The puzzle that is Pakistan


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‘A riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma’; Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia may well resonate with those trying to make sense of contemporary Pakistan. Here is a state that has been locked in confrontation with two of its immediate neighbours for decades – confrontation that has come at a heavy political and human cost to Pakistan itself. At a time when much of South Asia is harbouring visions of rapid economic growth and social mobility, the Pakistani state has little to offer its citizens beyond the rents accruing to it from its geopolitical location. And yet, Pakistan persists in its pursuit of patently unrealistic and disastrously costly policies towards India and Afghanistan. Even the US, principal patron and benefactor, is unable to get Pakistan to adopt policies that could benefit itself and the wider region.

The default explanation for this state of affairs is that Pakistan suffers from a pathological condition. The trinitarian formula of Army, Allah and America is ostensibly sufficient to unlock the enigma of Pakistan. Throw in a few stock phrases like ‘a nation in search of its identity’ and you apparently have an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable trajectory of Pakistan. The ‘crisis’ literature on Pakistan has now grown to the proportions of a cottage industry. A bulk of this, however, is present-minded and anachronistic – begging more questions than are answered. Conspicuous in its absence is a body of serious historical writing on Pakistan. This is surprising given the importance and relevance of history to the current travails of the country.

Those looking for a historically grounded analysis of Pakistan’s present and likely futures will welcome the publication of Ayesha Jalal’s synoptic account of the country’s evolution from the 1940s onwards.1 An accomplished and productive historian, Jalal has done more than any other scholar to transform our understanding of the origins and early trajectory of Pakistan. The Struggle for Pakistan builds on her earlier works and brings the story up to date. In economical and engaging prose, Jalal draws on a diverse array of sources to trace the arc of the Pakistani state. This is very much a political history. Although she gestures towards economy, society and culture, there is little sustained attempt to show how these fit with developments on the political front. Within her chosen remit, though, Jalal does manage to pack in a lot.


The book begins by reprising Jalal’s long-standing argument about the origins of Pakistan. Contrary to claims by Pakistani and Indian nationalist historiographies, religion had little to do with the creation of Pakistan. What’s more, Jinnah himself never wanted to divide India. He used the demand for Pakistan as a ‘bargaining counter’ and was deliberately vague about the actual character of the demand. As the leader of all Muslims of India, Jinnah could hardly have imagined abandoning the Muslims of provinces where they were a minority. Indeed, it was the ‘minority provinces’ that sustained the Muslim League. In advancing the claim for Pakistan, Jinnah sought no more than to elevate the Muslims of India from their position as a minority to that of a nation and to demand commensurate political arrangements.

Once the British accepted his demand for a separate state comprising the Muslim-majority provinces in the North-West and North-East, Jinnah was interested in securing one of two arrangements. Either a ‘confederation’ with other non-Muslim provinces on the basis of equal power (parity) in the central government, or, as a sovereign state, conclude ‘treaty arrangements’ with the rest of India on matters of common concern. In either case, Jinnah hoped to incorporate safeguards for minorities. This was the only way to protect the interests of large numbers of Muslims who would remain outside the boundaries of Pakistan. Hence, he also sought to retain within Pakistan an undivided Punjab and Bengal with their large non-Muslim minorities. According to Jalal, Jinnah assumed that the new Muslim state would ‘continue to be part of a larger all-India whole’. In short, Jinnah did not really seek partition. It was the breakdown of constitutional negotiations and the short-sightedness of the Congress that led to the emergence of an independent, ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan in 1947.


First advanced almost three decades ago, Jalal’s thesis started out as a ‘revisionist’ argument, but has since turned into the new orthodoxy. Parts of the argument were always dubious – not least because there was little direct evidence of Jinnah’s thinking along those lines. Jalal’s claims to have uncovered the ‘inwardness’ of Jinnah’s reasoning were inherently unfalsifiable. More recent scholarship has controverted key claims in this chain of reasoning. For one, Jalal appears to have misunderstood Jinnah’s own understanding of the minority question. For another, her attempt to minimize the role of religion in the making of Pakistan leaves out important aspects of the picture – ones that arguably help us better understand the trajectory of independent Pakistan.

In a recently published and highly original book, Venkat Dhulipala develops both these strands of argument with considerable acuity.2 Dhulipala shows that Jinnah was clear from the outset that only Muslims in the ‘majority provinces’ could lay claim to being a nation – because of their numerical majority in a contiguous piece of territory – with rights to self-determination and statehood. Muslims in the ‘minority province’ could expect no more than safeguards owed to a minority. Hindus in Pakistan, he asserted, should also aim for similar treatment. Jinnah, in fact, was explicit about this understanding. As he publicly stated: ‘Muslims in the United Provinces are not a national group; they are scattered. Therefore, in constitutional language, they are characterized as a sub-national group who cannot expect anything more than what is due from any civilized government to a minority. I hope I have made the position clear.’ The claim that Jinnah did not want partition owing to concerns about Muslims in ‘minority provinces’ clearly does not wash.


Equally disputable is Jalal’s contention that Jinnah wanted some kind of confederal arrangement between Pakistan and India. Dhulipala shows, on the contrary, that Jinnah categorically ruled out such an option. If Jinnah signed up to the Cabinet Mission Plan, it was only to gain control of all of Punjab and Bengal. Also compelling is Dhulipala’s analysis of the importance of Islam to the project of gaining Pakistan. Whatever Jinnah’s own predilections, the fact remained that the supporters of the Pakistan demand envisioned the new state as an Islamic power – even a ‘new Medina’ to some. By mining a rich seam of untapped popular writings and pamphlets in Urdu, Dhulipala shows that the Islamic character of the future state of Pakistan was actively debated from the time the ‘Pakistan Resolution’ was advanced in March 1940.


If Jalal’s portrayal of Jinnah’s actions in the run-up to 1947 looks shaky, her treatment of his role thereafter is more problematic. Jinnah’s unseasonable death in 1948, in her reading, was a major blow to Pakistan that threw it off course towards becoming a liberal, secular democracy envisioned by the ‘great constitutionalist’. It is easy to see why this narrative is congenial to liberal Pakistanis. But mythology cannot substitute for history. Practically every problem identified by Jalal as afflicting Pakistan can be traced back to Jinnah’s own choices in his brief tenure as head of state: ‘an all-powerful executive’; centralized – as opposed to federal – polity; military’s involvement in politics.

After all, it was Jinnah who sought to continue with the ‘viceregal system’ of government. Soon after independence, Jinnah – as governor general – got his cabinet to pass a resolution that no major decision would be taken without his concurrence and that in the event of any differences his views would prevail! Jinnah’s peremptory dismissal of the Congress government in the North-West Frontier Province and his attempt to impose Urdu on the Bengalis of East Pakistan hardly advertised a federal spirit at work. It was under Jinnah’s watch that Pakistan embarked on a covert war on Kashmir and subsequently India – an operation that roped in junior military officers bypassing the chain of command. Here lay the seeds of the future military intervention in politics. Finally, notwithstanding Jinnah’s famous speech about religious freedom, it is not clear how he hoped to reconcile this vision with his avowed acceptance of Pakistan as a Muslim state. This ambiguity was carried into the constitution-making process by his main lieutenant, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. And it remained a key source of contention over the state’s identity.

Jalal is not unaware of these arguments. She skates over and rationalizes them as apparently ‘necessary to establish state sovereignty and preserve national unity’. Much the same language has been used by the Pakistan Army whenever it has taken direct control of the levers of the state.

Jalal’s description of the subsequent cycle of coups and democratic rule is familiar. Indeed, there is little by way of fresh evidence or argument in these parts of the book. Her old argument about the conjunction of a military-bureaucratic nexus at home and Cold War abroad is well taken, but it does not go very far in explaining why the army chose to actively intervene in politics at some times and to pull back at others.


These questions are tackled squarely by Aqil Shah.3 The Army and Democracy is an important addition to the growing literature on civil-military relations in Pakistan. Shah rightly holds that the existing body of work stressing constant structures – colonial legacy, culture, social structure, fractious politics – cannot adequately explain the varying pattern of military intervention and retrenchment. Nor do invocations of institutional or corporate interests of the military go very far. For they beg the question of how these interests come to be framed in the first instance. Shah’s signal contribution is to draw our attention to development of institutional norms and beliefs that underpin the Pakistan Army’s self-image as ‘as a permanent guardian and interim governor’ of the state.


This is an interesting conceptual move as well. Following the seminal work of Samuel Huntington, there has been a tendency to assume that a military that imbibes professional norms will remain apolitical. Those who have controverted Huntington’s theory tend to fall back on the importance of interests as opposed to norms. Shah, in contrast, holds that norms are more important but that professionalism need not imply apolitical behaviour. The best parts of Shah’s book examine the process of ‘socialization’ of a professional armed force which leads to the internalization of norms that point towards the need for intervention in politics. These include the systematic inculcation of beliefs about capriciousness of the political class, limits to the legitimacy of democratic institutions including the constitution, and the superior organizational modernity and efficacy of the military.

In explaining how these norms came to acquire a grip on the military, Shah emphasized precisely those issues that Jalal skirts – including the policies adopted in Jinnah’s own lifetime: the viceregal political system, attempts to impose a centralized homogenizing political system in a multi-ethnic society, and the early co-option of the army by the political class. Shah also foregrounds two further factors to explain the establishment of ‘tutelary norms’ in the army: concerns about national unity and the threat from India.

The threat from India is, of course, a staple of much of the discourse on Pakistan. A newly created, weak and overburdened state, it is argued, discerned an existential threat from its large neighbour – especially after the conflict over Kashmir began. There is something to this argument, though it tends to be overstated.

Take the early stages of the conflict over Kashmir. Despite its military superiority, India did not escalate the conflict to other parts of Pakistan, especially the Punjab. These options – as the Pakistanis knew full well – were on the table. Yet the Indian government chose to avoid escalation and sought intervention by the United Nations. Further, by late 1948 Nehru expressed his willingness to cease the conflict by partitioning Jammu and Kashmir along the line of fighting. It was the Pakistani leadership that chose to continue on the course of confrontation, claiming that nothing short of complete accession of Kashmir would be acceptable to them. It was this choice, rather than any existential ‘threat’ from India, that led to the diversion of resources towards the military and the eventual empowering of the army as an institutional player in the polity. Another reason for going down this route was the desire to establish ‘parity’ with India. As Farzana Sheikh has argued, the quest for parity with India dates back to the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan.4 And it is one that continues to shape Pakistan’s strategy towards India to date.


Christine Fair has a more pessimistic take on why the Pakistan Army continues to pursue revisionist policies towards India – despite ample evidence that these policies are imperilling Pakistan itself.5 Like Shah, Fair points to the role of military culture – especially the warped reading of history – in shaping strategic outlook. She argues that the Pakistani military believes that India has never reconciled itself to partition, that India has always been the aggressor against Pakistan, and that ‘Hindu’ India is characterized by deviousness and cowardice in about equal measure. Her conclusion is stark: ‘from the army’s distorted view of history, it is victorious as long as it can resist India’s purported drive for regional hegemony as well as the territorial status quo. Simply put, acquiescence means defeat.’


This seems to suggest that there is nothing India can do to assuage the paranoia of the Pakistan Army. And given the army’s hold on foreign and security policy, there is nothing anyone can do. This is a view held by even thoughtful observers on the Indian side. Yet, as a working assumption for fashioning a policy towards Pakistan, this may be too conservative.

For one thing, military culture is seldom static. As professionals in the use of violence, military organizations – including the Pakistan Army – are responsive to the balance of international power than Fair allows. For another, the balance of institutional power has also shifted from time to time. Think only of the period after 1971 when the military’s weakness allowed Bhutto to push through the democratic, if imperfect, Constitution of 1973. Finally, the most important break from the past may be the current internal focus of the Pakistan Army. Never before in its history has the army been drawn into internal security duties on this scale. This is accompanied by a gradual, if grudging and limited, realization that the situation is largely the outcome of the policies pushed by the army itself.

Against this backdrop, a more creative admixture of cooperative and coercive strategies may well help break the current impasse. Dealing with Pakistan, especially its politicians, might seem to Indian policymakers like a Sisyphean task. Yet they have little option but to persist with it.



1. Ayesha Jalal, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2014.

2. Venkat Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014.

3. Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military and Politics in Pakistan. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2014.

4. Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan. Hurst, London, 2009.

5. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014.