Book Title: The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From A precarious state
Author: Declan Walsh. Bloomsbury.
In 2013, when Pakistan was in the throes of a General Election pitting Nawaz Sharif against lmran Khan (Sharif won), Declan Walsh was served with an expulsion notice, ordering him to leave the country “within 72 hours”. He had been reporting on Pakistan for a decade for The Guardian and New York Times. Such expulsion orders were rare, especially for an experienced foreign correspondent like Walsh. He rushed to Pakistan’s acting Information Minister, a former journalist himself. The Minister was genuinely clueless. However, he asked Walsh one key question: “Have you been to Quetta (capital of Balochistan) recently?” The answer would only emerge years later.
Anyway, the author’s decade-long stint in Pakistan has resulted in perhaps the best book on that infuriating, troubled, yet fascinating, nation in recent years.
The title evokes the proverb about a cat having nine lives: despite all the odds and contradictions, Pakistan has somehow managed to survive, even though in 1971, the eastern wing broke away to form Bangladesh. The portends of doom have been belied and a democracy of sorts is in place. Some years ago, on a visit to Pakistan to attend a literary festival, this reviewer asked a perceptive Pakistani friend whom he thought had done most damage to Pakistan. “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq” was his immediate response. This book bears that out.
A brilliant maverick, Bhutto could hold his own among top international leaders. But he was a disaster for his own country. His nationalisation of virtually every industry and enterprise ruined the economy. And when Pakistan’s first free and fair election took place after years of military rule, he refused to accept the verdict which would have made Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the Prime Minister of the nation. He persuaded the incompetent army chief, General Yahya Khan, to crack down on East Pakistan, eventually leading to a war with India, Pakistan’s defeat, and the creation of an independent Bangladesh.
As for Zia, he left, in Walsh’s words, a “poisonous legacy” by his radical Islamisation, Saudi Arabia style. Jihadi fighters at a loose end after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan were unleashed on Jammu and Kashmir. An infamous blasphemy law was enacted and Saudi-funded madrasas, preaching violence and hatred, sprung up all over the country. The “good” and “bad” Taliban came into existence, so “bad” Muslims killed “good” Muslims. Witness the Peshawar attack on a school. Also, the army’s seven-day siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which ended in the killing of its head, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, echoing our own Operation Bluestar. The siege, writes Walsh, was a “watershed in the history of Pakistan”, the “first flame of jihadi firestorm” that would “threaten to consume the country”.
Walsh’s narrative is interspersed by portrayals of some of the characters he interacted with. There is the admirable and gutsy human rights activist Asma Jehangir, who took on the army (she openly called them “useless duffers”). There is also Salman Taseer, successful entrepreneur and politician. Salman courageously opposed the blasphemy law and championed an incarcerated Roman Catholic lady. His radicalised bodyguard gunned him down, another throwback to Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
It is only at the end of the book that Walsh learns why he was expelled. A former disillusioned spy of the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence contacts him in Europe and reveals that he and other ISI operatives had been tracking Walsh’s movements while he was covering Balochistan. The province had witnessed several revolts and horrific killings. It was also where nuclear weapons were stored. The Pakistan authorities did not like a foreign correspondent snooping around.
However, one question for which Walsh is unable to find an answer is: who was behind the Mumbai terror attack? Certainly not the Zardari government. Army chief Kayani denied any role. Could it have been rogue elements of the ISI and the army? We will get to know eventually.