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After Salmaan Taseer

Five questions for us to answer on liberalism in Pakistan.

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer has rightly triggered introspection and discourse in Pakistan on identity — social, religious and national.  Of these, articles written by the likes of Raza Rumi, Huma Yusuf, Ayesha Siddiqa, Yaseer Latif Hamdani and Shehryar Taseer deserve special mention and commendation.  There is, however, no dearth for the alternative narrative in Pakistan.  PML-N’s spokesperson claimed (اردو) that Mr. Taseer would have been assassinated by someone else had Mumtaz Qadri not done so. Irfan Siddiqui suggests (اردو) that while Mr. Taseer’s assassination cannot be condoned, it was expected, given the governor’s “liberal extremist” views.

A parallel discourse is also occurring in the West and in India.  Declan Walsh laments on the fate of the liberal Pakistani; Shekhar Gupta qualifies and clarifies; Seema Mustafa foretells of further doom and gloom. An overarching theme in many commentaries is that a liberal Pakistan is in India’s interests; that a “liberal” Pakistani civilian government would (not to say “could”) radically alter its worldview, foreign policy objectives and how it seeks to achieve them.  The trouble with this argument of course, is that a liberal Pakistani civilian government has never existed.   Even so, some commentaries point to Benazir Bhutto and her administrations of the late ’80s and ’90s as  approximate models.

However, liberal though Ms. Bhutto may have been, Pakistan’s worldview did not undergo material change during her leadership. Bilateral relations with India did not improve. If anything, Ms. Bhutto’s reign coincided with the height of the Jammu & Kashmir insurgency fomented by Pakistan, and proliferation of nuclear technology.  Indeed, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and the motivation to match India to the detriment of all else took shape  under the leadership of her charismatic father, the wine-drinking, UC Berkeley-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (“We will eat grass…”).

It would therefore be a worthy exercise to ponder over these five questions on what a model for a liberal Pakistan would look like, and whether a liberal dispensation in Pakistan is a sufficient condition to alter the trajectory of its relationship with India.  For us in India, would the ascendancy of a liberal narrative in Pakistan’s internal discourse  lessen our own threat perception of our neighbor?

  • Could a liberal government in Islamabad effectively end the hold that the military-jihadi complex has on Pakistan’s formulation and implementation of foreign policy objectives?
  • Would it still maintain that India poses an existential threat to Pakistan?
  • What will its position be towards Kashmir? Specifically, towards the insurgency and state-sponsored sub-conventional warfare?
  • What will its position be on terrorism?  If another Mumbai were to occur, would this liberal regime disavow these groups? Actively confront them? Prosecute them? Extradite them, where permissible, to India? Cooperate with India’s own investigation?
  • Would it continue to maintain, by extension of #2, that Pakistan’s conduct in Afghanistan is just and only expected, given India’s commercial and political ties to Kabul?

Tough questions no doubt, but ones that need to be answered in India, as an internal battle for identity rages on in Pakistan.

UPDATE: My op-ed in The Pioneer has a more complete analysis of liberalism in Pakistan.

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5 Responses to After Salmaan Taseer

  1. Pagan January 11, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    1st Q should have been –

    What does liberalism mean in “Islamic republic” of Pakistan?

  2. Yuvamani January 11, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

    A “liberal” Pakistan does not change the status quo or help India. As zulfikar told India during the Simla agreement ” our people will never accept this ” ie a backdown on Kashmir.

    A radical conservative Pakistan is like Afghanistan under the Taliban. It openly supports Al Qaeda , let etc etc. ( currently it surreptitiously supports them)

    I would argue that a Pakistan under Taliban is worse for India than the status quo. Think about the nuclear weapons.

  3. Rohan Joshi January 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm #


    Good question. I would submit though that you could be liberal and be a citizen of country with a non-representative form of government. The bigger question is whether being a liberal or a religious extremist makes any difference to a) Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis India and b) Our threat perception of Pakistan.

    I fear this might be a rhetorical question though.

  4. Pagan January 16, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    You are right in asking that question. History tells us that as far as India is concerned it does not make a difference. The so called liberals of Pakistan at the drop of a hat mention Jinnah’s “you are free to go to your temples..” speech as the ultimate proof that Jinnah wanted a “secular, liberal” Pakistan. Even if we accept that argument it means under the watchful eyes of “liberal” Jinnah, India was attacked in 1947. So this argument – “we should support moderates and liberals in Pakistan” does not hold any water!


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