Belief in the cause of a nation's ills

Pakistan - Islam, Nationalism and the West - Pakistan in the 20th Century
November 26, 1999

The history of Pakistan after half a century provokes a fundamental question. What justification was there for carving out a Muslim state from British India, involving as it did perhaps a million or more innocent people being butchered in communal warfare between Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs? This was the largest-scale expulsion ever of people, who were stripped of their property and forced to leave ancestral homelands; it created a legacy of hatred between two major and now nuclear-armed states, Pakistan and India, which has led to several wars.

A historian of Pakistan would have to be as insensitive as a Tyrannosaurus rex not to be struck by another question. Why has ferocious despotism been such an inescapable theme of this country's history, with one half of it lived under military dictators and the rest under incorrigibly authoritarian civilian rulers?

These fascinating questions preoccupy the authors of these three books. Their chief value is that they cover much of the information that any serious analysis of Pakistan must tackle. However, the authors are advocates of a peculiar type: they defend the cause of Pakistan, but clearly its grim history has made them sympathisers despite - rather than because of - the performance of Pakistani rulers.

A major theme in all three works is blaming India's 1947 partition on the Hindu leaders of the main nationalist party, the Congress, especially Mahatma Gandhi. These leaders' claims to secularism are dismissed as eyewash because their appeals to the Indian masses spoke of a specifically Hindu utopia, Ramraj , the rule of the divine Ram (hero of The Ramayana ), and they justified the main nationalist strategy of passive resistance in terms of Hindu religious notions. Some nationalist leaders, such as B. G. Tilak, are said to have done even worse: they glorified historical figures who waged war in Hinduism's name against Muslim rulers. No wonder then, we are told, that Muslims in 20th-century British India, led by the (in fact markedly westernised) figure of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, opted for Muslim separatism.

This rationale for Pakistan, ironically, has become almost de rigueur with supposedly "progressive" and "secular" Indian historians who bemoan partition. The difficulty, of course, is that it depends on a totalitarian attitude to history. It assumes that in any given nation there has to be broad agreement on who the heroes and villains of national history are. The Muslims' imposition of Islamic rule, sweeping aside a great deal of the Hindu cultural heritage, is condoned as adding to India's cultural pluralism; while any praise of Hindu resistance to Islamic rule is condemned as "communalist". Hindus, it seems, must bury their history for the sake of pluralism.

Pakistan's exponents, such as these three authors, differ from the progressive Indian historians in one crucial respect: the latter's naive assumption of the possibility of a purely secular Indian nationalism. Not since ancient times has India been a nation in the linguistic sense. Gandhi and other nationalists invoked the Hindu heritage in order to create national feeling; this was inevitable if there was to be an Indian nation at all. Did it necessarily imply a separate Muslim state, as claimed by our authors? Only if the Muslim leadership could not tolerate some Hinduism in the nationalist ideology and practice - alongside some Islam, of course. For it is grossly misleading to present Gandhi, as these authors do, as a Hindu exclusivist: one need hold no brief for the man to see that he went to quite extraordinary lengths to accommodate an Islamic element in the nationalist outlook.

What these authors cannot admit is that such a live-and-let-live approach was not enough for Jinnah. They also overlook the fact that Congress did offer, pre-1947, what was by international standards a huge amount of autonomy to Muslim-majority provinces.

For Iftikhar Malik, in particular, neither objectivity nor consistency matters. His text seethes with ill-considered Islamist polemics but attempts to defend Pakistan by using the language of liberal or "progressive" ideas regardless of glaring contradictions. For instance, amid much denunciation of westerners and Indians for "curiously" seeing Pakistan and Muslim countries generally as zones of oppression, Malik himself undertakes a Pakistani tour through such subjects as the fate of democracy, provincial autonomy, press freedom and women's rights, and finds ruthless arbitrariness everywhere the rule. The observers whom Malik rubbishes as "Crusades-based" Islamophobes note just this; but criticism of Islam and Pakistan should, it seems, be the monopoly of true believers such as Malik. He thus calls with touching shyness for a "rather more tolerant, Islamic discourse" after excoriating Salman Rushdie for "his self-appointed role as a rabble-rouser".

By comparison with Malik, Lawrence Ziring and Ian Talbot seem almost balanced. The procession of Pakistani leaders they portray makes up quite a striking gallery. There is the barrack-room ideologue Ayub Khan with his innovative scheme for replacing political parties with locally elected "basic democrats" who, it turned out, all admired Ayub. His replacement, General Yahya Khan, distinguished himself in 1970-71 by unleashing the Pakistan army in a genocidal attack on the Bengalis of what was East Pakistan, leading to Pakistan's being cut in two by India.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over. This archetypal third-world demagogue of the 1960s and 1970s hugely awes Ziring and Talbot; although Talbot calls Bhutto tragic and Ziring calls him an "evil genius", they both consider him brilliantly gifted - despite his lack of achievement, apart from urging Yahya Khan to attack East Pakistan rather than accommodate its claims to autonomy. Bhutto found the idea of opposition to himself unendurable. General Zia ul-Haq overthrew him, a solemn fanatic who saw 100 per cent Islam as the answer to everything. Zia found Bhutto hard to tolerate and hanged him. The general eventually died in an unexplained air crash. Benazir Bhutto, Bhutto's daughter, took over with her promise of clean government and its rapidly growing reputation for corruption. She was no more able to put up with an opposition than her father, nor could they stand her.

Through extra-parliamentary means, in came Nawaz Sharif with his assurances of integrity, his quickly earned fame for corruption and his inability to stand opposition. Finally, going beyond these books, as of October 1999, we have today's squeaky-clean epauletted messiah, General

Pervaiz Musharraf.

Now, in India too rulers have often been flagrantly corrupt, and Indira Gandhi for a couple of years governed as an outright dictator. But what for India has been exceptional has been the Pakistani norm: governments resorting to extra-parliamentary means to harass opposition politicians and the latter, after alleging (often all too plausibly) that elections have been rigged wholesale, using violent street protests to force the ouster of elected governments, and setting the scene for the dismissal of civilian rulers by heads of state or the military.

Our authors' efforts to explain this doleful Pakistani tendency are not convincing. One major factor is supposed to be Pakistan's failure, unlike India, to break the control of vast rural domains by feudal landowners through land reforms. Given the great social weight of a small class of rural barons, we are told, it is no wonder that Pakistani politics are confrontational and undemocratic. But the supposed Indian land reforms happened mostly on paper rather than on the ground; landed magnates ruling over a penurious peasantry still have vast power in Indian politics, too, which, nevertheless, has been largely democratic. A second reason for Pakistani despotism is said to be the authoritarian British viceregal tradition. But India too was subjected to that influence.

More plausibly, the authors point out that Pakistan, as a totally new state, had to be set up from scratch, making authoritarianism understandable. At the beginning, perhaps - but after more than 50 years? Ironically, in books that stress that Islam was so important for Indian Muslims that they had to set up a separate state, we get no serious assessment of the possible role of this religion in predisposing Pakistani rulers to dictatorship. Malik raises the issue, only to obscure it with a dense cloud of pompous affirmations that "ideal Islam" stands for all good things: egalitarianism, community, democracy, modernity.

All three books criticise individual rulers like Zia ul-Haq for illegitimately using Islam as a pretext for despotism, but the idea that the claim of indisputable "revealed" truth received from God promoted by Islam itself might be anti-liberal, is never glimpsed. Islam is put on a pedestal: rightly seen, it can never be a negative force, we are to understand. To see how strange is this assumption, one should note that among the several dozen states that are Islamic sisters of Pakistan, hardly one fails to be a byword for autocracy in the name of Islam. By contrast, for historians of India (apart from extreme Hindu nationalists) to exonerate Hinduism as perfect in principle would be a crass apologia; they are fascinated by the influence on Indian history of the mental habits and culture that Hinduism transmits; they have no compunctions about rightly attributing many of India's problems to undoubted aspects of Hinduism such as the caste system and the doctrine of karma.

Christianity is also a religion of absolute "divinely revealed" truths, yet this did not stop democracy from arising in the West. But western societies underwent radical secularisation before they established modern democracies. It is a safe bet that in the Islamic world, stable democracy will not arise before that distant day when Islam is sidelined. Apologetic historians like these three give no hint of this bleak prospect. "Pakistanis deserve better," exclaims Ziring at the end of his history of the country. True: they deserve, for instance, historians who, unlike this trio, are willing to examine the culture of Pakistan in a genuinely critical spirit.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer specialising in international affairs.

Pakistan: A Modern History

Author - Ian Talbot
ISBN - 1 85065 385 2
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £17.50
Pages - 432

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