Some Reflections on Pakistan – Home and the World: South Asia in Transition









This piece concerns Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan’s response to Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s Opening Keynote for the 2005 Conference on South Asia at Rutgers University.


Pakistan, with a population of 163 million and a land area of 310,000 square miles, is the second largest state in South Asia after India. India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 when the British withdrew after ruling India, directly and indirectly, for two hundred years. The first and perhaps most important factor to appreciate about Pakistan is that its independence was attainted under great odds, over the combine opposition of the ruling British and the majority community in India, the Hindus, who were struggling for independence under their political party, the Indian National Congress. Beginning with the Indian Muslim Leader Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who established what became the Aligarh Muslim University in the second half of the 19th century, the Muslims felt that they needed their own political space in India. Indian Muslims, who constituted about 25% of India’s population, felt insecure of their rights in a predominantly Hindu India. Although Hindus and Muslims had managed to coexist when Muslim Sultans and Emperors ruled from Delhi for nearly a thousand years, the two communities maintained separate religious identities–monotheistic Islam as part of the Abrahamic triad versus a polytheistic Hinduism with its pantheon of myriad gods. This underlying religious tension has influenced the Hindu–Muslim relationship for over a millennium.

The Indian National Congress, which had a predominantly Hindu membership but also included Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, was established in 1885. The Muslim League, representing the Muslims, followed in 1906. The British had started giving limited self-government to their Indian subjects in the twentieth century, but were in no mood to set a date for full independence. Meanwhile, Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru for the Hindus and Muhammad Ali Jinnah for the Muslims, had become prominent advocates for their communities in the early decades of the twentieth century. All three leaders were lawyers trained in London. Jinnah was avowedly secular and liberal. He had joined the Indian National Congress after making his mark as a successful and wealthy lawyer in Bombay. His secular leanings had earned him the sobriquet of “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.” But in the 1920s, Jinnah became uneasy about Gandhi’s use of Hindu religious symbolism to mobilize the Hindu masses in the independence struggle. He felt that the use of religion could affect India’s fragile unity; it would encourage the British to use the time honored technique of “divide and rule” which imperial rulers had employed to maintain their hold over their subjects. It is ironical that Jinnah himself was forced to appeal to the religious factor when he advanced the two-nation theory, namely that the Hindu and Muslims constituted two separate nations. While Gandhi and Nehru launched the Quit India Movement, Jinnah’s slogan was “Divide and Quit.” The movement for Pakistan gained fuller currency when the British allowed the Indian National Congress to form provincial ministries in the late thirties. Muslims felt marginalized by the Congress leadership, who, under Nehru, refused to share power. Jinnah felt infuriated and betrayed by the Congress party. He felt that the minority Muslims would feel the lash of tyranny of the majority when real independence came. The Congress made it clear that as the majority party, it would be in the driver’s seat, which greatly intensified Muslim fears. The Muslims, with memories of being rulers of India for a millennium, would be relegated to minority status under Congress rule, which would promote Hindu ideas and ideals. This baleful experience of Congress-run local government in the 1930s fed directly into the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan in 1940. This demand found a massive resonance among India’s Muslims. They voted in overwhelming numbers in the 1946 elections for the Muslim League platform of an independent state for Pakistan in those areas where Muslims were a majority.

The Second World War had emasculated British power and its ability to hold onto its vast overseas colonies. Even India, the “jewel in the British crown,” had to be relinquished. Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of King George VI, was sent as Britain’s last Viceroy to oversee arrangements for India’s independence. The brief given to him by British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was to bequeath a united India to Indians. Arriving in New Delhi in March 1947, he had extensive consultations with Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. Jinnah was adamant in his demand for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. The Congress leadership had to agree reluctantly to overwhelming demand of Indian Muslims for Pakistan. Fearful that heightened emotions and passions would get out of hand, Mountbatten, who had initially announced in the middle of 1948 as the date of India’s independence, announced in June 1947 that India would be partitioned on the basis of Hindu and Muslim majority areas. Also, he advanced the date of Independence to August 1947. Mountbatten’s decision meant that two hundred years of British rule would be wound up in two and half months! Many observers have criticized the haste with which the British pulled up stakes in India. It stymied chances of an orderly succession and contributed to the communal frenzy, which swept over India before and after Partition. Hindus and Sikhs fell upon Muslims; Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs in an orgy of violence. Thousands of persons were victims of this communal holocaust for which British mismanagement has to take part of the blame. More significantly, 15 billion persons crossed the border to seek safety among their religious compatriots; Muslims trekking by train, bullock cart and foot westwards Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs going in the other direction to India. It was the largest migration in human history, and is a cruel saga of human suffering. It colored the history of India and Pakistan indelibly; it destroyed chances of a normal relationship between the two neighbors. The wounds of Partition are healing slowly over time as the refugees who suffered it are completing their life spans. But it will take some more time for India and Pakistan to overcome the trauma of their bloody birth.

As the weaker and smaller state, Pakistan’s survival was problematic. Some politicians and analysts even predicted that it would beg to rejoin India. But Jinnah, who became Pakistan’s first Governor General, assisted by his longtime lieutenant Liaquat Ali Khan, steadied that Pakistani ship of state in those critical early days. Since the Partition had taken place in circumstances of unremitting hostility, there were disputes over the sharing of assets. But miraculously, those early difficulties were overcome by the fledging nation.

Pakistan had to cope with a number of difficulties in early years. The first crisis occurred over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Hindu Maharajah Hari Singh had to decide like the rulers of the 500 other princely states whether to join India or Pakistan depending on the religious composition of the population. Under the agreed formula, which had been used to partition British India between India and Pakistan, Kashmir, which was overwhelmingly Muslim, should have gone to Pakistan. However, Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin had strong emotional ties to Kashmir. Nehru was Prime Minister of India. He “persuaded” Hari Singh to sign the Instrument of Accession, ceding Kashmir to India. Pakistan could not permit a Muslim—majority state to be taken over by India in this fashion. It allowed a few thousand frontier tribesmen to go into Kashmir to take Srinagar the capital of Kashmir. India retaliated by airlifting its troops into Srinagar. Thus, barely three months after their independence, India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir. After bitter fighting, the United Nations imposed a ceasefire with two thirds of Kashmir controlled by India and one third in Pakistan’s possession. Two U.N. Security Council Resolutions, to which both Pakistan and India agreed, called for a plebiscite to ascertain the wishes of the people of Kashmir: whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan. That plebiscite was never held. Nehru claimed that since Pakistan had joined a defense pact with the United States in 1954, gravely altering the strategic military equilibrium in the subcontinent, India was no longer bound to the plebiscite. The Pakistani leadership felt this was an excuse to wriggle out a solemn commitment entered by both countries in the U.N. resolutions. The Kashmir dispute solidified into a perennial issue that has bedeviled relations between the two till this day. Pakistan has felt unjustly deprived of Kashmir, which it felt should have come to Pakistan under the Partition Agreement. From the Pakistani perspective therefore, the dispute over Kashmir remains what its Foreign Ministry described as the “unfinished agenda” of Partition.

The second Indo—Pak war over Kashmir occurred in 1965. Pakistan had tried to force the issue by sending armed infiltrators across the ceasefire line into Indian-administered Kashmir in hopes of sparking a general revolt against Indian rule. No insurrection took place and most of the small band of infiltrators were rounded up and captured. “Operation Gibraltar,” as the event was dubbed, was the opening salvo leading to an outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. Seventeen days of fighting, in which India and Pakistan were engaged in some spectacular tank battles reminiscent of World War II, were followed by a U.N.-brokered ceasefire. The war had been a stalemate. For Pakistan, it was able to advertise its claim on Kashmir and draw the attention of the international community to assist the two countries to implement the two U.N. Security Council Resolutions mandating a plebiscite in disputed Kashmir.

Kashmir and Palestine are two disputes on the U.N.’s agenda since 1947. India has steadfastly refused to internationalize the Kashmir issue, stating that it is a bilateral matter between two countries. After yet another India-Pakistan war in 1971, this time over East Pakistan which had erupted into civil war—East Pakistani Bengalis aided by India fighting the Pakistani Army—Pakistan and India agreed in the Simla Agreement of 1972 to settle their disputes, including Kashmir, peacefully through bilateral negotiations and under the U.N. charter. This anodyne formulation appeared to satisfy both sides but did not permit any new negotiations to occur. Kashmir continued to be the main stumbling block to normalization of relations. Pakistan’s reduced size and status after the emergence of Bangladesh did not lessen the emotional hold of Kashmir over its rulers or ruled.

There had been simmering discontent in Indian-administered Kashmir over India’s arrogant and disdainful attitude towards ordinary Kashmiris. This discontent boiled over in1989 into a full-blown insurgency, which has continued to this day. Pakistan, while officially denying giving material support to the Kashmiri insurgents, has been allowing Kashmiri militants from Pakistan-administered Kashmir to cross the Line of Control and engage Indian troops. Complicating the Kashmir insurgency was the arrival of some foreign fighters who had supported the Afghans in their decade-long jihadagainst the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1988). Their presence put Pakistan on the defensive as they could not have entered Indian-controlled Kashmir without some level of Pakistan connivance or support. The insurgency continues although its dynamics have changed following the post-9/11 crackdown on Al Qaeda.

Before, in the early nineties, Indian allegations that Pakistan was supporting terrorism in Indian-administered Kashmir had some resonance in the United States. Washington issued warnings to Pakistan that the continued infiltration of foreign jihadi fighters, mostly Arabs, could get Pakistan placed on the U.S. list of terrorist states. The government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took heed of the warning. It shut the training camps of militant groups fighting in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan thus shaved off the ignominy of being declared a terrorist state, which would have meant the cessation of military and economic support from its major ally, the United States.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to a major enhancement in Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in the “war on terror.” President Musharraf of Pakistan, faced with the choice of either supporting the United States in its battle against Osama bin Ladin’s Al Qaida organization and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which sheltered bin Ladin, or being marginalized as a rogue state wisely chose the former course. Pakistan cut off its ties with the Taliban government. Those elements of the Al Qaeda network who had sought refuge in Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban regime by U.S. and Northern Alliance forces, were vigorously pursued by Pakistani authorities. Senior Al Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, widely credited as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, Ramzi bin Al Shib, and Abu Zubeida, were arrested and handed over to U.S. authorities for interrogation. In all, Pakistan has apprehended over 500 Al Qaeda operatives and handed them over to the United States. President George W. Bush has praised Pakistani effort in curbing international terrorism. In a major sign of approbation, Pakistan has been declared by the U.S. to be a “major non-NATO ally.” Earlier in the late eighties, Pakistan—U.S. relations had fallen victim to the Pakistan specific Pressler Amendment, a Congressional legislation banning military and economic aid to Pakistan which was suspected by the U.S. to be pursuing a program of developing nuclear weapons. One repercussion of this legislation was the withholding of F-16 fighter aircraft which Pakistan had already paid for. That hurdle was finally cleared up recently when the U.S., in recognition of Pakistan’s crucial role in the battle to contain international terrorism, agreed to sell the aircraft to Pakistan. The F-16 episode had become a cause celebre in Pakistan’s official and public opinion circles which felt that Pakistan was singled out by the U.S. for unfair discrimination, since its national security concerns were not being taken into consideration by a country it was ostensibly allied with since the early fifties. It spears that as long as the so-called war on terror is a major foreign policy preoccupation of the United States, Pakistan’s value as a major player and partner in this struggle will remain prominent.


Role of the Army in Pakistan’s Politics


It was probably inevitable given Pakistan’s contentious relationship with its more powerful and bigger eastern neighbor, that the Army would assume a significant role in Pakistani politics. A major blow to the development of constitutional government in Pakistan was the death of Pakistan’s founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah barely a year after Pakistan’s birth. So great was Jinnah’s stature and authority, so resolutely was he wedded to liberal secular principles that had he lived for a few more years, Pakistan would likely have achieved a stable equilibrium both internally and externally that eluded it for a long time. The problems of governance in a country separated into two wings—West Pakistan and East Pakistan—a thousand miles apart were formidable. The Bengalis in East Pakistan felt that they were not getting their due from the West Pakistanis who dominated the army and the powerful civil service bureaucracy. Pakistani politicians were not quite up to the task of tackling the usual problems of nation-building facing developing countries. The Army as the most disciplined institution in the country was perceived as the ultimate guarantor of its security and territorial integrity. The pattern of elections followed by civilian rule interspersed by military rule has been repeated again and again in Pakistan. In December 1999, the Chief of Staff General Pervez Musharraf ousted the government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In the previous decade, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had led civilian governments that were not very successful in tackling Pakistan’s manifold issues of development and stability. Initially shunned as yet another military dictator, Musharraf’s stock in Pakistan, the Islamic world and in the West rose appreciably when he decided to abandon the Taliban government and join the Western coalition in its fight against Al Qaeda. Musharraf allowed general elections and Pakistan once again is ruled by a civilian government headed by an ex-banker, Shaukat Aziz, as Prime Minister. Aziz, who was a senior official in Citibank New York, was picked up earlier by Musharraf to be his Finance Minister. He is widely credited with the turnaround in Pakistan’s economy which had been recording impressive growth rates of 6% per annum, which is a welcome change from the dismal performance registered in the decade-long civilian rule of Sharif and Bhutto. Musharraf, however, backed by the Army, retains substantial control over the levers of power. He is considered essentially pragmatic, moderate, and secular in his outlook.

Because of its population, trained manpower and scientific achievement, Pakistan was always destined to be a leader of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), established in the 1970 to bring together the 55 countries of the Islamic world under one umbrella organization. For the past couple of years, Musharraf has expanded his ideas of “enlightened moderation” as a model for OIC’s relations with the international community. Enlightened moderation has been well received both in the U.S. and in the West. According to Musharraf:


We need to understand that the root causes of extremism and militancy lies in political injustice, denial, and deprivation. Political injustice to a nation or people, when combined with stark poverty and illiteracy, makes for an explosive mix. It produces an acute sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. A national suffering from these lethal ills is easily available for the propagation of militancy and the perpetration of extremist, terrorist acts.169


And how would Enlightened Moderation counteract the above tendencies diagnosed by Musharraf? He goes on to say:


The first part is for the Muslim world to shun militancy and extremism and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift. The second is for the West and the United States in particular to seek to resolve all politic disputes with justice, and to aid in the socioeconomic betterment of the deprived Muslim World.170


Role of the Madrassas


Musharraf’s ideas about enlightened moderation do point to a path where the gulf of fear and suspicion between the West and the Islamic world can begin to be closed through mutual cooperation. But a big question before Pakistan and Musharraf is, will he be able to reform the madrassas in Pakistan which are considered by many as a breeding ground for terrorist indoctrination again the West? The madrassas cannot be disbanded overnight as they fill the void between what education the government schools can provide and the large student population that cannot be covered by a generally dysfunctional education system. The madrassas provide free lodging, food, and religious education to the poorest children in Pakistan, which otherwise would not be cared for. The government has taken steps to register all madrassas, to forbid the admission of foreign students, and most importantly to get them to revise their antiquated curriculum which emphasizes rote learning of the Holy Quran and other religious texts. The government says it is encouraging madrassas to introduce modern subjects like mathematics, science, and computers apart from the more traditional subject. The government must also strictly ensure that the madrassas be purged of inflammatory hate speech against other religions and cultures. Of course the majority ofmadrassas do not indulge in such extremist indoctrination of young minds, but a few do. Those in the latter category need to be monitored closely, and if they are unable to reform their pedagogy, they should be shut down. This is an area where the Musharraf government is on test. If enlightened moderation is to become a successful model, a reform of the madrassa system in Pakistan is good beginning.


Role of Women in Pakistani Society


Muhammed Ali Jinnah followed the traditions of western liberalism in his life and politics. After the Parsee wife Rutee died, his sister Fatima, a dentist, gave up her profession to look after her brother’s household. Jinnah made it a point to have his sister by his side while addressing public meetings. Fatima Jinnah contested the Presidential election in 1964, and although she lost to the incumbent Ayub Khan, she put up a credible performance winning thousands of votes. Jinnah’s chief deputy and Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan’s wife, Raana Liaquat, formed the All Pakistan Women Association (APWA) in 1949. APWA has had a successful track record in helping women achieve their legal rights. APWA’s example has been followed by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and other women’s organizations dedicated to the uplift of women. The election in 1988 of 35-year-old Benazir Bhutto, a product of Karachi Grammar School, Radcliffe, and Oxford, where she was elected President of Oxford Union, provided a welcome boost to the struggle of Pakistani women to achieve a measure of equality with men as provided in the Islamic religion and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Benazir, the first woman Prime Minister in the Islamic world, was in a sense a torchbearer for other women striving to make a mark in the usually male-dominated world of Islam. She was followed in the prime ministerial chair by Tansu Ciller of Turkey and two intrepid Bangladeshi women, Khalida Zia and Hasina Wajid, whose husband and father, respectively, former Presidents of Bangladesh, had been assassinated in office.

While Pakistan has produced a number of women cabinet ministers, ambassadors, judged, and federal secretaries, much work remains to be done to overcome centuries of cultural conditioning which relegates women to an inferior status compared to men. In South Asia, regardless of one’s religious affiliation—one can be a Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or Muslim—women are expected to be deferential to their men folk with the degree of deference diminishing with increasing economic and social stats. In many parts of its four provinces, Pakistan retains anachronistic elements of feudalism which makes female emancipation an important priority for policy-makers and leaders of public opinion.

The eleven-year rule (1977-1988) of General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew the brilliant, charismatic, but erratic Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was a dark period for Pakistan in general and women in particular. Lacking legitimacy, Zia made common cause with the clerical leaders. He invoked a puritanical version of Islam, somewhat akin to the Wahabbi brand in which women’s rights were severely circumscribed. Liberal public opinion protested, sometimes vocally at the promulgation of the infamous Hudood Ordinances, whereby the evidence of a woman in court was considered half that of a man, and where, if she brought a charge of rape, she had to produce four male witnesses or face the prospect of being jailed for adultery. It is really sad that neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif had the political will or moral courage to overturn the draconian laws which militate against women in the name of religion. Nonetheless, women in Pakistan are getting stronger, more organized, and more confident. I think they have reached a critical mass where it would be exceedingly difficult for any government to resurrect the restrictions of the Zia years.


Role of the Army in Politics


Pakistan’s geopolitical compulsions propelled the Army into a leadership role. The Army had inherited British colonial traditions including a stress on discipline and order that it has largely maintained. In British India, scions of the local nobility and the well to do joined the Army since the profession of arms provided an honorable career. It also provided an outlet to those men who were more distinguished by brawn compared to brain—whom the British call the “hearties.” But the officer class of the Pakistani Army is more and more being recruited from the middle to lower middle class of Pakistani society. This is no bad thing if one genuinely believes that meritocracy should govern recruitment both in the military and civil bureaucracies. But in the military, there is no doubt that this changing pattern of recruitment in the Army, which also can be seen mutis mutandis in Pakistan’s civil services, makes the Army a more conservative institution. Zia-ul-Haq had apparently introduced a column in the officers Annual Confidential report, “Is he a practicing Muslim?” or words to that effect. Some ambitious junior Army officers started sprouting beards as an overt sign of religiosity. After Zia’s demise in a fiery and still unexplained plane crash in 1988, the Army shed some of its religious overtones and adopted more secular ways. The Army Chiefs who succeeded Zia were professional and did not wear their religion on their sleeve. Musharraf is avowedly secular in outlook, who nonetheless observes religious proprieties.

The Army consumes a vast proportion of the Federal budget, thus taking scarce resources away from critical needs in the education and health sectors. If Pakistan is able to attain a modicum of normalization with India in the foreseeable future as current trends seem to indicate, the compelling need to allocate money for defense would diminish. The Army would not then play such a prominent role in Pakistan’s politics. The Army’s future role therefore is very much a function of the evolving India-Pakistan relationship. Meanwhile, as the October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan demonstrated fairly clearly, only the Army had the capacity experience, and organizational ability to launch round-the-clock relief efforts in the north. To be sure, there were the usual criticisms that the government relief efforts were slow and badly coordinated, but this is beside the point. The civilian administration in Pakistan just does not have the resources or manpower to provide relief in the face of overwhelming calamity. Even the Bush Administration, heading the most powerful, affluent, and resource endowed country in the world was forced to call the National Guard to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the long run it would be a good thing if the Army’s role in politics is reduced and it “goes back to its barracks” as some Pakistani politicians and journalists in a fit of wish fulfillment periodically call for.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


©2022 Syed Azmat Hassan

Log in

Forgot your details?