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

  • 1

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

This is in continuation with my previous column, dated 6th Dec’2018. In the previous column the contents and context of Ian Talbot’s Pakistan: A New History (2012)as well as Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013)were highlighted.
Some of the main conclusions and observations put forth by Faisal Devji—many being crucial and controversial, and thus debatable—are: (1) the idea of Pakistan as a “Muslim Zion” is largely abstracted from narratives of Pakistan’s history, as it tends to be “tedious” (244); (2) Islam in Pakistan has become, like Judaism in Israel, a national religion in such a strong sense as to take the place of citizenship(244); (3) Pakistan represents not only “the sepulchre of Muslim nationalism”, but also signifies “the grave of Islam as an ecumenical religion with its own form of politics” (248); (4) As a secular and religious ideal, Pakistan serves as an illustration of the failure to escape or transcend the problem of minority politics in India (248); (5) If the role of religion in a Muslim-majority state like Pakistan is a national one, then perhaps it is simply as a non-nation and thus a non-majority that Islam might exist as a global phenomenon; because instead of “protecting Islam as an abstract idea, Pakistan has only nationalized it” (248, 250; italics mine).
In sum, Devji’s Muslim Zion offers an exhaustive exploration of the various political and ideological forces that played an important role in Pakistan’s creation. It is an enthralling interpretation as well as a provocative and challenging historical exploration of the idea of Pakistan.
Aqil Shah’s The Army and Democracy (2014): Pakistan’s political history is a “story of repeated coups followed by protracted periods of military government, briefly punctuated by elected civilian rule”. This is how Aqil Shah (Lecturer in Political Science, Princeton University) sums up the Pakistan’s whole history in this book. Examines the political role of the Pakistani army, it is a significant work that provides deep insight into the military mentality.
Shah focuses, primarily and predominantly, on the military’s institutional role in politics during significant historical junctures, such as periods of regime change to and from authoritarian government (29). Divided into seven (7) chapters, excluding the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion, Shah begins by tracing the origins of military authoritarianism in the formative decade after independence (1947-58). It is followed by an examination of reinforcing military habits of generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan and the military’s reassertion of political power. Shah, in the subsequent chapters, elucidates the role of institutional beliefs and motives in shaping the military’s behaviour during subsequent moments of transition from and to militarized authoritarian rule. Besides, he also takes into account the increased importance of influential new centers of power in both state and society, such as media and judiciary—which now harbour ambitions to “guard the guardians”—to assess their impact on how the military exercises its political influence in post-authoritarian context. Moreover, Shah evaluates the prospects of democratic reforms in civil-military relations in Pakistan in a comparative perspective.
After reading this book, it makes clear that: (1) in Pakistan, the historically shaped combination of domestic and external factors defined the military’s formative experience in the early years after independence and critically shaped its institutional propensity to exercise independent political power (254); (2) The perceived insecurity vis-à-vis India led Pakistan’s founding civilian elites to subordinate the needs of society to that of security, which fostered rapid military institutional development (255); (3) In Pakistan, the military’s predominantly Punjabi composition worsened the Bengali sense of exclusion from and resentment against the state (256); (4) The military under General Zia ul Haq ruled Pakistan with an iron hand, and thus represented a new phase of military intervention, expanding from the armed defender of the territorial borders of an “imagined Muslim nation” to the protection of its “ideological frontiers” (258); (5) Zia’s death in 1988, paved the way for the transition to electoral democracy—and beginning of so-called ‘decade of democracy’ in Pakistan—and the military retreated to the barracks to preserve its public prestige (258); (6) In October 1999, the military executed another ‘bloodless’ coup, and thus began General Parvez Musharraf’s dictatorship, which reinforced officers’ beliefs in a politically expansive professionalism that involved a direct military role in nation-building (259).
This work begins with the central paradox of “who guards the guardians” and ends with a related question: “How shall we guard the guardians”? Shah blames military for having given major blows to “the process of democratization in Pakistan”, and thus having deepened the country’s “structural problems” (284). But, at the same time, he is optimistic, on certain conditions, about the democratic stability in present day Pakistan (with the democratic transfer of power in May 2013) as he points out very insightfully: “Although the challenges … are many and complex, democracy might have a better chance of consolidation if elected governments can deliver on public expectations, solidly move toward resolving Pakistan’s urgent problems, and, together with the opposition, respect democratic and constitutional norms in both rhetoric and practice” (285).Thus, Shah’s book is a rich source of comprehensive orientation on Pakistani military’s dominance; military politics in Pakistan; military as an institution of the state; and military’s particular conceptions of professionalism which shape its involvement in politics.
In sum, while Talbot’s book is a comprehensive exploration of Pakistan’s past and present which discusses all the issues faced by Pakistan—ranging from socio-political to economic and security issues; Devji’s Muslim Zion is an enthralling interpretation as well as a provocative and challenging historical exploration of the idea of Pakistan; and Shah’s book is a rich source for knowing the military politics in Pakistan as well as the military as an institution of the state. Collectively, these present different dimensions of the history of Pakistan, and thus help in understating the history, religion-politics, role of army vis-à-vis government, and other inter-related issues. All these works, collectively, help us not only in knowing and understanding Pakistan through literature, but they also help in, to use the terminology of Farzana Shaikh, “Making Sense of Pakistan”.

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