Ian Stephens, a former editor of The Statesman, was possibly one of the first historians to go beyond Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s politics to seek an intellectual and historical rationale for Pakistan. Although Christophe Jaffrelot doesn’t mention Stephens’ 1964 book, Pakistan: Old Country/New Nation, it may have sowed some of the seeds that have flowered so magnificently in his magisterial survey of Pakistan’s past, present and future. In the uncertain 1960s, grateful Pakistanis invited Stephens to be their country’s official historian. His perceived sympathy for them had already cost him his Indian job.
That tension—Jaffrelot refers more than once to Pakistan’s fear of India—still determines relations. Understanding and interpretation often depend on where the observer is placed. As a Frenchman, Jaffrelot is free of Anglo-Saxon attitudes that permeate many British and American works. He can see that far from establishing a benign parity, the transformation of Pakistan into two supposedly equal wings enabled the western elite to dominate Bengalis. The resultant friction which lingered till the 1971 Bangladesh war is part of the bigger conflict between the concept of a unitary Islamic state and ethnic minorities such as Baluchis, Pashtuns, Sindhis and Mohajirs. The Punjabi military may have co-opted some Pashtuns; Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s rise to power reconciled most Sindhis to the Pakistani state. But disparities remain and, ironically, Mohajirs, who gave birth to the idea of Pakistan because they refused to accept a Hindu-majority India, accounted for only 7 per cent of newly-born Pakistan’s population.
The author calls this the first of the three contradictions from which Pakistan suffers. The second is the much discussed tension between democracy and authoritarianism which isn’t the same as between politicians and the military. For, as Jaffrelot shows, even parliamentary rule did not mean democratic governance. Given the civil-military nexus, over-lapping personnel, the power of patronage and the blurring of government and opposition ranks, he makes out a plausible case for regarding the judiciary as the real counter power in Pakistan.
Finally, Jaffrelot discusses the various concepts of Islam that have influenced Pakistan (or the notion of it) since before Partition. In the early 20th century, the Muslim League defined Islam as a cultural marker more than a religion identifying a community that felt threatened by Hindus. But the Deoband-trained ulema nursed a different vision and found support among Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalists, especially under Yahya Khan and also when Bhutto pandered to Islamist lobbies for domestic and geopolitical reasons. In his determination to torpedo Afghanistan’s Pashtunistan project, he brought in the ISI, giving rise to the saying that no matter who rules Pakistan, the ISI is in power.
Jaffrelot’s analysis will not be faulted. As Oxford historian, Faisal Devji says, it is ‘a courageous and clear-eyed’ view of Pakistan’s ‘history and politics’. But even such an objective account invites some quibbles. For instance, neither Americans nor Pakistanis will endorse his claim that the US ‘sold increasingly sophisticated weapons to Pakistan … to allay its fear of India.’ The US always insisted the weapons were meant only for defence against communist aggression, with some American presidents even offering India guarantees they would not be deployed in a subcontinental war.
It is also difficult to agree that Liaquat Ali Khan supported Jinnah’s dream of ‘a multicultural, secular nation-state in which minorities would be recognised as full-fledged citizens’. Jaffrelot himself says that demographic parity between Pakistan’s two wings excluded Hindus who comprised one-fifth of East Pakistan’s population because they were regarded as second-class citizens and therefore did not matter. The anguished 8,013-word letter that the Bengali Hindu Jogendra Nath Mandal, Jinnah’s choice to chair Pakistan’s constituent assembly and be the country’s first labour and law minister, sent Liaquat on 8 October 1950 bears this out.
Nevertheless, this book will serve a vital purpose if it helps Indians understand a country that MK Narayanan, India’s former NSA, recently called ‘unpredictable’. Stephens didn’t think Pakistan unpredictable. Neither did Henry Kissinger, who found India difficult to comprehend. Jaffrelot’s claim of resilience despite inherent instability suggests he, too, has no difficulty understanding Pakistan.
Heady on the triumphalism of undisturbed parliamentary elections, Indians tend to be dismissive about Pakistan’s position and pretensions. But as Narayanan also warned in the context of hot pursuit, “while Pakistan may appear dysfunctional, it is, by no means, a failed state”. It is a nuclear power and its Shaheen missiles are capable of targeting most parts of India. Indians cannot afford not to benefit from Jaffrelot’s analysis.