Pakistan: Too Late to Rebuild the State?
I wrote the following long review essay for a class at the University of Washington in 2009. I’m publishing it now in preparation for writing and publishing a review of Ayesha Jalal’s more recent book Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia and because, however things might change in South Asia, I still find her earlier books highly relevant and thought-provoking. – Ethan Casey
The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan. By Ayesha Jalal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, paperback edition 1994 (orig. pub. 1985). 310 pages. Paper.
The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence. By Ayesha Jalal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 362 pages. Paper.
Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. By Ayesha Jalal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 295 pages. Paper.
In every state power rests with the armed forces; and whoever controls these forces controls, in the last resort, the state itself. – A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck
Discovering and obsessively reading A.J.P. Taylor, during my first visits to India and Pakistan in the mid-1990s, was part of this American’s early education in truths that non-Americans understand more readily. Taylor’s reputation might have diminished since his widely televised heyday, and his pronunciamentos might be more pithy and quotable than rigorous, but I remain both grateful and mindful of the fact that, in order to hear such a voice, I had to leave the United States. Taylor wrote as, in two senses, a European historian: a historian of Europe, and a historian who was European, i.e. closer than Americans are to recent historical experience. To read his controversial classic The Origins of the Second World War was to begin shedding the callow skin of Anglo-Saxon moralism, to learn that history is less often about good guys and bad guys than about forces and compulsions and contingencies that are beyond our ken, not to mention our control.1
In the way Taylor was, for his generation and audience, a European historian, Ayesha Jalal is a South Asian historian. She also writes with a similar brio and ear for the telling phrase. Her books address the central cluster of conundrums facing the modern subcontinent – the causes, meanings, and consequences of the 1947 partition – with a thoroughness and trenchancy others struggle toward and from a perspective that, by definition, Indian writers cannot achieve. This is not to say that her authority is unearned, simply by virtue of her being Pakistani. But, as a Pakistani, Jalal claims the seamlessness of the subcontinent’s history and geography as her subject, and she demonstrates it across the artificial frontiers (both spatial and temporal) of 1947. Her choice might seem presumptuous to nationalist Indians and iconoclastic to Pakistanis, but that’s the point of it. Both the justification of her ambition and the size of her achievement are amply illustrated in the substantial and distinguished body of work that she has published over a quarter-century.
Taken together, Jalal’s books offer the satisfactions of sustained attention and a unity of theme and subject that underscore her intellectual project. The Sole Spokesman (1985), The State of Martial Rule (1990), and Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia (1995) can be fruitfully read as a trilogy both chronological and thematic. The Sole Spokesman narrates and assesses the Muslim situation(s) in the subcontinent as events accelerated through the Second World War toward British India’s inevitable postwar independence and explores the ironies, complexities, and fallout of the fact that the ramshackle and makeshift country that the “Pakistan” idea became was dominated by the very Muslim-majority provinces, mainly western Punjab and eastern Bengal, that had been both least supportive and least in need of the leadership Mohammed Ali Jinnah offered. “Whatever the merits or demerits of the Muslim claim to nationhood orchestrated after 1940, the lasting relevance of Jinnah’s view of the imperative to renegotiate the union of India cannot be denied,” writes Jalal. “Jinnah had held that at the moment of the British withdrawal the unitary centre of the colonial state would stand dissolved. Any new all-India arrangements had to be based on an agreement among the constituent units.” That the agreement eventually reached – never, in fact, fully affirmed in good faith by all parties – was imperfect, to put it mildly, does not invalidate Jinnah’s claim. Jalal’s intention in The Sole Spokesman is to show how circumstances, rival compulsions and ambitions, and tragic misunderstandings forced events into a channel that led from Jinnah’s legitimate if lawyerly claim to the wounded and cornered version of Pakistan that lurched into being in August 1947 and has been limping along ever since.
The State of Martial Rule picks up where The Sole Spokesman leaves off and argues for the necessity of making Pakistan’s early history the starting point for any analysis of its present condition. “No understanding of contemporary Pakistan is possible without an historical analysis of the first decade after independence, a period of relative flux in the institutional balance of power between elected and non-elected institutions but during which the state structure was cast into an enduring, even rigid, mould,” writes Jalal. “This work focuses on the dialectic between state construction and political processes while weaving in the related economic, strategic and ideological dimensions. Beginning its independent career without the semblance of a central government apparatus, Pakistan is a fascinating laboratory for studying the construction of a state.”
In Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, Jalal extends her treatment to include post-1947 India. Ever since the partition, writers on Pakistan have been compelled to inject into their books apologias and caveats justifying their interest and insisting on the subcontinent’s underlying unity. “Although India has acquired a monopoly on imperial nostalgia, at the time it was the area that is now Pakistan which stirred the British imagination and won their respect,” writes journalist Emma Duncan in Breaking the Curfew, her anatomy of Pakistan in the late 1980s, around the time of the end of the Zia ul Haq dictatorship.2 When I returned to Pakistan in early 2009, the then-recent November 2008 terrorist siege of Mumbai had brought home the dark side of the subcontinent’s unity in division, so I began my “Pakistan road trip” in Mumbai.3 I also took with me to reread The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin’s classic science-fiction novel about twin planets separated by ideology, mutual paranoia, and self-enforced exile: “The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage, to deny their history, to forgo the possibility of return.”4
Which is to say that I chose not to qualify the verb in the first sentence of the previous paragraph with the adverb “boldly,” because Jalal’s extension of her analysis to India and post-1971 Bangladesh seems to me less bold than obvious. The borders between India and Pakistan, and between the colonial and the post-colonial subcontinent, are not only politically pernicious and dangerous, but intellectually unhelpful. Jalal’s decision to treat the three countries severally but comparatively in a single volume makes a statement that she considers important. She makes her case forthrightly in her introduction:
Among the more fascinating themes in contemporary South Asia has been the “success” of democracy in India and its “failure” in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet studies of democratic politics in India and military dominated authoritarian states in Pakistan and Bangladesh have rarely addressed, far less explained, why a common British colonial legacy led to apparently contrasting patterns of political development in post-independence South Asia. The lacuna in the literature is surprising given the oft-heard scholarly laments about the artificial demarcation of the subcontinent’s political frontiers at the time of the British withdrawal. Many historians are coming to question the inclusionary and exclusionary claims of both Indian and Muslim nationalisms and, more guardedly, the appropriateness of the concept of the “nation-state” in subcontinental conditions. The spatial and temporal artifact that has been the modern nation-state in post-1947 South Asia nevertheless remains inextricably stitched on to the scholarly canvas.
“Analyses premised on historical disjunctions,” she continues, “even when acknowledged as arbitrary, tend to emphasize differences rather more than similarities. The loss of a subcontinental vision has not only compartmentalized South Asian historiography but deflected from any sort of comparative understanding of the common dilemmas of the region’s present and the interlocking trajectories of its future.” In straining to see over the horizon, beyond the nation-state, Jalal is striving to redefine South Asian history as both subject and discipline.5 Beyond her inarguably formidable gifts as an individual intellect and scholar, her special contribution as a historian of South Asia who is Pakistani is her angle of vision. And a discipline understandably dominated by a country that is by all measures many times larger than any of its neighbors needs practitioners who can see that country from the outside (but from within the region). Hence the “subcontinental vision” that Jalal advocates and is trying to achieve.
By writing a comparative study of “formal democracy” versus authoritarianism both overt and “covert” in both India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh, which is interesting and necessary to include, though not central to the comparative aspect of her argument), Jalal is rendering visible a regional cluster of case studies of the actual structure of power, action, and intention beneath the tissue of the ostensible that is woven in every country from political language, cant based on nationalist mythology, and individual and collective self-deception. Her concerns have analogues worldwide, from the Japan depicted by Karel van Wolferen in The Enigma of Japanese Power6to the fictionalized Louisiana of Robert Penn Warren’s great American political novel All the King’s Men (in which the populist state governor Willie Stark asserts, “What folks claim is right is always a couple of jumps short of what they need to do business”).7 George Orwell comes to mind as well, not only the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, but the sensitive young colonial officer who learned a thing or two about authoritarianism during his years in Burma.8 Jalal is not writing about other countries or the world as a whole but about the subcontinent, but the point of alluding to these other authors is to argue that Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia belongs with their work on a shelf of books that explore the fundamental mysteries of political life in modern societies. This passage from her conclusion sums up Jalal’s argument as it applies to India:
The lack of electoral exercises in Pakistan is often cited as the main factor ensuring the infirmity of political processes. Yet the lessons from India serve as a warning against sanguinely interpreting periodic references to the people as sufficient evidence of a thriving democratic pulse. An investigation of the different phases in India’s political development reveals that changes in the centre-state dialectic, frequently reduced to an examination of Congress’s organizational strengths and weaknesses, were closely mirrored by shifts in the balance within elected institutions as well as between them and the non-elected institutions of the Indian state. A creeping if mainly covert authoritarianism served as the principal prop of a formally democratic political centre at the state and local levels of society. … The erosion of the Congress’s support base in a number of regions, first registered in the 1967 elections but gathering in momentum ever since, has fostered greater dependence by the political centre on the non-elected institutions, the civil bureaucracy in particular.
There are satisfactions to reading Jalal’s trilogy as such and in swift succession. Themes echo back and forth from one book to the next or the last, and a reader familiar with how things have turned out (so far9) in Pakistan enjoys many moments of vicarious epiphany. A passage in The Sole Spokesman, for example, unearths the origin of the chronically unresolved contradiction in Pakistan’s national-cum-religious ideology. I have often wondered whether Pakistan is a state for Muslims or an Islamic state. Here is the answer:
On the face of it, the “Pakistan demand” seemed to be the triumph of the provincial thesis of majority Muslims; but Jinnah’s strategy was not – indeed it could not have been – designed simply for the benefit of the Muslim provinces. If the “Pakistan demand” was to have the support of Muslims in provinces where they were in a minority, it had to be cast in uncompromisingly communal terms. This meant that those who wanted to establish “Pakistan” on Quranic principles of government could assert: “Quaid-i-Azam! We have understood Pakistan in this light. If your Pakistan is not such, we do not want it.” All Jinnah could do in the face of such challenges was to carefully avoid the issue.
Similarly, The State of Martial Rule speaks to the almost equally central issue of the dominance of Pakistan – later to be asserted with tragic consequences, especially in Bengal and Balochistan – by the numerically prevalent Punjabi ethnic group:
The Punjab could muster [circa 1948] a sufficiently potent form of provincial chauvinism to laugh the centre out of existence. … The dismissal of the Mamdot ministry and the provincial assembly was a blatant indication that the centre, dominated by Urdu-speaking refugee politicians [a.k.a. Mohajirs, a term that became tragically resonant in Karachi in the 1990s], considered all Punjabi representatives to be dishonest and corrupt. In the constituent assembly, Punjab alone among the provinces had less representation than its population warranted. To add insult to injury, no attempt had been made to fill its vacant seats. … All this was seen as proof apparent of a concerted attempt by the centre to weaken the Punjab as a political and economic force. Here was a mixture of Punjabi particularism tinged with paranoia, a lethal combination which in due course was to hit back at the centre with a vengeance.
The Sole Spokesman ends on a familiar ominous note: “If Jinnah was still hoping for a period of convalescence after the ‘surgical operation’, his hopes were shattered finally by the wholesale butchery which accompanied partition, particularly in the Punjab. … While Punjab writhed and turned under the impact of decisions taken in distant places, Mountbatten boldly claimed credit for having accomplished, in less than two and a half months, one of the ‘greatest administrative operations in history’.” Taking up the sequel in The State of Martial Rule, Jalal emphasizes Pakistan’s urgent need to start afresh, albeit by no means in a vacuum but in the aftermath of the partition bloodbath: “Unlike India, which inherited British India’s unitary central government in New Delhi, Pakistan had to create a wholly new central apparatus if it was to survive as a sovereign entity. The All-India Muslim League, the party that took over the reins of government in Pakistan, had no effective organisational machinery in the provinces which became part of Pakistan. … The popular view that religious solidarities formed the basis of Pakistan has distracted attention from the problems it faced in creating a central government from scratch.” Pakistan was from the start a Rube Goldberg booby trap, where pushing a button here would compel pulling a lever over there, which would cause something somewhere else to blow up: “Those responsible for managing the affairs of the new state were left making desperate, and often contradictory attempts, to prevent the ship from sinking before it had struck course. On the one hand they wanted all and sundry to appreciate the very real financial difficulties facing Pakistan; on the other, even before acquiring independent sources of foreign exchange, they were bidding for arms and ammunition in the world markets.” All of which, and more, Pakistan had to attempt in a context of indifference, at best, from Mountbatten and other British officials and festering resentment of its very existence from India.
The State of Martial Rule is not only a sequel to The Sole Spokesman but also a prequel to Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia. But the sympathy with which Jalal writes about Pakistan’s initial predicament shows clearly that her attitude is far from the tiresome liberal chant of “democracy good, military rule bad”. She has much more interesting things to say than that. “Nothing stood in the way of the reincorporation of the Pakistan areas into the Indian union except the notion of a central government whose structures of authority lacked both muscle and the necessary bottom,” she writes.
So in Pakistan’s case defence against India was in part a defence against internal threats to central authority. This is why a preoccupation with afforcing the defence establishment – not unusual for a newly created state – assumed obsessive dimensions in the first few years of Pakistan’s existence. … Pakistan’s ability to pay for its external defence was paralysed by a resource endowment which was insufficient to meet even the most basic internal security needs. The initiation of hostilities with India so soon after the establishment of the state entailed a diversion of very scarce financial resources – inevitably extracted from the provinces – into a defence procurement effort at a time when political processes in Pakistan had yet to become clearly defined.
It has long since become a cliche to note that Pakistan has spent as much time under military as under civilian rule, and that it alternates between the two roughly every decade. Elite and expatriate Pakistanis one meets at dinner parties and banquets are too quick either to blame the military and helplessly bemoan its role or, alternately, to excuse authoritarianism with platitudes about how Pakistan is supposedly “not ready” for democracy. The sense of futility is palpable, widespread, and chronic. In another prescient passage (The State of Martial Rule was published nine years before Pakistan’s third coup brought General Pervez Musharraf to power in 1999), Jalal writes:
By October 1958, the disjunction between the political process and state-building was to lead to direct intervention by the army. The responsibility for the military takeover is commonly laid at the door of Pakistani politicians. It is true that, during 1954 and 1958, the quality of politics – never very high to begin with – went from bad to worse. Yet to attribute the first military coup to the doings of politicians in the main is to credit them with a result which, upon sifting the evidence, grossly overstates their ability to influence events in the climacteric last four years of “parliamentary government”. … Factional in-fighting among politicians far from impeding the exercise of state authority by the centre appeared, at each step, to be facilitating its consolidation under bureaucratic and military direction.
Fast-forward three decades to the abrupt end of General Zia ul Haq’s regime and the election that brought in Benazir Bhutto as prime minister carrying her father’s mantle, and Jalal writes, in Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia:
The consequences of [Zia's] politically stabilizing, economically revitalizing and morally regenerating regime are there for all to see – seething hatred among linguistic communities despite the common bond of religion, economic chaos, the practical collapse of the civil, police and judicial services and widespread corruption at every level of society. … The symbolic connotations of Benazir’s advent were clearly widely at odds with the structural constraints which she inherited. By far the most important of these was the long-standing imbalance between elected and non-elected institutions in the Pakistani state.
Once a pattern has been set – once, as Jalal puts it, a state structure has been “cast into an enduring, even rigid, mould” – changing the pattern or breaking the mold can become difficult and complex to the point of being effectively impossible. This is why Jalal’s earlier books are so attentive to the details of the Pakistani state’s establishment and construction; she wants to understand how and why the pattern got set. Replace “Benazir’s advent” in the passage quoted above with “Obama’s advent,” and it might be a sobering thought experiment to reflect on the difficulty the U.S. president faces in achieving anything in the direction of democracy, demilitarization, or health care reform, even if we assume his sincerity and competence. Ayesha Jalal is more interested in state structures than in personalities; she would say that it’s not about Benazir or Obama. No captain can turn around an aircraft carrier any way but slowly, even if he wants to, even if she tries really hard.
But this is where I wonder if Pakistan’s small and besieged, albeit articulate and generally admirable, liberal faction might have got the wrong end of the stick – or might have subtly crafted a perpetual excuse for its own failures. Jalal’s argument about Pakistan’s state structure and the imbalance between its elected and non-elected institutions is all too convincing. Given that, now what? Can we hope to change it? If not, what can we do? What should we do? In the weeks in late 2007 between her second return from exile and her assassination, Benazir’s symbolic connotations were impressively evident; she seemed, again, to be channeling her nation’s hopes. Yet, only four years earlier, my Beaconhouse National University colleague Taimur-ul-Hassan had treated me to the following rant:
Emotions were high because we had been through hell in Zia’s days, and we thought Benazir Bhutto might be able to change things. She is so arrogant. She doesn’t take any counsel. She thinks she is a wisdom unto herself. She could have opted to sit in opposition and wait her time [after the 1988 election], but she chose to compromise with the establishment. So where do we stand? Where do people like us stand, who thought she would take on the establishment? She cannot say anything to people of Pakistan. People of Pakistan brought that woman twice to power. People of Pakistan owe nothing to Benazir Bhutto. … At least she could have organized the Pakistan People’s Party at the grassroots level. There was not a party office in Lahore, when she was in power. … [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto’s picture is still in my wallet. But this woman is dishonest, corrupt, revengeful, reactionary, and incompetent. She may be a good opposition leader, but she cannot run a good government. If you talk about merit, I think Musharraf has served the interests of secular classes more than she did. She really disappointed us. She took that dream away from us.10
When General Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, he was ostensibly unjustified in doing so; the prime minister had the constitutional right to dismiss the army chief. But Nawaz’s decision to do so for the second time in twelve months was the last in a string of culpably foolhardy confrontations with rival national institutions ranging from the judiciary to the media to the National Assembly to, fatefully, the army – which had left him isolated and paranoid. What choice did Musharraf have? Military takeovers happen when civilian political situations break down, as I witnessed at firsthand in Cambodia in July 1997 and in Pakistan in 1999.11 Civilian politicians in any country disregard the truth of this review’s epigraph from A.J.P. Taylor at their own peril.
Musharraf and the army are also indisputably culpable, of course. That is the tragic elegance of Pakistan’s plight: every individual or institution can point the finger at someone or something else. Failure to accept responsibility is a national pastime. This includes the military, to be sure, but it also certainly includes Pakistan’s civilian political class. And this is where, I think, personalities do matter. Was Benazir Bhutto the shining hope of a nation, a role model for women, and a Western-oriented liberal, or an arrogant plutocrat with an entitlement complex? Is Musharraf a patriot and a paragon of Pakistan’s meritocratic and secular middle class, or an egomaniacal dictator? Or all of the above?
It is very arguable that, legitimate or not, Musharraf was Pakistan’s most competent and effective ruler in at least three decades. “The Pakistani people’s disillusionment with the civilian governments was so profound that Musharraf was very popular when he first took over,” writes the BBC correspondent Owen Bennett Jones in the updated third edition of his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. “… And then, as the years went by, his political objectives were subsumed by the sheer difficulty of staying in office. … He was neither dictatorial enough to impose his will nor democratic enough to be legitimate.”
The remorseless, familiar cycle of Pakistani politics has turned once more. As democracy returned, however, there was more of a sense of relief that Musharraf had gone than jubilation about his successors. To many Pakistanis the idea that the civilian politicians could deliver what they most want – jobs, decent schools and the rule of law – was simply ludicrous. They had not done so before and there was no reason to believe that anything had changed. I ended the first edition of this book with the comment that, far from being the solution, the army had not realised that they were in fact part of the problem. This is still true. But exactly the same can be said of the “democratic” politicians as well.12
So my argument is that Pakistan’s civilian politicians are at least as responsible for the woefully dysfunctional state of the country’s politics as are the unelected military and bureaucratic establishments, and that individual personalities matter, because individual responsibility matters; and civilian politicians don’t get the moral high ground purely on the grounds that they’re civilians and “elected”. In 2007, I was a panelist at a seminar at which Ayesha Jalal was the keynote speaker.13 During one session, when Jalal and others14 voiced arguments about state structure like those Jalal makes in her books, I rejoined with critical comments about the fecklessness, arrogance, and toxic rivalry that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif foisted on Pakistan during their alternating periods in office during the 1990s. I was told that my argument was “merely anecdotal” – that the point was that the state was structured the wrong way. (Or, as Jalal puts it in The State of Martial Rule: “Those who are content to attribute the dominance of the Pakistan army to weaknesses in political organisation or to a poorly developed political culture are justifying a phenomenon without fully understanding its origins.”) But what if it’s too late to change the state structure? What if the country must choose between a corrupt elected civilian leader and a competent, honorable military ruler? Many Pakistanis would say that, even given their long and largely unhappy experience with military rule, the characters of Musharraf and of Pakistan’s current president show that the answer is not obvious.
Where Pakistan can or should go from here is a highly fraught question, particularly given the global situation in which the country’s always fraught politics are currently playing out. How it got to this point is a long and complex story, and a proper understanding of that story is urgently necessary. In her brilliant trilogy, the South Asian historian Ayesha Jalal does justice to its complexity and demonstrates that it’s the story not of Pakistan alone, but of the full, borderless subcontinent before, during, and since the craven British withdrawal and its attendant bloody partition.
ETHAN CASEY‘s next book, to be published in 2013, is Home Free: An American Road Trip. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans
5With characteristic acerbity, she puts it thus: “In exploring a set of comparative themes this book has deliberately defied the border patrols and transgressed the temporal and spatial frontiers of 1947. And it has done so at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the intellectual thought police that wittingly or unwittingly have taken the inviolability of the sovereign nation-state as a main principle in defining the legitimacy of research agendas.” Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, p. 248.
8For a fascinating, exquisite exploration of the relationship among Orwell’s political ideas, his personal experience of Burma, and that country’s later history, see Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (The Penguin Press, 2005).
9Emma Duncan writes: “Nothing is settled in Pakistan. … Because the plot has yet to be resolved, the audience stays interested. Every small event may hold the key to the denouement.” Breaking the Curfew, p. 9.
11I was not in Pakistan on October 12, 1999, the date of the coup, but I made two month-long trips there earlier that year and, when it happened, the coup was thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who had been paying attention.
13“Contested Spaces, Competing Narratives: Towards Human Rights and Democracy in Pakistan,” April 6–7, 2007, Tufts and Harvard universities. The seminar was convened by journalist and documentary filmmaker Beena Sarwar, then a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. See this page.
14These included Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Hussain Haqqani, who later became Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States under President Asif Ali Zardari.