible approaches to avoid the serious consequences of a nuclear Pakistan turning into a failed state. Policy makers must have clear thresholds for deploying these options, based on the extent of support for extremists in Punjab. Until then we will continue to see the half-hearted pressure for superficial results, which will not address the need for the overhaul of the Pakistani institutions and identity that make it susceptible to Jihadist forces.

Pakistan Military Budget

Over the past 20 years, Pakistan has spent at least 16% of its budget, and often substantially more, on operational military costs [See Pakistan's Military Budget by Year ]. The number doesn’t include the often times substantial capital expenditure, mostly subsidized by the West (US), that amounted to on average at least another 10% of the budget.

Pakistan’s reponse to Mumbai: Beyond denial, and incapacity

“Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai..deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.,” I wrote two years ago right after the serial train blasts. Now another atrocity of similar magnitude has spurred me to write another column. The message remains about the same.


The article is split in two parts -the first part deals with a narrow question in detail, and the second part deals with a broad question cursorily. The choice of style, and issues, is an artifact of the fact that the article is an extension of a  conversation with a friend. Should I have dealt with the issue independently, I might have chosen to focus on different questions.

First part analyzes whether Pakistan can do something to counter the media inflamed passions, while at the same time taking steps towards dealing with some of its own long standing problems. The second part tries to address the reasons behind support for terrorism, and the role of media.

Pakistan’s response

Irfan Husain, one of the most erudite and incisive columnists, writing in Dawn on the latest Mumbai blasts, finds Pakistan government’s denial of access to 20 terror suspects to India on basis of legalese, patently disingenuous.

“While defending Pakistan recently, our foreign minister was quoted as saying that we were a “responsible state”. And when India presented our government with a list of the names of 20 people accused of terrorism against our neighbour, spokesmen immediately demanded to see the proof against them. This legalistic approach would have carried more weight had the Pakistani state shown this kind of respect for the rule of law in the past. But given the frequency with which ordinary Pakistanis are picked up and ‘disappeared’ by organs of the state without any vestige of due process, the claim to responsibility rings a little hollow.

Indeed, a responsible state would hardly allow the likes of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammad; Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-i-Taiba; and the Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim to run around loose.”

While Mr. Husain frames the argument for handing over the 20 odd terror suspects rather minimally, focusing on the hypocrisy, and the definition of a ‘responsible state’, a stronger argument can be made on basis of rather minimal costs for such an enterprise, and reasonable benefits to such a move. Here’s a brief analysis of benefits, and costs of such an exercise -


  • The Mumbai terror attacks led to not only the resignation of a left of center Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, and middle of the line Congress Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, but also widespread furor against the Congress government. Handing over suspects will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in India, and perhaps dampen the chances of BJP coming to power in elections next year. This argument is reasonably important given negotiating with sane people is a necessity, though arguably BJP at least for some of its time in power was predisposed to following a sane strategy.
  • It will be a potent gesture towards extremist organizations (domestic), India, and US. I believe any such handover ought to be accompanied by negotiations with India and US and perhaps getting some guarantees on issues of interest, and it ought to be done in blaze of media glory to burnish Pakistan’s image.
  • Handing over 20 people to India – even if they aren’t involved in the attacks – is probably the most painless of the gestures that Pakistani government can make to address the media inflamed demands of India and US.


  • As Mr. Husain argues, the arguments made about inability of handover aren’t real – not because of legal issues, and not because of stated weakness of Pakistani political establishment. The latter point needs further explication. Pakistani political establishment lacks power due to two reasons – lack of public support for measures which may be seen as blatantly catering to Indian whims, and existence of a powerful military with interests that are different than the political establishment.Politics is often circumscribed by incorrect perception of political costs; Public opinion constituencies can be ‘shaped’ to line up behind cogently argued, and aggressively marketed policy initiatives. It is lack of political entrepreneurship behind good policy – which probably stems from rampant cynicism and preference for ‘safe’ choices – that dooms most policy exercises. There is perhaps even a genuine opportunity for some Pakistani leaders to craft constituencies by taking an appropriately framed response around handover of the 20 people to appeal to vast majority of Pakistanis.The second point would about weakness of political forces vis-à-vis military establishment is powerfully highlighted by Gen. Kayani’s refusal to allow ISI chief to travel to India, in spite of initial assurance by Gilani. However, it is but one instance and ought to be considered in lieu of the following facts – ISI chief is probably directly under the protection of the military, India’s demand for ISI chief was mostly a political maneuver and India would have used the visit for primarily political point scoring. On the issue of handing over suspects, it is quite likely that the PM and president can use the leverage provided by Indian and US pressure, and the media brouhaha, to negotiate some kind of deal.
  • Even if we assume that handing over all 20 people may be a particularly costly strategy for Pakistani establishment given its weakness, it is always possible to ferret out more than a few of these people by negotiating deals with others. I say this because we know that the interests of even ‘jihadi’ organizations are often contraposed.

While handing over terror suspects is perhaps an optimal strategy to quickly firefight the situation at limited cost, and to likely benefit, other strategies remain – including setting up a joint security force with India, actively cracking down on militant organizations in Pakistan, and increasing transparency through sharing information. While ideally all the measures should be pursued, handover of suspects, in being public, in its incontrovertibility in being a media event with characters, and in its explicitness in providing something tangible and coveted would likely be of the most help in the near term.

Caveat and long-term policy

The above analysis occasionally borders on being a limited cynical strategic model of signaling, with emphasis on lowering costs, and maximizing benefits. Sometimes lost within it is the argument that attacks provide politicians with an opportunity to initiate action that is in line with long-term interests of Pakistan. Strategic signaling should not be the guiding principle of long term policy. For thinking about long term interests, Pakistan will do well to think of what kind of policy it would like to implement if India (Kashmir) wasn’t on the table.

The past

Earlier in the article, Mr. Husain presents an overview of how Pakistani establishment has traditionally handled negotiations with the West over India.

“Years ago, a western diplomat wrote that Pakistan was the only country in the world that negotiates with a gun to its own head. Our argument, long familiar to aid donors, goes something like this: If you don’t give us what we need, the government will collapse and this might result in anarchy, and a takeover by Islamic militants. Left unstated here is the global risk these elements would pose as they would have access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.”

How much of the assertion is true isn’t particularly analyzed, for few are ready to call the bluff that seems to gain in reality through recitation, than facts. Without discounting the perils to the Pakistani state, it is likely that the overly conservative assessments drawn by analysts aren’t warranted. There exists a political opportunity to create coalition in cities – as was powerfully demonstrated in elections earlier this year – to address trenchant problems – albeit nimbly.


The fact that poverty is not a sufficient condition for terrorism is easily surmised. So is the inadequacy of inequality as an explanatory variable. We also know that arms and munitions take organization, access, and funds. The simplest version then of terrorism is the following – cynical political actors exploiting a select few feeling disenchanted. But there is more to the story. Why is there support for terrorism? The answer to that perhaps lies in the fury of the impotent. The fury of the potent (powerful), of course is never called such, and is mostly realized through indifference – be it 3 million Vietnamese dead or half a million plus Iraqi dead. And the fact that life continues to be abstract, and death more abstract still. At the heart of both emotions lies however how people typically engage with politics, especially in face of violence. The motivating force – though editorials may be full of condolences, and streets full of candle light vigils- isn’t concern for fellow people or loss, but seething personal anger amplified over countless discussions with the like minded, and the similarly aroused. It is then that the perceived inequalities, the depravity of the act(s) start to loom much larger, and harsher response seems to look like a necessity.

Given this latent disposition of the public, media plays a critical role, in inflaming passions and extracting unreasonable demands from governments. While the West may be able to afford the toll that a 24/7 scandal obsessed media culture that does 99% of its reporting before less than a percent is known, given the extreme paucity of resources at disposal of third-world governments, they can ill-afford such distractions in policy making agendas. Such media coverage is all the more perilous for India – given the frail and fraying relations between Hindus and Muslims.

Interview with Saira Wasim

Saira Wasim is a noted US based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Ms. Wasim has carved a niche for herself with her innovative and meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make devastating political and social commentary. Ms. Wasim’s work has been widely feted, and has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


You were born and raised in Lahore. Can you tell us a little more about how it was growing up there? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a south-western suburb of Lahore.

After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town – he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house.

My parents still live in that house though the town itself is much more crowded now.

And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times; my father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore or they moved there during partition?

My maternal grand parents were from Lahore while my paternal grand parents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot (near the Indian border).

Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Can you tell me a little more about your childhood and your parents?

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have a first hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, climbing on trees, and many other activities of village life.


My father is an engineer. In 1984 my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. ‘Power Electronics’, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made Switch-gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was in fact that realization which prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip flop of democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and because these governments brought a lot of corruption in the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity in the country but things got much worse.


She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grand kids and there she started teaching at local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Can you tell us a little more about the impact of growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan?

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three year old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab but in Pakistani Punjab we have a lot of sand storms especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age we came to know that we had a religious identity which was unacceptable to the mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of Ahmadi faith in house, and sent to Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis we have to enroll as a non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslim and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in US I realize how much we were denied of our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadis meetings. When Mullahs of local mosque got this news my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for un-Islamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard and door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and who ever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, ‘look how creative and clever she is’, they laughed at those silly drawing on every wall of the house, and then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional carrier. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic, and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However my grandmother died untimely and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said “I didn’t get permission to be an artist by my mother, so how can I allow you?”

At the time my progress in school was getting very weak and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in the class.
So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of night. I used to wake up in the middle of night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this but I was still caught, and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have respectable place in the society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My ‘secret’ decision of being an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on ‘human suffering’ ‘persecution on minorities and women issues’.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in studies and elite in our fields. Like, “Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri’’ Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and believes, she always taught us it was a rigid patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the 80’s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority, and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.

On Art, why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialogue with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn attention from foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery––Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore–the others being reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post 9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny and surveillance of Muslims in the West thus shaped my current works. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general – and the United States in particular – tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings; misperceptions created by a Western media that is mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both Eastern and Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day, to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many –– the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of Jihad are allegorized by Greek-satyrs; Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush; Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defence budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion; the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post 9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

**Note: The interview was conducted more than an year ago in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style, and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.***

The General’s Report card: Education under Musharraf

Investment in education, especially in developing countries, has long been shown to produce a variety of socially desirable outcomes including reduction in child mortality (esp. maternal education), lower fertility rates, better environment, and increases in gender equality etc.

Funding for education however suffers deeply, especially in South Asia. What the politicians haven’t accomplished in deed, they have accomplished in words. For example, in 2002, India enacted a constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right for all children between 6 and 14. Pakistani leaders have been no less ambitious and nor has the lack of commitment of resources needed to make those policies a success, any less mocking.

Given that Education is an extremely broad area, I have split the analysis into three non-exclusive parts – funding for education, literacy, and primary education.

For my analysis, I rely upon three data sources – Statistics Division of Government of Pakistan (Federal Bureau of Statistics); Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics, Government of Pakistan; and Institute of Statistics at UNESCO (World Bank, UNDP use its data). Data from the sources are sometimes conflicting, and in a small set of cases wildly different.

Funding for Education

While the exact figures differ (details below), all data show that Pakistan between 1999 and 2006 spent on average spends less than 2.5% of its GDP on education as compared to 3.6% average expenditure by countries in South Asia, and a combined average of 3.4% of other “low income countries”.

Education expenditure under Musharraf rose – though only eventually – from the low of 1.84% of GDP in 2000 to a still low but higher figure of 2.25% in 2005, rising to 2.59% in 2006. Expenditure on education (as percentage of GDP) under Musharraf compares poorly not only cross-nationally but also historically. The average expenditure in education stood at 2.7% plus under Bhutto’s second term between 1993 and 1996. Musharraf‘s regime however did do better than Sharif’s regime during which expenditure had plummeted to below 2% of GDP. Cross-nationally, Pakistan compared poorly to its South Asian neighbors (about a percentage below India, and generally below Bangladesh during the Musharraf era), and lagged significantly behind countries as varied as Iran, and United States.

Education expenditure measured as percentage of government expenditure rose appreciably between 2004 and 2005 from about 6.4% to nearly 10.5%. However in 2006, when the expenditure rose again to 12.5%, it was about 6 percentage points behind Iranian expenditure, a narrower gap than the 12 point wide chasm in 2005. Musharraf government’s spending on education averaged 4% behind Bangladesh’s expenditure, which remained steady between 14 and 15% points from 1999 to 2005.

Education expenditure is by no means uniform across the country and aggregate statistics hide much of the regional and within-region variation. Expenditure in education in Pakistan is the prerogative of the provincial government. Punjab government which swam in money during the Sharif era and allocated up to 31% of its budget on education, spent a declining proportion on education under Musharraf. Reflecting American money and priorities, investment in education by Balochistan’s provincial government went up post 9/11. Most budgetary allocation to education was spent on furnishing recurring expenses, and only a small proportion (less than 8%) on development. (Husain etc., 2003)

Adult Literacy Rate

Increases in literacy have been a major success of the Musharraf era. The overall literacy rate (10 years & above) was 54 percent in 2005-06, an increase of 9.0 percentage points over five years. (The more conventionally reported 15+ year literacy rate is slightly lower at around 50%. Increase in that statistic is unknown.)

The literacy rate for non-poor went up from 51 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2005 whereas for poor it improved from 30 percent to 40 percent in the same period. Gender gap however remained significant and persistent – the 26 percent gap between male and female literacy rates at 2001-2002 was only marginally higher than the 23 percent gap in 2005-2006. As always, regional literacy rates varied widely. Female literacy rate in Balochistan was a shocking 15% in 2001-2002 and only rose to 20% by the end of 2005-2006. NWFP fared slightly better with an increase from 10 percent from the abysmal 20% rate in 2001-2002. The literacy rates compare quite badly with countries like Iran where the corresponding figure are 82% for men, and 76% for women. India’s literacy rates were at least 10% higher, and the growth in literacy rates (after accounting for differential starting points) more impressive. The Musharraf era growth in literacy rates however compares favorably historically within Pakistan.

Primary Education

Only 60% primary age children in Pakistan attend school, a much lower rate compared to neighboring countries. Moreover, the gender gap is large. There are only 56 girls to every 100 boys enrolled in primary education.

Average new enrollment in primary schools was about 3.42 million in 2000 and 5.04 million in 2005-2006. Growth in primary education enrollment, after accounting for population growth, stands at about 1.4 times. However, the situation still remains stark. Out of the 20 million children between five and nine years of age only about half of them are currently enrolled in primary school. And girls make up much less than half of that number, according to the figures.

Nearly 80% of the students who enroll in primary school ever reach Middle School and only about half of the students who reach Middle School go to the High School. This attrition rate has remained about constant under Musharraf.