Understanding Pakistan through Literature: An Appraisal of the Works of Talbot, Devji and Shah—I

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Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

Among South Asian countries, it is not an exaggeration to state, a plethora of literature has been produced on the history, religion, politics, and political trajectory of Pakistan. In a history of seven decades (1947-2018), many have called it a country that is on the either on the on the “Eye of a Storm”; politically “a failure state”; and a “Country in Crisis”, facing mostly the “Crisis of Governability”. Others have described it as a country that has made a “Drift into Extremism”, and is “on the Brink” of “Chaos” and “Crisis”. Many others are of the opinion that “Pakistan Cauldron” suggests its “Stability Paradox”, and, thus, has always depended on the clichés of three ‘A’s’: “Allah, Army, and America”.
This is clearly evident in the titles of many books written by Pakistanis, Westerners, and others, especially in post-9/11 era. Some examples are: Hassan Abbas’s Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror (2004/ 2005), Lawrence Ziring’s Pakistan at the Crosscurrent of History (2005), Owen Bennett Jones’s Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2009), Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink (2012), Farzana Shaikh’s Making Sense of Pakistan (2009/ 2018), James P. Farwell’s The Pakistan Cauldron (2011), Ashutosh Misra and Michael E. Clarke’s Pakistan’s Stability Paradox (2013), etc.
In the 21stcentury as well, numerous works have been published on religion-politics and military aspects of Pakistan. Three (3) important works, published in between 2012 and 2014, which are assessed in this write-up, and explore these two themes, are: Ian Talbot’s Pakistan: A New History (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd., 2012); Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd., 2013); and Aqil Shah, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
Ian Talbot’s Pakistan: A New History (2012): presents the history of Pakistan of last six decades, Ian Talbot’s book is reflective of Pakistan’s increasing problems. Professor at University of Southampton (UK), Talbot highlights the major turning points and trends, uncovers the continuities and contingencies that have shaped Pakistan’s “historical travails”, and in particular emphasizes on the “increased entrenchment” of the army in Pakistan’s politics and economy; the issues surrounding the role of Islam in public life; the tensions between central and local and democratic urges; and the impact of the geo-political influences on internal development (ix-x).
Divided into eight (8) chapters, an Introduction and Epilogue, the book discusses the history of Pakistan in a chorological order, era by era, from its inception in 1947 to 2011.Chapter 1 highlights the ways in which Pakistan’s geography, culture, religion, and society have shaped its development from 1947. Chapter 2 presents the account of Pakistan’s first decade (1947-58) of development and its “first experiment with democracy” (47). Chapters 3 and 4 present the history of era of General Ayub Khan (1958-69), country’s first coup, and the era of Zulfikar Ali Bhuto (1971-77), respectively. Chapter 5 examines the career and legacy of General Zia ul Haq, and throws light on the his “Islamization measures” covering the areas of judicial reform, implementation of Islamic Penal Code, economic activity, and educational policy, etc. (127-133).Focusing on the era of “democratic decade” (1988-99), Chapter 6 seeks to underpin the workings of democracy from 1988 onwards and explains why democracy was not consolidated during the democratic regimes of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif .Chapter 7 deals with the success and failures of Parvez Musharraf, whose era, according to Talbot, lacked both “legitimacy” and the “way[s] of secur[ing] a popular mandate” (196).Chapter 8 examines the era of Asif Ali Zardari (2008-12) who came to power through 2008 elections: the “fairest [elections] since those of 1971” (201). Although the post-2008 period was much in common with that of 1990s but the challenges of “democratic consolidation” were different and more acute than in the 1990s (203).It is followed by the “Epilogue” which seeks to move beyond the current security crises and considers Pakistan’s long-term demographic, environmental, and infrastructural problems and challenges as well as prospects and possibilities.
Some of the major conclusions of this book are: (i) Pakistan’s history is littered with missed opportunities for building political institutions, addressing socio-economic imbalances and inequalities and moving beyond ad-hocism to establish a vision for the country (226); (ii) alongside a “demographic time bomb”—a phrase used for Pakistan’s population problems (226)—Pakistan is facing possible future shortfalls in energy and water supply, which are noticeably linked with growing demands because of population increase, but are impacted by climate change and failures of governance and management as well. Talbot concludes the epilogue with these insights and future prospects for Pakistan: “Pakistan faces massive future problems arising from population and environmental pressures” and thus present “potentially greater challenges to the state than the current security crisis” (235).
The book is a lucid and comprehensive exploration of Pakistan’s past and present which highlights solutions for future prospects. It discusses all the issues faced by Pakistan—ranging from socio-political to economic and security issues—not only in the recent decades but throughout its history from 1947. Highly research-oriented, with updated information, Ian Talbot’s Pakistan: A New History is an excellent contribution and a must-read for all those interested in the history, culture, society, and security of Pakistan.
Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013): Professor of Modern South Asian history at University of Oxford, Devji’s book—though a strange blend and odd amalgamation of words—provides a very distinctive frame for thinking about the nature of “Pakistan as a Political Idea”. Devji’s main objective of for writing this book is neither to trace “causal relationships” between interests, ideas and events in some “mechanistic way”, nor to show which ideas were the most common or “influential” in Indian politics, but “to describe the lines of argument or debate that have emerged as the most important and productive ones in the history of Muslim nationalism” (8-9).Using ‘Zion’ for “a political form in which nationality is defined by the rejection of an old land for a new” (3), his guiding argument is that the idea of Pakistan can be compared with the idea of Israel as a type of ‘Zion’—an idealized national homeland.
Muslim Zion consists of six (6) chapters, excluding Introduction and Conclusion. In the Introduction, Devji draws the analogy between Zionism and Pakistani/ “Muslim nationalism”, concluding that Pakistan and Israel, the result of Muslim nationalism and Zionism respectively, constitute “ideal forms of the Enlightenment state, more so than the settler states of the New World or their imitators in the Old” (48).Chapter 2, “The Problem with Numbers” meticulously presents the description of how Indian Muslims came to see themselves as a minority, and why such a category of belonging made them turn outwards to embrace “an imperial or international identity” (50). In Chapter 3, “A People without History”, Devji argues that it had something to do with the fact that the Muslims of British India were a minority unevenly dispersed throughout the country, divided linguistically and ethnically, as well as by habit, sect and class (90). In Chapter 4, “The Fanatic’s Reward”, Devji explains ‘what could such an idea mean in the practice of Indian politics?’ and reflects upon the ambiguous implications of such a practice. In brief, an exploration of the important role that negation plays within Muslim nationalism is presented.
Devji asks many critical questions throughout this book, but mostly in this and next chapter, thus forcing a rethinking of P thew akistan idea as it operated in the thinking of various thinkers, including Jinnah and Iqbal—the Qaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) and ‘Pakistan’s spiritual father’, respectively. In chapter 6, “The Spirit of Islam”—taking its name from Syed Ameer Ali’s book of same name (1891)—Devji tries to show “the consequences of turning Islam into a proper name”, one referring to a system lacking “traditional authority” (203).
[To be contd. …]

The author is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: tauseef.parray21@gmail.com