Analysis: The Idea of Pakistan?

We argued in the preceding post (Analysis: Vision and Management) that a country cannot prosper without a national vision and concluded with the following questions: What is the national vision in Pakistan? And, are our problems getting worse precisely because of the absence of a national vision?

It is a coincidence to find an entry that enables us to continue this discussion – a column by Shahid Javed Burki who is among the leading commentators on economic issues in Pakistan. I will quote the introduction to the column before picking up on the issues of interest to us:

Even those who continue to believe in the idea of Pakistan — and I count myself among them — cannot but accept the fact that that while India and the `idea of India` have taken off, Pakistan continues to slip, falling rapidly behind its now prosperous neighbour.

The idea of Pakistan to which I refer has many meanings attached to it… For me the idea that a separate political entity was needed that did not have to contend with the weight of the Hindu majority made sense in the late 1940s.

Whether this idea will make sense ultimately will have to be left to the judgment of history. India pursued a different idea: for many leaders involved in the movement for gaining freedom from the long rule by the British it was sensible to craft a political system that would allow space to many diverse people. Diversity in India came in many forms — religious, linguistic, ethnic, caste, geography etc. There cannot be any doubt that a few hiccups notwithstanding, India has been able to work that idea.

The first thing that struck me was the opening sentence: “Even those who continue to believe in the idea of Pakistan…” Two thoughts came to mind: First, that the number of those who continue to believe in the idea of Pakistan must be shrinking; and second, that there is something that could be identified as the idea of Pakistan. Let us just note the first and use the second as the starting point for our exploration.

The idea of Pakistan, in the words of the author, was the following: “that a separate political entity was needed that did not have to contend with the weight of the Hindu majority…” Let us contrast that with the idea of India, which the author describes as ‘Unity in Diversity,’ before moving on to investigate the visions incorporated in the respective ideas.

The national vision in the idea ‘Unity in Diversity’ is very clear and has been described succinctly by the author: “to craft a political system that would allow space to many diverse people” and motivate them to work together towards goals reflecting the preferences of the electoral majority. In the author’s judgment: “There cannot be any doubt that a few hiccups notwithstanding, India has been able to work that idea.”

Let us now search for the national vision in the idea of Pakistan as interpreted by the author, to repeat, “that a separate political entity was needed that did not have to contend with the weight of the Hindu majority…” This comes across more as a political objective than a vision and even if it incorporates a vision, it is a very time-bound one. What would replace it once the political objective was realized of achieving a separate political entity that did not have to contend with the weight of the Hindu majority? Would it be fair to argue that there was a pre-1947 idea of Pakistan but no post-1947 idea of Pakistan? And that none has since been found that commands the allegiance of an electoral majority?

The author is forthright in stating that he still believes in this idea of Pakistan and that it made sense to him in the late 1940s while leaving open the final judgment on its soundness to the verdict of history. I can understand, sort of, why the idea might have carried an emotional and visceral appeal in the late 1940s but I find it difficult to understand how it could have made sense or withstood the scrutiny of reason.

Let us go back to the claim that “for many leaders involved in the movement for gaining freedom from the long rule by the British it was sensible to craft a political system that would allow space to many diverse people.” If this was indeed true why was there the feeling that Muslims would be the exception, that they would be excluded from the set of diverse people? How did belief in this exceptionalism square with concern for the fate of the Muslims who were to be left behind in India? And what was the conceptualization of a Hindu majority? Did it make sense to conclude that all Hindus, regardless of their diversity characterized by language, ethnicity, caste and geography, would vote in unison against equally diverse Muslims given that the two communities shared many of these attributes? How could it make sense to collapse all that diversity into a monolithic conceptualization of unidimensional and antagonistic Hindus and Muslims?

And would a parsing of the idea of Pakistan not have immediately thrown up the question that would have undermined severely its ability to make sense? If a self-proclaimed minority needs a separate  political entity so that it does not have to contend with the weight of an imagined majority, is there a logical end to the process? What exactly is the notion of a minority and a majority in a system of representative governance?

The judgment of history has already been delivered on this flip side of the idea of Pakistan. What remains of the country desperately needs a new idea that incorporates a coherent national vision. There is little to lose in borrowing something that has worked in very trying conditions. ‘Unity in Diversity’ appeals to reason, except, perhaps, that we now need to be bolder – the unity needs to extend beyond national borders in South Asia. Only a peaceful and cooperative South Asia would enable us to make up to the millions whose lives and dreams have been shattered by the tragic lack of a national vision.


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 07:37h, 03 December Reply

    The idea of Pakistan was like a climber trying to reach Everest. Until in the effort to reach the summit there was focus, once there he is dazed and completely lost, so does the most natural thing, climb down. A minority seeking security of their own homeland is most natural thing, a majority suffers from no such dilemma. Reason for India looking beyond independence lies in this fact while Pakistan going the path of more and more Islam also due to the fact that that they had no vision beyond independence, the most natural thing like the climber going down the Everest.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:11h, 03 December

      Anil: I agree with your conclusion that Pakistan had no coherent vision beyond independence but I have quibbles about most of the intervening statements:

      1. The objective of a climber is to reach the summit and to descend safely back to base camp. Climbing down is an integral part of the vision. It is not only the climbers who are dazed and completely lost who climb down.
      2. Why is a minority seeking security of their own homeland the most natural thing? Why can’t a minority feel secure in a shared unit? Are there no such examples?
      3. Why does a majority suffer from no such dilemma? In the old Pakistan, Bengalis were the majority.
      4. Who precisely constitutes the majority in India? Do the supporters and opponents of Telengana belong to the same majority or are they divided between a majority and a minority?
      5. Are the groups engaged in caste conflict in a village in Bihar part of the same majority or should they be classified into a majority and a minority?

      The point I want to make is that the concept of majority and minority in a democratic polity is a very problematic one that requires a lot of re-thinking. It may make sense to identify groups that have suffered discrimination in the past and who need to be compensated but the notion of a generic minority is an oxymoron in a democracy.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:04h, 03 December Reply

    SA, The context was pre-independent India where dichotomy on religion basis was sharply defined. The minority seeking comfort in its own set up is natural in the sense that it is not based on mercy or whims of majority, at least in perception. Majority not facing such a dilemma was in reference to visible contrast to frenzied attempt of minority seeking separation purely for the sake of feeling secure. Formation of group is our natural instinct. The groups do not have rigid structure or permanence; it is merely an arrangement of convenience. To give an example; in India an AC compartment in trains has four berths. A family of three is occupying this compartment. As soon as the fourth occupant comes in the three of family form group and the fourth occupant becomes an outsider. Now a fifth person also enters the compartment for a short journey. The four original occupants make a group become hostile to the unauthorized fifth person. Therefore all the examples of groups you have given has no relevance to the formation of Pakistan.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:13h, 04 December

      Anil: I feel you are basing your conclusions on preconceived notions. The family of three need not always see the fourth person as an outsider. They may discover a shared interest and have a very interesting companionship during the journey. Furthermore, the family of three may not be a group to start with; they may be at loggerheads with each other for some reason and welcome the fourth person as a diversion from their quarrel. The situation of the fifth person is different because he/she is doing something unauthorized; it makes sense for the four who have paid full fare to be upset with the person who breaks the rules.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 02:05h, 05 December

      SA, I feel the otherway round. You are taking the notion to consider possibilities whereas I am talking about our natural instinct. I agree that there are possibilities like you mentioned but what is our instant natural response?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:41h, 05 December

      Anil: Can I make the following point: A society in which the natural response of the family to the fourth person is one of acceptance is ready for democratic governance. One in which the natural response is one of exclusivity, hostility, fear, annoyance, loathing or rejection is not.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 05:53h, 06 December

      You are assuming that natural response is a choice, it is not. As I have already mentioned groups are fluid, the smaller ones much more volatile, the larger relatively stable. In the example of AC compartment, group transforms rather quickly. When the fourth occupants displays friendliness he is co-opted immediately but in a large group this act will require sum total of such assimilation therefore will take a long time.

      Yes indeed the societies uninhibited with insecurities are ready for vibrant democracies.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:45h, 06 December

      Anil: If we think of large groups as being made up of a number of small groups and try to initiate change in the small groups, would we have some chance of progress?

  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:30h, 14 February Reply

    I cannot find the right place for this comment. Perhaps it can go into many posts.

    I heard an interesting thing from my Pakistani friend yesterday. His parents are searching for a girl for marriage. Many candidate girls come into the picture but get dismissed by his mother for reasons that bewilder him and that can make both Indians and Paksitanis wonder. Here are some of the reasons. Hope you get to laugh at it in bewilderment as much as my friend and I did.

    “We are Biharis. They are Culcutta-walas. Culcutta-walas are too shrewd.”

    “We ar Biharis. They are Hyderabadis. Their culture is different”

    “We are Biharis. They are UP-Wale. We don’t mix”

    Note – my friend and the girls families have not set foot in India ever before.

    As my Pakistani friend himself went on to say it –

    “Am I a Bihari? I didn’t know that. I hate that idea.”

    “The call for Paksitan was from an elite political brass. They did have their support from regions within India, partiuclarly UP. But for the rest of us, especially those who were then in current day Pakistan beyond Lahore, the call for Pakistan didn’t matter at all. For my parents in Hyderabad they just knew one day that they had to leave their houses and go elsewhere for reasons that had nothing to do with the circumstances of their lives.”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:53h, 15 February

      Vinod: The first part of your comment should not be particular to Pakistanis or Muslims. Most ethnic groups manifest these kinds of feelings and most members of the young are now rebelling against such narrowly circumscribed identities because they come in the way of global aspirations and opportunities. The identity markers that still matter are now graduating up to a more meta-level – nationalities, religions, color, etc. That these are just as parochial is what we hope to convince the audience of The South Asian Idea.

      The second part of your comment pertains to an hypothesis about the creation of Pakistan. This is a plausible line of argument. See an earlier post (On the Emergence of Pakistan) on this subject:

  • hmani
    Posted at 23:43h, 06 March Reply

    I’m an American of Indian heritage.I was born in 1940 and came to us in mid 60’s.I have pretty deep understanding of what caused partition,and the aftermath.I believe it was good for both India and Pakistan hind sight is 20/20,no one knew Pakistan will walk away from Jinnah’s vision,and India after blundering from socialism and commi,equality theory will finally give free enterprice a chance.It is big ‘if,’If Pakistan for once put aside the “RELIGION”as private matter and keep it separate from State,it will do fine.It easily said than done,first of all Both India and Pakistan are 3rd world countries,religion is paramount peoples life and then the politic is not matured,In India it is not all honky dory as the Pakistani thinks,but it is better,not whole lot,there is lot of bad goverance and corruption and poverty still to be taken care off.It can become better for both country if they stopped needless hostility and promote trade,it will lift more boats,again it is a big “IF”.

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