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Still on the rack

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 28, 2015
Determined by history: Pakistan is a nation defined by the alterity of its origin, partly by volition but in large part by force of circumstances. Students attend the 68th Independence Day celebrations at the mausoleum of its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Determined by history: Pakistan is a nation defined by the alterity of its origin, partly by volition but in large part by force of circumstances. Students attend the 68th Independence Day celebrations at the mausoleum of its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.   -  Reuters

The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience; Christophe Jaffrelot; Random House; ₹799

The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience; Christophe Jaffrelot; Random House; ₹799

The very idea of Pakistan was highly ambiguous and complex and it continues to be a space rife with tensions

For someone who has worked many years on modern India’s political history, a scholarly excursus to the estranged western neighbour was perhaps a logical step. Between Christophe Jaffrelot’s earlier volume on Pakistan, titled Nationalism Without a Nation (2002), to the current work, he seems to have maintained the thesis of Pakistan as a nation defined by the alterity of its origin, partly by volition but in large part by force of circumstances.

Recent times have been fertile for scholarship on Pakistan, for reasons that its citizens may have mixed feelings about. Older postures about Pakistan’s emergence as a consequence of sinister imperial ‘divide-and-rule’ policies have been supplanted over the years by a focus on the high politics of rival communal elites during the British Raj. In turn, this thesis has been challenged from widely different perspectives by Faisal Devji ( Muslim Zion, 2013) and Venkat Dhulipala ( Creating a New Medina, 2015), which argue for an explicit ethno-nationalist motivation in the creation of Pakistan.

Jaffrelot’s very substantial volume assembles a number of earlier writings on Pakistan’s emergence, its tortured oscillation between democracy and autocracy, and its continuing inability to negotiate Islam’s status within state ideology. It concludes with a descriptive chapter, rich in detail, of Pakistan’s current state of endemic sectarian violence. The nation’s resilience, which earns mention in the title, is seen to lie in the commitment of some of its ethnic groups, even as others threaten to break away.

Pakistan’s origins, Jaffrelot points out, lay in the movement for political representation by the ‘minority Muslims’ of the British Raj, ie, by the communal elite in provinces such as Bombay and the United Provinces. Muslim political mobilisation here was driven by two contrary impulses: an attachment to the courtly culture from the days of Mughal hegemony and an acute sense of vulnerability to modernising trends among Hindus, which assured them a more credible claim to sharing power within the Raj.

The ‘separate but equal’ ideology that the Muslim League adopted did not gain much traction within Muslim majority provinces. Cross-communal alliances had remarkable success in several of these regions, as in Punjab, where the National Unionist Party knitted together rural elites from both Hindu and Muslim faiths. That cement could not bind in Bengal, where the Muslims were largely sharecroppers bitterly oppressed by zamindars, largely Hindu. Yet a populist cross-communal mobilisation did have fair success here, holding out till the bitter end-days of the Raj for a unified Bengal province.

Jaffrelot highlights how this assertion of Bengali cultural-linguistic identity was quashed by a local Muslim League leadership associated with Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Interestingly, in his recent working of iconoclastic historiography, Perry Anderson ( The Indian Ideology, 2012) holds Jawaharlal Nehru responsible for doing precisely the same with elements in the Congress, such as Sarat Chandra Bose, who sought a united Bengal while communal furies consumed the rest of the nation.

In Sindh, the scope for forging cross-community identities was limited by demography. Muslims tended to be rural and agrarian while Hindus were mostly urban and mercantile. And in the frontier, the populist charisma of Badshah Khan and his effort to reawaken a sense of Pashtu solidarity that transcended frontiers, kept the sectarian appeal of religion at bay.

Matters started snowballing towards a separation soon after Nehru rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. Jinnah’s call for a day of ‘direct action’ led to riots in Calcutta and elsewhere, claiming up to 10,000 victims. That, as Ayesha Jalal put in her landmark work on Partition ( The Sole Spokesman, 1985), “destroyed the India of Jinnah’s dreams”.

Jaffrelot takes issue with this judgement since Jinnah could not, at that point, be said to have had a coherent plan for India’s political future. Further, in seeking to keep Bengal and Punjab united while insisting on separateness elsewhere, Jinnah was torn between irreconcilable principles, which resulted in “counterproductive decisions”.

“Highly ambiguous and complex” as Pakistan as an idea was, it left on its consummation a trail of bitter communal estrangement, large-scale violence and a war that led to the partition of Muslim-majority Kashmir. The denial of Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir, which seemed ironclad by all criteria — and Delhi’s rapprochement with Kabul — fuelled a sense of insecurity and a lingering suspicion that India intended to undo the new state.

Insecurity led the new state to embrace a unitary structure, quite contrary to the federal principles on which the Pakistan campaign had run. The contest was referred to the Basic Principles Committee — promptly absorbed into the popular imagination as the Bengali Punjabi Controversy — and became the seed from which a cataclysmic breakup occurred in 1971.

India inherited very similar issues, though it had the advantage of geographical coherence. The Congress, besides, had a political profile across the country, unlike the Muslim League in Pakistan, which was a transplant from the Muslim minority provinces of the Raj. And then, as Jalal has pointed out, India inherited the bureaucratic and administrative apparatus of the Raj while Pakistan had to create it all afresh.

Pakistan remains a country stretched on the rack in Jaffrelot’s reading. There are three kinds of tensions that define its contemporary state: between unitary nationhood and competing federal tendencies; between civic governance and the claims of Islam as state ideology; and between democratic forces and an army that has usurped the nationalist mantle. As it negotiates a turbulent present determined by these contradictions, Pakistan’s future trajectory remains too complex for easy forecasts.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer, researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on August 28, 2015
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