Less fragile than we look

Published: March 20, 2013
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The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah

A Hard Country. Tinderbox. On the Brink. Playing with Fire. Eye of the Storm. Descent into Chaos. The Crisis State. The Unravelling.

It is difficult, if not actually impossible, to find a book about Pakistan whose title does not convey the impression that this is a very fragile and perhaps, ungovernable country, one which could collapse into complete anarchy at any moment. In my view, this pessimism is unjustified. Yes, Pakistan is a mess. But it is neither fragile nor ungovernable.

Let’s begin with the issue of fragility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile distinguishes between the lifespan of the perishable (humans, animals, etc.) and the nonperishable (books, states). His argument is that while in the case of perishable items, the younger always has a longer lifespan than the older, the same is not necessarily true for non-perishable items. Instead, in some cases, the “Lindy effect” applies, which is to say that older items actually have a greater expected lifespan than newer items.

Not convinced? Let’s look at the Lindy effect in practical terms. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Most of them disappear after a first printing while some last decades. A book that has stayed in print for 20 years, thus has a much greater expected lifespan (i.e., is far more likely to stay in print for another 20 years) than a recently published book (no matter how critically acclaimed the newer book may be).

Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade. Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being.

But what then of our myriad problems? How does one govern a country which boasts both Marvi Sirmed and Maulana Samiul Haq as its citizens? How can such disparate individuals be united under one banner?

The short answer is that you do not unite them. No, I’m not saying that Pakistan should be broken apart. What I’m saying is that we need to recognise the incredible diversity of opinion within this country and adopt our legal structures accordingly.

Diversity of opinion is not a peculiarly Pakistani problem. In the words of Yevtushenko — first quoted to me by my ustaad, Aitzaz Ahsan — “Yours is not the only one, my son.” Charles de Gaulle once sighed about France, “How do you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” I suppose the Pakistan equivalent would be to ask “how do you govern a country with 246 varieties of extremists?”

What then is the magic solution? In a nutshell, we need to take the “Federation” part of this country’s title more seriously and stop worrying so much about the “Islamic” part. Yes, we now have the Eighteenth Amendment. But we need to think about federalism, not just in terms of differentiation between provinces, but in terms of differentiation within provinces as well.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the sale of  “intoxicating liquors” was enacted on January 16, 1919. By the time it was finally repealed on December 5, 1933, Prohibition stood as a monument to the limitations of government and the ingenuity of man. Despite more than a decade of efforts, more people drank more alcohol than ever before. But the repeal of prohibition did not mean the repeal of all alcohol prohibition efforts. Even today, almost 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, approximately 10 per cent of the US lives in “dry” counties where the sale of alcohol is either forbidden or severely restricted.

The point that I am making is simple: law-making needs to be localised, not just provincialised. Obviously, there is only one Constitution for all of Pakistan; but that does not mean that there is only one way in which to run our lives.

Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite — is that it has left us with a mania for centralised decision-making. In our families, all decisions default to the patriarch; in our businesses, all decisions default to the chairman; and, in our bureaucracies, all decisions default to the secretary of the department. Even worse, the provincial Rules of Business provide that no policy can be changed except with the concurrence of the chief minister!

What we need instead of one-man rule is a country in which decision-making is pushed down to the lowest possible level. Power now needs to be taken from the provinces and devolved further into the districts, from the districts to the tehsils, and from the tehsils to the union councils.

But what of the human consequences, you may ask? Do we want to live in a world where residents of rural districts have fewer rights than city dwellers? Can a state justify giving different rights to different citizens?

Well, it depends. Obviously, all citizens should have the same fundamental rights. But the same logic does not apply to statutory rights; after all, residents of Punjab already have different statutory rights from residents of Sindh.

Let me make my point in simpler terms: for many years, reformers have argued that the people in the tribal areas should have the same rights as people in Lahore. Presumably, the intent was to improve the lot of people in the tribal areas. However, by tying themselves to the idea that there can be only one law for everyone, we have also made ourselves vulnerable. In other words, instead of Fata-wallahs living like Lahoris, we are now looking at a future in which Lahoris will live like Fata-wallahs. I really don’t want that to happen.

Devolving legislative power down to the districts serves two beneficial functions. First, it gives power to people who, in the words of  Taleb, have “skin in the game”. Second, it allows for regional differences. Obviously, only limited differences can be accommodated. But if we don’t bend, our only other option is to break.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (40)

  • Maula Jat
    Mar 20, 2013 - 10:43PM

    Too vague for a lawyer. We need greater not lesser harmonization of laws. There must be some minimum standards applicable all over the country. Let the constitution be respected. No pussyfooting please.

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  • @maula jat
    Mar 20, 2013 - 11:18PM

    You really have no understanding of the disaster caused by centralized planning. There shouldn’t be any harmonization of law. Let the local population decide what law they want for themselves. And go and read the book.

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  • H K
    Mar 20, 2013 - 11:19PM

    A wonderful and eminently sensible article. In fact the first book he quotes pretty much gives a similar opinion. Lets not forget, in any case, that much of the chaos in Karachi, often taken as symptomatic of the whole country, is engendrered partly by the ‘ordered disorder’ of parties who want that and rest exactly due to the reason that the writer outlines i.e. the failure to
    devolve power to the local bodies.

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  • Parvez
    Mar 20, 2013 - 11:22PM

    Very scholarly and I must say as an opinion very worth giving serious thought to. Having said that I come to my much lamented stand of just who amongst our politicians ( leave I.K out for the time being, as he’s still in third gear ) has the brains or the inclination to think of what is good for the country. Our stalwarts are unable to think beyond their own pockets and even if they do, they are then limited by self glorification.
    On Nicolas Taleb’s antifragile theory to Pakistan, you have adapted it to fit, but in all honesty its an adaptation that requires much imagination.

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  • Falcon
    Mar 20, 2013 - 11:52PM

    Faisal. I like your argument. Best way to manage diversity is to accept it and allow localization to a certain extent without compromising the fundamentals. Essentially, we have a single framework and different regions adopt to it. Although Anatol Lieven is not a lawyer, he has made a similar argument about managing the complex legal structure of Pakistan where multiple layers of rules are operating and all of the layers are being abused. Second problem with implementing a single monolithic version is that whoever is the most vocal and committed to the cause will overwhelm and force down his version of law over others. Going by this logic, extreme rightist groups will have a ball since they are more united and more organized than other competing alternatives in the country unfortunately.

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  • F A Agha
    Mar 20, 2013 - 11:54PM

    i doubt it….. Remember what the founding father of Pakistan late Qaid-e-azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in his historic speech to the constituent assembly….. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State……….We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State……..” is this happening……?? whether a strong federal or a strong provincial govt….. you can’t change ideologies…..!!! then in each province you will have a provincial branch of every terrorist /extremist organisation…….Corruption and extremism is too deep ….. we see the examples of extremism everyday on every road of Pakistan ,corruption is not hidden from us…and now when you talk of power…remember… Power corrupts…. and absolute power corrupts absolutely…..!!!

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  • g antanu
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:03AM

    sensible and worthy of taking notice. .and the same formula should apply globally. Our planet is suffering a lot due to certain powers wish to install their type of democracy or government. .not taking into the consideration of the 246 types of cheese different countries have.

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:10AM

    “Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade. Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being.”:-

    Pakistan of 21st century (geographically) is not the same country as it was during the 1950's. You are right that it is far more likely to survive for another 70 years ; but yet again the Pakistan (geographically) of 2100 AD may be different from Pakistan of 2013!!!!
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  • sure?
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:10AM

    “Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade.”

    55% of Pakistan’s population said they were not Pakistani in 1971. You can say it survived but realy has it? After Czechoslovakia was split into The Zech Republic and SLovak Republc could we say that Czechoslovakia survived? Can we say USSR survived? How then can you claim that Pakistan survived.

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  • Zalmai
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:28AM

    “In other words, instead of Fata-wallahs living like Lahoris, we are now looking at a future in which Lahoris will live like Fata-wallahs. I really don’t want that to happen.

    Fata-wallahs can never live like Lahoris because the constitution of the Pashtun is fundamentally different than that of the Punjabi.

    Punjabis are amenable to take on any identity except their own and this is why you are looking at a future in which Lahoris will live like Fata-wallahs, except this culture of the Fata-wallah is actually a manifestation of Punjabi Deobandi ideology and not the real culture of FATA and Pashtuns.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:32AM

    the solution lies in better economy only …

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  • Arifq
    Mar 21, 2013 - 1:04AM

    I usually agree with Feisal’s writings, this article is the exception even though in spirit I would like Feisal to be right.

    Nasim Taleb also wrote “Black Swans” events that people fail to recognize and shock the markets. USSR, Yugoslavia, pre 1971 Pakistan are all examples that disprove Feisal’s analogy (Lindy effect) and instruct us to be conscience of the risks that come with disparate societies. Having been born in the era of cold war, breakup of USSR was one of the most unanticipated event of our generation. Same can be said for Yugoslavia and Pakistan both countries that came into being as a quirks of history failed to form a nation state and eventually imploded. Post 1971 Pakistan has a track record of 40 years and that too is not much to talk about, that is why the optimism expressed by Feisal may be misplaced. Many thanks Feisal

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  • amir jafri
    Mar 21, 2013 - 2:50AM

    Muslim states in Persian gulf and even saudi arabia is a great example where even westerners and HIndians are happy to work..They run there affairs very efficientlty.

    WE are what we are..try not to clone us into the image of the ugly western “values” and systems. Dynastic rule is everywhere in the subcontinent , under the veneer of sham democracies just to please goraa masters.

    China has the most “Islamic” system in the world…even more than in Iran..where an unnecessary Parliament and election kind of system exists…despite warnings and guidance by Ayatullah Khomeini. A selection based on meritocracy is what is needed. Such sysytem also works great in the corporations. where board of directors SELECT a Manager (CEO types) based on the policies of the board (Chairman)..Chinese and Iranian system (minus Iranian election drumbeat..a western curse)Recommend

  • sabi
    Mar 21, 2013 - 3:19AM

    Let us not go for idealism that we have already tried during Musharaff regime and it failed miserably.What Pakistan, as a fedral state, needs is civilised laws that ensure basic human rights of every citizen living in any of the unit under fedration.You can not unite two extremes such as Marvi Sarmid and Maulana Sami but you can still bind them with law.(law se dar phir sab kuch kar).The difference between MS and maulana is that later doesn’t accept basic human right of life of others.The solution to that rebelion is get his right of expression and freedom of movement.

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  • sabi
    Mar 21, 2013 - 7:06AM

    @sure?:
    “How then can you claim that Pakistan survived.”
    India got split in 1947 and rest of India survives.Germany remaind Germany after its divide and it survived and survived very well.Recommend

  • maryam
    Mar 21, 2013 - 8:24AM

    lolz. what about 1971? “Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade. Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being”

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  • Asjad
    Mar 21, 2013 - 9:04AM

    I am not saying that this kind of model wont work but my questions is wasnt this tried with the whole Sufi Mohammad fiasco? Nizam e Adal thingy…Those People dont seem to limit themselves to their areas..they want others to follow their model

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  • Mirza
    Mar 21, 2013 - 9:27AM

    A thought provoking Op Ed which is off the beaten track and very true. There was a US Congress speaker Tip O’Neil who used to say “all politics is local” and it is a proverb in the US politics. However we are raised on the diet and stories of kind and strong kings and sheiks who were angels and fairest them all. We have no clue or respect for diversity and collective decision making. When we were part of India we wanted all our cultural and religious freedom yet we are unwilling to give the same to our minorities. in fact Muslims in India still enjoy their religious freedom while the majority has to follow country’s law. Unless we have elections and empowerment at every level down to small towns we would not make any progress.

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  • Maula Jat
    Mar 21, 2013 - 10:10AM

    @@maula jat:
    Are you trying to clone? Moderator should take note.

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  • Maula Jat
    Mar 21, 2013 - 10:21AM

    @@maula jat:
    You mean make our districts like cantons in a confederation.There are others who talk of turning Afghanistan into Switzerland of Central Asia.

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  • Mar 21, 2013 - 11:11AM

    ” Let’s look at the Lindy effect in practical terms. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Most of them disappear after a first printing while some last decades. A book that has stayed in print for 20 years, thus has a much greater expected lifespan (i.e., is far more likely to stay in print for another 20 years) than a recently published book (no matter how critically acclaimed the newer book may be).”

    The book stayed in print for 20 years because it was protected ( by persons i.e. the environment which includes the thoughts, views, ideology and traits prevailed in the society) If the environment underwent a change, life span irrespective of perishable or non perishable will be affected with varying degree/ intensity

    I fully endorse that the rules be made at the lowest possible level suiting their environment without keeping a minimum standard. imposing a minimum standard too will be counter effective. those who want to have different rules will change/ amend in due course of time just that they should have the opportunities to communicate with others / having different views.. This is based on the assumption that .force will not be used by one group having different views. If so the role of federal power to stop them strictly and impartially should be mandatory.In case assumed positions does not exist there shall be chaos rather than the peace and prosperity.

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  • sure?
    Mar 21, 2013 - 11:12AM

    @sabi: “@sure?:
    “How then can you claim that Pakistan survived.”
    India got split in 1947 and rest of India survives.Germany remaind Germany after its divide and it survived and survived very well.”

    Wrong logic. Independent India was never partitioned..

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  • sabi
    Mar 21, 2013 - 11:30AM

    @sure?:
    “Wrong logic. Independent India was never partitioned”..
    Pardon what!!

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  • Dhanus Menon
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:36PM

    Who you kidding. Pakistan lost east Pakistan in 1971. Such lies may give Pakistanis an emotional high, truth be told your nation was dismembered once and will be further damaged if you people do not realize ground realities.

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  • Golden horde
    Mar 21, 2013 - 12:44PM

    Thats what imran has been saying for years. Glad u agree.

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  • varuag
    Mar 21, 2013 - 3:09PM

    Author’s prescription of a dispersal of power of the state from the overtly central to the local is indeed noteworthy. What is even more critical is that such devolution of powers should have devolution of financial powers (including the concurrent powers of taxation if not already present) and not a mere share in the divisible pool of taxes. The lack of financial bite can render the local bodies pretty much useless.

    Acceptance and institutionalization of diversity through competitive interest accommodation can act as a sufficient bulwark against the multitudes of centrifugal forces. eg. When there was trouble in Darjeeling in late 80’s result was GHDC. When trouble erupted recently the result was a more powerful GTA. In future we may have the final contours of a province, but prediction is a fool’s errand here.

    Such scenario has a potential for noise, chaos and conflict in the political domain but it also has a mechanism for resolution of such issues in the open through a transparent, multi-stake holder approach with citizens aware of the complexities and empathetic, if not sympathetic, to multiple concerns. Obviously it will lead to logjams, delays and quest for innovative solutions for the ever elusive consensus. If the US as a mature democracy cannot thwart the recent sequester cuts then the subcontinent as enfant terrible nations are not really that terrible when it comes to political chicanery.

    This will also lead to emergence of new political outfits that enrich the landscape, though again they may espouse outright parochial views. There may be a redefinition of national interest that is in congruence with local interests and the subterranean fault-lines may have a political safety valve. So a West Bengal province can influence the central government on water sharing pacts with Bangladesh or a Tamil Nadu province can influence India’s dealing with Sri Lanka on the Tamil issue. This erosion of central government’s power may be frowned upon but it also ensures that centre does not ride roughshod over the provinces and delays are a small price to pay for local grievance-redressal.

    PS I am well versed with Indian examples but such empiricism should hold in any diverse nation.

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  • White Russian
    Mar 21, 2013 - 4:28PM

    Author may have noted that Taleb also favours “doing nothing” or avoiding bad policies against actively “doing” good things. Argument goes like this: Avoiding harm by sticking to a “not do” list has much greater advantage compared to minuscle benefit of acting on a “do good” list which carries unforeseen risks and hidden consequences.

    This goes against the grain of country with an overtly interventionist judiciary and army, and do-gooder revolutionary sentiments of ignorant public which wildly goes after “last ray of hope”/”end to corruption in 90days” type of slogans.

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  • abhi
    Mar 21, 2013 - 5:06PM

    @sabi
    I don’t know what is in sure’s mind but Independence day of pakistan is 14th aug, one day before India’s independence day.

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  • Sure?
    Mar 21, 2013 - 6:32PM

    @sabi:
    Independent India was formed on August 15 1947″ was it partitioned after that?

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  • sabi
    Mar 21, 2013 - 8:12PM

    @Sure?:
    Independent India was formed on August 15 1947″ was it partitioned after that?
    That’s right.

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  • sure?
    Mar 21, 2013 - 9:32PM

    @sabi: “@Sure?:
    Independent India was formed on August 15 1947″ was it partitioned after that?
    That’s right.”

    Please provide date of any partition that occurred in India AFTER 15th August 1947.

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  • GS@Y
    Mar 22, 2013 - 12:18AM

    @sure?: Good point, but at the same time, you cannot say that the history of the Czech Republic started after Czechoslovakia broke up, or that the Soviet past is not the past of the Russian Federation. Saying Pakistan as an entity and an idea has lasted 65 years is not the same as saying Pakistan has been fixed and unchanging. Of course Pakistan continues to persist, and so do it’s founding ideals.

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  • Hafeez
    Mar 22, 2013 - 12:38AM

    @Asjad:
    Please check your facts before shooting sweeping statements. Nizame Adal was not what the people of Swat and Malakand wanted, it was an imposition on them by the taliban group.

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  • Prerna
    Mar 22, 2013 - 3:12PM

    Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite —

    Why stop there? Because you think the problem emerged with Islam ( but in that case why mention the colonial heritage ) ,or because any further back in the past..

    @ET; Well,I haven’t mentioned it,so please post.

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  • Khan
    Mar 22, 2013 - 5:02PM

    “Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being.”

    What is the justification of using Nasim Taleb’s tool of analysis in this context? You do not have a justification. Hence your “analysis” is idiotic at best. When using some tools of analysis to make an argument in a particular context (in this case, Pakistan’s context) you have to justify very strongly how and why those tools of analysis are best suited to study the problem in that context. Without any such justification your argument just falls flat on its face.

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  • sabi
    Mar 22, 2013 - 5:29PM

    @sure?:
    “Please provide date of any partition that occurred in India AFTER 15th August 1947”.
    I have accepted what you meant.

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  • The History Channel
    Mar 22, 2013 - 9:56PM

    @sure?:
    “Please provide date of any partition that occurred in India AFTER 15th August 1947″.

    @sabi:
    “I have accepted what you meant.”

    Only for the sake of argument, “Azad Kashmir” got independence from India after 15th August 1947.

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  • Gp65
    Mar 22, 2013 - 10:46PM

    @sabi: Have been observing the discussion between you and sure? Salute you for graciously conceding to a different point of you. Takes real class and courage.

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  • sabi
    Mar 23, 2013 - 1:13AM

    @Gp65:
    @sabi: Have been observing the discussion between you and sure? Salute you for graciously conceding to a different point of you. Takes real class and courage.
    Thanks a lot.Its your kindness.And for your post on Jinnah my reply on some other time.

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  • Prerna
    Mar 23, 2013 - 1:45AM

    My comment above makes no sense,so I will try again

    Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite —

    Why stop there?Because any farther back in the past than that and you might have run headfirst into your Hindu/Buddhist heritage.

    Or did you stop because you think the problem started with Islam, and is perpetuated by it( in that case why mention the colonial heritage) . And in any case,North India has that same heritage.

    — is that it has left us with a mania for centralised decision-making.

    Centralised decision-making is the heritage of all nations/cultures on this planet- it is in no way uniquely Pakistani.

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