Pakistan after the Partition

The period covered is till year, 2005

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On September 11, 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah died of tuberculosis. Just a little more than a year earlier, Pakistan, the nation that Jinnah had devoted the last years of his life to creating, celebrated its independence. Fittingly, Jinnah had served as the nation’s first governor-general, continuing in the role of the Quaid-i-Azam, or great leader, of India’s Muslims that he had held for years.

Jinnah’s successor as the leader of Pakistan, already holding the office of prime minister, was Liaquat Ali Khan, who had served as Jinnah’s chief lieutenant in Pakistan’s independence negotiations. Like Jinnah, Liaquat Ali was a westernized, secular figure. Unhappy with that and frustrated by the prime minister’s failure to act aggressively with regard to the issue of Kashmir, a small group of conspirators arranged to have Liaquat Ali assassinated in October 1951. Subsequently, Pakistan fell under the control, first, of a series of pedestrian civil bureaucrats reared in the British service traditions and, after 1958, under the steel frame of martial ‘law’.

Pakistan’s first years of independence, therefore, were quite different from those in neighbouring India, where the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and the government’s status as the inheritor of the subcontinent’s many traditions provided a large measure of political stability and continuity. Pakistan, instead, had to create a nation almost from scratch. Unlike in India, there was no logic to Pakistan, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that the country was divided into two wings. West Pakistan was carved from the former British Indian provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan (from the Northwest Frontier Province) and parts of the Punjab and Kashmir. It contained the nation’s first capital, Karachi, as well as most of its major military installations. East Pakistan, the other wing was made up mostly of the eastern portion of Bengal province. Its population, which was larger than that of the western wing, had a vastly different culture from that of West Pakistan, and maintained separatist sentiments of its own. Further, West Pakistani politicians hesitated to weaken their power by granting the easterners the representation in the national government that their population justified. Beyond these considerations was the fact that Pakistan had effectively seceded from a much larger and longer-lasting entity, India. To novelist Salman Rushdie, who traces his heritage back to both countries, to build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface. This building process continues.

The commander-in-chief of Pakistan’s army, Mohammad Ayub Khan, seized political control in 1958, and the nation’s subsequent history was one of military coups and counter coups punctuated by occasional, quasi-democratic elections. Early in Ayub Khan’s rule, Pakistani leaders moved their capital from Karachi, which lay far away from the nation’s other population centres and military installations, to a new city, Islamabad.

Ayub Khan’s first major challenger was Fatima Jinnah, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s sister, who ran for president of Pakistan in 1964 but did not win because of Ayub Khan’s limiting of the franchise in managed elections. His second opponent was an East Pakistani Bengali politician, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who emerged to prominence in 1966 as head of the so-called Awami League. Rahman called for greater autonomy for East Pakistan, including an independent military and a separate currency. His third opponent was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a sophisticated politician descended from a wealthy Sindhi family. Ali Bhutto had risen to prominence as a diplomat under Ayub Khan but had since split with the leader. He formed the so-called Pakistan People’s Party in 1967, pledging a sort of ‘Islamic socialism.’ In 1968, both Mujibur Rahman and Ali Bhutto were arrested, although far from halting Pakistan’s apparent fragmentation, the arrests inspired civil unrest in both West and East Pakistan among the two leaders’ supporters. Ayub Khan retired in 1969, turning power over to another general, Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, who was willing to use greater force to limit public expressions of political discontent, especially in the east.

In December 1970, Pakistan held nationwide elections, the results which showed that strong boundaries of cultural and political interests separated the nation’s two wings. The two great victors were Mujibur Rahman, whose party nearly swept all the allotted seats to East Pakistan in the National Assembly in Pakistan’s new capital of Islamabad, and Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party took most votes in the West. His decisive victory should have allowed Mujibur Rahman to become Pakistan’s prime minister, but neither Ali Bhutto, now serving as Deputy Prime Minister, or Yahya Khan, were willing to accept a Bengali as the leader of Pakistan. When the three proved unable to come to an agreement, East Pakistan declared its independence as Bangladesh, and the Pakistan Army failed to hold its recalcitrant eastern wing. The Indian Army stepped in, as Indian leaders were fearful of a massive wave of refugees crossing the border into Calcutta and the rest of Indian West Bengal, and the independence of Bangladesh came to fruition in December 1971.

Pakistan Splits: The War for Bangladesh

One of the clearest of the arbitrary borders left in the wake of India’s partition in 1947 was the separation between the eastern and western ‘wings’ of the new nation of Pakistan. Even though the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of both wings were Muslim, they had little else in common. The Punjabis, Sindhis and Pathans of West Pakistan had completely different languages and cultural traditions than the Bengalis of East Pakistan. In fact, the easterners had greater affinity towards the Hindu Bengalis of Calcutta and the rest of Indian West Bengal.

 In 1966, the politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, unhappy with the fact that his Bengali home of East Pakistan was often ignored by leaders in West Pakistan, produced a document that was to provide the foundation of an independent Bangladesh, a political partition of Pakistan that would echo the partition of India in 1947. His six-point program called for nearly full autonomy for East Pakistan; new electoral procedures; a separate East Pakistani militia; separate currency; independent control over foreign earnings; and almost complete control over taxation in the province. Pakistan’s government could not approve these demands, but when Rahman’s party won nearly all East Pakistan’s assembly seats in 1970, he could no longer be ignored. After Rahman called for a general strike in East Pakistan, the nation’s military leader, General Yahya Khan, sent a large force of 60,000 troops to the east to maintain order.

 In March 1971, brutal fighting broke out between these troops and the local people, who now demanded full independence and formed themselves into militias. Rahman was arrested and imprisoned, and millions of Bengalis fled across the border into India to escape the expanding violence. At the United Nations, India decried the bloodbath in East Pakistan and grew concerned about how they were to feed and house millions of refugees crossing a Bengali border that had recently been created. The United States for its part, sided with Pakistan, unhappy with India’s flirtations with the Soviet Union. In October, a large, Indian-trained force of Bengalis moved back into East Pakistan to do battle with Yahya Khan’s troops. They were followed by three divisions of the Indian army, supported by the Air Force. India and Pakistan were now fighting their third war since independence.

 Pakistani aircraft attacked Indian cities in the West, and India responded with its much greater air-power capability, stifling any possible Pakistani advances. In the east, India’s forces moved quickly on the local administrative capital of Dhaka, as Pakistan’s troops, now holding out among a very hostile population, could not hope for any reinforcements. Pakistan surrendered on December 15, 1971, and the new nation of Bangladesh was born. Mujibur Rahman returned to Dhaka in triumph. The Indian subcontinent had once again been partitioned.

 As had been the case in Pakistan’s early years, at first the new leaders of Bangladesh clung to a democratic ideal, but by 1974 Mujibur Rahman abandoned democratic processes in favour of a more powerful executive branch, citing excessive corruption and other internal threats to the nation. He was assassinated in a military coup in Dhaka, the nation’s capital, in August 1975, and Bangladesh succumbed to a series of military dictatorships of varying degrees of effectiveness and severity for years. In recent years, Bangladesh has relied on legitimately elected leaders, but it remains subject to political violence and instability.

In Pakistan itself, Ali Bhutto rose to the pinnacle of leadership. After a strong denunciation during negotiations in the United Nations Security Council of India’s interference in the war in East Pakistan, Bhutto returned to Pakistan to find that he had secured the backing of the nation’s military and civil elite. During a non-violent coup, General Yahya Khan was convinced to step aside, and Bhutto replaced him as prime minister. Under his leadership, Pakistan’s politicians devised and approved a new constitution, which took effect on August 14, 1973. It was Pakistan’s third. Among its major changes from previous constitutions was the declaration that Islam shall be the state religion of Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, by contrast, had declared in 1947 that Pakistan was to have complete freedom of religion, that religious caste or creed . . . has nothing to do with the state.

In 1977, after elections had been deemed unsatisfactory by Ali Bhutto’s opponents, the prime minister was forced from power by yet another military coup, this one led by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto himself was imprisoned and, in April 1979 executed after being found guilty of conspiracy to engage in political murder in a mysterious incident in 1974. After a reasonably peaceful period, during which Zia ul-Haq largely managed to maintain order as well as his own popularity, the General died in an airplane crash in August 1988. Among his strongest legacies was the increased presence of Islamic tradition in government, such as elements of Sharia, Islamic law as described in the Koran. Zia ul-Haq did not want to create a theocracy in Pakistan; his feelings were more sophisticated and subtle, although they still differed notably from those of Jinnah, the nation’s founder. Zia ul-Haq argued in 1981 that Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state. Take out Judaism fromIsrael and it will collapse like a house of cards. Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it would collapse.

Sharia is open to varied interpretation, as Pakistan’s politicians and legal experts were to discover. Despite Zia ul-Haq’s views and the emergence of conservative Islamic political parties, though, most of Pakistan’s elite cling to the notion that their nation should remain a secular one, where Muslims can live and worship free from oppression. Most Pakistanis have been content to let Islam guide individual behaviour rather than become the religion of the state. In this, they seem to hold more to Jinnah’s conception of Pakistan as a nation of people bound together by tradition and culture as well as religion, rather than Zia ul-Haq’s notion of religious ideology alone.

This secular emphasis has helped Islamabad politicians hold together a nation containing a broad diversity of linguistic and ethnic groups. Since most of these groups are Muslim, there are fewer sources of religious tension than in neighbouring India. Nevertheless, linguistic, economic, and cultural tensions still exist among these people, thrown together by the creation of arbitrary geographical borders. For example, although Urdu is the nation’s main language; the tongue in which government business and most educational instruction are conducted, 48% of the population speaks Punjabi as their first language. Other major languages include Sindhi as well as Pashto, one of the languages spoken by the many tribal groups who inhabit the frontier regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some members of these groups advocate complete separation from Pakistan. Another outspoken and discontented group, the Muhajirs, is made up of migrants from India, many of them wealthy and with strong economic ties with India. Most have settled in Karachi and have little long-term personal identification with Pakistan. Hindu or Sikh groups in Pakistan, meanwhile, are quite small and not organized in such a way to allow meaningful communal action.

After a brief period of government under President Ghulam Ishaq Khan following Zia’s death in 1988, Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto became prime minister. Among her promises was to return Pakistan to status as a full democracy, and many Pakistanis were happy that a civilian government had now replaced the military one of the last 11 years. The pattern of factional squabbling, charges and counter charges continued, however. During the 1990s, Benazir Bhutto returned to power once, holding office from October 1993 to February 1997. Nawab Sharif, her main opponent and the head of the Muslim League, held office both before and after her second term. Both presided over civilian elected governments. Pakistan’s political instability created a vacuum of authority in which the nation’s elite, army, and traditional landlords especially, wielded a great deal of influence, however. When Sharif made the decision to force aside his army chief of staff, General Pervez Musharraf, the general staged yet another of Pakistan’s military coups. Musharraf took over Pakistan on October 12, 1999 and remains the nation’s leader with Sharif and Benazir Bhutto occasionally voicing vocal opposition.

Pakistan’s political instability has shadowed the nation’s role in international politics. Beginning in the 1950s, and partly in response to India’s non-aligned status, Pakistan became a major ally of the United States during the Cold War. As such, Pakistan received a great deal of military and economic aid from the West. Being a recipient of military aid may have given Pakistani leaders a false sense of the nation’s military capabilities; it was only after their loss in the war over Bangladesh that Pakistani leaders stopped trying to be India’s military equal. Then, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became a staging point for Western efforts to support anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, bringing in more aid, much of which was designed to support the more than a million Afghan refugees who fled across the porous border between the two countries. During the 1980s, for instance, Pakistan was the third largest recipient of American aid after Israel and Egypt, and it was described as a bulwark against the spread of communism.

In the new millennium, Pakistan found itself again at the front line of international conflict, this time with the fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists based in Afghanistan. Pledging to support the United States and other nations in their attempts to control Afghanistan’s Taliban fundamentalists and their global allies, the Islamabad government has once again been the recipient of foreign aid. One unforeseen consequence of this in contentious Pakistan has been the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in some segments of the populace, although the government, and most of the population, remains committed to secularism in public life.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah had worried, in the years and months leading up to independence, whether he might inherit a moth-eaten Pakistan, shorn of the economic capabilities of West Bengal and eastern Punjab, both of which were awarded to India. As it happened, Pakistan proved very capable of supporting itself, at least until the 1990s, when many signs of trouble became apparent. In the 1980s, in fact, World Bank statistics suggested that Pakistan was on the verge of crossing a significant economic boundary: moving from the status of a low-income country to that of a middle-income one. Certain areas of the country, especially the Punjab, remained strong in its agricultural production, and by the end of the 1980s, Pakistan was producing a substantial surplus of food grains, as well as cotton, much of which was sold to the Islamic MidIdle-East. In industry too, Pakistan held its own despite much government manipulation and corruption. By the 1990s, however, poverty was increasing, industry had reached a state of stagnation, and the nation’s national debt was so extensive that Pakistan was nearly bankrupt.

In May 1998, Pakistan staged its first public tests of nuclear weapons. Always a nation with a cohort of highly educated citizens, Pakistan had been theoretically capable of building nuclear weapons for years. Only after India publicly tested its own weapons did Pakistan respond with its tests, though, and both nations are now officially members of a select group of acknowledged nuclear powers. This has inspired increased tensions between the two nations, which, since partition, have gone to war three times. With nuclear capability comes a sense of responsibility, however, and leaders on both sides have made halting gestures that suggest that they understand they must live side by side-that they must come to terms with the arbitrary geographical borders of 1947.

Some of these gestures are simple: for instance, after many years, it is now possible to travel by bus between the Indian city of Amritsar and the Pakistani city of Lahore. The two stand only 40 miles apart and were the centre of violence that attended the partition in 1947. In March 2004, the Indian national cricket team made its first ever tour of Pakistan; both nations love the sport and matches between the two have sometimes looked like symbolic wars. The tour went peacefully, even though the Indian team defeated its Pakistani counterpart. Also, since 2003, summit meetings between Pervez Musharraf and his Indian counterparts Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh created still more hopes for stronger ties between the two countries.

There is little chance that Pakistan and India will be reunited in the foreseeable future, or that the problem of Kashmir will be solved to the satisfaction of all sides. The far greater possibility is that, as has been so often the case in the history of the subcontinent, these borders will become increasingly irrelevant—that the arbitrary border imposed in 1947 and after are, like all arbitrary borders, subject to change. If both Indians and Pakistanis can move across the borderline easily, and if goods and ideas flow just as easily, ordinary people on both sides of the border may yet move again towards a new version of the subcontinent’s historical ideal of unity and diversity.

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