Nuclear Identity: Pakistan's Domestic Challenges

Article excerpt

JARED SHIRCK, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

After the euphoria of Pakistan's fiftieth anniversary celebration two years ago, its leaders refocused on the major economic and social problems within the nation. Since then, Pakistan has undertaken major policy changes and has confronted what the nation considers to be serious political threats to its well-being. Pakistan's response to its economic crisis within the context of the recent nuclear tests in South Asia is a fascinating example of the balance its leaders must strike in negotiating both international and domestic accord. Pakistan's greatest problems remain a combination of long-standing ailments and budding dilemmas; its government seeks new solutions but still targets many of the same challenges that it has faced since its inception. By examining the country's political background and economic quandary in light of this past summer's nuclear tests, the nation's ability to manage crises can be better understood. Pakistan's leaders used the nuclear tests as an impetus to overcome ethnic and social divisions, binding the nation together in an effort to alleviate its many domestic woes.

Levels of Discord

The current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has attempted to implement change in several realms. On assuming office, Sharif immediately began consolidating the parliament while simultaneously decreasing the powers of the president. The latter move brought him into serious conflict with President Farooq Leghari. The dispute was resolved in December 1997, when General Jehangir Karamat, the army chief-of-staff, joined Sharif in calling for Leghari's resignation. Pakistan and the international community watched with mixed emotions as Leghari was forced to step down, leaving Sharif in charge of the government. After Leghari's removal, the electorate brought Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML), back to office with the largest majority in the country's parliamentary history.

The resignation brought mixed reactions from the international community because, although democracy had survived, the crisis demonstrated the military's still dominant role in the government. Sharif enjoys immense support among Punjabis but is greatly resented by a large portion of the population. If the government were called into question, General Karamat's troops would invariably have to settle the controversy. Uncertainty over the military's allegiance further complicates Pakistan's already tense domestic politics.

Over the last half-century, social and political difficulties have beset Pakistan. Adult illiteracy and infant mortality are very high, and the military has implicitly maintained control of the country for nearly half its existence, leaving democracy on tenuous ground. One chronic problem has been the position of mohajirs, the refugees who crossed the newly created border at the partition of India in 1947, in Pakistani society. These patrons, including Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sought to form a protective harbor for Muslims in India and claimed the northwestern part, which was predominantly Muslim. With fervor and excitement, they swept into the generally moderate area, more than doubling the population of the city of Karachi within days. They constituted a very diverse population, speaking different languages and espousing different customs. The force uniting them was their common Muslim religion.

The better-educated mohajirs soon commanded a majority of the professional jobs in the Karachi-based government. Economic and class division between mohajirs and the rest of Pakistani society became pronounced. In an effort to reduce mohajir influence, Ayub Khan, a Pathan military leader, moved the capital to Islamabad in the 1960s and former Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated quotas to secure a equitable distribution of university positions and government jobs. While the native Sindhis, Baluchis, Punjabis, and Pathans lauded these changes, the mohajirs felt unjustly abused. …