Perils of Power – Pakistan’s Quest for Nationhood

Muslim Zion – Faisal Devji

The Promise of Power – Maya Tudor

The creation of Pakistan and India through the severing of the subcontinent was one of the most bloody incidents in 20th century history. But history has been far kinder to India than its neighbour since their twin births a day apart in the summer of 1947. India’s entry into the pantheon of major powers is perhaps matched by Pakistan’s own descent into the failed state club; the divergence of both national trajectories has been nothing short of stark. Was this divergence inevitable given the politics underpinning nationhood in Pakistan? Or was this outcome an unintended consequence of a radical politics involving a misplaced attempt to conceive or ‘imagine’ a nation where it just did not exist, de jure or de facto? Two recent books grapple with this very question in different ways. Faisal Devji argues in Muslim Zion that the conception of Pakistan as a nation was an exercise steeped in irony since the idiom employed to do so was anti-territorial in nature, resembling the Zionist cause to create Israel through and after the war. Framing the nation through religious overtones under a colonialist context, the Muslim League sought to create a state through an ‘idea’, eschewing and consistently downplaying the conventional edifices of nationhood – history and soil. As a result, this endeavour was essentially radical and rather anathematic from the outset since its strength derived from an amorphous and fluid notions of territoriality, going so far as condemning the nature and purpose of the nation-state whilst aiming to secure it.


Devji’s analysis is pivoted around a critical historical conjuncture where the domestic politics of the subcontinent got entangled with international events, namely the recurring quest towards the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, also waged on similar grounds – resting on an idea. Drawing parallel to the methods deployed in both cases, Devji propounds that the creation of Pakistan cannot be understood without a proper linking to the politics of the empire, which also spawned variant notions of political organization that did not feature the nation state as the culmination of political power. Instead, considerable efforts and justifications were being jostled around regarding the validation of power on linguistic and religious lines sans a territorial ballast. Notions of a federation constituting different groups under imperial context were advocated as possible alternatives given the Muslim Leagues misgivings of nationalism that was bound by geography, which would have placed them under the whims of majoritarian politics (i.e. Hindu rule).

To achieve this, politics and tactics of the Muslim league became rather exclusive and addled. Engendering a ‘Pakistan’ that hinged on an idea required conscious historical delusion and institutionalised historical deracination. Without turning their back on history, Devji argues, the ideational vigor of Pakistan would have been sapped, in turn, imperiling Muslim efforts to protect their interests in a united India. To facilitate this process, major party figures allied with aristocratic class to reconfigure their political objective, that of an Islamic state crafted out of an ostensible Muslim nation in the subcontinent. However, it is interesting to note that coalescing around this end goal took time since events unfolded within an imperial context where halfway across the world, Pan Islamism was finding it’s legs with the Khilafat movement that found great resonance in pre-independent India. Indeed, many Muslim elites went so far as proclaiming India as the locus of the Islamic world with the hope of establishing a grand confederal system cut across Islamic lines. But the dissipation of the Khilafat moment punctured these incipient hopes and returned the focus back to the subcontinent wherein Jinnah and his compatriots within the league sought to carve a nation on the basis of juridical and constitutional means which ultimately boiled down to Islam.

Devji then proceeds to measure and comprehend the role that competitive nationalisms played within British India since the quest for an independent Muslim state also ushered along in its wake attendant desires of other minority groups, namely the Bengalis in the east, Tamils in the South and particularly, the Dalits who all sought to emulate the League’s strategy to forge an independent nation ostensibly free from Hindu domination. Ambedkar’s role here is critical given his endless struggles to gain parity for the Dalits through and eventually outside the colonial framework. Indeed, as Devji underlines, Ambedkar’s strategy amounted to carving out an independent political space by drawing from Jinnah’s playbook to contend that the backward castes and untouchables were equally deserving of determining their political destinies; he linked the demands of his group to Muslim grievances but his calls were seldom met with the requisite seriousness. Responding, Ambedkar threatened mass conversion of Dalits to all of the other religious groups, eventually settling on Buddhism. Ambedkar soon realised the fickleness of Jinnah’s campaign that was clothed under communal tropes and his disdain toward competing minority groups and their ongoing attempts to create and independent political space for themselves. Ironically, instead of supporting each other, these groups played off each other to eventually gain more space against the Congress juggernaut. As Devji astutely identifies, Ambedkar’s strategic ploy was to support the Pakistan movement to gain a more sturdy foothold within Indian politics, recognizing that a massive Muslim exodus would finally give him the opportunity to insert ‘Dalits into the space it would vacate.’ Despite the rupture that accompanied partition, remnants of this minority  politics continues to dog India to this day. The political empowerment of the dalits and other minorities clamoring for effective representation has resulted in a massive regionalisation of Indian politics and the rise of regional, vernacular and caste oriented parties that wield considerable clout today.

The biggest casualty of Jinnah’s radical politics has been the fractious fight for the soul of Pakistan that plagues the integrity of its body politic more so than ever today. Devji brilliantly dissects how the founding of the nation based on an ‘idea’ with heavy religious overtones resulted in the politicization of religion, ushering it into the public space for scrutiny. No more was Islam a neutral, esoteric, external compass used by citizens to live their lives with dignity and honour. It became a part of the political discourse or perhaps, even the fundamental fulcrum upon which the nation’s political being drew inspiration and succor. By doing so, Islam was left bereft of traditional authority; it became a active exoteric guide that governed public life, conceptualised as a system that ‘prompted action on its own name alone.’ And this subsequently led to its appropriation in various forms in the name of religion or the ‘state’. The rise of blasphemy, persecution of the Ahmadi’s, repeated invocation of Islam in public life all emanate from the inviolate nature of religion which is twinned to the nation’s founding and integrity. Any deviations from it thus jeopardizes the integrity of the national project as a whole, hence necessitating high levels of intolerance.

Looking at the territorial integrity of the nation, does Devji’s thesis lend credence to the notion that Pakistan was destined to be sundered as it was in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh. One can argue that to be the case. Given the fickle and rather fragile foundations beneath Pakistan, independent of other factors, the nation was arguably more amenable towards disintegration than nationalisms that rest on more solid grounds. Though Devji does not explore this question further, he does add that this ‘ideational’ genesis is perhaps one of the reasons why Pakistan was able to overcome the loss of its eastern wing rather expediently since its fragile foundation did not prize territory as a determinate constituent of nationhood. Devji’s penetrating account, though devoid of an understanding of the domestic politics between variant domestic groups (bureaucracy-military nexus), ethnic strains that characterize and plague Pakistani politics and international exigencies (Indian and US bilateral relationships) which vitiate democratic impulses in Pakistan and perpetuate the stronghold of the military and bureaucracy, does provide us an interesting frame and tool to better understand the complex politics of Pakistan, which will be critical in the coming years insofar as global and regional stability is concerned.

Maya Tudor’s The Promise of Power considers the puzzle of regime divergence of India and Pakistan since their founding, especially the reason why two countries with similar institutional inheritances, colonial legacies and economic situations departed in quick succession in terms of regime type and regime stability, with Pakistan veering towards autocratic rule and India consolidating democratic roots. The answer, Tudor claims, lies in the institutionalization of political parties pre-independence and their propensity to function as able institutional conduits, resolving distributive conflicts between the social groups they represented through various means – party discipline, ideational commitment to democratic rule, solid programmatic agenda to advance and the institution of democratic and consensual intra-party structures. Tudor’s argument goes further to trace why political parties were able to engender variable institutional outcomes – democracy or autocracy. The fundamental difference is the material interests of existing social classes, which necessitated the formation of political parties who can ably represent and advance the interests of prevailing social groups. The rise of an educated, urban middle class who bristled and suffered under odious colonial practices and rules led to them reposing their faith in the hands of the newly created Indian National Congress that quickly secured the support of a broad domestic coalition. And in Pakistan, the entrenchment of a feudal class consisting of landlords who thrived under colonial rule militated against the establishment of a strong and steadfast political party that could unite the different muslim groups, already fragmented by class differences, priorities, interests and geography.

Tudor’s arguments and book is immaculately laid out and delineated. Each chapter considers a different variable in the formation of the regime and concomitant factors contributing to the regime’s stability. As mentioned before, the initial chapter is the added value since it traces how political parties contribute to regime stability and instability. Tudor’s argument explores the underpinning class logics leading to the formation of political parties and how their subsequent methods of representation contributed to the divergence in the destinies of India and Pakistan. The emergence of the INC was the consequence of an educated urban middle class who sought effective representation following the colonial government’s ineffective governance. Middle classes in India settled on the Congress as the vessel to advance their material concerns who in turn did so by creating an adept party infrastructure that represented a broad spectrum of interests through the development of an inclusive ideology. Once independence arrived, the strength and experience of the Congress proved decisive in dealing with and overcoming various conflicts and eventually institutionalising a set of political practices that consolidated practices of collective rule. On the other hand, the emergence and entrenchment of an aristocratic class in the provinces that eventually made up Pakistan led to a weak accord being cemented between these landed interests and their principal representative, the Muslim League. Once the Zamindars gained adequate protections through the institution of separate electorates, the ML proved redundant and soon became moribund. Before their subsequent rise triggered by Congress’s astonishing gains during the 1937 elections, the League did not attempt to create a broad based coalition that would support it and neither did it aim to create a forward looking agenda for its constituents in the provinces where it gained majority support. Once independence was gained, its lax foundations and weak political support eventually gave way as the party grew incapable of brokering between variant domestic interests. And this inaugurated cycles of political instability with the army and bureaucracy stepping in to institute order over decades.

Tudor’s argument and presentation may perhaps be too neat given that similar variables amounted for diametrically different political outcomes in both countries. However, her analysis falls short of considering how international pressures impinged on the quest for nationhood in Pakistan. And here Devji’s thesis can be brought as another piece of the puzzle to Tudor’s analysis – the imperial context. The overarching historical context as Devji argues was appropriated by Jinnah to justify the desire for an independent Muslim nation within the subcontinent. The coupling of material interests and an ideational core in the form of an Islamic state gave Pakistan succor as it emerged as an independent nation on the world stage. However, on both counts, developments gravitated towards autocratic, not democratic rule.


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