The Land of the Pure: The Idea of Pakistan

Yu Xuan Chia – Singapore

“You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.”

—Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Karachi on the 11th of August 1947 summarised the ailing Quaid-i-Azam’s (Great Leader’s) vision for the newly created Pakistan.

Constituting a multinational, multiethnic, and multi-religious portion of the Indian Subcontinent, Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan was always as a secular state where India’s many Muslims would be free from the Hindu chauvinism and oppression-by-the-majority they suffered in British India. Indeed, Jinnah’s transformation from a strictly secular Congress Party of India member to the leader of the All India Muslim League—which was in vehement opposition to the Congress Party’s push for a united post-British India—came about largely because of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s ( Mahatma Gandhi’s) infusion of Hinduism into his freedom marches and rallies. It was because Jinnah felt he had no other choice—either split India, or have Muslims forever oppressed in their own country—that he pushed so hard for a Pakistan. But Muslims in what is now the Republic of India are now more likely to be educated and, on average, live longer lives. Pakistan has faced decades of unpredictable politics, and a reversal of the secular-state policy. Power has vacillated between military and civilian rule, and religious extremism has grown unchecked in some provinces. What went wrong, and what does the future look like for Pakistan?

1956 was a momentous year in Pakistan’s history. Like India, Pakistan became independent of the British Empire in 1947, but remained an independent Dominion within the British Commonwealth. It finally became a Republic in 1956, shedding all vestiges of its association with the United Kingdom. However, 1956 was also the year that the death knell was sounded for Pakistani secularism. The 1956 constitution decreed Pakistan an ‘Islamic Republic’; a title it retains to this day. The post of President was also established by that constitution, and it was filled by one Iskander Mirza—a senior general in the military. The President was explicitly the most powerful position in the government, with a constitutional article stating that “the ministers shall serve at the pleasure of the president.” A strained relationship with the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s strategic importance as an aligned, anticommunist state bordering Afghanistan made it particularly attractive to the U.S. as an ally. All these ingredients—religious rule, the increased power of the military, and massive foreign financial backing—made for a truly explosive combination.

The match that lit the fuse was unrest in Pakistan’s Eastern wing (East Bengal, or modern-day Bangladesh). More populous than West Pakistan, and chafing under the lack of appropriate linguistic and political representation in the 1956 constitution, the Bengali Awami League decided in 1958 to withdraw from the Government and threaten ‘extraconstitutional means’ to unseat the central government in the West. This gave President Mirza leverage to dissolve the constitution and declare martial law, appointing Major-General Ayub Khan as his martial law administrator. It was not long before Ayub Khan was appointed Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic, ushering the first Military Era.

Focussed on their much bigger, oft-belligerent Southern neighbour, the Idea of Pakistan had solidly shifted towards defining itself in contrast to India. The seemingly intractable dispute over the state of Kashmir, and festering insurgencies in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan have given the military a convenient excuse to remain at the centre of power. Their employment of unconventional military tactics to secure a hold over India have sometimes backfired, with once-supported ‘good terrorists’ such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacking a school in revenge for army crackdowns on their activity, and making Pakistan one of the last refuges for eradicable diseases like Polio.

Awash with U.S. military and development aid, including at times where the Pakistani government was internationally recognised to be committing war crimes in East Bengal, it can be argued that Pakistan’s strategic importance and American realpolitik has made the country’s drift from democracy and towards junta rule a lot more acute than it otherwise would have been.

In 2008, Pakistan took a cautious step back towards democracy. The basics Fourth Democratic Era, as it has been termed, saw Asif Zardari inaugurated as a popularly-elected President. After a notoriously corrupt and inept five-year term in office, but one which saw the post of President reduced to a ceremonial figurehead, Nawaz Sharif was voted into power in 2013—Pakistan’s first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. Sharif, who held the Prime Ministerial post twice prior to his 2013 election, had previously pushed for further islamisation of the Pakistani state, in line with Zia ul-Haq’s—a military dictator notorious for his transformation of Pakistan into a theocracy—model. In his current term, he has also shifted his country away from the U.S. in the wake of the 2011 CIA operation to kill Osama Bin Laden without Pakistan’s knowledge, and has warmed ties with Russia. His government’s relationship with India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is dire, and the Kashmir issue seems as obstinate as ever.

But, in the context of Pakistan’s difficult history, its future looks bright. Democracy is shaky, but reforms since 2008 to cement democracy as integral to Pakistan’s functioning may mean freedom is here to stay. This would be a very welcome step forward, but Pakistan still has some way to go to salvage Jinnah’s original conception of the state. It must move towards its secular origins, and bin the imported brand of hardline Wahhabi-Deobandi Islam that has come to pervade its madrassas (religious schools). Firing across the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir must be stopped, and talks with India’s government on border issues must resume. Only when relations with its neighbour are normalised can both progress—but Pakistan, being the smaller of the two, has more to gain from a calmer border. The U.S. must cease sponsoring the Pakistani military, and must attach demands consistent with its own respect for democracy and civilian rule to future loans and financial aid to Pakistan.

Pakistan has a lot to gain from civilian rule, and less focus on sectarian rivalries with its neighbours—and as a nuclear nation nearly three times as populous as the United Kingdom, the world is watching with bated breath as its experiment in democracy continues.