In the very first sentence in her Introduction to this book, Farzana Shaikh, an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London sums up the central theme of her entire–and profoundly scholarly-work. “More than six decades after being carved out of British India” she writes, “Pakistan remains an enigma”. Yes, an enigma. A conundrum. A moral failure. A country with a total lack of “a national identity”.
Indeed, throughout the book, this is the theme song, Pakistan’s lack of an identity. For one, Pakistan has been at odds with itself because of two rival discourses of Islam-the communal and the Islamist. Both have been struggling for ascendancy in defining a national identity and, as the author remarks: “It is these contested versions of Islam, rather than any disjunction between a ‘secular’ leadership and a ‘religious’ establishment that accounts for the difficulties in forging a coherent national identity.”
Is Pakistan for real? Can history settle the fundamental matter of Pakistan’s raison d’etre? Many apparently believe it can, and many more, and not just its detractors, claim it cannot. What is indisputable (and remarkable) says the author is that “the question should still be asked, even as Pakistan settles into middle age, more than sixty years after its creation in 1947”. In contrast, India knows exactly what it is and is comfortable with its knowledge. Pakistan continues to struggle. First, there has never been-and it is true to this day-a sense of unity among various groups, religious and ethnic, on what Pakistan stands for. Within Islam itself there is a lack of consensus. Sectarian violence, leading to clashes between Shia and Sunni activists led only to scores of assassination. No leader could unify Pakistan. Jinnah managed to create Pakistan but he failed to give it a sense of identity. Worse, with the influx of 7 million Muslim refugees from India, there followed clashes between these migrants and the locals like Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluchis and Pushtuns who felt pushed around and challenged in their own home grounds, when many of whom, in the first place were never very enthusiastic about the creation of Pakistan.
Prior to 1971, Bengali Muslims were never very comfortable with the concept of Pakistan itself or of the role of Urdu as a national language. With the formation of Bangladesh, the very concept of Muslims being a separate nation received a body blow from which Pakistan has yet to recover. From the very start Pakistan was in clash with itself. Gen. Ayub Khan failed because of his contempt for the Muslim religious establishment. His hope that wide-ranging social and economic reforms would help serve his country’s ideological moorings in Islam failed miserably.
As an analyst Lawrence Ziring noted, “Pakistan surfaced in the wake of a shambolic transfer of power by the British Raj as a truncated structure, housing a diverse disparate and divided people”. Ayub’s campaign to ease the burden of Islam and encourage a more secular discourse extracted a heavy price. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s transparently insincere attempts to play the Islamic card also failed. Far from fuelling a revulsion against the political uses of Islam, it only contributed to Islamists wanting to anchor the state even more firmly in Islamism. Bhutto had to quit. Enter, Gen. Zia ul Haq. His rule only raised tensions. Most of its was concentrated in Sind where Sindhi nationalists were smarting from the humiliation of Bhutto’s ouster and the pain of his execution. In any event, Zia failed to inspire the confidence of the establishment dominated by the ulama thought it was he who helped set up over 10,000 madrasas. Zia failed to inspire the confidence of the Ulama who felt that his efforts to transform ulama organisation into official institutions robbed them of power.
It is in this context-described by the author as ‘morass of uncertainty’ that the armed forces got into the picture, trying to stamp their own version of Pakistan’s identity. With utter confusion prevailing at the political level it was inevitable that the Army should take over the task of giving the country, not only a sense of security, but a sense of identity as well. Its primordeal fear and hatred of India fuelled its dreams. But all that the Army succeeded in achieving was in giving Pakistan not an identity as a nation but as a country under military subjugation. The remedy was worse than the disease. Worse, the leaders of the new country, many of them migrants from India, lacked constituencies in the territories they then claimed to control which left them with no other option except cede greater power to the military that, with the support of external powers such as the United States, led to the terminal decline of civil political institutions.
Corruption within the Armed Forces made matters worse. Understandably, the Armed Forces did more damage to the country then was envisaged. Certainly, military supremacy over civilian affairs was of no help for the nation to acquire and identity. The outcome of all this was what the author describes as a “blowback”. The only identity Pakistan had was that of a India-hater. A negative identity shaped by the circumstances of Partition. How is that going to help it? Its centrality lies in fighting India on Kashmir issue and even that is now apparently losing credibility-especially in Sind and Baluchistan, and more especially in the latter province which, like Kashmir, wants a separate identity, one that is distinctly different from that of Pakistan.
And so we have a nation without an identity and a people without face. The author says that there is now a strong pressure on Pakistan to re-orient itself from its perennial stance of confrontation with India, the hope being that this would, at last, enable it to get out of its old mound and develop anew one as yet vague, but one that is liberating and nationally fulfilling. It sounds like a dream, but then, what other option does Pakistan have to validate itself? This book is possibly the best study of the dilemma Pakistan has been facing all these years. It holds the mirror to Pakistan to see itself as other see it, a nation without face and with no prospects of being accepted as an entity. This is a study brilliant beyond words, and carries its own moral.
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