Midnight’s problem child


by Omar Ali

Pakistan and India are celebrating the 64th anniversary of “Freedom at midnight” with their usual mix of nationalism and jingoism (Bangladesh seems to ignore this nightmarish dream anniversary and will be mostly ignored in this article). The fashionable opinion about India (within and without, though perhapsless on the Indian left) seems fairly positive; about Pakistan, decidedly muddled if not outright negative. Is this asymmetry another manifestation of the unfair assessments of an Islamophobic world? Or does this difference in perception have a basis in fact?

I am going to make twin arguments: that the difference in everyday life, everyday oppressions and everyday successes is LESS than commonly stated (though a gap may finally be opening up), but at the same time, the asymmetry in their ideals and foundational myths is much greater than outsiders tend to see. Outsiders in general tend to see other nations as generic “nations”; they assume (usually unconsciously) that the default “national interests” are likely to be reflections of the same set of assumptions everywhere. My argument here is that this is frequently true and is true enough of India and Pakistan in many cases (e.g. in negotiations over river waters), but there are some unique elements in the Pakistan story that slowly but steadily push in a less desirable direction, even as the normal evolution of society brings in modernization and economic growth; and unless these are damped down, these “unique elements” have the potential to sink Pakistan. On the other hand, if these can be ignored or painted over, then Pakistan too can become just another “normal” South Asian country, faced with similar problems (some worse, some much less than its neighbors), to which similar solutions can be proposed.

So, first to the similarities: India and Pakistan are obviously part of the same greater Indian civilization; culturally and genetically similar enough to be identifiable as “Indian” in origin and distinct enough from other civilizational centers to qualify for their own unique label (Pakhtoons and Balochis will quibble, but time and the accidents of recent history have pulled them closer to India and Pakistan whether they like it or not; still they do have an argument, Punjabis and Sindhis are so Indian that no serious argument for being “non-Indian” can be entertained). Both are parts of what used to be British India and inherited similar administrative and political structures; structures that were colonial, corruption prone at the lower level, and unrepresentative, but also provided a basis for Westminster style democracy to a degree greater than that inherited by many other postcolonial nations. Most of their populations were similarly impoverished, though the small commercial class was predominantly Hindu and with the horrors of partition, was lost to Pakistan. Though there was an obvious religious divide and all major religions were plagued by their own share of fanatics and bigots, most ordinary people were participants in a remarkably tolerant and syncretic cultural tradition. A culture in which very sharply different religious traditions still had intercourse and managed to give birth to some strikingly handsome children. Kabir

64 years of political division are not enough to destroy such deep common roots. Both countries still speak some of the same languages, play the same music, watch the same movies and eat the same food. Not only that, they continue to have striking similarities in everyday political and administrative terms at the lower level. State functionaries are similarly corrupt, gangsters and mafias are similarly distributed and similarly powerful and intersect with politics in similar ways at a local level. The higher judiciary in Pakistan still refers to Indian legal judgments and both sides copy administrative and bureaucratic innovations from each other (usually without admitting it, though sometimes it is not copying, it’s convergent evolution). There are major differences emerging at the higher level and fine-grained differences at every level, but the similarities are striking to outsiders, especially after they expect the two states to be radically different. Social life and social problems also stubbornly mirror each other. The point of this litany is that common historical, cultural and social roots have not been completely effaced by 64 years of political division and provide the basis for making similarity the default assumption rather than treating it as an unexpected exception.

But if the two are more similar than different as cultures and economies (except at the largest scale), the foundational myths and formal national ideologies could not be more different. And it is my argument here that this difference is in India’s favor; the more Pakistan actually becomes what its official ideology claims it to be, the less successful it will be. The more India becomes like its foundational myth and reigning ideology claim to be, the more successful it will be as a modern state. Keep in mind that NEITHER country sets a good example of being what it claims to be, so the difference in practice is still less than the difference in theory. But there IS a difference and if it keeps getting larger, it will devour Pakistan. Here, without further ado, are the bare bones of the argument:

  1. Partition was not an equally desirable or undesirable outcome for both India and Pakistan. It was the fulfillment of a desire for Pakistan (even if they were unhappy with the borders), but an undesirable compromise for India. While Muslim “nationalism” was not the only driver of partition (Hindu nationalism played a big role and even the “two nation theory” was proposed byHindu right wingers before it was coopted for Jinnah sahib’s demand for Pakistan) It was Pakistan which subsequently owned it as a desired and even logical endpoint of the arrival of Islam in India. Even though Hindu nationalists insisted, perhaps even more vigorously than most Indian Muslims, that Muslims were an alien presence in their midst, it was not Hindu right-wingers who created Pakistan, it was the Muslim League. Blame can be spread around, but it cannot be equally distributed.
  2. India survived partition as a multi-religious secular republic (at least in theory, even if thepractice has frequently been at odds with the ideal), Pakistan was born on the basis of religion and therefore faced consistent pressure to align theory with practice and become an “Islamic Republic”, whatever that means.
  3. This idea that the Muslims of India constituted a separate nation, that for this reason, they must have a separate country, that this country will then have a special “Muslim” character distinct from secular India, was an incoherent and confused idea. At every step, it contradicted very deeply rooted realities and every effort to align real life with the imagined ideal dug the country into a deeper hole. For example, Muslims who might justifiably feel threatened by the Hindu majority were likely to live in Hindu majority areas, but by definition these areas would remain in India. What was to be the fate of this very large Muslim population and how would the creation of Pakistan benefit them? Was there to be an exchange of populations? What was the crime of the non-Muslim population of Muslim majority areas that were to become part of Pakistan? If all religions were expected to live in peace and harmony in both states, then why partition in the first place? And so on, the list of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions about partition as a practical matter is endless and cannot be covered in this article.
  4. At the same time, actually existing arrangements (ancient cultural strengths, the administrative machinery of the Raj, the constitutional arrangements of the government of India act 1935 suitably updated with modern parliamentary notions) continued to operate and were complemented by the import of modern capitalist notions, modern alliances and modern education, almost indistinguishable from similar trends and problems in other newly “free” postcolonial countries. Real life remained (and remains) broadly comparable to life in North India.Minus the foundational myths of partition and “Islamic nationalism”, Pakistan is just another third world country with arbitrary postcolonial borders and a rapacious and corrupt local elite that sells its services to great powers and plays them off against each other. Even the army behaved like many other third world armies, carrying out coups and using its power to suppress democracy and aggrandize itself. IF the foundational myths and Islamist notions had been only window-dressing, the matter would have been comparable to Ghana or Bolivia and similar opportunities, problems and solutions would be discussed. Local detail would naturally vary, but the broad outlines of the debate could have been transferred smoothly from Bolivia to Pakistan without expecting to hit a brick wall.
  5. But the ideas of Muslim separatism, of partition, of being “un-Indian”, of being the vanguard of the Islamic Ummah…those ideas are mostly window dressing, but they are not just window-dressing. They exert their own slow but steady pressure and any analysis that does not take them into account will run into unseen and unexpected brick walls.

In spite of half-hearted efforts to create a “retro-history”, the geographical boundaries of Pakistan have no historical basis that antedates partition. East and West Pakistan managed an uneasy (and semi-colonial) relationship for 24 years before that fell apart and Bangladesh went its own way. Muslims from North India who migrated to Pakistan at partition got to rule a virgin country for a few decades but with the rise of the Punjabi and Pakhtoon middle class, have now became a new aggrieved minoritywithin their new country. One response to this lack of common history has been to emphasize Islam as the unifying force of the country, but Islam is not a blank slate on which the Pakistani elite can write the script they need to rule their new country. When they use Islamism, Islamism can also use them. Jihadist militias created to project power to Afghanistan and Kashmir and beyond now want power in Pakistan and the elite has no vocabulary with which to argue with them. Even as social and economic changes are creating a modern country with aspirations (and problems) broadly similar to other “emerging nations”, problems embedded in its founding myths and supposed ideology act as powerful disruptors.

Thus to the final step in this argument: that Pakistan, whatever incoherent arguments and uncontrolled crises (and British manipulations) may be involved in its birth, is now a geographically contiguous country in which millions of small and large common interests hold the people together. IF it can de-emphasize its founding myths and so-called ideology, it can become a “normal” third world country with great potential and great practical problems. Problems to which its people will try to find solutions via arguments indistinguishable from the ones taking place in India or Bangladesh or even China and Thailand. Trying to create a new and unique template for nationhood is not an easy task for any intelligentsia; it is definitely beyond the abilities or historical resources of the Pakistani elite. One way or the other (one way being less painful than the other) the ruling elite in Pakistan will learn to ignore its “special” origin and mission and become “normal” in the mathematical sense of the word; i.e. closer to the regional and world norm. The alternative is chaos.

Left wing friends may argue that this discussion pays too much attention to superficial nonsense that is not the actual driver of history. Class struggle and dialectical materialism are driving history in Pakistan, just as they do in India or Bangladesh. To focus on fluff like the “two-nation theory” and the “ideology of Pakistan” is to fall into error. The real problems of Pakistan are the problems of poverty and inequality and this is just how the oppressive ruling elite try to distract people from their real struggle. To them, I would say, if the distraction is working, then the distraction has to be combatted.

Islamist friends are going to argue the opposite. That Islam IS unique and 99% of the people of Pakistan support it, so this elitist westoxicated nonsense is completely irrelevant to the struggle within Pakistan. That struggle is the struggle to replace existing colonial administrative structures, western political structures and Hindu cultural traditions with Islam. Once that is done, all problems will solve themselves. To them, I can only say, there is no there there. There is neither an Islamic system nor an Islamic national identity, ANYWHERE, much less in Pakistan.

Happy Independence Day, India and Pakistan. And congratulations Bangladesh, for having moved on…