Pakistan’s depiction in Homeland: sign of a deeper malaise

I collaborated with Mr. Anand Arni (@anand_arni) to write in Pragati. We say that the caricatured depiction of Islamabad in the TV series is a pointer to the social, political and economic damages borne by the average Pakistani.

Islamabad, a purpose built capital designed by Greek architects, is set on the northern edge of the Potohar plateau, at the foot of the scenic forested Margalla hills. It has much to praise – its manicured lawns, grassy parks, wide avenues, shopping malls and up-market restaurants. When Homeland, a popular serial about a CIA officer stationed in Islamabad, was set in a fictionalised Islamabad, Pakistan called its portrayal ‘inaccurate’ and far from the ‘grimy hellhole and war zone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered around’. Actually, Islamabad is closer to what the Pakistani establishment has described as a ‘quiet, picturesque city with beautiful mountains and lush greenery’.

Or it was. Things began going wrong with a series of terrorist incidents over the last decade —the July 2007 siege of Lal Masjid, the June 2008 bombing at the Danish Embassy, the September 2008 Marriott bombing and four terrorism incidents in 2011, including the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.

While some liberties have been taken in its cinematic depiction, not so are the references, which Pakistan has objected to, of the country being referred to as undemocratic and allied with terrorists as also the “repeated insinuations” that the ISI was “complicit in protecting terrorists”. The presence of a Military-Jehadi Complex makes Islamabad one of the most difficult places to serve in. Ask any diplomat who has served in Pakistan and he would find little to disagree with the thrust of Homeland’s portrayal. Pakistan only needs to look in the mirror and question why even citizens of friendly countries hesitate in accepting a posting there.

Much of the fault has to be ascribed to the use of militancy as an instrument of foreign policy. In the early 50’s, it provoked tribesmen to enter Kashmir and, in the 80’s, it encouraged separatists to take on the Indian state. In the 80’s and 90’s, with the acquiescence of the US and Saudi Arabia, it combined the use of religion and militancy to promote jehad in Afghanistan. Following the spectacular collapse of the USSR, Pakistan chose to encourage and fund obscurantist groups to launch a jehadagainst India.

This short sighted policy has had tremendous opportunity costs for the average Pakistani.

Socially, the use of religion has lead to the ascendancy of the clergy even though it has a nominal role in a religion which stresses upon a communion between man and his maker. Concocted ideologies planted in school curricula indoctrinate impressionable minds against non-Muslims or the “incorrect type of Muslims”. Also, Pakistanis can no longer travel freely, not even to friendly countries. No country is prepared to grant a visa without making extensive checks. Pakistanis are routinely pulled out of line at airports for greater checks. The immediate reaction of most journalists when there is a terror attack is to look for a Pakistani connection. It cannot even hold a cricket match on its soil. Of its two Nobel prize winners, one was acknowledged reluctantly and the other cannot come back. While polio is still an endemic viral infection in Pakistan, polio workers are targeted by militants on made-up charges that polio vaccination is an evil scheme for sterilising Pakistanis.

Economically, the damage has been even greater. With an annual GDP growth rate of 6.8 percent in the 1960s, Pakistan was set to become an Asian tiger. In the period upto the 90’s, Pakistan was progressing at a much faster pace than neighbouring India. Its rate of growth was nearly double that of India. From this promising start, Pakistan has today been reduced to a basket case dependent on foreign aid which from the US alone has been close to $83.12 billion since independence. Since money is fungible, aid in whatever form it may be, has further strengthened the military elite which has jeopardised the process of economic growth in the country. On another front, the energy sector is reeling under deficits and power cuts have made many urban centers unfavorable for businesses.

Politically, Pakistanis have been short-changed when it comes to democracy with the Army inveigling itself into the equation. It now has a veto over policies related to India and Afghanistan in all of whichjehad is a preferred option. Those who should have the say through their elected representatives have been sidelined. Every government, even those voted to power with a comfortable majority, has to face its ordeal of fire with the Army engineering incidents which undermine the authority of the government and make it subservient. Though accurate statistics are difficult to come by, there is reason to believe that a number of Pakistan’s elected representatives are either planted by the Army or are dependent on them so that they exist as a fall-back option. The recent decision to try suspected militants in army courts is another case in point for the decreasing political space for civilian institutions.

Thus, even though the depiction of Islamabad in Homeland may not have been accurate, it is definitely a pointer to the deeper malaise that ails the Pakistani society. The responses to this grim portrayal in the western media can lead to two kinds of responses.

First, the response of denial. This will reflect in the Pakistani Army continuing to be in charge of the dominant narrative. Even if it targets militants, this will be selective in the best case. It will continue to deny that the roots of Pakistan’s problems lie in the Punjab where violent groups are being sheltered under the State’s aegis.

On the other hand, the grim portrayals and an even tougher reality can trigger an awakening in the Pakistani society which forces it to introspect the basis of the modern Pakistan State. This could manifest in the form of protests which ask tough questions like how long will the average Pakistani suffer at the hands of violent non-state actors employed as agents of the state? And in the long run, is the Pakistani State aiming for prosperity of its citizens or for upholding of an ideology?

In practice, there will be a contest between the two responses in the years to come. In the immediate future though, it is the army’s vision of Pakistan that is the reality and that reality envisages the continued use of jehad as a foreign policy tool. As long as that continues, Pakistan will continue to be wracked by violence.

Exactly as depicted in Homeland.

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