Emma Duncan is the Deputy Editor of The Economist. She is the magazine’s chief reporter, writer and editor on climate change. She has also held several other posts on the paper, including Britain Editor and Asia Editor.
In 1988-89, she wrote “Breaking the Curfew” (Michael Joseph), a book on politics, culture and society in the troubled state of Pakistan.
Following are a few excerpts from her wonderful book on Pakistan.
“Sitting in a garden on a winter morning, drinking milky coffee and shading my eyes from the bright sun, I mentioned to the man I was talking to, one of the central figures in the country in the past couple of decades, that I found Pakistan a hypocritical place. I said it partly as a provocation, but he, to my surprise, agreed with me, and had a theory to explain it. I might not like his theory, he said, but I should be patient while he explained it.
There are two sorts of nations, he said-those rooted in the soil, and those rooted in the ideas. India belongs to the first category; it has grown gradually out of things that have happened to a particular bit of earth. When Nehru died, he asked for his ashes to be scattered over his native soil. Pakistan, on the other hand, was created by descendants of people who thundered into the area from Tashkent, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, with a sword in one hand, the Koran in the other, and an idea in their heads- an idea of conquest, expansion, or conversion.
India’s Muslims have always been susceptible to ideas. The Khilafat movement which brought Indian Muslims out on to the streets in revolt against the British in the 1920s was the result of the defeat of Turkey in the First World War, and the harsh terms imposed by Christian victors on the Muslim Loser. It wasn’t anything to do with Indians, yet the idea of the defense of the Ummah, shook the subcontinent.
At partition, the Muslims came from India to Pakistan in search of an idea of a homeland. The people who lived in Pakistan were not stirred by the cry; local grandees had mostly either supported the British or allied themselves with the Congress Party. Still, the locals were quite happy to get rid of the Hindus, because they could wipe out their debts to the money lenders and get hold of abandoned property. When Pakistan was almost a reality, they voiced their support. ‘It was a piggy-back ride’, said the theorist; ‘though you must not ever say so in this country.’
The fanfare of idealism that brought the new country into being did not change the nature of the place selected to make it a reality. Islamic morality and egalitarianism were laid over a tribal society with normal rural sexual and alcoholic habits and a rigid hierarchy or power. The old world persisted, paying lip service to the new.
‘And this’, said the theorist, ‘created a fundamental hypocrisy, or maybe an ability to kid ourselves, in Pakistan. Look at the way the country was set up. The idea of Islam was so strong that it seemed to us perfectly reasonable to have a country where the decision to build a culvert in Dhaka was made 2000 miles away across the width of India. The absurdity of it! Then, in 1971, after the war, Pakistan ceased to exist. East Pakistan became Bangladesh and West Pakistan…called itself Pakistan. We never talk about it. We pretend it didn’t happen. We’re masters at pretending that things aren’t happening.’
I liked his idea, but I wanted to throw in some more confusion. The British left their mark too, in all sorts of areas of life, from the legal and administrative systems and the language to the chicken cutlets and the Scotch. The country’s official language is still English; the upper classes speak to each other in confusing patois that slides between the two. London, not New York, is still the second home of the Rich Pakistanis, and they are only now beginning to shift their children to American Universities, as the British ones get too expensive.
Most important, the measures of how a country should be run come from Britain. These is still a lot of respect for their incorruptibility, for the railways and roads they built, and for the depth of the research they did into the languages and customs of a people strange to them. The legal system is British, and barristers win cases by drawing on centuries-old British precedents. Parliamentary procedures are-when there is a parliament- basically British. Political debate centers around the degree to which Pakistanis will be allowed British political freedoms.
The force of British ideas has its own contradictions: British writing taught the youth of the colonies a theory of politics which the rulers did not practice. Freedom of speech is central to the idea; yet during 1857 mutiny, Mr. Roberts, Commissioner of Lahore, wrote that ‘with the exception of…the summary execution of a Meerut butcher who…made a very dubious and threatening speech to the Bazaar Sergeant, nothing of moment occurred.’ British government played on tribal and religious divisions as ruthlessly as any subsequent set of rulers. Yet in the minds of many, time has whitened the behavior of the British, and the hold of their intellectual tradition remains strong.
The contradictions, the confusions, the hypocrisies seem to me to stem from the same root that makes Pakistan such an interesting place to observe. It has three sets of history, and three sets of standards. It has the baggage of ideas that go with Pakistan, Urdu and Islam; It has the British Package; it has the ancient local base of Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluch and Pathan culture. The different layers fit badly together; and when they contradict each other, people start telling lies to others and to themselves. That comes out in the gap between sexual morality and behavior; when government stick to the letter of the law and abuse its spirit; when civil servants take bribery and decry the country’s immorality.
For a foreigner, the place can seem shockingly deceptive. It welcomes the visitor with familiar ways, then shows an alien face to shatter the sense of easy intimacy. It presents itself neatly on paper, but a glimpse of the divergence between the official and un-official versions of the country invalidates the explanation. It draws the journalist into attractive generalizations and intellectually pleasing pattern-making, then contradicts itself and destroys the thesis.”