Friday, January 25, 2008

Imran Khan in New York

Last Friday the Asia Society's 258-seat Rose Conference Hall was filled to capacity at 8:30 in the morning. People were sitting on the steps. The attraction was Imran Khan, cricket star turned politician, speaking on "Pakistan's Political Future, an alternative perspective."

Khan argued that "it's the best of times and the worst of times in Pakistan." Although the country is in a state of deep political crisis, it is also experiencing an unprecedented political awakening. Television coverage of the drama over the Musharraf government's unsuccessful attempts to get the country's Chief Justice to resign had led to a ballooning protest movement. The government had not expected it, and attempts to put it down violently had backfired.

Military men don't understand politics, Khan said; you can tell them to "go take that hill" and they can do that, but they can't govern a country. He did not think the elections (re-scheduled for mid February after Benazir Bhutto's assassination), would be free and fair. For that reason, his Tareek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party is boycotting the elections. For the elections to be considered fair, at the very least, the Chief Justice and other members of the judiciary who had been dismissed by Musharraf in his November 3 "coup against his own government" would have to be reinstated. He was not hopeful that would happen. The major political parties had sold out, for they were financed by drug lords who were obedient to the government.

Khan said that the Taliban was not strong in the tribal areas (Waziristan, Swat and Baluchistan); in each area, it was Musharraf's violent policies that were the cause of growing support for it. If Washington followed up on its talk of intervening militarily in the tribal region the outcome could be disastrous: there were only about 2,000 al Qaeda fighters there, but any attempt at military intervention would arouse a million armed men who had a long and successful tradition of opposing external authority. The Pakistani army, which had gone into Waziristan in 2004, had suffered heavy losses, and if policies were not changed, it could suffer catastrophic damage. Already, the Pashtoons in the army were refusing to fight.

It was not just in the tribal areas that Musharraf was unpopular. There was "tremendous discontent" all over the country. Public opinion polls showed that nationally, about 75 per cent of Pakistanis were strongly opposed to Musharraf.

Khan, who captained Pakistan's cricket team to a World Cup victory in 1992, got a number of questions at the end of his talk, mostly, it seemed, from fans. (One mentioned getting an autograph at their last meeting.) But the answers were substantive. Pakistan's future depended on addressing four critical issues on an emergency basis, Khan said -- the rule of law, education, agriculture and the economy. Most of the country was still in a feudal state, with politically powerful people above the law. The educational system was in a state of collapse, with the vast majority of students forced to attend madrassahs run out of mosques. The tax system was grossly unfair, with 90 per cent of indirect taxes paid by the poor and remittances from poor Pakistanis working abroad providing the government's major source of revenue. That money was being spent on large government buildings, including a Military Headquarters that would be larger than the Pentagon. He saw the need to subsidize agriculture as had been done in India.

I had expected Imran to be like his outspoken sister Rabina, who I have known for many years at the UN, but he was not; there is a more considered quality about him even when he is lambasting Musharraf. There is also, to an Indian ear, a certain alarming fuzziness about history. He mentioned at one point that Pakistan had been created constitutionally, that its founder had been a great "constitutionalist." Pakistan, of course, was created in a welter of blood by Muhammad Ali Jinnah's "direct action," which involved bloody unprovoked attacks by members of the Muslim League on Hindus to set off "communal riots." The riots served to support British claims that India had to be divided because Hindus and Muslims could never be expected to coexist peacefully. The British got what they wanted, a country they could control and use, but the bad karma has flowed unstoppably on.

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