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.

A second principle that has contributed to the cohesion of Pakistan since 1970 is the clear perception of a common Indus Valley identity from the North West Frontier city of Gilgit to the eastern port city of Karachi. Though diverse in language and local customs, these regions had through the centuries evolved a shared civilizational texture that at the same time differentiated them from metropolitan India. This distinct identity had kept these territories a loose, rather than central, part of the Delhi-based empires of historical India long before the creation of Pakistan. The conflict with India in 1971 strengthened the perception of a national rather than provincial identity and greatly intensified the westward orientation of Pakistan, strengthening its relations with the Islamic states to the west. The hospitality Pakistan extended to three million Afghan refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan testified to this sense of heightened cultural unity.

This perception of unity after 1970 helped integrate the Pakistani provinces into the larger nation, especially Punjab and the North West Frontier Province, but also the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan. The rapidly expanding middle class in Sindh, the east-central province which contains the port city of Karachi, increasingly identified itself with the emerging democratic forces in the country. And in Baluchistan, the western province bordering Afghanistan, the Afghan crisis contributed significantly to the gradual subordination of tribal identities to a pervasive Islamic consciousness. Thus, democracy and a new awareness of cultural homogeneity reinforced each other in periods of civil rule to contain centrifugal forces. In a sharp rebuttal of the theory that Bangladeshi nationalism would have a domino effect on the entire country, the process of federal consolidation accelerated during the post-war period, with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) playing a decisive role in saving and strengthening the Federation.

Third, nation-building in Pakistan has been considerably helped by the dominant faith of the people in Islam as a tolerant, forward-looking, moderate, and dynamic religion. Like all great religions, the global sweep of Islam is characterized by unity in diversity. In the Indian subcontinent, the preeminence of the Sufi Islamic tradition, with its emphasis on benevolence, exercised a beneficial influence in rounding off the sharp edges of the orthodox doctrine. In earlier centuries, large-scale conversions to Islam, especially among Hindu castes consigned to lower orders of the social hierarchy, owed more to this benign character of subcontinental Islam than to any other single factor.

In Pakistan, the confluence of Islam and modernization has not produced unbridgeable cleavages in society. The internationalist outlook of average Pakistanis makes them readily adapt to changing realities rather than uncritically adopt tradition. The strong national experience in tertiary education illustrates the relative ease with which Pakistanis adopt scientific and technological advancements. Far from holding back the nation in tradition or triggering acrimony and strife, Islam in Pakistan has contributed to national cohesion.

Fourth, the vibrant awareness in Pakistan of the need for accelerated economic development has led to greater national assimilation. The interdependence of the provinces in agriculture and irrigation and in capital and manufacture, as well as the great mobility of the work force, have combined to create ever-widening parameters of common interests. National economic plans rely on a pattern of coordinating policymaking at the federal and provincial levels. With a higher level of consumption than perhaps any other South Asian state, Pakistan constitutes a dynamic internal common market where shared economic interests can outweigh regional differences.

Problems and Prognosis

In spite of these unifying trends, realism demands that policymakers and society at large remain vigilant about the forces that can potentially oppose and undermine national democracy and cohesion. Pakistan's decision to opt for liberal democracy is irreversible, but there are still residual dangers to the success of representative government. Most political parties, for example, lack deep institutionalization. Coalitions of political parties in various stages of formation dominate the current political landscape, both in the government and in the opposition. In addition to these political parties, there are also many small interest groups, some of which exhibit a parochial rather than national outlook. The weakness of the political party system today is demonstrated by the success of a disproportionate number of individuals, running independently from political parties, in national or provincial elections.

In addition to the lack of institutionalization of political parties, the rising tide of expectations created by a democratic system threatens to undermine its success. Driven by the memory of a glorious past and the vision of a better life, Pakistanis are impatient for results. The slow pace of democratically-oriented reforms and the very din and confusion of democracy make sections of the population restless and anxious. In Muslim societies, would-be messiahs are never in short supply. Still, a vast majority of Pakistanis associate themselves with mainstream politics, as clearly demonstrated by the results of several elections, rather than giving up on the ability of democratic government to cope with the challenges it faces.

One recurrent challenge national governments have faced in Pakistan, in spite of the growing national cohesion since the 1970s, is the challenge of uniting and balancing provinces with different ethnicities and languages, all hallowed by time and tradition. The province of Punjab has often dominated the federal government because of its large size and population. Punjabis also constitute the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani army, which has ruled Pakistan for extended periods of time in the last fifty years. This disproportionate influence in the military has aggravated perceptions that Punjab exercises an unfair share of national power.

There is, however, strong evidence that inter-provincial tensions have sharply diminished as democracy has taken root. The PPP owes its genesis to the strong faith of its founders in a genuine federation. Its tenacious pan-Pakistani approach to national problems, even during periods of great duress, has transformed the political values of the country; even the major parties which oppose the PPP-led coalition government today aspire to a similar national status, transcending provincial interests. Issues that caused contention between the provinces, like the division of water or construction of dams on the critical Indus River, have been successfully addressed through the framework of parliamentary debate. An extended system of popular political pressure now operates from the village level to the highest power structures, often led by an articulate middle class which is now active in all the provinces of Pakistan. Furthermore, the press enjoys an unprecedented freedom to measure and judge the performance of democratic institutions. Democracy has therefore allayed subregional rivalries or allowed for their expression and resolution in political channels rather than through civil disorder.

Occasionally, the question is raised if national integration has succeeded equally in the province of Sindh. In the past, Sindh often resisted the national government, but this resistance stemmed largely from Sindhis' opposition to military rule from Islamabad. Most recently, Sindh has shown two opposite trends: on the one hand, the PPP swept rural Sindh and brought it into the national mainstream, defusing past sentiment for Sindhi independence. On the other hand, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) swept urban Sindh in those elections and continues to agitate against the established government. The MQM claims to represent the Muhajirs, those Muslims who immigrated to Pakistan from India since the time of partition in 1947. Arguing that the Muhajirs form a distinct ethnic group in Pakistan that had been denied its share of national economic opportunities, the MQM tragically opted out of the democratic process and resorted to extraconstitutional and violent means to achieve its objectives. It has shattered the peace of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and one that absorbed much of the immigrant population in the past fifty years, through its compulsively violent tactics and the external assistance provided to it by a foreign power.

The MQM, using a warped version of the ideology of Pakistan, recruited a significant number of malcontents into its clandestine army. The bulk of the Muhajir community, fortunately, kept itself away from this Nazi-style organization and showed a clear preference for democratic dialogue rather than terrorism. This factor has been instrumental in limiting terrorism only to some parts of Karachi. The Pakistan government has taken a two-fold approach to the MQM: it will combat MQM terrorism, and it will at the same time engage in a political dialogue with the MQM and implement vigorous social and economic measures for the uplift of Karachi. The city has grown much too fast for its civic and commercial institutions to keep pace with its expansion, and the government has therefore developed a master plan to redress this situation at every level, from improving mass transit to expanding adequate job opportunities.

The threat posed by MQM terrorism would actually pose only a marginal problem were it not for the unfortunate fact that in South Asia, violent movements fall easy prey to external manipulation. At a time when most countries of the world are engaging in the formation of trading blocs within the parameters of a globalizing economy, South Asia continues to pay a heavy price for the old-fashioned hegemonic ambitions of the largest South Asian state. India's vaulting aspirations to project power in the region and beyond has affected South Asia at several levels. Precious resources needed for social action have been diverted to military expenditure. The region faces the most serious nuclear threat in the world today, aggravated by great advances made by India in missile technology. Above all, not a single state in South Asia has escaped gross interference in its internal affairs. Even the smallest of states, which pose no conceivable threat to their great neighbor, have seen this interference plunge them into long periods of internal turmoil. It is unfortunate that India did not resist the temptation to contribute support to MQM terrorism; at a number of locations in India, scores of MQM activists continue to be transformed into terrorists. South Asia will have a bleak future if such cross-border interference, masterminded by overgrown intelligence services, continues. The political process will resolve the MQM problem in Karachi, and Indian interference will result only in injecting avoidable tension into interstate relations.

Religious Sectarianism

The protracted conflict in Afghanistan and the use of religion as an instrument of power by General Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 1980s caused the first ripple of religious and sectarian tension in Pakistan. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, to a limited extent, also brought a radical version of Islam to Pakistan. A more potent radicalizing force, however, was the indignation felt by Pakistani Muslim youth at the extreme Indian brutality in Kashmir and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The massacres in Bosnia, and the slow response of the Western world, led many in Pakistan to believe that the West, including Western friends of Pakistan, practiced double standards in not responding to aggression committed against Muslims. This resentment, combined with unfulfilled socioeconomic expectations and the perception of democracy as a slow and laborious strategy for development, fed an explosive mixture of feelings that lent support to radical movements.

For those reasons, political parties like the Jama'at-i-Islami, which aims to bring Islamic law and practices into the government, have visibly shifted to more radical politics in recent years. This trend, however, remains a minority phenomenon and the mainstream Pakistani political parties on both sides of the political divide continue to be influenced by moderation. The national consensus is that Pakistan will persevere in the evolutionary path of realizing the objectives of a modern Islamic state. Even the radical parties, including the small splinter groups which employ harsh religious rhetoric, pursue their agendas within the framework of domestic elections and representative institutions. It is extremely unlikely that Pakistan will have to contend with the kind of religious extremism which in other countries has led to violence and civil disorder. The interpretation of Islam in Pakistan is derived from the pioneering work of poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal and others who abhorred violence and followed in the great tradition of Islamic thought which emphasized Islam as a religion of peace. Islamic scholarship in Pakistan dovetails with similar work in East Asia and a number of Arab countries in creating a corpus of concepts and principles that should help spearhead the transition of the Islamic world into the coming century.

The vision that activates and energizes the people of Pakistan today is of a country irrevocably committed to a liberal modern Muslim government based on parliamentary democracy and a market-oriented economy. The only consideration which qualifies the pursuit of free market reforms is the social concern for the disadvantaged sections of the populations, including women, which may initially be hurt by economic reform. Pakistan's current economic policies will accelerate growth, generate higher levels of income, and increase national consolidation. During the last two years, Pakistan has steadily developed a stable macroeconomic environment in which growth can be sustained at a reasonable level for years to come. International financial institutions envision a best case and a worst case scenario for Pakistani development. If Pakistan can attain the best case scenario, it can expect 6.5 percent growth rates during the 1990s and an 8 percent growth rate thereafter, which would make Pakistan a South Asian economic miracle. The national resolve is to realize this best case scenario, especially since the success of national consolidation may ultimately depend on the strength of the nation's economy.

Pakistan now stands at a crucial juncture in its history, where most of the instability it faces comes not from domestic separatism but from external interference and threats. It earnestly hopes that economic policies in South Asia in the direction of free enterprise and participation in the global economy will counteract and neutralize aggressive tendencies. Pakistan would like to open an entirely new chapter of cooperative relations with India, and invites the leaders of India to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem as well as a reciprocally-binding non-proliferation regime for nuclear weapons and delivery systems. We invite India's leaders to take parallel measures to limit and reduce military spending in the interest of the billion people living in South Asia. In addition, as the two largest states of the subcontinent, India and Pakistan owe it to South Asia to transform its only regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, into a more meaningful and effective vehicle of regional economic and social development. History will not forgive us if we forego the great opportunities present today for shared prosperity and peace.


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