The Past and Future of Pakistan

Nations are not born across a breakfast table. Their period of gestation is surely one of the more fascinating chapters in the study of history. The indisputable stature of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a master of the endgame, has led to a notion that Pakistan emerged out of a resolution passed in March 1940 at the Muslim League session in Lahore. The reality is more complicated. Pakistan emerged out of a fear of the future and pride in the past, but this fear began as a mood of anguish set in among the Muslims elite during the long decline of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century. The embryo had a long and turbulent existence, particularly during the generations when it remained shapeless.

This book is a history of an idea as it weaved and bobbed its way through dramatic events with rare resilience, sometimes disappearing from sight, but always resurrected either by the will of proponents or the mistakes of opponents. It began hesitantly in the shadows of the age of decline, in the 1750s, when the collapse of e Mughal Empire and the consequent disintegration of what is called ‘Muslim rule’ in India could no longer be disguised by explanations, theories or hope of revival.

Pakistan is a successor state to the Mughal Empire, the culmination of a journey that began as a search for ‘Muslim space’ in a post-Muslim dispensation, nurtured by a dread that became a conviction that a demographic minority would not be able to protect either itself or its faith unless it established cultural and political distance from an overwhelming majority Hindu presence. Muslims, who had lived in India for five centuries with a superiority complex, suddenly lurched into the consuming doubt of an inferiority complex which became self-perpetuating with every challenge that came up during different phases of turbulent colonial rule.

The infirmities of this idea were never recognized because they could only become evident in practice. An existentialist question was completely ignored: was Islam so weak that it could not survive as a minority presence? There was nothing in its glittering past to suggest this, but those who raised the question like the brilliant scholar-politician Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, were dismissed, ironically, as traitors to Islam.

The first phase consists of the years between 1739 and 1757. In 1739, a Persian marauder-king, Nadir Shah, entered Delhi as Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah’s ‘guest’. Two days later, Nadir Shah, using an untenable excuse, ordered a massacre which did not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. An estimated 20,000 were killed, women raped and th capital plundered of private and public wealth. After fifty-days of terror, Nadir Shah departed with a hoard of invaluable jewels, gold and coins, including the Kohinoor diamond and Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne. The Mughal Empire, a superpower three decades before, never recovered from this humiliation; it had failed in its basic duty, the safety of its subjects

Shah Waliullah, the premier Sunni theologian and intellectual of his age, read many meanings in the catastrophe. The security that Muslims had taken for granted was over. The disintegrating empire was being replaced by powerful regional dynasties that were largely Hindu. The most important Muslim principality, Awadh, was in the control of Shias, a ‘deviant’ sect that could not be trusted with the preservation of Islam, and who was in his eyes even worse than the infidel.  Nadir Shah, who broke the bent back of Mughals, was a Shia.

Shah Waliullah proposed a theory of distance and the protection of ‘Islamic purity’ as his prescription for a community that was threatened by the cultural power and military might of the infidel. While he thanked God for keeping the blood in his own veins ‘pure’ and ‘Arab’, he recognized that the majority of Indian Muslims were converts from Hinduism, there was enormous cultural overlap in their habits and behavior. He feared a lapse into Hindu practices among Indian Muslims in the absence of the religious leadership that had been preserved by political power. Islam could survive in India, he argued, only if Muslims maintained physical, ideological and emotional distance from Hindus. He urged Muslims to live so far from Hindus that they would not be able to see the smoke from their kitchens.

Shah Waliullah’s seminary would play a vital part in the shaping of north Indian Muslim mind in the nineteenth century, when British rule moved from a southern enclave and eastern corner to dominate the whole of the subcontinent. British rule originates in a minor but epoch-changing battle in 1757, in a village called Plassey, which ended Mughal rule in the richest trading province of the country, Bengal. The students at Shah Waliullah’s seminary however, were not so easily defeated. One of them, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, inspired the long jihad which began in 1825 and continued long after his death in 1831, on the battlefield at Balakote (today, a principal centre of the Pakistan Taliban).

Mistrust of Hindus, fundamental to the theory of distance, became the catechism of Muslim politics when it sought to find its place in the emerging polity of British rule in the early twentieth century. The very first demand made by Muslim notables, when Indian legislation was proposed, was unique, that Muslims be elected by fellow Muslims only. This was the ‘separate electorates’ scheme which the British happily endorsed into law. A perceptive young man, who would later be honored as the father of Pakistan, recognized the implications immediately, even as he disassociated himself from the demand. Jinnah said, as early as in the first decade of the twentieth century that separate electorates would lead to the destruction of Indian unity; and so they did.

Jinnah was an exceptional product of British India. He loved Shakespeare and fashionably tailored suits, called English his mother tongue, had an upper lip stiffer than an earl’s, and had to be dissuaded by his father when he wanted to join the stage in England after a law degree from Lincoln’s Inn. He desired freedom as passionately as anyone else, but unlike the father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, he would not break the law in the process, since he considered that incompatible with his professional ethics as a lawyer. Ironically, on the eve of a movement that changed the course of the freedom struggle but left a residual disappointment that alienated Muslims from Gandhi, Jinnah warned Gandhi about the dangers of mixing religion with politics, and indulging Muslim mullah firebrands.

Between 1919 and February 1922, Gandhi became the first non-Muslim to be given leadership of a jihad. Gandhi accepted the ‘dictatorship’ (a term that clearly had different connotations then), but on one condition: that this jihad against the British would be non-violent. Muslim leaders, including the most important ulema accepted, and absorbed Gandhi into what is known as the Khilafat movement, or the Caliphate movement, since it was launched in support of the Ottoman caliph of Islam and his suzerainty over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The caliph was the last symbol of Muslim power against the sweeping tide of British and European imperialism, which is where it intersected with Gandhi’s needs. He saw in this the opportunity to unite Hindus and Muslims against the British Raj, irrespective of their starting points. Having achieved Indian unity, Gandhi promised Swaraj within a year. Instead, by February 1922, he realized that he could not contain the violence that was bursting in corners across the country. Gandhi arbitrarily abandoned the movement, to the shock of his Muslim supporters. The bitterness of the failure was so deep that Muslims never really returned to Gandhi’s Congress. But this did not take them directly to the Muslim League either; suffice it to say that the search for ‘Muslim space’ did not catch fire until it was converted into a demand for ‘Islamic space’, and Gandhi was successfully converted by Muslim League leaders into an insidious Hindu ‘bania’ whose secularism was nothing but a hypocritical term for Hindu oppression and the consequent destruction of Islam in the subcontinent. Islam was in danger, and Pakistan was the fortress where it could be saved. With an advocate as powerful as Jinnah, enough Muslims were persuaded that the man who had spent his life caring about their welfare and eventually lost it in their cause was actually their sly enemy.

Jinnah’s forensic skills were at their finest in the court of public opinion, even when his sarcasm was devoid of finesse, as when he described Gandhi as ‘that Hindu revivalist.’ Jinnah, who drank alcohol, went to the races for pleasure, never fasted using Ramadan, and could not recite a single ayat of the Quran, created such a hypnotic spell upon some Muslims that they believed that he got up much before dawn for the Tahajjud namaaz, the optional sixth prayer which only the very pious offer.

Jinnah clearly believed that he could exploit a slogan he had once warned against, ‘Islam in danger,’ and then dispatch it to the rubbish bin reserved for the past when it had outlived its utility. In his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Jinnah made a case for a secular Pakistan that would have been applauded in the Constituent Assembly of India. The kindest interpretation of Jinnah’s politics is that he wanted a secular state with a Muslim majority, just as Gandhi wanted a secular state with a Hindu majority. The difference was, however, crucial: Gandhi wanted an inclusive nation, Jinnah an exclusive state. When on 13 June 1947, Gandhi was asked whether those who called God Rama and Krishna instead of Allah would be turned out of Pakistan, he answered only for India: ‘ We shall worship God both as Krishna and Karim (one of the names of Allah) and show the world we refuse to go mad.’ Gandhi’s commitment to religion never meant commitment to a single religion.

Both Jinnah and Gandhi died in 1948, the first a victim of tuberculosis and the second to assassination. India had clarity about the secular ideology of the state, completed work on an independent Constitution by 1950, and held its first free, adult franchise elections in 1952. The debate in Pakistan about the role of Islam in its polity began while Jinnah was still alive. The father of Pakistan was challenged by the godfather of Pakistan, Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and accurately described as the architect of the Islamist movement in South Asia and the most powerful influence on its development worldwide. Islamist did not, and does not, have much popular support in Pakistan, as elections prove whenever they are held; but it’s impact on legislation and political life is far stronger than a thin support base would justify. Maududi’s disciple, General Zia uL Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1976 with an autocratic fist for a decade, crippled liberals with a neat question: if Pakistan had not been created for Islam, what was it, just a second-rate India? Zia changed the motto of the Pakistan army to ‘Jihad fi sabil Allah’ (Jihad in the name of Allah) and worked to turn governance into ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Rule of the Prophet) through a rigorous application of the Sharia law, as interpreted by the most medieval minds in the country. But the ‘Islamization’ of the Constitution preceded Zia and efforts to reverse his legacy have not succeeded, because a strain of theocracy runs through the DNA of the idea of Pakistan. The effort to covert Pakistan into a Taliban-style Islamic emirate will continue in one form or the other, at a slow or faster pace.

The challenge before South Asia is the same as anywhere in the post-colonial world: the evolution to a modern state. Economic growth is an aspect of modernity but far from the whole of it. In my view, a modern state has four fundamental commitments: democracy, secularism, gender equality and economic equity. Civil society knows in Pakistan the threat posed by Maududi Islamists and understands that it is an existential battle. As Sir Hilary Synnott, British High Commissioner in Pakistan between 2001 and 2003, and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Regional Coordinator for South Iraq in 2003 and 2004, points out, ‘Pakistan’s structural and historical weaknesses are such that nothing short of a transformation of the country’s body politic and institutions will be necessary. This change he points out sagely can only be brought about by Pakistanis.

Indians and Pakistanis are the same people; why then have the two nations travelled on such different trajectories? The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan weaker than the Pakistani. Islam, as Maulana Azad repeatedly pointed out, cannot be the basis of nationhood; perhaps it required a scholar of Islam to comprehend what an Anglophile like Jinnah could not. Islam did not save the Pakistan of 1947 from its own partition, and in 1971 the eastern wing separated to form Bangladesh. At the moment of writing, Pakistan displays the characteristics of a ‘jelly state’; neither will it achieve stability, nor disintegrate. Its large arsenal of nuclear weapons makes it a toxic jelly state in a region that seems condemned to sectarian, fratricidal and international wars. The thought is not comforting.

Pakistan can become a stable, modern nation, but only if the children of the father of Pakistan, Jinnah, can defeat the ideological heirs of the godfather, Maududi.


Courtesy of :Tinderbox by M.J. Akbar, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.


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