Pakistan: In search of identity

Making Sense of Pakistan' is a timely analysis of the ideological conflicts that lie at the heart of pakistan's conception as a nation-State

Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi

If Pakistan's history is repeating itself as a farce, we must make that tumultuous journey into her bloody inception to discern the present impasse. Much of Pakistan's internal and external behaviour cannot be understood without deconstructing its genetic makeup.

In pursuant of this question, Farzana Shaikh's Making Sense of Pakistan has accomplished a formidable task - to offer an engaging and objective narrative that not only explores the trials and tribulations of Pakistani elites but exposes the inherent ideological conflicts that lie at the very root of Pakistan's existence.

Shaikh's principal argument is that the role of Islam in Pakistani political life has never been adequately squared by its leadership, which has struggled to construct a nation based solely on religion. The contest and interplay between two rival discourses of Islam - the "communal" espoused by the ruling feudal-military elite sufficient to sustain the two nation-theory and the "Islamist" favoured by the religious establishment seeking to impose a doctrinaire version of Islam - according to Shaikh, account for the ideological incoherence in Pakistan. The irony of Pakistan is that despite being conceived "as a Muslim homeland built in the name of Islam", it remains "a state still trapped in myths of its own making" six decades later.

If Pakistani elites' choices and policies defy normal State behaviour, it is because Pakistan is an anomaly in the proliferation of nation states in the past century. Neither a nation with conventional attributes such as a "core" ethnic nationality, a composite culture or a common linguistic tradition nor a geographical entity with historical boundaries, Pakistan's raison d'être has been contested from the very outset.

The creative challenge before Pakistan's leaders was "to provide a constitutional niche for Islam that recognised its importance in the creation of the State while containing its influence in dictating policy" and to eventually, perhaps, create a State "capable of standing without the aid of Islamic crutches". And yet, "mobilising Islam in order to substitute for the absence of political legitimacy was a legacy of Pakistan's nationalist movement" itself.

Jinnah's Freudian slip, (the declaration of August 11, 1947) of appealing to a principle of "equal citizens of one State", was short-lived. But, it is the one that has subsequently sustained the secular pretensions of Pakistani elites, was retracted by Jinnah himself on January 25, 1948 when he called "to make Pakistan a truly great Islamic state".

The author suggests that the lack of local roots among the first generation of Pakistani leaders including Jinnah, who had arrived from urban north-central India, contributed to their invoking of Islamic symbols to attain legitimacy and suppress regional cleavages. Shaikh also draws attention to Jinnah's ambivalence and suspicion toward participatory democratic politics preferring instead a version of "constitutionalism". Indeed, Jinnah and subsequent generations of Pakistani leaders were "unable to resist the temptation of mobilising the language of Islam to generate power".

After two decades of ideological ambiguities that struggled to reconcile the status of 14 million non-Muslims, the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, finally, freed Pakistani rulers to discard their secular pretensions and accelerate an overt programme of Islamisation to discover and construct a real Pakistan more oriented towards the Arabian Middle East. This decisive shift, that received vigorous support during General Zia's regime, was associated with the introduction of a parallel Sharia law that was, perhaps, the "final repudiation of Jinnah's foundational statement endorsing the legal equality of all Pakistan's citizens".

The initial phase of Islamisation in the early 1980s was envisaged by Zia to ensure it "remained a State-sponsored and State-controlled exercise". He achieved this by co-opting the main Islamist party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, rather than the ulama (or the Sunni clerical establishment). Subsequently, the threat of social disaffection among the youth persuaded Zia to strike a bargain with the conservative ulama, who in return for their social support demanded greater say over the madrasas. State patronage would systematically transform madrasas from an intellectual to a politico-religious institution. (Today, according to conservative estimates by the Pakistan's ministry of education, 1.5 million students are getting religious education in 13,000 madrasas. In 1947, there were 137 madrasas in Pakistan.)

The emergence of a Sharia-based Islam had profound implications. As the author notes, while the initial Islamisation "was grounded in the Pakistani nation-State... shariatisation aims both to question the validity of the State and to influence the debate on national identity by redefining Pakistani nationalism primarily in terms of its relation to an imagined extra-territorial 'community of believers'". The US sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and the attendant acceleration of transnational Islamic religious networks, enabled such a transnational vision of Pakistan to flourish.

This phase dramatically reshaped Pakistan's Muslim identity where a radicalised and politicised clergy promoted a 'neo-Wahabi Islam'. Alliances between the military and radical Islamist groups, the infamous "military-mullah" nexus, were forged to create a force multiplier in Pakistani foreign policy serving as a covert instrument to project irregular forces into enemy territory. The success of covert operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s convinced the military high command at Rawalpindi of the immense value of jihad as a strategic tool.

The post-1971 phase following the loss of East Pakistan also witnessed a recasting of Pakistan's Kashmir policy. The earlier focus sought to wrest a Muslim majority province from India to affirm the two nation ideology toward that of a "sacred territory waiting liberation through jihad - thus authenticating Pakistan's identity as the protector of Islam".

Under Zia's regime, Pakistan's army rather than confining itself to a national force was recast as a "transnationalised" force "whose authenticity would now be judged by how far it could extend its reach beyond the frontiers of the nation state, whether in Afghanistan or Kashmir". The ensuing decades would reveal the devastating consequences and blowback of Pakistani irredenta.

The author extends her argument to include Pakistan's foreign policy as another symptom of its internal failings. The strategic implications of Pakistan's ill-fated quest for a national identity have been extremely destructive for the subcontinent and beyond. Perhaps, nothing has buttressed the fragile Pakistani nationalism more than the image of the other - India.

Farzana Shaikh notes, "This negative identity is rooted in the specific character of Pakistani Muslim nationalism that was moulded in opposition to the claims of Indian nationalism rather than in response to British colonial rule." In the absence of a popular narrative that could sustain its nationhood, Pakistan chose to juxtapose itself against India to compensate for its lack of "Pakistani-ness".

As a means to achieve parity with India, Pakistan's foreign policy was also driven by a parallel quest to punch above its weight in international affairs along with a "perennial quest to be validated as an equal of India". And, this search for validation and security drove Pakistani elites to forge a long-standing military relationship with Washington in the early 1950s, even if that implied renting itself out in the service of the latter's geopolitical goals. The author asserts that "Pakistan's willingness to be primed by the US as the local captain of a wider pro-western Muslim alliance in the Middle East was not altogether at odds with its self-perception."

The post-9/11 phase witnessed the restoration of Pakistan as the rentier State. The opportunity to once again bandwagon with the US, albeit by bargaining away some of its own sovereignty, to achieve security reassurance vis-à-vis India and preserve the feudal-military regime appeared a small price for the insecure Punjabi elite to pay if it enabled Pakistan to preserve a military stalemate in the subcontinent and an alternative economic lifeline.

Today, it remains unclear whether Pakistan's rulers have discovered a policy of promoting an existential conflict with India to deflect internal dissonance and maintain a national project has run its course.

What are the policy implications of Shaikh's insights?

Despite ideological contradictions, it appears that path dependence and the effects of sustained "Islamic social engineering" have assumed a formidable momentum within Pakistan, one that the military-feudal compact continue to rely upon to legitimise their own hegemony and to subdue regional, ethnic and class rebellion. Yet, as the author quotes historian, Barbara Metcalf, few can "differentiate in the case of Pakistan between 'some authentic statement of Islam' and 'the opportunistic use of Islam'". Nonetheless, in the elites' perception, Islam remains the only viable ideology to stave off the regionalisation of Pakistan and "as a substitute for democratic legitimacy".

Given this structural dilemma, the question has been posed both here and in the West - can India aid in Pakistan's transformation by offering it a plural, secular future?
In pursuance of this grand project to rescue Pakistan from its genetic contradictions or, to put it plainly, to save Pakistan from itself, the choice of policy instruments and posture of New Delhi is as vital as the imagined end.

To transform Pakistan via a series of unilateral concessions, the approach that has gained currency in recent years has yielded little beyond symbolism. Beneath the veneer of a democratic regime, actual power continues to be wielded by a self-serving coalition of the Punjabi oligarchy and Rawalpindi's military-industrial complex. The latter has emerged as a major economic actor in its own right in recent decades. Besides, Indian magnanimity has rarely invited accommodation from Pakistani elites, who instinctively translate such a posture as one of capitulation and an opportunity to escalate historical demands.

Furthermore, it has been left ambiguous, even by the proponents of a policy of asymmetric reassurance, how precisely can India help Pakistan to "tame the Islamic tiger" and to craft a pluralist counter-narrative. Neither has another fundamental question being addressed - how the hypothetical displacement of Islam with an alternative guiding ideology is reconciled with the attendant denouement of the two nation theory, a founding principle of Pakistan! While India has accepted the reality of Pakistan, for Indian nationalist and mainstream discourse to rationalise Pakistan's nationhood would be tantamount to undermining India's own founding secular ideology. Therein, perhaps, lies the structural limits of India's ability to stir the ideological cauldron in Pakistan.

Arguably then, the ideational reconstruction of Pakistan can mostly be an indigenous and organic endeavour even as it is subliminally endorsed by India. New Delhi could, however, adopt a more astute grand strategy, one that is implemented via a judicious combination of coercive capabilities and economic and geostrategic reassurance. Whether such a strategy eventually produces the South Asian Valhalla that many in India fantasise about is debatable. It will, however, secure our frontiers and the Indian homeland while simultaneously testing the prospects for the emergence of alternative power centres within Pakistan.

It is also important to critically evaluate the enduring role of the Atlantic powers in South Asia, one that the study under consideration dwells little on. For, it was the geostrategic imperatives of the Cold War that impelled the United States to invite itself to the subcontinent and its attendant dynamic. The initial decade of the 21st century suggests that the perceived geostrategic value of Pakistani real estate remains unaltered. The impact of an extra-regional power on the evolution of power structures and the political economy of Pakistan - the Punjabi oligarchy and the oversized military superstructure - and its external effect on Indian security and India's own Pakistan policy remains curiously under researched.

After all, US presence in the Hindu Kush is a double-edged sword for India. As long as the paraphernalia of American power is deployed on Pakistan's western frontiers, it appears unlikely that Pakistani elites will voluntarily adapt to Indian power. Notwithstanding tactical imperatives, for India to rely upon perpetual third-party American support with the promise of a transformed Pakistan is a naïve and unsustainable strategy.

Ultimately, the most prudent policy for India's security managers would be to advocate an acceleration of the nation-building project within truncated India to attain a pan-Indian - multi-ethnic, multi-religious - legitimacy that ultimately overwhelms the entire subcontinent including the citizenry of Pakistan. India's success will remain the surest catalyst for change in South Asia.

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010