The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious StateDeclan Walsh
368 pages|Rs 799
Declan Walsh (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Get the story, don’t become the story’ is a dictum for the reporter to live by. Yet, after a decade of covering Pakistan, Irish journalist Declan Walsh, New York Times’ Pakistan bureau chief at the time, was expelled on the eve of the election in 2013 for ‘undesirable activities’. The fact, and the irony of it, is captured in his recently published book The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (Bloomsbury; 368 pages; Rs 799): ‘After years of tracking Pakistani conspiracy theories, I had become one.’ Walsh did not choose to become the story but in ‘Insha’ Allah nation’, anything can happen as long the authorities, if not god, will it. In 2017, Walsh had to quickly escape from Egypt because of the threat of an imminent arrest passed on to his employers by a US government official. The reason, ostensibly, was his article in the New York Times Magazine investigating the torture and murder of an Italian student, Giulio Regeni, which had become an international incident. For Walsh, it had come close to déjà vu.
The Nine Lives of Pakistan is a tour de force about a nation of colour and capriciousness, vitality and violence, Sufi mysticism and Salafist radicalism, in conflict with itself and its neighbour, alternately confident in its identity and besieged by existential doubt, always defying predictions of its demise. Walsh, who worked for The Guardian till 2011, has been all over: from the crime-ridden streets of Karachi to the lawless Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to rebel citadels in Balochistan, Basant in Lahore to the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The people he encounters build into a portrait of Pakistan, whether it’s a Pathan who has declared war on the Taliban, a human rights crusader (Asma Jahangir), a cowboy cop, the erudite Baloch rebel Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, or even a former ISI agent who had tailed Walsh. The ghosts who frame and inform Nine Lives are, of course, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, and Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator who destroyed the Quaid-e-Azam’s project. Here, Walsh talks about the book and what lay beyond. Excerpts:
Is the seven-year wait between your expulsion from Pakistan and the publication of Nine Lives more than just the necessary gestation period?
After I was kicked out in 2013, I spent a couple of years trying hard to return to Pakistan. Editors at the New York Times met Pakistan’s prime minister in New York, while I met ISI bosses in London. We asked each of them the same question: What were the ‘undesirable activities’, cited in the expulsion letter that the Pakistani authorities gave me before I left, that justified their actions? We hoped to get an answer so that I could at least return to pack up my house in Islamabad. Once it became clear that wasn’t on the cards, I turned to other questions: What kind of story could I usefully tell about this country, Pakistan, where I had spent a decade of my life? And what, in fact, were those ‘undesirable activities’? Those questions offered a starting point for the book, and it took me several years—and some unusual twists, including a meeting with a former ISI official—to resolve them.
‘After years of tracking Pakistani conspiracy theories, I had become one’ is the heart of the matter. Your stories are structured to stay suspended between this beginning which is also an end. You had a near-similar experience in Egypt. How do you compare Pakistan and Egypt on risk assessment for a journalist?
On the surface, Pakistan and Egypt have broad similarities—Muslim-majority nations with strong militaries, a history of authoritarian rule and a poor record of protecting minorities. But scratch the surface and there are instructive differences. In 2011, Egypt experienced a dramatic revolution led by frustrated youths thirsty for a taste of democracy. But the Arab Spring never reached Pakistan because it already had a tradition of democracy, albeit a very flawed version, and its upheavals took other forms: militant uprisings, blasphemy protests and other issues. The difference stems partly from Pakistan’s size and sheer diversity, which make it much harder for one group to dominate. Even during the darkest days of General Zia’s rule in the 1980s, Pakistan’s generals had to make concessions to political leaders. But under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule, since 2013, Egypt’s military and security services have quelled virtually all dissent and completely neutered Egyptian politics. Egyptian journalists, human rights workers and other civil society forces feel the brunt of that repression most keenly. My experience after the New York Times Magazine article on Giulio Regeni, when I had to flee Egypt at a few hours’ notice, was nothing compared to the punishments meted out to Egyptian colleagues. Many are in prison or in exile; one editor spent two years in prison just for translating one of the articles into Arabic. Press freedom has declined in Pakistan in recent years, certainly, but it’s not as bad as Egypt—yet.
The jihad would have occurred no matter what. But what might have differed, under another Pakistani leader instead of Zia-ul-Haq, is the extent to which the ideology of jihad was allowed to penetrate the ranks of the military and intelligence services, and to spill into the rest of society
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Pakistan is more ‘concept than country’ pulled apart by ‘centrifugal forces’. The subcontinent has for centuries been subjected to those centrifugal forces. However, did the modern, Western-origin nation-state, as idea and reality, not sit well with the Quaid-i-Azam’s vision and the geography of his creation?
On the contrary, by 1947 Jinnah absolutely did envision Pakistan as a modern nation-state, a rather new-fangled concept at the time. He said as much in his August 11th address to the Constituent Assembly as well as in numerous press interviews. At the same time, one could be forgiven for feeling a bit confused—as many leaders in newborn Pakistan undoubtedly did back then. As he fought for Pakistan, Jinnah was purposefully vague about the role of religion in his new state, and those ambiguities and contradictions, combined with the upheaval of its crucial early years—not to mention some sheer bad luck—dogged Pakistan from the get-go. The disputes with India over Kashmir and other princely states were a hugely destabilising factor and contributed to a gnawing sense of insecurity that allowed the Pakistani military, in league with remnants of the colonial-era bureaucracy, to become the dominant force in the country. Then you have the simple fact that Jinnah died barely a year after his creation was born, depriving Pakistan of the steady hand it badly needed at a vulnerable moment. Less able men took his place, and the cracks between East and West Pakistan started to show from the early 1950s, starting a two-decade decline that would culminate in war, and an independent Bangladesh, in 1971.
India faced huge challenges during the same period, too, of course, but its sheer size and relatively stable politics allowed it to weather the storms more easily. There was less elite competition involving the military and bureaucrats, and the country benefited from the continuity of leadership, and vision, of Jawaharlal Nehru. The 1962 border war with China was short-lived. And as Pakistan flailed, Nehru’s long rule embedded democratic traditions and set the state on a relatively straight path.
A country whose ‘own citizens regret it came into being’. Has this ‘regret’, understandably among a minority of liberals, deepened since Zia-ul-Haq’s legacy became evident?
I heard those whispers of regret –expressed quietly, mostly—during the dramatic upheavals of the late 2000s, as Pakistan oscillated wildly between street protests, Taliban bombings, and great traumas like the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the American Navy SEAL raid that located and killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, those downcast Pakistanis often traced their disillusionment to General Zia’s rule in the 1980s, when extremist seeds had been sown that now, decades on, were bearing malignant fruit. But of late that attitude has been changing. Once, those same friends quietly dismissed Jinnah’s ‘Two-Nation Theory’ and its suggestion, rooted in pre-Partition politics, that Muslims and Hindus could never live together. Now, looking across their eastern border, they wonder if they had been wrong. In Narendra Modi’s India they see gross, state-sponsored discrimination against Muslims, harsh repression in Kashmir, and a fervid atmosphere in the Indian news media. Their sense of regret about the failings of Pakistan is being replaced by a sense of relief. And they are revisiting their views on the two-nation theory. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the great debates between the Congress and the Muslim League was over the supposed threat of Hindu majoritarianism. Nehru insisted such a threat did not exist; Jinnah and other Muslim leaders felt it did. Maybe, Pakistani friends muse, old man Jinnah was right all along. It’s probably, hopefully, too early to say if that dismal assessment is wrong. But the fact that people are making it is striking, and worrisome.
I spent a couple of years trying hard to return to Pakistan. New York Times editors met Pakistan’s prime minister while I met ISI bosses. We asked them the same question: What were the ‘undesirable activities’? We hoped to get an answer so that I could at least return to pack up my house in Islamabad
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You were an eyewitness to the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad (July 2007). It was a turning point. Zia was a turning point, too. Do you believe that the history of the world, let alone of Pakistan, would have been rather different in his absence?
That’s an interesting hypothetical. In considering General Zia’s impact, we need to look at two broad factors. One is the jihad in Afghanistan, which bolstered and enriched the ISI, entrenched the ideology of jihad, and deepened Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. Would it have been different under another Pakistani leader? I think it likely the jihad would have occurred no matter what, driven by American and Saudi funding and weapons, as well as broader Western-led efforts to counter Soviet expansionism. The international pressure on Pakistan to cooperate would have been too great—not to mention the country’s clear national interest in pushing the Soviet bear out of its backyard. But what might have differed, under another Pakistani leader, is the extent to which the ideology of jihad was allowed to penetrate the ranks of the military and intelligence services, and to spill into the rest of society. Zia’s permissive attitude to jihadi militancy brought short-term benefits. But it boosted dangerous forces that continue to plague Pakistan. And the petri dish for that experiment—the northwestern tribal belt—became a major focus of Western counter-terrorism efforts after 2001. Alumni of that place, and that era, later fought in Kashmir and in militant campaigns across Asia and the Middle East. That said, it’s too easy to blame Zia for it all. The Americans and the Saudis—not to mention the Russians—were responsible for the conduct of a war that, decades on, continues to reverberate across the world.
Was the Salafist takeover of religion, the erasure of the more syncretic, Sufi-influenced subcontinental Islam, avoidable? Or was Pakistan always going there, even without the Afghan jihad, and thus shifting its history closer to the trajectory of the Arab Middle East?
Salafism hasn’t taken over Pakistan by a long shot—witness the crowded Sufi shrines across the country even now—but it’s certainly true that a harsh version of political Islam is ascendant. Look at the great power of the cleric Khadim Rizvi, who recently died (November 19th). He came to prominence on the back of a street movement that celebrated the assassination of a secular politician, Salman Taseer, and which lionised Taseer’s murderer. There was nothing inevitable about this trajectory, but the ideological poison that welled in the Zia era, combined with the unchallenged dominance of military strategists in key areas—on Afghanistan, India, militancy—certainly helped to push Pakistan much closer to that path.
You use the phrase ‘Jinnah’s ideological tango on Islam’. In your reading, how does Jinnah compare with the Arab secularists?
Many post-colonial Arab leaders had little need to make an accommodation with Islam in the construction of their nations. For Jinnah, in contrast, religious identity—or at least the interests of the Muslims of the subcontinent—was at the very heart of his project. Arab leaders had other concerns. The Egyptian republic built by Gamal Abdel Nasser from the 1950s was the latest iteration of a country whose history stretched back thousands of years. The monarchs of Saudi Arabia were extending a form of rule that went back centuries. Jinnah was making something new—a hybrid of a nation-state and a religious project. The nearest Middle Eastern parallel lay not with the Arabs but with the Jews, and the creation of Israel a year after Pakistan, in 1948.
As for deaths foretold—I started out with nine lives, and only at the very end realised that the majority of them had died violently. Subconsciously, I guess I gravitated towards characters with high stakes in their lives. Unfortunately, for most of them, those odds were tragically short
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I was struck by your quick, no-nonsense approach to the bloody reality of Partition. Did the history of division and violence in Ireland help you instinctively grasp what had happened in the subcontinent and its aftermath?
Absolutely. When I arrived in Pakistan, I lacked the historical or cultural baggage of my British colleagues—put simply, I didn’t know very much about the place—because the subcontinent wasn’t part of our national story growing up. (Some of that is an unfortunate omission of the Irish educational system, which ignores or downplays the role of Irishmen and women in colonial India.) As I delved into the history, it struck me that, like Pakistan and India, Ireland’s enduring pathologies also stemmed from a bloody, colonial-era partition. In Ireland, we just used a different language to talk about it. The partitions of Ireland and India collided, briefly, in 1979 when the Irish Republican Army bombed Lord Mountbatten’s boat as it pulled out of harbour in County Sligo, about 30 miles from my family home. That brutal assassination is depicted in the latest season of the TV series, The Crown. Watching it, I felt a twinge of the same, complex emotions and resonances that it evoked when I was researching Nine Lives.
Anwar Kamal Marwat Khan (a Pathan who waged his own war on the Taliban), somewhat like Chaudhry Aslam Khan (‘Karachi’s most famous cop’), was unique but you deliberately made him a type. The result is an unforgettable character that is flesh and blood but also larger-than-life. When you moved about Pakistan with these men, did you see theirs as chronicles of deaths foretold?
Anwar Kamal and Chaudhry Aslam were typical of the quirky, complicated and fascinating people I kept encountering during my time in Pakistan. They were people who lived at the centre of the political and militant storms raging across Pakistan. Even better, they were willing to open their doors to a curious foreigner—even when the story didn’t portray them in a complimentary light. As a reporter, that was one of the wonderful things about Pakistan. Not only did the country present a rich gallery of rogues, heroes and everything in between, but they invited me into their homes, their thoughts, their lives. I do wonder, given how sharply press freedom has declined in recent years, whether it’s still so easy to do that kind of work.
As for deaths foretold—I started out with nine lives, and only at the very end realised that the majority of them had died violently. Subconsciously, I guess I gravitated towards characters with high stakes in their lives. Unfortunately, for most of them, those odds were tragically short.