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Deliberations on Pakistan

A conference that successfully foregrounded the challenges facing Pakistan

Deliberations on Pakistan

Shaun Gregory is a founder-director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU). The Unit has moved to the School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham from the University of Bradford where the Unit was conceived and became functional in 2007.

Under the auspices of PSRU, almost 40 briefs, addressing various aspects of Pakistani state and society, have been published. These are an exceedingly valuable source for anybody considering carrying out research on Pakistan. Thus, seeing the ascendant profile of PSRU, one can only remark that one University’s loss is another’s gain. To announce the relocation of Shaun as well as PSRU, a conference was held on Dec 4 and 5 on the broader theme of ‘Democratic Transition and Security in Pakistan’.

That event was significant primarily because in all the major universities of the UK, South Asian Studies is deemed, to the chagrin of many, conflated with Indian Studies. Therefore, an event with Pakistan as its principal theme came as a fresh waft of an air in an otherwise India-heavy academic ambience. The conference spoke volumes of Shaun Gregory’s organising skills. It also showcased the extent of his influence among policy-makers and the goodwill towards him among academics in the UK and beyond. All this was reflected clearly in the unique audience to be found at Saint Mary’s College, University of Durham. Officials from the UK Foreign Office, High Commissions of Pakistan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and scores of NATO operatives had travelled from various parts of Europe to attend. Conspicuous among the presenters were Ian Talbot, Iftikhar Malik, Yunas Samad, Mathew Nelson, Farzana Shaikh, Mathew Mccartney, Ayesha Siddiqa, Anatol Lieven and Victoria Schofield.

Prof. Ian Talbot’s keynote address marked the commencement of the event. His was a scholarly discourse on Democratic Transition in Pakistan, a theme which he deftly situated in its historical context, stressing the asymmetric relationship between the civil and the military. Now that one civilian rule has given way to another for the first time in Pakistan’s history, whether ‘rebalancing’ of the civil-military relationship would be possible or the past practice will continue to prevail, is a question worth asking. Prof. Talbot did not seem very optimistic on the likelihood of such transition despite Nawaz Sharif’s decisive victory in the elections.

As a keynote speaker, he was supposed to set the context of the over arching theme of the conference, which he did admirably well.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s presentation in which she underscored the role of religion in Pakistan’s modernising society was perceptive and interesting. She argued that the modern Muslims in Pakistan had opted to wean themselves away from ‘the pluralist religious framework’ to the more monolithic and singular concept of God and religion. Thus the Islamic tradition being synthesised with modernity enmeshed with the Sufi ethos has given rise to what Ayesha Siddiqa calls the dispensation of ‘hybrid theocracy’.

The national discourse of Pakistani state, though considerably fractured as it seems, is undoubted immersed in the hybrid theocratic mode. Siddiqa unravelled the contradiction besetting the very essence of Pakistani nation-state.

The same ideological hybridity was the underlying theme of Farzana Shaikh’s presentation, which was an intellectually nuanced and theoretically well-woven account, shedding light on the troubled engagement between ‘Sufism and the Modernist State in Pakistan’. She argued that ‘the modernist aspirations of the state have stood in opposition to, rather than in harmony with, the prevailing traditions of local or popular Sufism’. She emphasized that the modernist outlook subscribed to the assumption that Sufism, which presupposed the guidance of a living saint to ‘ensure proximity to God’, was antithetical to the ‘modern’ Muslim mentality resting on the notion of the “rational” Muslim with the power directly to apprehend God’s Law.’

The legacy of the ‘founding fathers’, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Allama Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah resonates quite remarkably with this modernist version of the state. However, the power and the political influence of the Sufis are so pervasive that the state, despite its modernist structure of governance and outlook, has to take them into cognizance as indispensable power brokers. The faultlines in the national discourse were identified in an excellent presentation, a testament to Farzana Shaikh’s profound scholarship.

Matthew Nelson’s paper ‘Islamic Law and Democratic Politics in Pakistan: A Law-and-Order Perspective’ generated interesting responses. The seminal argument of Nelson’s presentation centred on the dialectical relationship between the ‘created statutory Shariah’ and the ‘fixed’ Shariah. The created version of Shariah can be defined and refined via legislature whereas the fixed is not amenable to any redefinition. Shariah (fixed) can only be enforced by the state. Since those espousing the fixed Shariah are marginalised, they turn to violence to press their point.

To elucidate his point, he referred to Jhang and Swat. Demographic, social and political differences in the two districts are so stark that it seems virtually impossible for any scholar to study them with reference to each other. But like Ayesha Siddiqa and Farzana Shaikh, Nelson too underlined the fissures and faultlines that both Pakistani state and society are forced to grapple with.

Acclaimed scholar on Pakistan and the author of In the Shadow of Shariah, Nelson is meticulous in his scholarship. With all his experience and brilliance, he managed to play around quite skilfully with the disjointed strands of his presentation. He was badgered nevertheless. The nexus between the land mafias and the political parties was the horrific aspect of Pakistani political landscape that Matthew Nelson brought into focus. That trend if exists needs further research.

All in all, the conference was extremely fruitful in foregrounding the challenges that Pakistan is facing but the point worth stressing is that the event was concluded at an optimistic note largely because of the successful transition from one democratic regime to another. On the success of that event, Shaun Gregory and his colleagues ought to be congratulated.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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