The idea of Pakistan

The idea of Pakistan

There is good news from Pakistan.

There is good news from Pakistan. After Nawaz Sharif was displaced as prime minister in 1999,it seemed Pakistan would always have a cycle of democratic rule cut short by military dictatorships. Now,at last,we have for the first time a transition from one legitimately elected government to another. Nawaz Sharif has cemented a commanding lead in the number of seats over his rivals. Imran Khan has enriched the menu by offering another alternative. The voters have not fallen for his lure but not rejected him out of hand either. His party will be the regional power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the PPP is in Sindh. Sharif heads the PML-N which is the Punjab party. Punjab is for Pakistan what Prussia was for old Germany,a guarantee of stability thanks to its sheer size in relation to the whole nation.

There have been many alarmist stories about the future of Pakistan from Indian as well as foreign authors. We were told Pakistan was on a powder keg or that it was a difficult country. Many said it would break up or that Islamist fundamentalists —Taliban or someone else—would come to power. I had always felt that the Punjabi elite,which controls the country,would never let anyone deprive it of its possession. It has run the country off and on for the last 67 years,finding one agent or another and it seems like it will go on doing so.

Along the way there were several problems. But the central problem was that Pakistan had no clear definition about its national identity. Jinnah had argued that there were two nations in pre-independence India. Even so,there were not two separate ‘nation states’. Muslims may have been a nation as Hindus were,but each was scattered across the entire territory of pre-Independence India. Had everyone agreed to the Cabinet Mission proposals of 1946,we would have had an undivided India broken into three large regional sub-federations—roughly Pakistan as it is now (with an undivided Punjab),India as it is now (except for West Bengal and Assam) and Bengal plus Assam. That did not happen and we got West and East Pakistan. Later,there was a second partition and we have Bangladesh now.

In 1971,Pakistan had to face yet again the question: What was its identity? Jinnah wanted a state for Muslims but not an Islamic nation; he was a Western-style liberal,after all. Later,the motley collection of civil servants and army generals who ruled Pakistan also did not have an answer. When it broke up,Pakistan realised that religion was not enough to unite the two wings; language was a dividing issue. So what was Pakistan?


It is not enough to define a nation by its ‘Other’. Many in Pakistan define their nation in terms of the enmity with India. There are a few people in India,mainly on the Hindutva side,who do the same by defining India in terms of its enmity with Pakistan. But a nation needs a positive definition.

After 40 more years of military generals and democratic leaders,we are back to that issue. Pakistan is not untypical of South Asia in not having a clear identity. India is the exception since Nehru was there to define its identity while Jinnah died soon after Pakistan was born. Bangladesh floundered after its birth before it settled down to a democratic constitution. Sri Lanka has gone through a civil war of 25 years since the Sinhala-speaking majority wanted to monopolise power and marginalise the Tamil minority. From a civilised liberal nation,it has become a brutalised Buddhist republic.

Pakistan now seems to have arrived at a tentative answer. Pakistan will be a modern democracy which has an overwhelmingly large Muslim population but it will not be an Islamic state. It has not done too badly. For the first 50 years after independence,its GDP growth rate was equal to if not better than India. It is not all that different from India in terms of Human Development Index. It has a nuclear weapon like India has.

Maybe Pakistan will begin to look at itself and find out what it wants to be positively. India can only benefit from that.