The Pakistani state has an unenviable reputation. It is a complex run both by the military and by jihadis. It is a prominent exponent of rent-seeking behaviour. It is a basket case of military supremacy with a diplomatic veneer. And yet, there is one reason to be pleased that it exists.
Over the last decade, there have been many excellent books and doctoral theses about this fascinating state. So many, in fact, that it has become hard to write about Pakistan and find something new to say. This is precisely why Tilak Devasher’s Pakistan: Courting the Abyss sets itself apart.
Devasher’s book is a comprehensive handbook to Pakistan that goes beyond the typical clichés of civil-military relations, jihad under the nuclear umbrella and the Indian-Pakistan conflict. Instead, it discusses structural problems plaguing Pakistan’s economy, environment, education system, and demography. There have been many explorations of the Pakistani state’s self-defeating behaviour, so Devasher turns his attention to the vulnerabilities of Pakistani society.
The book is divided into seven sections. It begins with a summation of the ideological streams that created Pakistan. It shows how the legacy of the Pakistan movement was to leave Pakistan with more problems than solutions. There were four aspects to the dominant narrative: Islam as the underlying ideology, a centralised state to curb fissiparous tendencies, the imposition of Urdu as the national language, and India’s placement as an irreconcilable adversary. Devasher discusses in great detail how each of these methods has gone on to further weaken the idea of Pakistan.
The middle sections of the book contain well-narrated and extremely well-referenced chapters on the essential ingredients of any Pakistani political recipe: the army, Islamisation, and terrorism. But it is Section V, which has chapters on water, education, economy and population, that makes the book stand out.
As a lower riparian state to both India and Afghanistan with no exclusive major water sources of its own, Pakistan’s water vulnerability feeds its strategic discourse far more than what it is credited with. The Indus Water Treaty is often spoken about, but the book goes much beyond this by highlighting Pakistan’s problems vis-a-vis the nine rivers it shares with Afghanistan.
The education story is also a disturbing one. A striking datapoint for me was this: the literacy rate in Pakistan declined in nominal terms, from 60 percent in 2012-13 to 58 percent in 2013-14. First with a subject called Islamiyat, and later with Nazaria-i-Pakistan, even formal education became more of a tool of socialisation and less a tool to equip students to participate in a modern economy.
Devasher captures Pakistan’s fall from one of the fastest growing economies in the 1960s to a ‘security state’ in 1977 where ‘economic development ceased to be a primary agenda of the state.’
Another interesting section focuses on Pakistan’s major bilateral engagements: with US, Afghanistan, China, and India. I would’ve loved to see a chapter on Saudi Arabia as well. The chapter on China is detailed and will interest many geopolitical analysts, as China displaces US as a major sponsor of the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex. Devasher’s key observation is this: Pakistan would find the Chinese far harder task masters than the US.
Devasher concludes with a discussion on what might force Pakistan to transform. This is the $46 billion question and I would’ve liked a more detailed and nuanced discussion. Perhaps this question deserves a complete book to itself.
Finally, one cannot help but notice that Pakistan serves as a solemn reminder to all of us in India that unless we guard our state from religiosity, and our society from majoritarianism, India may follow Pakistan into the abyss.