Can Pakistan re-invent itself?


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IN one of the most epigrammatic but least noted passages of Shame, a political commentary on Pakistan barely concealed as a novel, Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘...Pakistan may be described as a failure of the dreaming mind... Perhaps the place was just insufficiently imagined...’1

As we move further into the 21st century, an increasingly pressing question is likely to be: Can Pakistan be re-imagined? If not, the world may have to deal with a nuclear Somalia. Nobody’s interests, including India’s, will be served by such an eventuality, should it come true. Hawks in India do not mind a nuclear Somalia next door, for they believe that nuclear installations and weapons can be pre-emptively ‘taken out’. Any sensible notion of probabilities, however, would suggest an utter unpredictability in Pakistan’s nuclear behaviour and a radical uncertainty of outcomes if Pakistan were to become a failed state like Somalia, or Afghanistan. It may be heading there, but it is not there yet. We need to think through the various possible trajectories of a future Pakistan.

Why should one take such a dark scenario seriously? Consider some routine facts.2 Over the 1990s, a decade when it turned nuclear to keep up with India in military terms, Pakistan declined economically, socially and politically. A descent into military rule is, of course, only too well known, but the economic and social story is equally disastrous. Between 1988-99, Pakistan’s rate of economic growth averaged 3.6% per year, compared to India’s 6.9% in the same period. If we turn these figures into growth in GNP per capita, the difference, given Pakistan’s considerably higher population growth rate, is even more pronounced: for Pakistan, 1.2%, for India 4.5% per annum. On a savings rate (savings/GDP) of 12.7%, Pakistan had an investment rate (investment/GDP) of 17.1% in 1998; for India, figures were 20.9% and 23.6% respectively. Higher savings and/or investment rates in Pakistan would be necessary to step up the economic growth rate.



Some key results of such a wide difference in growth rates must also be noted. Between 1987 and 1999, the percentage of population below the line of poverty in Pakistan rose from 17.3% to nearly 32.6%. In India, despite the vigorous debate for and against economic reforms, more and more technically minded economists are finding solid statistical reasons to believe that while poverty may have gone up in the first 2-3 years of reforms, it has consistently come down since then.3

Pakistan’s rate of adult literacy is 44%; India’s has gone above 60%. Only Nepal and Bangladesh in Asia have literacy rates lower than Pakistans, and Bangladesh seems to be fast catching up. In 1998, even by official count, only 29% of Pakistan’s adult women were literate. India, too, has a gender imbalance in its literacy profile, but the gender gap in Pakistan is virtually unparalleled.

Finally, and most critically of all, development spending in Pakistan’s budget fell from 28% of GDP in 1991 to almost its half, 15% in 1999, but defence spending, depending on how one reads the statistics, either remained unchanged or even increased. In 1991, in nominal terms, the development spending was 9.5 billion rupees and the defence spending 7.5 billion rupees. By 1999, in nominal terms again, development spending had barely risen to 9.8 billion rupees, but defence expenditures had climbed up to a whopping 14.3 billion rupees. A thoughtful Pakistani scholar, Omar Noman, notes: ‘Pakistan is part of an arms race that it can ill afford. Others engaged in it have rising incomes and lowering poverty.’4

For all practical purposes, the Pakistani state today has become a national security state, caring about and paying attention to little else. It faces roughly the same dilemma that the Soviet Union did in the 1980s. Can Pakistan continue to pay the game of military parity with India, as the Soviets did with the U.S. at a great economic and developmental cost? If its economy continues to deteriorate, will Pakistan not implode the way the Soviet Union did?



To begin with, these ideas may sound a little out of tune with the post-11 September twists in international politics. Much has been said about the return of Pakistan to the international high table and the re-commencement of the world’s economic engagement with it. Compared to what could have happened otherwise, the new developments may bring cheer to Pakistan, but the cheer is likely to be momentary. A billion or two of aid dollars for a country with a GDP of 61 billion dollars, will not resolve its problems. The problems are structural, not conjunctural. How will Pakistan use its dollars? What will happen to the civil-military relationship in its polity? What role will India or Islam play in its foreign and domestic policy? Can military rule be stable without a threat – imagined or real – from India? Is democracy a solution at all to Pakistan’s political problems? And if so, how will democratic life be rebuilt again? Direct economic aid may not last for long, but these questions will have to be answered sooner than later.



When faced with a structural dilemma between rebuilding itself economically (and politically) and continuing to fortify national security, the Soviet Union simply imploded. By and large, it was a welcome implosion. If Pakistan implodes, it will bring very different problems in its wake. An imploded Pakistan will not be a nuclear Russia, with which, despite many problems, nuclear business can be conducted. It will be a nuclear Somalia or a nuclear Afghanistan. Its centre will be too weak to fend off all sorts of possible challenges, comparable to warlords threatening to take over a centralized polity. Only the utterly shortsighted and viscerally anti-Pakistani Indians can take pride in Pakistan’s plunge into chaos. Pakistan’s stability is in India’s interest.

So how should one begin to answer the structural questions I have posed above? Is there a lynchpin that allows us a unique entry into the political quagmire of Pakistan? Is there a central idea that facilitates linking the various problems, which may otherwise appear to be dauntingly seamless?



As is often and rightly argued, anti-Indianism is that lynchpin. The reasons are profoundly historical and psychological. It is also fair to assume that Pakistan’s national identity will remain anti-Indian for many years to come. Given that assumption, let me propose an idea, which has remained at the periphery of intellectual debates and badly needs resurrection.

After more than five decades of enmity between India and Pakistan, it is best – for the sake of peace – to drop the assumption that Indian and Pakistani states can be friends, at least in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the relative improbability of friendship should be the new foundation of peace initiatives, not the possibility of induced warmth.

This paradox can best be understood, if we note that there was always an India, culturally and civilizationally, if not politically, and there was never a Pakistan before 1947. Indeed, the very idea of Pakistan – both culturally and politically – can at best be taken back to the early 1930s. As a result, Pakistan draws its rationale from the argument that it is not India. Take away this argument, and Pakistan as a nation loses the key component of its national identity and the main pillar of its national cohesion and survival, and it is not clear what can replace it.

This was, of course, not inevitable. In its original formulation, South Asian Islam – as a cultural, not a religious, idea – was the core of Pakistan’s national identity. Pakistan, after all, was not born as an Islamic state, but a Muslim one. It is not often realized, though the historians of religion make it amply clear,5 that with the exception of the Barelvis, all schools of Islamic theology in British India were opposed to the idea of Pakistan. And surprising as it may seem, even Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-I-Islami, then based in Hyderabad, did not like the idea of Pakistan.6 The first problem was that theologically, Islam provided the foundation of an umma, an international community, not a national one. Second, and this may well have been more serious than we sometimes think, the clerics found the idea of a modernist and an utterly anglicized leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who barely knew how to pray, leading the Muslims of South Asia quite preposterous.



Jinnah had no patience for an Islamic state. In the famous Lahore Resolution of 1940, his argument for Pakistan was cultural:

‘Islam and Hinduism... are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact different and distinct social orders... (T)hey belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions... They have different epics, (and) their heroes are different... Very often, the hero of one is the foe of the other and likewise their victories and defeats overlap.’7

The Muslims, according to this doctrine, had to separate from India, for they could not expect fairness and justice in an independent India where the Hindus would constitute a majority. They had to build a political roof over their cultural heads and take full control of their destinies.



Jinnah’s argument, of course, did not go uncontested. On behalf of the Congress party, Maulana Azad’s response was equally vigorous. Being a Muslim did not require denial of Indian heritage, said Azad, a Muslim well trained in the religious texts, something Jinnah could never claim:

‘I am a Muslim and proud of that fact. Islam’s splendid traditions of thirteen hundred years are my inheritance... In addition, I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality...

‘It was India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religious faiths should flow to her, and that many a caravan should find rest here... One of the last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam...

‘We brought our treasures with us, and India too was full of the riches of her own precious heritage... Full eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousand years, Islam has also been their religion for a thousand years. Just as a Hindu can say with pride that he is an Indian and follow Hinduism, so also we can say with equal pride that we are Indians and follow Islam. I shall enlarge this orbit still further. The Indian Christian is equally entitled to say with pride that he is an Indian and is following a religion of India, namely Christianity.

‘Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievement. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. There is indeed no aspect of our life, which has escaped this stamp...’8

In retrospect, Pakistan’s biggest structural problem is that Jinnah’s argument did not fully succeed. It could not convince the entire Muslim community of British India of its plausibility. It is arguable, though not entirely provable, that if the two-nation theory had succeeded, Pakistan would have overcome its militant anti-Indianness over time. The basis for this hunch is simply that the success of the two-nation theory would have been a source of psychological security. Nations not troubled about their identity are often less externally adventurous and more internally calm. Practically, Pakistan would not have been involved in a fratricidal battle in what became Bangladesh, nor in Kashmir. Whether the two-nation theory, given the serious internal cleavages of South Asian Muslims, would have at all succeeded is, of course, another matter. It is in this sense that Rushdie’s felicitous point about insufficient imagination may be quite right.



Right since its inception, the two-nation theory has faced formidable challenges. Unlike India’s freedom movement, in which the masses were painstakingly mobilized by Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress party for almost three decades, the political movement for Pakistan was born in 1940 and within seven years, it had a state of its own in 1947. Few nations in the world have had such short gestation periods. The Muslim masses were not mobilized; only the tiny Muslim middle class of British India was.



Unlike the struggle for India’s freedom, the Pakistan movement and the two-nation theory simply did not have a demonstrated mass base. The Pakistan movement did win an election in 1946, after which the birth of Pakistan was a near certainty, but it should be recalled that franchise at that time was strictly confined to the educated and the propertied. No reasonable statistical imputations would put the number of Muslim voters at more than 10% of the total Muslim population in 1946.

The horrible violence of Partition also does not show that Hindus and Muslims could not live with each other. It only proves that once Partition was accepted, unspeakable havoc was unleashed on the masses, even though they had little to do with its creation. Logically and empirically, post-partition violence cannot demonstrate that partition was a voluntary choice of the Muslim masses on an ideational, or ideological, basis. That is simply a non sequitur.

Over the first three decades of the two-nation theory (1940-71), three more blows were delivered to its viability. The unwillingness of the highly popular Muslim leaders of Kashmir, stalwarts such as Sheikh Abdullah, to join Pakistan was the first crippling blow.9 The reasonable success of India as a multi-religious democracy under Nehru in the 1950s, despite the odds against such a success created by the violent horrors of Partition, was a second proof of the viability of a multi-religious India, to which Jinnah had so vigorously objected after 1940.

Nehru and India continued to make progress on the nation’s ideological underpinnings, but Pakistan found it virtually impossible to devise a constitution, to which all Pakistanis, or a majority, could agree. Indeed, the first national elections in Pakistan could not be held until the late 1960s. India had had four universal-franchise elections by then.

Finally, of course, the birth of a Muslim-majority Bangladesh as a separate nation, breaking away from Pakistan, wrote the epitaph of the theory. The presumed cohesion of the Muslims of British India was eaten away by their interminable inner conflicts and diversities. There was nothing surprising about it. If Hindu nationalists try to make a similar nation in India, they will come to grief as well. Cultural identity founded on a religious bedrock is too narrow a view of culture for most South Asians, and too restrictive a view of identity.



All of this was, of course, not the only set of problems for the two- nation theory. By fighting for India in the armed forces, often against Pakistan, and vigorously participating in the public sphere – sports, films, music, art, and business (especially in western and southern India) – India’s Muslims have time and again demonstrated their loyalty to, and comfort with, the Indian nation. The treatment of Muslim minority in India is surely not ideal, and much can be done to improve matters. But Hindu-Muslim riots, often presented in Pakistan as indicative of an unbridgeable rift between the two communities and sign of the Hindu oppression of Muslims, are highly localized in India, not a feature of Hindu-Muslim relations all over the country.10

In short, the many remarkable refutations of the two-nation theory in real life have repeatedly undermined the possibility of South Asian Muslim culture providing a strong, durable and cohesive national identity to Pakistan. That being so, anti-Indianism is the only idea, not South Asian Islam (conceptualized either as culture or religion), that can bring Pakistan’s many and fractious political and ethnic groups together. India does not need an antithetical attitude towards Pakistan, or towards the Muslims, to justify its nationhood. In its founding ideology, it was envisioned as a multi-religious, multicultural nation. Living a multi-religious, multicultural ideal has not been easy, as it rarely is, and there are still battles to be fought, especially against the Hindu nationalist conception of India. But by all accounts, India’s multiculturalism has been a success, if not a dream-like success.



If we take this argument to its logical end, at least since the departure of the British, the idea of India is a positive one, and the idea of Pakistan negative and adversarial. But it should also be noted that Pakistan is not the only country in history to have required an enemy for nation building. Recent historical scholarship shows that several nations in Europe were also built that way. In her path-breaking and widely noted work, Colley has argued that without a Catholic France as enemy, it would have been enormously difficult to bring the Scots, Welsh and English together into a British nation.11 The Scottish-English relationship was adversarial right until the middle of the 18th century. Even after the 1707 Act of Union joining Scotland, England and Wales, some Scottish clans took up arms against the Union in 1715 and 1745.

The Scots and the English, Colley argues, ‘came to define themselves as a single people not because of any political or cultural consensus at home, but rather in reaction to the Other beyond their shores.’12 And further, ‘Great Britain as an invented nation... It was an invention forged above all by war. Time and time again, war with France brought Britons, whether they hailed from Wales or Scotland or England, into a confrontation with an obviously hostile Other and encouraged them to define themselves against it. They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power.’13



Let me now draw the implications of my larger argument for the current situation in South Asia. It is pointless to try and force artificial cordiality between India and Pakistan. That can only be a transient phenomenon. It will not last, for Indo-Pak cordiality threatens the basic foundations of Pakistan, from which only a rare Pakistani leader can make a clean break.

But this is not a reason for despair. In fact, now that the world, especially the US, is seriously involved in Pakistan, it has unwittingly chanced upon a new opportunity. The international strategy should be two-fold: (a) try and commit both India and Pakistan to modes of crisis management, and not expect an absence of crises; and (b) try and re-channel, not expect to undermine, the anti-Indian core of Pakistan’s identity in a positive direction. The first part of the strategy, the main thrust of international diplomatic action in recent times, is about fire-fighting; the second part, peripheral to the public discussion so far, is about a long-run strategy to prevent fires from breaking out.



The key question is: Can Pakistan redefine its national identity in terms of a long-run economic, or developmental, race with India, instead of a territorial dispute over Kashmir? Economic achievements can be a source of great national pride, as East and Southeast Asian examples illustrate. Military victories are not the only way for a nation to raise its international profile and gain a sense of security.

Both strategies – economic and military – can potentially allow Pakistan to recover national pride, but the former is a win-win game, from which both nations can benefit, one more than the other. The latter is a zero-sum game and hence infinitely dangerous. One country’s victory will be the other’s defeat. Pakistan wants a Muslim majority Kashmir because that way it can avenge the loss of Bangladesh. A victory in Kashmir would also, partially if not fully, restore the badly wounded two-nation theory, which was the rationale for a separate Pakistan. That is why Kashmir is symptomatic of a problem, not the problem itself.

We know, however, that India will not abandon Kashmir, for Kashmir’s loss will seriously undermine India’s multi-religious foundation and make India’s Muslims highly vulnerable to a Hindu right-wing hysteria. The latter is a source of embarrassment to Indian liberals, but politics on such highly charged matters is rarely, if ever, driven by liberalism or by the normative excellence of ideas. Liberals often have little space for action when nationalisms collide and wars break out.14



With nuclear weapons on both sides, the battle over Kashmir is no longer ‘winnable’. It is almost certain to be a stalemate, while the costs, economic and human, of a low-intensity conflict will mount on both sides. An economically rising India can absorb these costs; an economically shaken Pakistan, which insists on Kashmir, can only bring its mounting Soviet dilemma, and a possible implosion, so much closer.

Pakistan twice had the opportunity to become an economic power of some consequence and leave India behind. In the 1960s and 1980s, its economic growth rate was higher than India’s. It was sometimes seen as an economic tiger in the making. But the more the Pakistani economy grew, the more the energies of its elite, military generals both times, were directed towards achieving a military superiority over India. And each time, instead of a military victory, Pakistan’s economy only plummeted to new depths.15 With a military general once again in power, the economics and politics of mass welfare have taken a further plunge.

About the most imaginative message the world, especially the U.S., can deliver to Pakistan is this: try and defeat India in the economic realm, not on the military battlefield, and America and the West will help. This requires not only economic aid, but also, among other things, building a credible mainstream school system (to neutralize the attraction of madarsas and to generate 21st century skills in Pakistani youth), encouraging direct investment (to add to the remarkably low investment rate of Pakistan), and sending technical missions to Pakistan (to enhance economic efficiency of investment).

This strategy can potentially keep both India and Pakistan in the anti-terror alliance. India should not – and beyond a point, cannot – object to economic aid, especially as Pakistan’s economy is in dire straits. India, however, will seriously, and has every reason to, object to a US-Pakistan military relationship, if it returns to its 1980s vintage. Luckily, Washington’s overtures towards Pakistan appear to be primarily economic so far. The first part of the message – that aiding Pakistan’s search for military parity with India is potentially dangerous for all – has seemingly gone through.



To conclude, if the U.S. loses yet another opportunity to redirect Pakistan’s politics towards economic development and mass welfare, Pakistan will continue to be stuck in a low-level equilibrium, while an economically resurgent India will move miles ahead, which will in turn help India militarily. For peace in South Asia, Pakistan needs to re-invent the nature of its anti-Indianness, not its anti-Indianness per se. This peace proposal recognizes Pakistan’s structural need for an adversary for national survival, but it also seeks to link that need to mass welfare. Pakistani masses have paid an awful price for the obsession of their state with security. They deserve better.



1. An unusual essay that makes this idea central to its argument is by Philip Oldenburg, ‘A Place Insufficiently Imagined: Language, Belief and the Pakistani Crisis of 1971’, Journal of Asian Studies, August 1985.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, the statistics below come from UNDP’s Human Development Report 2000 and the World Bank’s World Development Report 2000/2001, both published by Oxford University Press.

3. One might add that there is no theoretical surprise here. The first 2-3 years of post-1991 economic reforms consisted of a macroeconomic stabilization. Poverty does tend to go up when stabilization programmes are installed. Since then, India has had a period of structural adjustment as opposed to macroeconomic stabilization. The former tends to bring a different welfare logic with it.

4. Omar Noman, ‘Economy of Conflict’, paper presented at Asia Society, New York, 16 October 2001.

5. The works of Francis Robinson and John Esposito provide a good account of the position of Muslim clerics on Pakistan in the 1940s.

6. Maududi did, however, migrate to Pakistan – as a practical, not a theological, matter.

7. This speech formed the intellectual bedrock for Pakistan. It was given on 23 March 1940 in Lahore and has been reproduced in several documents. See Jamil-ud-Din Ahmed (ed), Some Recent Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah, Ashraf, Lahore, 1952, Vol. I. p. 138.

8. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s speech as a President of Indian National Congress in 1940, reproduced in Stephen Hay (ed), Sources of Indian Tradition, Volume Two, Second Edition, Penguin, 1991, pp. 237-241.

9. I have discussed in detail Sheikh Abdullah’s intensely anti-Pakistani positions in ‘Three Compromised Nationalisms: Why Kashmir Has Been a Problem’, in Raju Thomas (ed), Perspectives on Kashmir, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1993.

10. Based on my Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Yale University Press, forthcoming in February 2002.

11. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1992. It should be noted that Colley adds two more factors to British nation making: profits from trade and British Empire. For the Scots especially, India was an important release from the problems of coexisting with the English on the British isle. ‘It was India... that the Scots made their home... A British imperium... enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the English in a way... denied them in an island kingdom’ (pp. 129-130).

12. Colley, p. 6.

13. Colley, p. 5.

14. Two of the greatest liberals of 20th century, Nehru on the political side and Isaiah Berlin on the philosophical, explicitly admit that liberalism’s biggest adversary is conflicting nationalisms.

15. Omar Noman, Economic and Social Progress in Asia: Why Pakistan Did Not Become a Tiger, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1996.