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On May 19-20, 2005, at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., the
National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs (NACSAA) held its first
bi-annual seminar to discuss democracy in South Asia. Given the large
number of speakers, I mention only those that dealt with Muslim countries.
Abdul Momen (University of Massachusetts) stated that the outlook for
democracy in Bangladesh is promising, because it has achieved multiparty
democracy after military rule, has had positive growth rates since it became
democratic, is self-sufficient in food, and is no longer a global basket case.
However, the current government is facing major social problems, the flight
of multinational corporations, increased political and religious violence, the
growing influence of madrassahs, corruption, and non-enforcement of the
rule of law. However, the government is very careful not to involve the army
in such things.
Zillur Khan (University of Wisconsin–Oskhosh) spoke about identity
and balance in Bangladesh vis-à-vis development and democracy. He stated
that the root of Bangladesh is secular, not Islamist. In fact, Bangladesh (then
East Pakistan) rose against Pakistan (then West Pakistan) due to its desire for
freedom, tolerance, equity, and justice, not Islam. He then traced the struggle
of a majority of Bangladeshis to prevent the government from turning
their country into an Islamic state.
Vijay Sazawal (The Indo-American Kashmir Forum) stated that the
outsiders who have entered Kashmir are not really open to the Kashmiris,
who want a people-centered, as opposed to a land-centered, solution.
According to him, the four pillars of any just and lasting solution are peaceful
co-existence, democratic values, economic justice, and meeting the people’s
needs. Since 2004, there has been a change in the policy mindset. He
claimed that economic justice is the biggest issue in both parts of Kashmir,
that the leadership on both sides is totally corrupt and wedded to slogans,
and that the real problem is the between the haves and the have-nots.
Ambassador Teresita Schaefer (Center for Strategic and International
Studies) talked about Washington’s promotion of democracy in South Asia,
noting that it has been fairly selective and not really a priority. The emphasis
now is on Iraq and the Near East, western Europe, and Australia. There
has been some interest in South Asia, especially India and Sri Lanka.
Surprisingly, she stated that it is not in Washington’s interest to have true
democracy in Pakistan.
Faruq Ahmad (political counselor, Embassy of Pakistan) said that
democracy and development are important in Pakistan. His upbeat presentation
portrayed a Pakistan that gets along with India, Afghanistan, and its
other South Asian neighbors, as well as being engaged in a “more realistic”
dialogue with India over Kashmir. It is a “popular misconception” that
Islamabad is reneging on its commitment to democracy; rather, it is following
the existing roadmap. There is a lot of debate in Parliament – a “rowdy
democracy” – but with few results. But this is a good sign, for people can
talk and criticize the government. According to him, Pakistan has recognized
the weakness in its educational system and Musharraf is trying to correct this
by reforming the madrassah system. More importantly, there is now a fundamental
consensus of what the problems are and how to solve them ...