Transcending Divisions: The Consolidation of Pakistan

Article excerpt

DURING BRITISH COLONIAL RULE, a superb feat of political engineering kept together several nationalities clearly differentiated by religion, ethnicity, language, and cultural tradition. As a result, the withdrawal of the colonial power in 1947 brought to the surface national tensions similar to those which had already led to the creation of scores of nation-states in Europe, each based on the principle of national self-determination. The inevitable creation of Pakistan as an independent sovereign state in 1947 illustrates the historic existence of multiple nationalities in South Asia. It is further substantiated by the fact that when the eastern wing of Pakistan broke away in 1971, it did not return to India, which had militarily intervened to bring about the secession, but asserted its independence from India as strongly as Pakistan has always done.

In contemporary South Asia, states like India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka continue to be multiethnic and multi-national states. For each of these states, internal consolidation and cohesion has depended on the successful resolution of great sub-regional rivalry and competition. Occasionally, internal conflict has loomed so large as to create a genuine crisis of governability.

The case of Pakistan seems unique in many respects. It is the only country in which the internal contradictions that existed between the two wings of the country, separated by more than a thousand miles of hostile India, exploded into a major bloody conflict leading to the emergence of a third state in the subcontinent, Bangladesh. Paradoxically, the trauma of this separation led to deep soul-searching in Pakistan which, in the due course of time, profoundly affected its political culture. The loss of East Pakistan in 1971 did not exacerbate the tensions within West Pakistan, even though these tensions had been largely neglected during the pre-war attempts at mediation of the East-West conflict. Rather, the new Pakistan rediscovered a set of principles and allegiances which have played an important role in the country's consolidation.

First and foremost, the people of Pakistan widely attributed the secession of East Pakistan to a breakdown of democracy, and subsequently moved to re-establish a democratic system under the leadership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. During the five years that were available to him before the military coup d'etat, Bhutto disseminated an abiding faith in democracy to Pakistanis far beyond the middle classes. The common people of Pakistan were enfranchised and empowered to decide their own destiny. The loyalty to a liberal democratic polity that the nation developed withstood extreme repression, as well as the lure of substitute political systems masquerading as democracy, during the decade that followed the military coup. The people of Pakistan clung to their conviction that the tragedy of East Pakistan's separation would be avoided in the new Pakistan only through a democratic framework that allowed the federating provinces to mediate openly and justly their competing claims to national resources and opportunities. Democracy, with all the imperfections to which it is prone in a developing country, has become an article of faith with the Pakistani people since the 1970s.

The armed forces have in recent years also changed their attitude toward national government, demonstrating a greater respect for civil society and elected representation. In recent political crises, the armed forces have not only resisted calls by misguided political elements to intervene, but have also thrown their support behind democratically-elected governments. A set of new conventions and tacit agreements to refine consultative procedures among the executive, the legislature, the governing bureaucracy, and the armed forces has supplanted the military coup d' etat as their chosen form of influence. Recognizing their fundamental task to guard the nation against external aggression, the armed forces have demonstrated their preference that the elected representatives of the people proceed unhindered in political leadership. …