Pakistan: the 70th anniversary of a failed construct

[Written By: Gustav Jönsson]

Call it vivisection, amputation or partition; last year it is seven decades since the Subcontinent was carved up and Independence was achieved.

The Partition was disastrous not just because it dismembered India, but also because it created Pakistan. Just a few years before 1947, Pakistan was simply an academic idea. The acronym “Pakistan” was termed by a scholar at Cambridge in the 1930s. It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Indus, Sind and Baluchistan. In Urdu it means “land of the pure.” Thus, Pakistan is not just a territorial claim but also a confessional statement; one that its founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, thought would be welcomed by the areas that made up his new country. He was wrong. Today, Kashmir is largely part of India, Baluchistan fights a secessionist struggle and much of the Punjab lies in India.

The Partition of 1947 destroyed an already fragile social fabric. Communities were divided along sectarian lines. Tribal animosities erupted and killings occurred. Rumours of murder percolated and further atrocities were committed. Perhaps as many as one million were killed in the Partition rupture. Murder was ubiquitous. Communal killings, like the rats in Albert Camus’ The Plague, lurked ever nearby, always ready to burst forth.

Credible estimates hold that seven million people left India for Pakistan, and even more went the other way. For India to absorb seven million was difficult, but doable with a population of 300 million. Pakistan’s population of 70 million was not as well poised. Moreover, a perilous flight into the “land of the pure” was tailored fit to appeal to the worst kind of religious zealot. The perceived mirroring of Muhammed’s hijra – his flight from Mecca to Medina – attracted every pious loony and fanatical fundamentalist east of the Partition border.

Partition confronted people with a difficult decision, to quote The Clash: should I stay or should I go? Muslims in India had to decide whether to stay in India or emigrate to Pakistan. The decision sundered families. Sometimes one half of the family emigrated, and the other half stayed. To many, the communal killings made emigration seem the safest option. The Pakistani government was pressured to guarantee the safety of the Muslims who had stayed in India. This led to Pakistan launching the so-called “hostage theory”. According to the hostage theory, non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan were to be given a “fair deal” in return for India securing the safety of its Muslim population. Pakistan blackmailed India with the callous logic of “do not hurt our people in your country, or else we will hurt your people in our country”. The hostage theory is especially chilling because of its corollary: the risk of it being taken to its conclusion.

Jinnah promised religious minorities fair treatment, however this promise was short lived. A year after Pakistan’s independence, Jinnah died and was succeeded by sectarians. The second Prime Minister, Khawaja Nazimuddin, said, “I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual nor do I agree that in an Islamic state every citizen has identical rights, no matter what his caste, creed or faith be.” In 1947, roughly one in five Pakistanis were part of a religious minority. Today that number has plummeted to around three per cent.

Pakistan is not at risk becoming a failed state – it has already failed. The secession of East Pakistan was inevitable. Innumerable absurdities tore the two Wings apart; the geographical divide was insurmountable; the languages were different; and the economies, disparate. The two parts had nothing in common except religion. Decades of neglect and abuse climaxed in the genocidal Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 where hundreds of thousands were killed.

Pakistan was simply not prepared for Partition. Whatever Jinnah may have claimed, the prospects of Pakistan were poor. Yet the weakness was not apparent during the first decade of the new era. During the sixties, Pakistan looked prosperous compared to India. Its people were wealthier. Visitors to Pakistan were impressed. Travellers to India were not. But what was not picked up on was the direction either country was heading in financially. India was on a slow rise. Pakistan was on a sharp decline.

Soon fundamental flaws in the architecture began to show. Crucially, the new government of Pakistan lacked administrative structures. It was difficult to find buildings that could house the civil servants; hotel rooms were converted into makeshift offices; there were no ministry buildings, so the ministries were formed wherever the ministers happened to be. Such were the incipient moments of the Pakistan farrago.

It took Pakistan nine years to formulate and ratify a constitution. Barely implemented, it stood for just two years before being suspended. An endless circle of rewriting, ratifying, and suspending constitutions followed. After military coups it was customary to rewrite the constitution and to cobble power around the new strongman. While Pakistan lacked a reliable system of civilian politics, it had inherited a strong army. And when the site of Islamabad was decided, its location was much down to the proximity of a military base.

John Keay writes in his excellent India: A History, that when General Yahya Khan seized power, he immediately appointed military leaders to ministerial posts: “Home affairs went to a general, education and health to an air marshal and finance and industry to a vice-admiral.” However, Keay notes, “it was not quite as crazy as it seemed. During fifteen years of military rule, the army’s interests had diversified. It now had a finger in every pie, from hospitals and schools to farms and pharmaceuticals.”

Today, the military is intertwined with the supposedly free market to such an extent that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. It is estimated that the army owns assets worth somewhere around £10 billion – be it bakeries or banks, the army is a part of it. Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, astutely paraphrased Voltaire to sum up the contrast between Pakistan and India, saying: “In India the state has an army, and in Pakistan the army has a state.”

“Pakistan”, as Salman Rushdie claims, is the answer to the Zen kōan, “what is the sound of one wing flapping?” What, then, is the sound of Pakistan? It has been the silence of dictatorship and the scream of terrorism. Now, seventy years after its birth, Pakistan must surely realise that the root of its problems lies in the conception of its nature.


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