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From Postcolonial to Neocolonial State

Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment in Pakistan 1947-1958: The Role of the Punjab by Lubna Saif (Karachi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 262, Rs 595.


From Postcolonial to Neocolonial State

Ayesha Saeed

slam, military and America are three forces that have played a defining role in Pakistan’s tumultuous history. Attem pts at diagnosing and understanding the state of Pakistan’s political-economi c structure invariably return the scholar to the chaotic first years of its existence. Lubna Saif’s scholarship on Pakistan’s early history seeks to widen the circle of inquiry by exploring links between the capitalist Punjab-based oligarchy that emerged during the first decade of the country’s history and the demands of the international capitalist system headed by the United States (US). Political and international events between 1947 and 1958 are the focus of the book’s inquiry.

This book seeks to diagnose the absence of democratic traditions and the unjustness of economic development in Pakistan. Attributing the roots of authoritarianism and economic underdevelopment in Pakistan to institutional imbalances, Saif argues that they emerged (223):

due to the crafty approach of international managers of the Cold War, who allied with domestic actors in order to continue the colonial legacy of ‘controlling the democratic institutions’ through an authoritarian admini strative structure.

Drawing extensively on American and British government papers and diplomatic notes, the book makes the case that

Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment in Pakistan 1947-1958: The Role of the Punjab

by Lubna Saif (Karachi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 262, Rs 595.

Pakistan’s stunted political and economic growth resulted from policies dictated by Pakistan’s cold war partner, the US. Saif sets up the argument for the book by exploring the colonial heritage of the Punjab. Punjab emerged as the seat of power in the postcolonial state of Pakistan. Analysing the exploitation-based capitalist structures present in the province, Saif suggests that the perpetuation of these elite structures was directly responsible for the ensuing underdevelopment in Pakistan. Under the British, these autocratic structures were focused on the maintenance of security and extraction of material and human resources from the northwestern boundary of British India. They were designed to safeguard the region’s strategic importance for the colonial masters.

Saif also pays attention to the different colonial experiences of West and East Pakistan, noting the prevalence of a more progressive political culture in the east. Following the creation of Pakistan, elites based in Punjab used their position of advantage to place the new state within the emerging US-dominated capitalist power structure. The elite classes, represented by the bureaucracy, the military and the landed classes, utilised their connections with neocolonial capitalism to cement their dominance of Pakistan’s political landscape. In the process, they stunted the growth of a representative democratic system. These elites, imbued with authoritarian and territorial tendencies from the colonial period, made every effort to deny equal political space to East Pakistan.

The core argument of the book is that the resultant institutional imbalance in the political system was due to the deep influence exercised by Pakistan’s international allies on local elites and on policy matters in the country. Saif prefaces her discussion of Pakistan’s political structures by exploring in detail the strategic interests of colonial and neocolonial powers in the region that was to emerge as Pakistan. At the dawn of the cold war, Pakistan was attractive for western decision-makers because of “its vital strategic location, which made it the only logical base from which to launch an attack on the southern and eastern areas of the USSR” (49).

Other interests drawing decision-makers to Pakistan included the continued use of air bases in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan’s influential position in the Muslim world. She states that British and American operatives were able to convince strategically selected Pakistani leaders that it was in Pakistan’s interest to side with them. An argument is made by the author that the Kashmir conflict was encouraged by international actors in order to entrench the security state paradigm in the nascent state of Pakistan.

Economic & Political Weekly

may 21, 2011 vol xlvi no 21


Saif maintains that the continuation of the viceregal system grounded in Punjab’s colonial capitalist economy positioned the province at the centre of the emerging authoritarian power structure and led to the neglect of the other provinces, primarily East Bengal. The “oligarchy – a select group of civil and military bureaucracy – trained by colonial strategists” saw to the continuation of the security-state paradigm after the creation of Pakistan (88). This oligarchy took steps during the first nine years to purge the society and state institutions of any communist influence, and Saif maintains, to “make such persons in charge of military affairs who had undoubted loyalty for protecting American interests” (97). This group of bureaucrats and politicians became self-declared custodians of Islamic ideology, and this ideology was used to suppress any political dissent. They relied on support from religious parties, which were funded by American and British networks, to chart a conservative direction for the postcolonial state and create a bulwark against the communist threat. This group then became the custodian of neocolonial interests in the region.

Authoritarian trends were strengthened in the country after opposition to Pakistan’s heavy reliance on American military and economic assistance was crushed in East Bengal. Saif explores the domestic and strategic interests that were safeguarded through the dissolution of the increasingl y independent Constituent Assembly in 1954 and the later assumption of power by the Iskander Mirza-Ayub Khan nexus. She draws links between the denial of political rights to East Bengal and the risk of the emergence of communist political thought in the province (225). It was in this context that the precedent for the denial of political and civil rights to East Bengal was established in Pakistan and was later continued until the former’s separation in 1971. Saif concludes that (174):

[I]n these circumstances, a powerful president who was not responsible to the parliament, was the guarantee to maintain Pakistan’s dependence upon the United States and prevent any ‘political adventure’, that the politicians might decide to take.

At the same time, the neutralisation of political opposition in East Bengal and the denial of democratic norms across the country allowed the state to cement its entry into Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Baghdad Pact.

Finally, the book explores the reasons for economic underdevelopment in Pakistan. The emergence of the neocolonial capitalist model in Pakistan, spearheaded by the Punjab, created a cycle of developmental dependency that continues to grip the country to date. Citing strategic reasons, Pakistan increased its dependence on US military and economic aid; the economic policies of the country were thereby dictated by external forces, personified by the Harvard Advisory Group, at the cost of national needs and priorities. Saif links the decline of the Muslim League with the implementation of economic policies that pursued high economic growth without addressing problems of poverty and income distribution (200). She places the economic relationship between Pakistan and the US within the client-patron model, and posits it as the core reason for underdevelopment.

Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment in Pakistan does make a strong case that Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic importance and its security fears landed it into the lap of the international capitalist powers during the cold war. The book is also very successful in establishing that this association was one of the main factors for both the destruction of democracy in Pakistan and the state of perpetual economic underdevelopment. In this regard, the book makes a vital addition to scholarship on Pakistani politics. However, there is one big weakness in the argument presented by the author. In the conclusion, she notes (225):

During the period of two-and-a-half decades from 1947 to 1971, ‘ordinary citizens were denied a role in public policymaking, regular military intervention in politics began, and efforts to reconcile the political and economic interests of Pakistan’s two wings collapsed and led to civil war and division of the country’. Politicians and political parties cannot be blamed for this scenario. Rather, international actors, working within the broad parameters of the neocolonialism, are responsible for promoting authoritarianism in Pakistan (author’s emphasis).

Throughout the book, an attempt is made to portray external actors as the fina l arbiters in the most fateful decisions in Pakistani politics. This is, however, at the cost of ignoring, and even denying, the agency and culpability of the local political elite. While Saif does a good job of linking political instability in Pakistan to its colonial heritage, she does not shed any light on why the oligarchic elite would want to partake in a system dictated by western powers. Other scholarship has identified the interests of the local political, bureaucratic and military elites in aligning themselves with the American power system; this component is strikingly absent in this book. The consequent impression absolves local leadership of any wrongdoing and presents them as hapless puppets manipulated by British and later American strategists. An honest diagnosis of the situation demands that the role of all actors is critically examined and rectified.

The book concludes by noting the entrenched political role of the military and the continued obsession with the security of the country. This is especially pertinent in light of the durable relationship that has emerged between the Pakistan military and the US since 9/11. The military, the still-influential component of the viceregal system, continues to dictate domestic political and economic, as well as the foreign and strategic policies in Pakistan. Saif finishes with a plea to both India and Pakistan (233): “the state of human development and human rights in both countries demands that the military expenditures should be reduced and the amount thus saved be used for social development”.

Ayesha Saeed ( is with the National University for Science and Technology Business School, Islamabad.

available at CNA Enterprises Pvt Ltd 27/13 Ground Floor Chinna Reddy Street Egmore Chennai 600 008 Ph: 44-45508212/13

may 21, 2011 vol xlvi no 21

Economic & Political Weekly

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