That Question Mark by Ziauddin Sardar

Like the sword of Damocles, a perennial question mark hangs over Pakistan. Can Pakistan survive? Can it continue to endure the ‘war on terror’? Will it see out drone attacks, the Taliban, violent fundamentalists, the insurgency in Balochistan, inter-provincial rivalries, rampant corruption, economic meltdown and 20-hour daily electricity blackouts? Given that it ranks high on the Failed States Index and is characterised by ‘perversity’, US-based journalist Robert Kaplan goes as far as to phrase the question as: should Pakistan survive?

No, is the proper answer, according to US military analyst and novelist, Ralph Peters. ‘Pakistan’s borders make no sense and don’t work’, Peters testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Instead of ‘defending the doomed relics of the colonial era’, the US should actively promote the balkanisation of Pakistan. In his testimony Peters suggests that Pakistan should be divided into a Free Balochistan and a Pakhtunkhwa for all Pashtuns – ‘despite their abhorrent customs’. One presumes that by this logic there should also be a Sindhistan for all Sindhis, leaving what’s left of Pakistan to the Punjabis. According to yet another expert, Michael Hughes writing in The Huffington Post, a fragmented Paki­stan will be ‘easier to police and economically develop’ and thus its ‘rapid descent towards certain collapse’ could be avoided. In this best of all pos­sible worlds, breaking Pakistan into small pieces is necessary to ‘fix it’.

Questions arise, and are asked, in a context. There are good reasons why certain questions should be asked about Pakistan. However, questions, by their very nature, can also lead to a restricted set of answers. When a ques­tion is framed in such a way that an answer, or a set of specific answers, becomes inevitable it serves not as inquiry but as ideology. ‘Can Pakistan survive?’ has only two possible answers: yes it can, no it can’t. Either answer frames Pakistan as a problem now and for the future. US policymakers asking the question perceive the problem to be that Pakistan cannot be ‘policed’, managed and controlled, which is what makes it ‘perverse’. By equating Pakistan with survival, the question automatically consigns Paki­stan to history. The country becomes an entity whose survival is perma­nently at issue, an insoluble problem. Implicitly, it is a problem that needs to be feared. So we move naturally to the next question: ‘should Pakistan survive?’ This is essentially an ethical question based on the assumption that as a problem to be feared perhaps Pakistan ought not to survive. The stark fact that Pakistan is still there, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise by countless pundits, does not affect the logic of these questions.

Certain questions are thus not questions at all. To answer them is to rein­force the assumptions they are based on and accept these suppositions as self-evident truths. Questions about the survival of Pakistan are in fact an act of violence towards an already beleaguered nation. The best response to such inquiries is provided by the Victorian poet Robert Browning:

Well, British Public, ye who like me not,

(God love you) and will have your proper laugh

At the dark question, lough it! I laugh first.

So, what then are the appropriate questions to ask?


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