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Circular History of Pakistan

June 18, 2022

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Book Review by Dr. Saeed Shafqat

Asim Imdad Ali, who joined the Civil Services of Pakistan in the early 1990s as a DMG officer (now labeled as the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS)), having served for about a decade and half. He opted out to enter the corporate world and excelled there as well. He has crafted a spectacular, wide ranging, and satirically innovative narrative that circles around Pakistan while also exposing awkward truths about British rule of undivided India and its lingering effects that continue to haunt and chaperon the region. The book is based on his observations, reflections and interpretations of Pakistan. Lamenting the fact that from inception to contemporary times, in each decade the actors may change but the play and setting continues to stay and reappears. Stylistic expression of the prose is absorbing and for some may evoke images of V.S Naipaul –the parables, metaphors and fictionalization of events and personalities are provocative and tantalizing. For example, which Pakistani leaders come to your mind if a reference is made to Cromwell and Napoleon or if you are a fruit lover, from the ‘Guava Orchards of Larkana’ to ‘Java Plum’ from Gowalmandi Lahore? The author leaves it to your imagination and I will also encourage you to read the book and discover… The title of the book is deceptive as it ventures to reveal and untangle more than the ‘circular history’ of Pakistan. The book provides insights on the rivalries and complexities of our relations with the neighboring states, and the intricacies of interactions with the great powers. Asim has divided the book in three parts, the first part is titled, ‘Our Circular History’, which has eleven chapters, the second part is titled, ‘ Chronicles of Our Times’, which has thirteen chapters and the third part is titled, ‘Future Panoramic Realities’, which comprises of eight chapters. Although each part is distinct and there is an underlying theme which evokes ‘challenge and response thesis’ of the legendary British historian Arnold J. Toynbee—societies and civilizations, which are unable to meet and respond to the challenges of the times, decline, wither away and vanish. In that continuum Asim reminds the readers that the ‘guardian angels’ and their ‘plantlets’ continue to repeat the same mistakes, do not learn and mend their ways. Hence in the case of Pakistan, an erosion of values and institutions is visible and this emerging trend is perpetuating the vicious cycle of corruption, misgovernance, and people are losing faith in the very structure and functioning of our governments. Asim cautions this erosion and decline must be arrested if we care about our future generations. He asserts, we must learn from the past and avoid repeating the same mistakes and ‘re-enactments’ of tragedies of our ‘circular history’ but how? There is no clear answer. As noted above the book is an engaging read, however, I want to draw the attention of the readers to chapters 7 & 8 and chapters 23 and 24 in particular. In chapter 7, while analyzing the, ‘ever changing tunes of politicians’, Asim brings to light the role of “guardian angels” in making the selection of political elites, modeling their political and financial fortunes and in the process, how military, bureaucracy and politicians create an illusion of democracy and demonize the ‘respect for vote’ and ridicule, ‘we the people’. He digs into policy making in colonial times and astutely recalls for us that Guardian Angels are not a post independence creation but the British spawned this monster of ‘doctrine of necessity’ and military supremacy, when in 1943, Lord Linlithgow, a civilian was replaced by, Lord Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, as Viceroy of India: warily, Asim remarks, ‘the Raj itself gave the top military man the top civilian role!’ In the post-independence period the Americans replaced the British as new patrons. The Guardian Angels were quick to acquire training and expanded and institutionalized their supremacy through, what Asim calls ‘external geo-rentals’, —latching on to America in its mission to ‘contain Communism’. Thus rulers of Pakistan have developed a habit of ‘rent-seeking’ through its geo-strategic location. This helped the ‘Napoleons and Cromwells’ to implant the ‘Yes Minister’ politicians. The Guardian Angels, and the implantations in their own ways worked overtime to tame and politicize and corrupt the bureaucracy (presumably, ‘naive and innocent’). Continuing on the theme, Asim provides an insightful and critical appraisal of the bureaucracy’s evolution, development and in his assessment ‘decay’ (Chapter 8). It is reflective and experiential, therefore, he divides it into seven ages, from ‘the age of Steel-Frame’ to the‘ age of Mandarins to Napoleon’ and fast forward to ‘the age of Business’ and according to him each age shows signs of decadence, thus he ends it on the promise of a better future for the bureaucracy by seeking refuge in a philosopher’s quote; ‘While I breathe, I hope’. In that spirit, he highlights the competitive and merit driven origins of Indian Civil Service in the 1860’s, acknowledging that it was meant to rule, collect revenue, maintain order and in the process craft semblance and substance of ‘just rule’ for the British Raj. The narrative on the decline, decay and corruption of ‘men of integrity’ that Philip Woodruf so assiduously built in Men Who Ruled India resonates in his chapter as well. Yet, like many of the ICS/CSP and eventually DMG/PAS ‘breeds’ he finds it hard to fathom and own the 1973 Civil Services Reforms and the Common Training Program (CTP) that it created, thus for the DMG/PAS wallas the vicious ‘circular history’ endures. Conceptually, it is fallacious to assume that civil services could be ‘apolitical’. Late Aminullah Chaudhry-a CSP and author of Political Administrators: The Story of the Civil Service of Pakistan, has judiciously remarked; “Given the powers that they were equipped with, members of the ICS/CSP could not but act to perpetuate the status quo”, he continues to add, “The civil service is as politicized as the armed forces, big business, lawyers, doctors, and educationists, the feudal and trading classes’’. Ironically, such is the ‘circular history of Pakistan’, how can we deliberate on creating an alternative to this ‘path dependency? In the third part, ‘Future Panoramic Realities’, Asim departs from the domestic to global and that obviates the ‘circular history’ and widens the range of his interpretation. Analyzing the superpower rivalry, he supports the emerging scholarly consensus that the balance of power is drifting away from the West and towards the East. While comparing India and China, he is torn between his liberal thinking and pragmatic realism. He is sympathetic and favorably inclined towards Indian democracy and its growing fault lines do alarm him to raise the critical question; is India destined to falter like Pakistan’s ‘circular history’? Grudgingly this leads him to acknowledge the rise of China. While recognizing the merits of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Asim digs into the history of Silk Road and draws our attention to two game-changing invasions—the Mongol Invasion (1258 AD) and the Ottoman’s conquest of Constantinople (1453 AD) that disrupted the flow of trade through the Muslim lands, from Europe to Asia. Asim incisively remarks; “The European businesses could not use the old land routes to Asia ‘’. That paved the way for the Europeans to turn towards the seas and led to the emergence of the ‘age of discovery’ and rise of colonialism. By reviving the Silk Road—BRI, China is restoring that ‘disruption’ the Mongols and Ottomans created! For future generations- Pakistani youth, Asim recommends investment in quality education, skills development, change in attitude orientation and technology. Are there any takers? Imdad Asim Ali’s, Circular History of Pakistan, is a commendable effort, highly engaging, and an insightful book that makes the history of contemporary Pakistan and its relations with the outside world both entertaining and thought provoking; academia, policy makers, media persons, business groups, university students and most importantly, civil and military bureaucrats would find it informative and useful.

About the Author

Dr. Saeed Shafqat is Professor and Founding Director of CPPG

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