The idea of Pakistan-By Shahid Javed Burki


THERE cannot be any doubt that Pakistan is experiencing a difficult period. The crisis through which the country is passing in its sixth decade as an independent state is perhaps the most difficult it has seen in its exceptionally turbulent history.

The economy is in a state of freefall. It is hard to tell when and where it will stabilise. The political situation is defined by problems that show personal ambition prevailing over national interests.

It is hard to tell where this conflict will take the country. There is a war raging in the country’s northwest between the government’s forces and those who have an entirely different way of looking at the way Pakistani society and state should evolve.

The state’s response is understandably restrained. It does not wish to harm those who are caught for reasons of geography in the middle of this conflict. The other side, motivated by an ideology in which it places total faith, is not inhibited. On the international front, ‘contempt’ and ‘extreme unease’ are perhaps the best way to describe how the world sees Pakistan. How it would react to the development taking place in Pakistan is hard to predict especially when the reins of power will be transferred soon in Washington from one group of leaders to another.

As a student of Pakistan’s history — the evolution of its economy, its politics and its society — I have written extensively on this subject. I don’t recall a period that equals the present. Not even 1971 when the country was split into two. In its original form, Pakistan was perhaps a non-sustainable political creation. It was an artifact that responded to a particular situation that developed under the long British rule.

There is no reason why the two ‘wings’ of the country should have stayed together. The very fact that they were called ‘wings’ suggested that the country’s body existed somewhere else. They had more differences than commonalities. It was economics that made the two wings go their separate ways. The body to which these two wings were attached was Islam but that did not prove to be a strong cohesive force. But what about what is left of Pakistan after 1971, a union of fairly disparate people who are still searching for some common ground?

I was invited to participate in a workshop on Pakistan’s future in Washington a few weeks ago. An anthropologist of Indian origin raised the question about the ‘idea of Pakistan’, which was the theme of a recent book by Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in Washington. According to him, the idea centred on the belief that a separate political entity was needed to protect the separateness of the Muslim community in British India. This was the basis of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory according to which British India was inhabited not by one Indian nation but two, one Hindu, the other Muslim.

This notion was countered by what Anil Khilnani of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) calls the ‘idea of India’. According to this, the concept of nationhood in an extremely diverse South Asian populace should be based on shared history rather than shared culture or religion. Given these differences, the participant in the workshop posed a legitimate question: had the idea of Pakistan failed? She implied that the idea of India had succeeded.

Since the question was directed at me — one of the three Pakistani participants at the workshop — I responded by asking another question. I asked if states need an idea — whether we could find an ‘idea of Nigeria’, an ‘idea of South Africa’, an idea of ‘Malaysia’. My counter question as an answer drew a sceptical response. It was suggested that it was fair to raise that question for the states that were founded on the basis of ‘ideas’ rather than on that of colonial heritage.

Nigeria, South Africa, Malaysia — the three examples I had used — were all products of colonial history. The same is true for a number of countries in the Middle East. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia are all the products of colonial history. They are not the consequence of ‘ideas’. Saudi Arabia may be an exception since its statehood does promote an ideology.

Given the current state of affairs in Pakistan, given some of the observations made in the opening paragraphs of this article, it is legitimate to ask the question: what is now the idea of Pakistan. Institutional economics — a relatively new discipline pioneered by Douglass North, the Nobel Prize-winning economist — postulates that a great deal of human activity is governed by what it calls belief systems. These systems are the product of historical accumulation. They are not static but, instead, are exceptionally dynamic. How would I apply this reasoning to the case of Pakistan?

The creation of Pakistan was indeed based on an idea — Jinnah’s two-nation theory — but many years have elapsed since that postulate was first put forward. The concept that Pakistan was needed to preserve the separate identity of the Muslim community of British India, may not have worked to keep together the two wings of the country that were attached to the body of Hindu India. But history produces its own imperatives.

Jinnah’s two-nation theory is now 70 years old. It resulted in the partition of British India and the creation of two separate political entities. One of those split into two and what was once British India is now three separate states with their own histories and their own imperatives. Two of them — Bangladesh and Pakistan — are still searching for answers that would help them forge the meaning of nationhood. How should Pakistan define itself at this critical juncture in its history?

Notwithstanding the bloody campaign launched by some stateless groups, religion can’t be the basis of Pakistan’s nationhood. There are too many different interpretations of what can be called an Islamic state for Pakistan to risk its future on that concept.

For the same reason, ethnicity can’t be the defining concept. We have to be pragmatic: we need to define the Pakistani identity and the Pakistani idea on the basis of geography rather than on the basis of culture and religion. What is Pakistan today is a piece of real estate occupied by more than 2.5 per cent of world’s population that must find a way of pursuing economic, political and social objectives that serve the entire citizenry. This is the only way forward.

Source: Daily Dawn, 16/9/2008

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