"The religious bigot considers me an infidel
And the infidel deems me to be a Muslim!"
With these immortal words, Pakistan’s national poet Mohammad Iqbal captured the perennial quandary facing Pakistan.
The nation created for the subcontinent’s Muslims has always struggled to define itself — is it meant to be an Islamic state or a state for Indian Muslims?
No post-War nation has been written off more regularly than Pakistan. That it survives remains a profound mystery to outside observers. That may partly explain the constant warnings about its impending collapse.
Its survival is a testament to the resilience and persistence of the Pakistani people.
"Pakistan was created on the basis of the Two-Nation Theory," explains Pervez Hoodbhoy from Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, "a belief that Muslims and Hindus were separate peoples who could never live together."
"The unstated assumption was that Muslims — by virtue of sharing a common faith — naturally constituted a nation and could live together harmoniously by virtue of that."
Not all of colonial India’s Muslims accepted the notion of a separate Muslim state, but around seven million left their homes to join those already living in what is now Pakistan, as an equal number of Hindus and Sikhs were moving in the opposite direction.
At the heart of Pakistan lies its founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah. According to the historian Z.H. Zaidi, Jinnah "was quite self-consciously a modern man — one who valued, above all, reason, discipline, organisation, and economy … [who]… differed from other Muslim leaders in so far as he was uncompromisingly committed to substance rather than symbol, reason rather than emotion, modernity rather than tradition."
Those traits carried over to his politics. A long time advocate of a united India, free of British control, Jinnah eventually staked a claim for an independent nation for the subcontinent’s Muslims. Yet even as he shifted from India to Pakistan, Jinnah went to some lengths to promote a pluralist and secular state.
"You are free to go to your temples … mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan," Jinnah proclaimed in his famous speech of 11 August 1947 to Pakistan’s Parliament. "You may belong to any caste or creed," he continued, "that has nothing to do with the state."
Sadly, the odds were against Pakistan developing into the type of nation its founders had hoped it would become. For one, it was hastily created in the dying years of the British Raj.
Although the modern movement for a subcontinent free of colonial rule had been going since at least the 1857 ‘Sepoy’ rebellion, the ultimate withdrawal of the British in 1947 was sudden — a mere two years after the ravages of World War II made it impossible for Britain to maintain its empire.
This gave little time to prepare for the massive task of creating a state or to develop a mass national movement that would have improved social cohesion within the new nation.
Compounding the situation was the fact that the regions that would form today’s Pakistan were among the least developed in the subcontinent. Moreover, much of the new country’s civilian leadership were strangers in their own proposed country, themselves hailing from regions like Uttar Pradesh that were to become part of India.
In hindsight, it may be easy to criticise these leaders for seeking a separate homeland for their people. But in the first half of the 20th century, as the subcontinent’s independence struggle was gaining momentum, Muslims were supremely fearful of a Hindu-dominated polity and felt that a separate state alone could deliver true liberation from colonial oppression.
Although Jinnah had been an advocate for a united India free of British rule for the previous three decades, Muslim fears compelled him to push for a separate homeland. A landmark speech in 1940, only seven years before Pakistan was created, reflects this:
"The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different … civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions … To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and the final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state."
Yet the division of Hindus and Muslims has not spared Pakistan from discontent or the risks of final destruction.
There have been rapid changes throughout the 62 years of Pakistan’s existence. At partition, the population of West Pakistan was 30 million (the people of East Pakistan took matters into their own hands in 1971 and created Bangladesh). Today it is close to 180 million.
Three of Pakistan’s six decades of existence have been under direct military rule. Yet successive civilian and military leaders have found it difficult to live up to Jinnah’s legacy.
"His ideals have been overlooked," says historian Ayesha Jalal, "particularly the rule of law of which he was a fervent advocate."
In any country, politics is rarely about the rule of law. In Pakistan, it has the added vice of being held hostage to individuals whose personal alliances shift so rapidly that recent events soon become historical footnotes. This leads to some of the most ironic displays of political drama — like the use, by one-time political prisoner President Asif Ali Zardari, of authoritarian laws from the British Raj to stifle public protest; or opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s apparent championing of the recently reinstated Chief Justice despite his overt intimidation of the higher courts while prime minister in the 1990s.
"In such circumstances," writes the historian Ian Talbot, "patronage alone can secure party cohesion and stability." That may explain why the current executive has an unwieldy 60 cabinet ministers.
It is in opposition that Pakistani politics is at its best. Opposition transformed the Bhuttos into brave, virtuoso statespersons. When not in power, each political movement, even the Taliban, has looked to the abundance of ills that plague the nation to garner popular support. Once in power, however, all have been guilty of perpetuating political intrigues while inequality and poverty remain entrenched.
That troubling predicament has remained the same from 1947 until now.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.