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Politics of appeasement in Pakistan

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By Nadeem F. Paracha

In a recent statement, Shireen Mazari, the minister of human rights, equated her government’s ‘agreement’ with the agitating leaders of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s “policy of appeasement” towards Nazi Germany.

 

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word ‘appease’ originated in the 14th century CE and means ‘to pacify’. However, the word’s political context is entirely a 20th-century construct.

According to Frank McDonough’s Chamberlain, Appeasement and The British Road to War, the word ‘appeasement’ (in its political context) was first used by Chamberlain’s critics to censure his ‘peace deal’ with German leader Adolf Hitler.

In his 1983 essay for the Journal of Contemporary History, Prof Anthony Adamthwaite wrote that the British government’s soft stance towards the increasingly belligerent Nazi regime was explained as a way to avoid another war in Europe. This was the reason given by the British regime even when news about Nazi atrocities against opponents and its expansionist ambitions began to come out of Germany.

The perception that Germany had been handed a humiliating deal in 1919’s Treaty of Versailles was also used by the British government to draw support for Chamberlain’s policy. Adamthwaite wrote that Chamberlain’s government imposed strict media restrictions to curb newspapers from reporting criticism against Chamberlain’s policies, and even news about Nazi expansionism was largely repressed.

In 1938, on his return from Germany, Chamberlain triumphantly waved a piece of paper — ‘the Munich Agreement’ — claiming that this agreement will herald “peace in our time.” To critics, this was an act of surrender by an imperial power in front an aggressive fascist foe. On the other end, Hitler saw the agreement as Britain’s inability to halt Nazi Germany’s territorial ambitions. Hitler thus hastened his plans to invade various European nations and eventually triggered the Second World War in which millions of lives were lost.

Adamthwaite wrote that even though Chamberlain’s critics had warned that his “policy of appeasement” would only embolden Hitler, he dismissed them as being “pro-war.”
In his book, Strategy and Diplomacy, British historian, Paul Kennedy offered a more sympathetic view of Chamberlain’s policy. He wrote that there were limited choices at the time for Britain and one of them was appeasement. Britain’s economy had suffered during the global economic depression of the 1930s. Despite being an imperial power, the British state and government(s) were feeling vulnerable.

Yet, when in 1940 Winston Churchill was elected PM, he immediately undid Chamberlain’s policies. With some fiery rhetoric and carefully constructed alliances with the opposition Labour Party, the US and the Soviet Union, he managed to militarily hold back the Nazi war machine. Nazi Germany fell in 1945.

After the war, appeasement as a policy became anathema to Western states. It was to be avoided. Its opponents suggested that, whereas the idea of holding negotiations is agreeable, appeasement should be divorced from it because it immediately hands over the advantage to the other party.

This sentiment was found not only among the Western post-war leadership. For example, Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was conscious of not giving too much leverage to India’s religious parties — even those who backed his call for a separate Muslim-majority state.

To Jinnah, Islam — as it had meant to scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali and Muhammad Iqbal — was something dynamic, democratic and ‘modern.’
According to Jamiluddin Ahmad’s book Speeches and Writings of Mr Jinnah, on May 23, 1944, when some supporters of Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League asked Jinnah to address the “Ahmadiyya question”, Mr Jinnah replied: “Who am I to declare someone a non-Muslim, if he professes to be a Muslim?”

In his book Jinnah Reinterpreted, Pakistan’s former ambassador Saad Khairi writes that, soon after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, during a party session chaired by Jinnah, a man, unhappy by the manner in which Jinnah had explained Islam, stood up and said: “But Jinnah Sahib, we have been promising people, ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya, la ilaha illallah …!”

“Sit down!” roared Jinnah. “Neither I nor the working committee of the Muslim League have ever passed any such resolution. You might have done so to catch a few votes.”

The founders of Pakistan had their own idea of Islam that was rooted in the scholarly works of ‘Muslim Modernists’. There was no room in it to appease the idea of an Islamic state held by radical religionists. Even five years after Jinnah’s demise, the state of Pakistan unblinkingly crushed the first anti-Ahmadiyya movement, headed by religious groups, in 1953.

The Ayub Khan regime (1958-69), too, refused to exhibit any such leniency. Ayub refused to budge when religious parties protested against his government’s take-over of mosques, shrines and seminaries and the introduction of new family laws. The Islamic outfits decried these as being “un-Islamic.” Ayub held his ground.

The state, till then, was confident and clear about what the founders had stood for. But things in this context began to change after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle.

As prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto was presiding over a country whose state and government institutions had been shaken by the 1971 episode, feeling vulnerable to disintegration. In 1974, while facing a 1953-like situation, his regime decided to agree to the demands of the agitators.

Bhutto believed the state of Pakistan was not strong enough to withstand the consequences of the kind of operation undertaken in 1953. But even though his ‘capitulation’ in 1974 did manage to avoid what he feared, it turned out to be a short-term respite. Just three years later in 1977, his government was being attacked by the same forces he had appeased. The result? He tried to appease them again, but fell in a reactionary military coup.

The Gen Zia dictatorship (1977-88) fully adopted the agenda of the appeased. The appeased entered the parliament and, without much debate or hesitation, enacted laws that have created major political and judicial complications. So much so that post-Zia governments and state institutions believe they have no choice but to exercise appeasement to keep violence orchestrated by radical religious outfits in check.

But as we have seen on numerous occasions, most notably with the accords signed with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) radicals in Swat in 2011, these have only offered brief respite. What’s more, they have made governments and the state seem weak. The TTP clearly felt the same before organising its outrage in Peshawar which saw the slaughter of over 140 students.