Till recently, I had nothing but respect for Mr Shashi Tharoor. He is not only an accomplished writer and a former under-secretary-general of the UN, but a popularly elected member of India’s parliament. All these are substantial achievements. At the same time, Mr Tharoor’s recent column “Delusional liberals” (Deccan Chronicles, July 21) left me greatly disappointed.
Since Mr Tharoor’s column was but the latest in a series of cross-boundary literary salvos, some background is necessary. This latest border incident began with an examination by Aatish Taseer of Pakistan’s so-called ‘obsession’ with India and, more specifically, the fact that even ‘liberals’ like his late father took much pleasure in any travails which happened to come India’s way. In terms of content, what Taseer Jr had to say was not entirely incorrect, though grossly overstated. However, the references to his father were entirely gratuitous as seen by some Pakistanis, which combined with the tenuous nature of his conclusions, inspired one Ejaz Haider to pen a response (titled “Aatish’s personal fire” and published on these pages on July 19)
Ejaz’s reply to Aatish Taseer made, in essence, two points. The first was that the article was massively simplistic. The second was that our apparent obsession with India was partly justified given the Pakistan-specific nature of India’s military preparations.
Tharoor sahib’s response to Ejaz, in turn, also had two things to say. The first was that Ejaz had missed the apparently evident point that India is a peace-loving nation whose military capabilities are all non-violent and defensive in nature. The second was that, like other Pakistani liberals, Ejaz’s commitment to critical thinking was liable to be overwhelmed by atavistic nationalistic impulses. Or, in the slightly more elegant phraseology of Mr Tharoor, “Indians need to put aside their illusions that there are liberal partners for us on the other side of the border who echo our diagnosis of their plight and share our desire to defenestrate their military. Nor should we be surprised: A Pakistani liberal is, after all, a Pakistani before he is a liberal.”
In the interests of honesty, let me freely concede not only that I found Mr Tharoor’s response to be infuriating but that I said all sorts of rude things about him on Twitter which I probably shouldn’t have said. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to apologise. For a professional diplomat, Mr Tharoor’s remarks were cretinous in the extreme. In fact, they were probably cretinous by any measure.
Let us begin with the wide-eyed protestations of geostrategic innocence, the casual assertion that India has no hegemonic ambitions, regional or otherwise. Any diplomat who actually believed that would normally be classified as hopelessly naïve. Since Mr Tharoor is no naïf, the conclusion is that he is being economical with the truth. India does see itself as a major power, both economically and militarily; just ask the Sri Lankans or the Nepalese. Or better still, ask the Mandarins from India’s ministry of external affairs arguing that India deserves to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Still, that is not the real problem with Mr Tharoor’s column. As a good Indian diplomat, it is his job to trot out the party line. He knows he’s fibbing. We know he’s fibbing. He knows we know. And so life goes on.
Instead, the real problem with Mr Tharoor’s column is how he transitions from the contention that Pakistan has an unhealthy obsession with India to the conclusion that real Pakistani liberals should share India’s desire to “defenestrate” the Pakistan military. This is dangerous ground.
I have no problem with the contention that Pakistan’s population — especially its establishment — has an unhappy obsession with India. At the same time, the opposite of India-obsessed is not India-submissive. Yes, we Pakistanis should not define ourselves in negative terms, i.e. purely by comparison to India. However, this does not lead to the conclusion that we should not seek to define ourselves at all (as Mr Tharoor apparently believes). Instead, it leads to the conclusion that we Pakistanis need to define ourselves in positive terms.
Mr Tharoor implies that there can be no positive rationale for Pakistan. Given the limitations of this column, all I can say to him is this: I am both Pakistani and liberal. I don’t hate India. Like me, most of Pakistan has no memory of a united subcontinent. In fact, like me, most of Pakistan even has no memory of East Pakistan. This country is all we know, Mr Tharoor, and we intend to keep it. Can we please move on now?
I also have no desire to destroy Pakistan’s military. Pakistan lacks stable institutions and while the armed forces are certainly a major part of our problems, ‘defenestrating’ them is not part of the solution (For a more nuanced version of this argument see Anatol Lieven’s recent book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, Penguin, 2011). Pakistan needs a military which knows its legitimate boundaries and which does not overwhelm our limited resources. But given the neighbourhood we live in, and given our current condition, no reasonable person thinks it advisable to dismantle our armed forces.
There is one final problem with Mr Tharoor’s column. As noted above, his fundamental assumption is that there is no core Pakistani identity besides rejection of India and that Pakistani liberals should join hands with similarly enlightened Indians in seeking the destruction of Pakistan’s military. Ironically, the only other group which shares this simplistic world view is the very Pakistani establishment that Mr Tharoor deprecates. It, too, believes that Pakistani liberals seek the destruction of Pakistan as an independent state. It, too, believes that Pakistani liberals secretly yearn to reunite Pakistan with Maha Bharat.
Let me summarise then. Mr Tharoor’s column is gratuitously smug about India’s supposed lack of strategic ambitions. Mr Tharoor further believes that Pakistan has no legitimate identity besides a rejection of India and that Pakistani liberals — if truly liberal — would acknowledge this fact. He thereby not only confirms all of the Pakistani establishment’s worst fears about India, but also helps delegitimise Pakistani liberals as would-be traitors, even though they are the very persons calling for peace with India. In a word, cretinous.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2011.