Asma Jehangir and Larry Robinson Discuss Pakistani Freedom

(Also published by Anaavoice.)

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted an event “Human Rights in Pakistan–The Way Forward” with Asma Jehangir, chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Larry Robinson, former political counselor, U.S. Embassy, Islamabad this afternoon.

Clearly there was no sign that anything was moving forward apart from the discourse. But the points of their differences are something everyone should think over while contextualizing the case of Pakistan.

Robinson analyzed the Pakistan society from his lens (mostly the American way): there are two different types of elites in Pakistan. One political which is dynastic, and second the military which is meritocratic. Both are corrupt but in different ways. While the political elites are individually corrupt and use their money to buy access to power, the military elites are corrupt institutionally, looking for money to exercise power.

Both although have notable conflicts, stand to reinforce the status quo of elitism. The traditional liberal critics like Jehangir find that the army was responsible for most problems, Robinson said. What he saw, was quite different. It’s the members of political class which are oppressed by the army. If exile of former prime ministers or jailing of businessmen is oppression, then the army is instrumental. “But ordinary people seldom complain about army,” Robinson observed. He said it’s the political class which actually oppressed.

Robinson had his recipe for Pakistan’s development: reforms at the levels of education and judiciary.

Of course it all sounded politically correct, even if he had given a clean chit to Musharraf government, until Jehangir responded to Robinson’s assumptions. There she goes: “if the US has same analysis and simplistic recipe, then Allah is the only one who can help us and I will even join those groups who think Allah is the solution. I can’t disagree with him more.”

Doing a post colonial deconstruction, she said that the empowerment of people cannot come with a military government. There has been no civilian government in full control of nuclear or foreign policies and even the political elites have been created by the military themselves. The current regime far from breaking with the past has actually made the atmosphere more vicious. “If Musharraf is reformer for the US, then I am looking at Allah to rescue,” Asma said.

Larry talked about how US government had put in money through USAID to promote education. But of course most were converted to guest houses by ruling elites subsequently. So this time, the US is trying to focus on the teachers rather than the buildings. As for the judicial reform, quite a few governments are working and the US is finding hard to figure out where to start. Robinson admitted that there have been case of military coercing codes to make favorable decisions.

During the Q/A, Jehangir needed to clarify the difference between Islam and Islamists. Politicization of any religion is dangerous. Just like the right wing Christians convert people into their religion is, she contended. “I have issues with the right wing Christians or militant Muslims who will tell me if I will cover my head or not.”

There is religious significance for Pakistan just because of the way it was founded. The civil society took it in their stride until during 1980’s when Jihad started in Pakistan because of both Pakistan and the United States. “Both of us were responsible for it and it will not go away suddenly by placing dictators on us. We have to create a political melting pot. We don’t need USAID to reform education. We need Pakistan to do it. The marriage between the US, the military and the Mullah may be a bad marriage, but its reality and its stunting the civil society in Pakistan and creating an elite society,” she said.

Larry differed to the extent that he claimed there was politicization of religion in Pakistan ever since the beginning (1949? Well 1947). People who have been leading religio-political wings in Pakistan are direct descendents of those who were opposed to partition. Gandhi was opposed to it. So was Jinnah. But even before Jinnah died, there were efforts to place Islamic ideology which was not a program of Jinnah. Larry said:

“Yes, it escalated in 1980 and we as Americans must take a much closer look at our own role in developing the concept of growth of Jehad. We thought it will be unidirectional to go against the godless Communism. We are all in it together-US., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.”

The way forward, Asma added, was for Americans to realize that there is a mannerism in the way the war has to be fought. There are two sides: military and political. Killing people wont help. In her recent visit, people brought little fingers of kids who were killed. She heard about two girls who were picked up and detained as alleged suicide bombers and the government would not explain. This is the government that the US lends support today. “I am a believer that the means is as important as ends. I am not for extremism or militancy. I think the manner in which the war is being fought today is not proper.”

The way to go would be for a government of national consensus to lay foundation of an independent commission where a) parties should have a consensus on how elections of the judges be done, and b) how will Pakistan have inter-party discourses. This will be the first step. “We have fair and genuine elections. We still will have regional parties and popular election will make sure that the religious parties will be wiped out as they always have been in the past. This can take place through international cooperation, but this does not mean any dictation. Transparency and accountability are the most important factors against any war on terror.”

On a question on whether America understands Asian psyche in general and Pakistan’s in particular, she said that its a global world and we should understand it. Freedom of Pakistan people was her priority. She has respect for American freedom, “but naturally I will care for my people more. I know they (Americans) are caring for theirs. Their paths will be counterproductive for me and it will be for them too.”

Larry seconded with everything and more. “In the long run, the global struggles against fundamental terrorism can be won by building up societies, by respecting human rights, ideally, preferably through democracy. Democracy is important for Pakistan. But given the track record of both, its hard to see how you get their in a short time.”

Asma also admitted that there has been no meaningful resistance movement in Pakistan. “While we cannot change governments, we can make the sitting government very uncomfortable. Bar association, trade unions, freedom of press, are all positive. But there is no such movement. But personally, I think there is a fatigue factor in Pakistan.

They have tried everything and its is beyond them since they are fighting a huge military and its not easy since the military has very powerful friends.”



  1. I think Asma nailed it: Indeed there is a fatigue factor in Pakistan. Most of the reforms in post-colonial India were caused by revolutionary movements(like naxalbari for example–leading to land reforms). Such kinds of revolution have been absent in Pakistan.

  2. I full agree with you. Till now the leaderships (military or democratic) in Pakistan have whipped up the religious sentiments to keep the class issues aside. Once the issues of economy are confronted, the passionate Pakis will lead south asia.

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