Husain Haqqani Reveals Pakistan’s Age-Old Weakness for Fake News
“The biggest conspiracy theory that the Pakistanis believe in is that Pakistan is a special country made for Islam and therefore non-Muslims, primarily Hindus in India, are conspiring to finish Pakistan off,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan envoy to the US, shares with me. What follows is an exercise in myth-busting and exorcism. Pakistan is riddled with ghosts of perceptions and Haqqani, with his new book ‘Reimagining Pakistan’, claims to set certain facts right.
What hope does a country that likes to cocoon itself in the unhealthy warmth of the most outrageous conspiracy theories around its existence have?
Tangled in Propaganda
Pakistan’s tryst with propaganda is nothing new. Haqqani confirms, “It started in Pakistan right after Pakistan’s creation. Mr Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech was suppressed. People in his own government said ‘let’s not publicise it’.”
It was the same speech in which Jinnah promised that for all political purposes, Muslims would cease to be Muslims and the minorities (Christians, Hindu and Sikhs) would have their interests taken care of by a state, secular in both letter and spirit. This went against the All India Muslim League’s pre-Partition campaign that sold the idea of Pakistan being "The Land of Milk and Honey" for the Muslims.
However, this is not the only propaganda that the Pakistanis believe in.
Haqqani goes on to list some of the most outrageous and incredulous theories. According to even some highly educated Pakistanis, US and India are in cahoots with each other to destroy Pakistan and they can unleash everything from the CIA’s specially bred man-eating rats to floods upon the hapless nation.
Haqqani remembers how a retired general blamed the Americans on national TV for the 2010 floods. Not just this, US and India are even willing to sacrifice their own people just to make Pakistan look bad.
“People still believe that 9/11 or 26/11 were all basically conspiracies to make Pakistan look bad,” he adds.
The Price and Prize of Reimagining Pakistan
Is it possible to change the narrative in a nation where conspiracy theories are an opiate for the masses? How does one even begin to challenge the ‘truth’ of a 200-million strong country? Dissent is not a popular word in Pakistan’s political lexicon.
Haqqani isn’t daunted by the grimness of the situation.
“I have challenged it! I might be in exile but my ideas are not totally aloof from the average Pakistani.”
And he has certainly paid a price.
In January, he was booked for writing articles and books defaming the Pakistan government and its military. In a pirouette of irony, he has been charged with “hatching a criminal conspiracy” and “waging a war against Pakistan”. During the launch of his book in New Delhi, Haqqani shared that the Supreme Court has also issued an arrest warrant for him out of nowhere.
Haqqani goes on to say that Pakistan cannot reinvent itself till the existing narrative is systematically dismantled.
When you have 95% of the population born after Partition, they do not have any personal memory. For them it’s transmitted memory – what they have been taught. And in some ways by writing this book I’m trying to teach them different facts. Once people know that facts are different, they can think differently.Husain Haqqani, Former Pakistan Envoy to US
Improvising Since 1947
The etiology of Pakistan is closely linked to its dominant religio-political ideology. The myth of creation is an important tool to let Pakistanis believe in government policies even at their absurd best. Haqqani dismantles some of these myths one by one.
To begin with, creation of Pakistan was neither inevitable nor well-planned. “Pakistan was created in a hurry and a lot of things were improvised. It’s not like the ideology of Pakistan created Pakistan. The ideology of Pakistan as it is described today was created after the creation of Pakistan,” Haqqani says.
In a show of extraordinary courage, Haqqani holds Jinnah responsible for much of the ad-hocism dominating Pakistan’s policies on all fronts even now. “None of this [partition, governance] was thought through. For example, Mr Jinnah never wrote a book. He kept a lot of ambiguity alive till the last moment.”
Such is the Pakistani penchant for improvisation that they even changed their Independence Day. Haqqani informs, “Pakistan celebrated its 1st independence day in 1948 on 15 August. There are postage stamps from that period. But then somebody said, ‘Well, if we are gonna have our Independence Day on the same day [as India] that means we are not very different, are we? We are not separate. So therefore, let’s start celebrating it on 15 August which is the day that Mr Mountbatten came and swore in the oath of office to Mr Jinnah as Governor General of Pakistan effective midnight of 15 August.’”
Military Not the Messiah Pakistan Needs
Another myth busted by Haqqani time and again is the Pakistani military’s messianic status in the country. He shares,
Moreover, the location of the northern command of the British Indian army in Rawalpindi made it the only institution that had indigenous roots with a command and control structure that was already in place. The climate was, thus, propitious for the military’s quick rise to power in Pakistan.
Haqqani adds, “Once they [military] had taken over, they wanted to make the nation march in threes! In Pakistan the military has tried coups and has now perfected the non-coup coup. Meaning not taking over power but still trying to influence policy. That basically is a recipe for permanent instability.”
China Is NOT Pakistan’s New Best Friend
Pakistan’s military ordained policy has vitiated its relations with its neighbours, particularly India and Afghanistan. With China, the problem is of another hue. Haqqani explains, “The China-Pakistan relationship is based on a very narrow paradigm of containing India. The only reason why China takes an interest in Pakistan is because it sees Pakistan as a secondary deterrent against India.”
Not everyone in the country is happy with the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan. Least of all the policemen who recently got roughed up by a bunch of Chinese engineers. But Pakistan needs to worry about larger issues involving China. Haqqani assesses the relationship thus:
Friendship with China is of value but it would be of value only when Pakistan also has normal relations with others, including India. But it will not ignite the economic activity that Pakistan needs to give jobs to its millions of young people. Pakistan’s median age is just 21, so half of the 200 million population is below 21. Those young people need jobs, they need education. That’s not going to come from missile technology transfer between China and Pakistan.Husain Haqqani, Former Pakistan Envoy
India – The Eternal Enemy
Is India really the devil that has forced Pakistan to sell its soul of sovereignty to whoever cares to buy it? Is this enmity set in stone?
Haqqani says, “We can’t be permanent enemies because we are neighbours. And neighbours who see each other as permanent enemies always end up in a situation that is not necessarily best for both.”
This is best demonstrated by the recent standoff between the two countries over puerile acts of harassing each other’s diplomats. Pakistan has also denied consular access to the Sikh pilgrims coming from India.
Haqqani alerts us to something bigger at work there.
He adds, “There was a time when the Indian diplomats could actually travel around the country pretty freely. Then restrictions came. These are what I call cultivated and transmitted hatreds and angers, and when you orchestrate them in the way they have been orchestrated then the potential for good relations gets diminished.”
The Reality of “Pakistan Bashing”
This is true. Even the hardcore peaceniks in India are beginning to get tired. Haqqani acknowledges it. “Even during the focused terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, there were a lot of voices in India about friendship with Pakistan and normal relations. That changed after the Mumbai attacks. I fully understand how Indians have started reacting more and more. Unfortunately, this becomes a spiral of hatred. One side acts, the other side reacts, then the other side reacts to the reaction, then you just have what Mahatma Gandhi used to say about an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.”
Pakistan’s defensiveness does not help the matters. Each legitimate complaint, and dossier, seems to rattle the establishment and the people alike, breeding an absurd situation. Pakistan’s UN representative Maleeha Lodhi’s photograph faux pas is but a small example.
Haqqani responds, “I can understand how Pakistanis are frustrated. Anybody who is criticised all the time gets frustrated and defensive. And when you have a propaganda state in which the people of the country themselves are fed propaganda 24/7, then people really start believing that everybody is against us because they are against us and not because something that’s happening here is wrong. Now even educated Pakistanis have started using the phrase ‘Pakistan bashing’.”
From “Islam is in danger” to “Pakistan bashing”, it seems not much has changed with Pakistan’s collective psyche. Haqqani’s book is an attempt to encourage the average Pakistani to break the tyranny of fraudulent narratives. Haqqani signs off with, “A desire to have a positive image without changing the on-ground reality is unrealistic.”