Pakistan: State of decay

Is my country in here?

Pakistan ka matlab kiya? La illaha ill-allah. What does Pakistan mean? There is no God but Allah. This rallying cry boomed across India in 1945 as the struggle for independence from British rule reached its apex. Even then, that basic tenet of Muslim faith seemed an odd answer to the question posed: a declaration where one expects an explanation. This slogan has persisted through the subsequent 62 years as a readily available yell at any given gathering – from a cricket match to an anti-drone rally. Throughout these many years it has been the answer of choice – the non-answer, really – to the most fundamental question for Pakistanis: What is Pakistan? What kind of state, and for whom?

The supposedly impending “Talibanisation” of Pakistan remains a central concern for foreign observers, despite its plain improbability. While the irrational fear that the Taliban can precipitate a political or military collapse of the state has abated somewhat following the Pakistan Army’s aggressive campaign in the northwest territories, the fighting has produced its own set of new problems. As a direct result of the military operation in Swat, more than a million displaced citizens are now facing a lack of food and shelter as well as a growing realisation that the state has little or no plans for their rehabilitation. Adding insult to injury are political parties in Sindh and Punjab who are arguing that the Swatis cannot seek shelter in their cities – denying them the legal right of citizens to reside anywhere within Pakistan. At the same time, separatist sentiment persists among Baluchis, fired by decades of neglect, and more recently, violent repression by the state, with the army likely to make Baluchistan its next central front.

The fear of a “Talibanised Pakistan” does not reconcile with the facts of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But we are still left grappling with the question: What manner of state is Pakistan? What kind of an Islamic Republic? On a continuum of Muslim-majority nations, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, how does Pakistan define itself? Can religion, in fact, force disparate populations into political cohesion? Or is the state – as is popularly mooted – destined to disintegrate?

The early decades of the 20th century saw a number of attempts by Muslim intellectuals in India to articulate what was then termed “Islamic Nationalism”. Muhammad Iqbal, a leading Muslim poet and philosopher, first posited that a federation of Muslim majority areas of India (Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan) could form a political unit built on the principle of Muslims as contractual citizens of God’s one nation. In his articulation, Iqbal was drawing on a long history – since the failed Uprising of 1857 – of anti-colonial Muslim nationalist thought which presupposed a political unity to the adherents of Islam from Cairo to Karachi. What remained unclear, however, was how Iqbal’s nation would function as a state.

In 1940, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leading political voice of the Muslim community in India, provided the platform for the basis of the independent state of Pakistan. He argued that Muslims in India had a civilisational cohesion that remained distinct even though they had shared a thousand-year history with the Hindus. Jinnah didn’t simply advance communal politics, though – he articulated a path for moving Indian Muslims from a politics of “minority rights” to one with “global citizenry”. His usage of Islam as a unifying force was, then, an effort to highlight cultural affinity at the expense of political expedience. Just as he asserted the uniformity of Muslims to transcend their ethnic and linguistic diversity in India, he maintained the ability of this new state to transcend religion. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947, he stressed this democratic nature of Pakistan: “Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Pakistan, as constituted by the retreating British, was hardly a cohesive state. The two biggest provinces were themselves partitioned (Punjab and Bengal) and the fate of three princely states was undetermined – Swat, Baluchistan and Kashmir. The country itself was divided into two unequal halves separated by India. The communal horror of Partition, which saw the displacement and killing of millions, soon gave way to the mobilisation of the Army of this nascent state to redraw its borders. In fact, the actions taken then in Baluchistan and Kashmir quickly shifted the balance of power in Pakistan from the civil and the political to the military.

Still, Jinnah’s hopes for a democratic state were briefly glimpsed in the first constitution, which was signed in 1956. The constitution declared Pakistan an Islamic republic but reserved minority rights and enshrined laws in the hands of a secular judiciary. But this was a short-lived achievement, and in the next several decades, dictatorial leaders would steadily erode the unity of the state through their often brutal attempts to consolidate power in Islamabad – first under the guise of modernisation, and then Islamicisation and, more recently, anti-terrorism.

The first of these, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, with the Cold War support of the United States, suspended the constitution and embarked on a decade-long military dictatorship during which he systematically broke down all progressive and democratic voices in the nation. In order to cement his military rule, Ayub Khan preyed on exactly those ethnic divisions which Jinnah had hoped to eliminate. His West Pakistani military regime deliberately marginalised the East Pakistani Bangla population. Though there were populist resisters to Ayub – most notably the political campaign of Fatima Ali Jinnah in 1965 – the military dictators brokered no relief. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 – after the Pakistani military failed to recognise a legitimate national election and embarked on a systematic killing of Bengalis – spelt the end of Iqbal and Jinnah’s notion that Muslims in India could form a cohesive political union. The fate of Pakistan, the state, in turn, hung in the balance.

In the aftermath of 1971, ethnic tensions flared up across Pakistan. Sub-nationalist movements (based sometimes on linguistic grounds, and sometimes on pre-Partition claims) emerged in Sindh, Baluchistan, Swat, and southern Punjab. The populist prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had campaigned on a socialist platform, responded by reasserting the Islamic nature of the state, but in a manner very different from that envisioned by Jinnah. Where Jinnah conceived of a state as a democracy where the majority of citizens were Muslim, Bhutto re-defined the state itself as an Islamic state, opening the way for legal implementation of religious law. He oversaw the 1973 constitution, which declared Islam to be the official religion and curtailed the many liberties enshrined in the 1956 constitution. He also refocused Pakistan towards West Asia to forged closer ties with the global Islamic community. He held an Islamic Conference in Lahore in 1974 and worked hard to court substantial support from Saudi Arabia. Internally, he continued to escalate ethnic politics in an effort to strengthen federal powers – using the military to brutally crush Baluchi calls for justice and self-rule.

This process of Islamicisation intensified during the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq and became specifically a Sunnification policy. General Zia explicitly framed Pakistan’s identity along two lines: one anti-Shia and Salafist, the other a national “jihad” focused on Kashmir and Afghanistan. In this he enjoyed the specific support of the United States as it fought its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Twenty years of military dictatorships, under Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq, cemented the rule of the few over the many. Their policies led to the emergence of specific grievances by sub-nationalist groups in Baluchistan and Sindh. In the decade of Pervez Musharraf’s rule, these tensions grew dramatically, and pushed the state into a greater alienation from its own citizens.

Musharraf’s dictatorial regime sought to polish over any internal incoherence with a unified foreign front aimed primarily at operating militarily in Afghanistan, NWFP and Baluchistan. The influx of cash, some $6 billion, into the coffers of the military propelled the army to new-found heights as the country’s largest landlord, largest employer and largest business. But maintaining this new oligarchy came at a steep price for Pakistan.

The two main post-2001 theatres, the states of NWFP and Baluchistan, have born the brunt of military overreach and dwindling civic engagement. It is these sub-nationalist discontents – and not the phantom “Taliban” threat – that pose serious problems for the unity of the state, and they cannot be answered by military escalation. In Baluchistan, since 2004, a low-grade civil war emerged after brutalities committed by Musharraf’s regime, hearkening back to the Baluchi nationalist struggles of the early 1970s. NWFP remained the “frontier” both ideologically and developmentally. Besides being a military staging-ground, its people were denied even rudimentary access to health care, education or a functioning judicial system. The call for Islamic law in 2008, which elicited such alarm around the world, should be seen against the backdrop of such neglect – an attempt to reassert local control and not merely an example of rampant radicalisation in Pakistani society.

Rather than addressing the legitimate needs of Pakistan’s various regions and groups, one government after another has, for half a century, taken power from citizens and provinces alike. If the state is indeed incoherent today, it is the consequence of decades of military rule. The greatest threat facing Pakistan today is not a ragged band of armed Pashtuns. It is what follows the deployment of indiscriminate firepower to defeat them – mass displacement and a rising toll of civilian deaths.

(Photo courtesy Al Jazeera English)

Manan Ahmed, a historian of Islam in South Asia at the University of Chicago, blogs at Chapati Mystery. This article was previously published in The National (UAE) and is reprinted here with permission of the author.


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