In Pakistan, the sores of partition are still raw - The Centre for Independent Studies
Donate today!
Your support will help build a better future.
Your Donation at WorkDonate Now

In Pakistan, the sores of partition are still raw

Spend some time at any Australian university and you will see Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans mixing freely. Clubs such the Desi Indian Students' Society show the ties that bind – cricket, curry and bhangra.

Cricket binds Australians to the region, both symbolically and as an export, with herds of coaches, players and administrators working in the industry generated by the game. But nowhere is a people that look so similar to the outside world so torn by difference. The attacks by militants on the Sri Lankan cricket team shone a light on a region racked by conflict. The decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka is enduring another peak as the Tamil Tigers are backed into a tiny corner of the island. Last week, more than 100 army officers were killed in an industrial dispute-cum-mutiny in Bangladesh. And the growing power and organisation of militant Islam in Pakistan is revealing its face is new ways.

Amid the geopolitical carnage, India attempts to continue its rise as a superpower, desperately trying to fend off the wreckage on all sides. Pakistan's instability is the most relevant to the outside world, given its key influence on events in Afghanistan and its potential to destabilise India. A country founded on Islam is having trouble escaping this foundation and arriving as a secular democracy.
I was due to fly to Lahore this week, until I was wisely advised to cancel my trip. Lahore is also the capital of Punjab, the area where President Asif Ali Zardari dismissed the provincial government and imposed federal rule last week. It followed a ruling from the Supreme Court, which upheld a decision barring the nation's opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, from holding public office.

These examples of anti-democratic principles are occurring in parallel with a greater appeasement of Islamist forces, underlined by the recent decision to allow the implementation of Islamic law in the Swat Valley. It was a desperate attempt to maintain a shaky ceasefire and is widely interpreted as a concession to the Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives who dominate the North-West Frontier.

The new-found legitimacy of the Taliban occurs just as President Barack Obama orders another 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan as the start of his ‘surge,’ betting it can restore order to a region where everybody else has failed.

A large share of responsibility for the current chaos must be put at the door of Pakistan's army and its Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. For more than 20 years, the ISI has deliberately and consistently funded a variety of Islamist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group most likely to have co-ordinated the Mumbai bombings. The agency has long seen the jihadists as an ingenious and cost-effective means of controlling Afghanistan (which occurred with the retreat of the Soviets) and bogging down the Indian Army in Kashmir (achieved from the early 1990s).

The results have been disastrous, filling the country with thousands of armed but now largely unemployed jihadists, a plethora of unregulated modern weapons and a host of militant groups. The Islamists have followed their own agendas and have brought their struggle to the streets and into the heart of the country's politics.

In an amusing twist, Pakistani television channels blamed India's external intelligence agency for the attack on the cricketers. Geo, a leading news channel, broadcast old footage of the president of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, promising a fitting response to those responsible for terrorist acts in India.

It underscores how the disputed region of Kashmir is again in the shadows of Tuesday's events in Lahore. It is not in the job description of Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but remains critical in establishing any sort of stability in the region.

In this month's New Yorker magazine, a long-time visitor to the region, Steve Coll, reports that several years of intense negotiations between India and Pakistan came within a whisker of establishing a settlement on Kashmir. But as the legitimacy of the then president Pervez Musharraf declined, the prospect of selling any deal became near impossible. The Mumbai attacks were the final nail in the coffin.

The growing unrest suggests the army will again become an imminent presence, a reminder that it has always been the one secular force bringing about a semblance of order. For all his autocratic faults, Musharraf's reign coincided with a period of strong economic growth and increased freedom of the press.

Pakistan remains the prime manifestation of the sores of partition in a region that is still stinging from post-colonial headaches. It is where ancient identities and conflicts arising from them are being reinterpreted for modern conditions, a kind of Balkans with garam masala.

As its most worrying example, Pakistan, languishes next to its powerful neighbour, its impact upon our world may be just as great, albeit in an entirely different direction.

Tanveer Ahmed is a Visiting Fellow for The Centre for Independent Studies and is writing a report on Indo-Pakistan relations.