For a country that has been around barely 70 years, Pakistan has a lot of history. And every bit of this history — origins, consolidation, crises — remains bitterly contested by scholars and citizens alike. This may be one reason why, despite a substantial body of scholarship, there is no satisfactory single-volume synthesis of Pakistan’s history. Another reason seems to be a nagging sense about the viability of the country. Prophecies of gloom and doom are periodically issued; in fact, they had been voiced even before Pakistan was created. So, the challenge for anyone attempting to make sense of this history is also to explain how Pakistan has managed to stay resilient in the face of so many travails and such turbulence.
Christophe Jaffrelot rises to the challenge with aplomb. With erudition and energy, he presents a historical and political sociology of Pakistan, from the end of the rebellion of 1857 to the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Equally admirable is Jaffrelot’s refusal to purvey a chronological story framed around personalities and garnished with anecdotes — a seemingly unavoidable feature of popular writing on the country. His analytic narrative focuses on the formation of identities and classes, the role of caste and religion, the patterns of political economy and civil society, without ever losing sight of the role of individuals in shaping this history.
The history of Pakistan, Jaffrelot argues, “has been overdetermined by three sets of tensions all rooted in contradictions that were already apparent in the 1940s.” The first was between centralising tendencies and centrifugal forces. Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan stemmed, to a large extent, from the diminishing social status of Muslim elites that had previously combined the occupations of literati and an aristocratic, upper-caste lineage. The desire to perpetuate their dominant role and status led to the crystallisation of their brand of Islamic ideology and the instrumental use of it for political ends. This argument bears a family resemblance to older ones by scholars like Hamza Alavi and Paul Brass. Jaffrelot differs from them in emphasising the importance of caste and culture as well as class; though he seems to underplay the role of the salaried classes as well as students in the Pakistan movement.
In any event, the preponderance of Muslim elites from the minority provinces, especially UP, in the Muslim League, led initially to the dominance of the migrants from India. The “Muhajirs” sought to impose a unitary structure on the new state as well as their own language, Urdu. They were soon displaced by the Punjabi elite, but the fissures that opened up between the central government and the provinces remain — even after the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 — a striking feature of Pakistan.
The second tension is between democracy and authoritarianism. Jaffrelot is dismissive of the crude culturalism that sees Islam as incompatible with democracy. He emphasised three factors: the perpetuation of the “viceregal model” of government by Jinnah; the desire to thwart the electoral domination of Bengalis; a political culture of factionalism and clientilism by even popular and populist leaders. Further, he declines to view the politicians and the army as opposite poles. If they periodically colluded with each other, it was because they shared the same political culture and class interests. The upshot of this is social conservatism and gross economic inequality. The dismally low tax-to-GDP ratio is one indicator of the shared interest of the civil-military elite. Attempts to suborn the judiciary are another.
The third problem relates to the role of Islam. Jaffrelot discerns two schools with shifting contours ranged against each other: one, coming down from Jinnah and the Muslim League which saw Islam as a cultural marker compatible with at least some form of secularism; and the other, issuing from clerics who embodied a vision of Islam that was plainly incompatible with minority rights. The process of constitution-making between 1947 and 1956 was considerably complicated by these debates. Jaffrelot notes that Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, Jinnah’s chief lieutenant, introduced an objectives resolution in 1949 that sought to accommodate at least some of the demands of the leading clerics. But this was not just a question of elite bargaining. There was something quixotic about a mass political movement launched in the name of a religion that ends up aiming at establishing a secular state. Whatever the subtleties of Jinnah’s tactics, those who voted with their feet to create Pakistan saw it as a Muslim country. Jaffrelot is right, however, to point out that Islamisation began seriously in the 1970s, under Bhutto, who needed some glue to hold the truncated country together, and Zia, who needed to legitimise prolonged military rule.
Jaffrelot is excellent in showing how these three sets of tensions fit together and exacerbate one another. But his explanation for the “remarkable resilience” of the Pakistan does not come out as strongly. This is partly because he neglects till the very end a key dimension in the history of Pakistan: the international context. It seems captious to point out what a work of this scope leaves out rather than learn from what is on offer. Still, the treatment of this aspect is too cursory and seems an afterthought. While Jaffrelot emphasises the relationship with the United States, the equally important role played by China and Saudi Arabia in the political economy of Pakistan go almost unmentioned. Other salient issues such as globalisation and international migration are wholly ignored.
Readers may find Jaffrelot too kind in adjudicating rival intellectual positions. A bit of fireworks might have enlivened the book. But then Pakistan has too much of them already. All told, Jaffrelot’s magnificent synthesis is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research.