He's No Quake Victim

Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam argues for return to democracy rather than military rule in Pakistan

This essay was originally published in The Times of India.

The numbers of fatalities keep steadily mounting from the deadly earthquake that recently struck Kashmir, with important consequences for other parts of Pakistan and northern India. Seismologists tell us that such events happen from pressure that is created by the northward drift of the subcontinent, which builds up every 500 years.

So it was that on July 6, 1505, a major earthquake shook much of northern India and Iran in which — as one near-contemporary chronicler writes — "the hills began to tremble, while strong and lofty buildings fell to atoms, and the earth in places was cleft and rents appeared, while they assert that villages and trees left their places".

The same writer, Abdul Qadir Badayuni, also tells us that the quake was the most significant "from the time of Adam to the present time", leading people to think that the Day of Judgment had arrived. Five hundred years ago, the great quake was seen as an act of god, and also as a political event signalling the fall of dynasties and rulers.

Shortly after the recent earthquake, similar political questions were raised but in a very different framework. It was asked whether the poor response of General Pervez Musharraf's government would create problems for his viability as ruler of Pakistan.

The fact that the abysmal response of President Bush's government to Hurricane Katrina and its consequences has had no lasting effect on the public's perception of the state of government in the United States, may have given Pakistan's strongman some consolation.

However, what is curious is the reaction to these questions in the western media. It is astonishing how both journalists and self-proclaimed "Pakistan specialists" have responded to the challenge of the earthquake to Musharraf's rule. I realised this recently while scanning Canadian newspapers on a visit to Vancouver.

Canada prides itself on being more liberal than the United States on a number of questions of world politics. This ostensible liberalism has often carried grave consequences as we see from Canada's shockingly lax attitude to those who blew up the Air-India Kanishka flight years ago.

But even so, the line taken on Musharraf in Canadian newspapers was shocking. Broadly, they argued that his rule should be supported as he was the only one who could guide Pakistan through these troubled times. If not, chaos and confusion would result, especially when Pakistan was faced with natural disasters.

The smug, self-righteous Canadian view then was that democracy was fine for the privileged nations of the West, but too much of a luxury for places like Pakistan.

Here, it was argued, one really needed a tough guy like Musharraf, a man who — with the Punjabi-style rhetoric and bluff that overlays his origins in old Delhi — has the right sort of "take charge" attitude. Sadly, this view is supported by American "specialists" like Stephen Cohen.

The fact is that Indian democracy may be deeply flawed, but it is infinitely preferable to other forms of rule, as Indians learnt during the Emergency. The same holds for Pakistan, where democracy still has strong roots despite long phases of military rule.

The problem is that the West has never invested in democracy in Pakistan, and finds it much more convenient to have a military ruler there than anyone else.

Writers such as historian Ayesha Jalal have further muddied the waters by arguing that since India's democracy is utterly flawed, military government in Pakistan is really not very different from it. This is irresponsible writing, which really serves to justify the Ayub Khans, Zia-ul-Haqs and Musharrafs.

Democracy in Pakistan must be supported as a notion and a project, even if those who are elected may not always be to one's taste. Musharraf, let us recall, is no saint at all. Despite claiming that he was brought up as an admirer of Ataturk, he was after all one of the architects of the Taliban.

He is on the face of it a man who will wear any coat that fits (both uniform and mufti) — but he is also an ideologically driven actor. It is in everyone's interest that rather than portraying such a man as indispensable, as he is seen today in the West, he should be seen as a dangerous manipulator of politics in Pakistan.

The sooner Pakistan returns to democracy, the better it will be not only for other nations but also for the people of Pakistan. The sad fact is that western nations, even minor players like Canada, have not realised after all these years that support to dictators in the so-called Third World only breeds resentment, and eventually a political backlash.

Such was the case in Latin America; the same holds true of much of Africa and the Muslim world, where militaristic and anti-democratic regimes are supported by western countries on bogus grounds. The people of Pakistan deserve better than a (not particularly benevolent) despot.

The writer is professor of economic history at UCLA.

Published: Friday, October 28, 2005