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Sixty Years On

Despite the fanfare around the growing people-to-people contact between the two countries, the political establishments in both India and Pakistan still hold on to the very ideologies that form the basis of the conflict. Any move to normalise relations crucially depends on examining these ideologies and generating strong pressure groups in both countries.

Sixty Years On

Despite the fanfare around the growing people-to-people contact between the two countries, the political establishments in both India and Pakistan still hold on to the very ideologies that form the basis of the conflict. Any move to normalise relations crucially depends on examining these ideologies and generating strong pressure groups in both countries.


t is stating the obvious that the Indian and Pakistani polities are indelibly coloured by the Partition of the subcontinent. If nothing else, the immensely destructive conflict between the two states is testament to this fact. In recent times, there has been much fanfare over the growing people-to-people contact between the two neighbours and a sense that the winds of change are blowing over the region. Yet, it cannot be reiterated enough that both the Indian and Pakistani states still cling to ideologies that have been the very basis of the conflict over the past 60 years. Indeed, in an environment of relative optimism, it is essential to remember that establishments on both sides still have a lot to lose from normalisation. Pakistan’s ruling state oligarchy in particular has relied entirely on the “India syndrome” to maintain its rigid grip over power.

Islam and the Nation

Up to the 1930s the All-India Muslim League was committed only to securing concessions from the colonial state under the guise that Muslims constituted a discrete community in India; the League had not yet clearly asserted the idea that Muslims constituted an indivisible “nation”. As politicisation of religious identities became more and more acute, it was perhaps inevitable that the Muslim League would come to argue in favour of the inherent incompatibility of the “Hindu” and “Muslim” nations, and further that the Muslim nation was insular and indivisible. There was, and still is little evidence to suggest at any point in the rule of the British in India that Muslims across the subcontinent shared anything more than a religious identity, and even then the forms of Islam practised varied greatly. Nonetheless, it came to pass that Pakistan became the first modern nation state to be created on the basis of a shared religious identity.

Revisionist historians have argued that until the very end, Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be part of a larger confederation of India. In the end he accepted the same Pakistan that he had famously rejected in 1946 and described it as “moth-eaten”. In any case, once Partition had happened, the rot set in. The mythical notion of an indivisible nation was propagated far and wide, and thus a fragmented and confused people were convinced of the inherent righteousness of the Pakistan idea. Kashmir encapsulated the state’s ideology – the slogan “Kashmir banega Pakistan” became a major rallying cry, particularly among the seven million migrants who, having been privy to unspeakable bloodshed during the transfer of power, were the most militant supporters of the anti-India sentiment. Kashmir had to become part of Pakistan because it was – and some would say still is – inconceivable that a Muslim-majority part of the subcontinent should not be part of the state created for Muslims.

The huge holes in the argument are plain for all to see. The two-nation theory was stripped of all credibility following the eastern wing’s secession after a murderous army action in 1971 following 24 years of systematic exploitation. Ever since, growing sectarian conflict – which many observers rightly attribute to the manipulations of the state – has proven how ridiculous the idea of an indivisible Muslim nation is. There are still at least as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan itself. Perhaps what should be the biggest indicator of the inherent dangers in propagating the idea of nationhood on the basis of an exclusive religious identity is that the two-nation theory has only one counterpart in the modern world – that of Zionism. The Israeli and Pakistani states thus share a commitment to an official ideology that has always permitted religious obscurantists the space to propagate their opaque and hateful politics.

The question of Islam and its role in the polity has dominated Pakistani political and intellectual discourses from the state’s inception. The debate over Islam has been so overbearing for so long that many crucial issues that have nothing to do with religion have been trivialised by raising the question of their repugnancy (or not) to Islam. In retrospect, even the history of the Muslim League and its politics have been subject to revision. Up to this day, the educational curriculum and even more scholarly analyses have left ambiguous the intentions of the leaders of the Muslim nationalist movement in India and whether they wanted Pakistan to be a secular or theocratic state.

In actual fact the historical evidence is very clear and it is patently incorrect to suggest that Jinnah or any of his contemporaries were even remotely agreeable to the idea of an Islamic state. Nonetheless, official history does not permit such objective reading of the past, and in any case, there is a very clear reason for this persistent ambiguity. While the dominant civilmilitary state oligarchy has been undeniably secular in its orientation – a fact reflected in the logic of policymaking – its primary raison d’etre, and more specifically the perennial rationale for the “need” for oligarchic rule, has been the defence of the nation (primarily from India). And since the genesis of the Pakistani state can be traced back to the claim that the Muslim and Hindu nations are irreconcilable, the defence of the nation can easily be equated to defence of Islam from a predominantly Hindu India.

By insisting on the need for a separate state for the Muslims of the subcontinent, the Muslim League leadership opened up a Pandora’s box that remains open since. This is because the need to defend Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty – an immediate obsession at the time of Partition because of the inherent weakness of the seceding state and the perception within Pakistan that the Indians and the British were colluding to ensure the new state’s collapse – opened up a political space for a religious politics in which Pakistan and Islam became virtually indistinguishable. Even Maulana Maudoodi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and one of the ideologues of modern Islamist movements, opposed the formation of Pakistan yet brazenly asserted that it would nevertheless be a perfect home for his brand of politics.

Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

The seemingly overt conflict between the “secular” government of general Pervez Musharraf and the religious right at the present conjuncture is considered by many to be a microcosm of the confrontation between secular and religious forces over the question of Islam that has persisted since the state’s inception. However, there are a number of reasons to doubt that there is a genuinely confrontational relationship between the two. First, the constitutional amendments package that allowed Musharraf to consolidate his hold on power in December 2003 was signed by the sixparty religious alliance (MMA) that has otherwise been very vocal in its opposition to “military dictatorship”. Second, following the earthquake in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Azad Kashmir in October 2005, religious parties and their affiliates provided the most effective relief, largely on account of their close cooperation with the state authorities. It should be noted that the right has been influential in these parts for well over two decades because of the state support for organised militants who have built strongholds from which to wage jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

More recently, the government approved the Women’s Protection Bill (WPB); one of only a few pieces of legislation that have actually been passed by what the vast majority of observers agree is a lame-duck parliament. Under the WPB, the Hudood Ordinances that were promulgated under general Zia ul Haq, and which have been widely condemned as legitimising gross mistreatment of women, were amended. It is worth noting that the long-standing demand of the women’s movement in the country has been for the total repeal of the Hudood Ordinances. An amendment, therefore, hardly constituted a revolutionary step. Yet the bill gave both the government and the MMA another opportunity to engage in an extensive argument over the question of Islam, with the latter threatening to resign because the bill was said to be un-Islamic. On the other hand, the Musharraf junta harped on about the bill representing another one of its bold steps towards the establishment of a moderate Islam. The MMA members did not resign from the assemblies, while the junta’s practical understanding of Islam continues to be neither here nor there.

The instrumentalisation of Islam by every secular leader in Pakistan’s history has been matched by the strident rhetoric of the right. Ayub passed a family law in 1961 that was widely condemned by the right, but at the end of the day neither the right nor his government ever came into open confrontation about structural issues including the exclusive configuration of power that prevailed in the country. Bhutto talked openly about “Islamic socialism”, but it was the socialism that the right opposed, and not Bhutto’s version of Islam. Zia ul Haq and the right did not need to engage in polemic against each other because they were the closest of allies.

The religious right has no real interest in an alternative to the existing state structure, and is instead content to continue manipulating Islamic symbols. In the four years at the helm of the provincial government of the NWFP, the right has made no meaningful attempt to implement structural reform. It has limited its “Islamism” to tearing down billboards with women’s pictures on them, and banning music in public buses. Indeed, it has signed more agreements with the “imperialist” international financial institutions (IFIs) than any other provincial government.

At the end of the day, the “secular” state and the “religious” political parties that regularly spew venom at each other for public consumption continue to cosy up to each other behind the scenes. There is no dispute over the centrality of the “Kashmir cause”, the “Islamic” bomb, or the larger question of the defence of the nation. Indeed, if anything at all, conflict only ever emerges over who “better” protects these supposedly non-negotiable interests. It is thus that the remarkably resilient configuration of power in Pakistan persists. And this is why a “peace process” that relies on the state is always likely to fail.

Generating People’s Pressure

On the other hand however, the largely urbanised, secular middle class folk that have spearheaded the people-to-people contact in recent times are just as liable to be hoodwinked by the “Islam” debate as anyone else. Crucially it is this constituency to whom Musharraf has catered consistently since coming to power. While there has been a cooling off in terms of support from the urban middle class for Musharraf, there is still a critical mass of people that think of Musharraf as the only option for the country at the present time, largely because of the supposed threat of the “Talibanisation” in the country – the spectre that Musharraf cunningly uses to haunt both his domestic and international


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    Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007 constituencies. The polarisation was so acute when Musharraf first came to power that the educated middle class openly supported the war on terror because this was perceived to be the only way of getting rid of the Taliban.

    Five years on with Afghanistan more Talibanised than ever and Pakistan no less so, one wonders how many more charades need to take place before those who consider themselves to be “progressive” in thought and action recognise the depth of the phenomenon. To be sure, it is not the religious right that is the root of the problem but instead the state oligarchy that has cultivated an ideology that allows both itself and the right to continue to undermine the political process and accordingly provide space for parochialism and militarism to penetrate deeper into society. The one big difference between India and Pakistan is in the extent to which the legacy of the partition has been used and abused by the establishments and their lackeys. Both states have had insidious designs, but the Pakistani state has been far more successful in undermining expansive political and cultural expression. In any case, it is only when the people generate enough power on both sides of the border that things will change. This is the only thing we can know for sure.



    Economic and Political Weekly May 5, 2007

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