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The ‘Pakistan Paradox’

Christopher Jaffrelot’s book digs into the perennial conflict between centralization of power at the center and devolution to the district-level

by Khaled Ahmed

Christopher Jaffrelot’s book, The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience (2015), is a remarkable diagnostic of the ailing state of Pakistan. In addition to the perennial perils of Islamism and ethnic strife, he looks at the 2008 general elections that had brought back into power the PPP and PMLN—as well as the Bhuttos and Sharifs—following the exit of military dictator Pervez Musharraf.

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, with her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, being elected president after the PPP won the 2008 polls. The new government, with the support of key opposition parties, restored the parliamentary nature of the 1973 Constitution that Musharraf, like Zia before him, had suspended during his rule.

Not only federalism but also the independence of the judiciary in Pakistan appeared at last to be in a position to prevail. However, the civilians failed to reassert their authority over the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence agency that had become a state-within-a-state since the 1980s, with the Army retaining the upper hand on key policies such as relations with the Taliban, the Kashmir issue and the nuclear program. The Army justified its role by arguing that the country was facing huge challenges, ranging from the unleashing of ethno-nationalist violence in Balochistan and Karachi, to the rise of both sectarian and jihadi Islamist movements; some of which were affiliated with Al Qaeda and targeted Pakistan due to its alliance with the U.S. in the “global war on terror.”

Recurrence of armed conflict

The alternation of phases of democratization and military rule every decade or so is not the only source of instability in Pakistan; recurrence of armed conflict is another. Some of these conflicts come under the category of civil war, such as in 1970-71 in Bengal or during the 1973-7 insurgency in Balochistan—and the war that started in the mid-2000s in that area. Others have primarily had Pakistan and India facing off, overtly or covertly as early as 1947-8, when both countries fought each other in Kashmir. In 1965, Pakistan attacked India, whereas in 1971, the conflict was a sequel to the movement for Bangladesh. The most recent conflict, the 1999 “Kargil war” (named after a town in Jammu and Kashmir), was short and circumscribed.

Thus, the number of military coups (three—or four if one includes Yahya Khan’s martial law episode in 1969-70) is equal to the number of wars with India (three—four if one includes the “Kargil war”). This is not just by chance. In fact, Pakistan’s political instability is to some degree over-determined by the regional context, and more especially by the sentiment of vulnerability of Pakistan vis-à-vis India.

The Pakistani conundrum

The fear of encirclement, more especially from India, partly explains the role of the Pakistan Army in the public sphere. Indeed, the military could project themselves as the saviors of a vulnerable country, and this argument was likely to appear even more convincing in the post-Jinnah context when the political personnel looked weak, factionalized and corrupt. But there are other factors to the democratic deficit affecting Pakistan since the 1950s. One needs to understand the way civilians relate to power in Pakistan to understand the country. Pakistani politicians not only occasionally collaborated with military rulers, compromising their reputations, but when they were in charge of the country they often tended to display authoritarian tendencies. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Bhutto rigged the 1977 elections and many of his successors as prime ministers showed little respect for the independence of the judiciary and sometimes even for freedom of the press.

Pakistan’s democratic deficit can also be measured by the centralization of the state. Even when a federal Constitution was (re-)introduced, the provinces were never given the autonomy they demanded, whereas almost all of them—East Bengal, West Punjab, Sindh and the NWFP—had experienced forms of self-administration under the Raj and coincided by and large with an ethno-linguistic group.

Seeking strength in centralization

Centralization might be explained by the need for a strong, unified state to face India. However, on that front too, one should not focus mainly on this external factor. Even before Partition, Jinnah’s project was that of a unitary state. Certainly, the 1940 Lahore resolution through which the Muslim League officially spelled out its separatist agenda recognized a prominent role for the provinces of the country envisioned, but their autonomy was drastically reduced as early as 1946 in the last pre-Partition blueprint of Pakistan as Jinnah imagined it. And in 1947, the citizens of the new country were required to identify not only with one religion—Islam— but also with one language—Urdu—which became the country’s official tongue even though it was spoken only by a small minority at the time.

These developments reflected sociological dynamics. The idea of Pakistan was primarily conceived by an Urdu-speaking upper caste elite group fearing social decline. Made up of aristocratic literati, this group embodied the legacy (and the nostalgia) of the Mughal Empire. Their ancestors had prospered thanks to land and the administrative status the emperors had given them between the 16th and 18th centuries. But in the 19th century, colonization called these privileges into question, not only because the British took over power from some of the Muslim rulers, but also because they did not trust the Muslims (who were seen as the former dominant group) as much as they did the Hindus.

Hindu advancement under British Raj

Pre-Partition India’s Hindus asserted themselves at the expense of the Muslims because of their growing role in the economy (through trade and then industrial activities); their adhesion to the university system, which resulted in their increasingly important role in the administration; and their political influence that developed parallel to the democratization of the Raj almost in proportion to their numbers. The separatism of the Urdu-speaking elite crystallized in this context in the 19th century and was subsequently exacerbated (especially in the ’30s-’40s) in reaction to the fear of losing their traditional status—eventually prompting them to work toward obtaining a state to govern. The Muslim League leaders argued that they demanded Pakistan to protect Islam from Hinduism, but they also (and more importantly) did it to protect their own interests from the growing influence of the Hindus.

The history of Pakistan has been over-determined by three sets of tensions rooted in contradictions that were already apparent in the 1940s. The first one can be summarized by the equation “Pakistan+Islam+Urdu”; while all the ethnic groups of Pakistan could identify with one variant or another of Islam, they could not easily give up their linguistic identity, all the more so because it often epitomized full-fledged nationalist sentiments. Hence the first contradiction between the central(izing) government and centrifugal forces (which sometimes have given rise to separatist movements).

Origin of tensions

The second tension pertains to another form of concentration of power that the Army officers and the politicians have developed over the course of time. Indeed, from the 1950s onwards, Pakistani society has been in the clutches of a civil-military establishment that has cultivated the legacy the pre-Partition Muslim League in the sense that it was primarily interested in protecting its interests and dominant status. The elitist rationale of the Pakistan idea, therefore, resulted in social conservatism and the persistence of huge inequalities. Certainly, some politicians have fought for democracy, but they have never managed to dislodge from power a very well entrenched civil-military establishment and promote progressive reforms in a decisive manner—either because they were co-opted, or because they eventually turned out to be autocrats themselves. In fact some of the main opposition forces to the system that have emerged have been the judiciary (when the Supreme Court had the courage to rise to the occasion), civil society movements (including the media) and Islamists. In the absence of a credible political alternative within the institutional framework, the tensions that have developed have been especially radical. That has been at stake in most of the crises that Pakistan has experienced.

The role of Islam in the public sphere is the root cause of the third contradiction. Jinnah looked at it as a culture and considered the Muslims of the Raj as a community that needed to be protected. They were supposed be on a par with the members of the religious minorities in the Republic to be built. His rhetoric, therefore, had a multicultural overtone. On the contrary, clerics and fundamentalist groups wanted to create an Islamic state where the members of the minorities would be second-class citizens. Until the 1970s, the first approach tended to prevail. But in the 1970s the Islamist lobby (whose political parties never won more than one-tenth of votes polled) exerted increasingly strong pressure. It could assert itself at that time partly because of circumstances. First, the trauma of the 1971 war led the country to look for a return to its ethno-religious roots. Second, the use religion was part of Z. A. Bhutto’s populist ideology, which associated socialism with Islam. Third, Zia also used religion to legitimize his power and to find allies among the Islamists.

The Three Contradictions

The critical implications of the legacy of Zia’s Islamization—which also resulted in the massive infiltration of jihadis in Kashmir in the 1990s—became clear after 9/11 when the U.S. forced the Pakistani state to fight not only Al Qaeda but also the Taliban and the Islamist groups that the ISI had previously supported in India-held Kashmir and elsewhere. In response, these groups turned their guns on the Pakistan Army, its former patron, and intensified their fight against their traditional targets, the Shias and non-Muslim communities, creating an atmosphere of civil war.

Author Jaffrelot’s three contradictions, as reviewed here, provide a three-part structure. This is intended to enhance our understanding of the Pakistani paradox. Indeed, so far, none of the consubstantial contradictions of Pakistan mentioned above have had the power to destroy the country. In spite of the chronic instability that they have created, Pakistan continues to show remarkable resilience. This can only be understood if one makes the effort to grasp the complexity of a country that is often caricatured.

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