March 2022

Recast, but not evolved

Syed Badrul Ahsan charts the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s quest for an identity, and how it has fared politically since the 1971 surrender in Dhaka

Just over half a century ago Pakistan lost its eastern province, to see it emerge as the sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It lost a war to the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali guerrilla force, and to the Indian army. As many as 93,000 of its soldiers, having exercised unimaginable repression against the Bengalis, including genocide and rape, became prisoners of war when Lt Gen AAK Niazi surrendered to the India-Bangladesh Joint Command in Dhaka.

All these five decades on, how has Pakistan, or what was left of it after December 1971, fared as a state? One would have thought that, born through the misleading two-nation theory, it would in its humiliation fashion a democratic future for itself through a reconfiguring of it sraison d’être. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took charge as rump Pakistan’s new leader four days after the emergence of Bangladesh, the world expected the rise of what was touted as a ‘new Pakistan’. The fond hope, both in Pakistan and beyond its frontiers, was that the moment was finally at hand for the nation to graduate to a new avatar, away from the depredations to which its army had subjected it for years.

The humiliation of Pakistan’s army was complete in 1971

The humiliation of Pakistan’s army was complete in 1971. That it had eaten humble pie was the thought uppermost in minds around the globe. And yet Pakistan as a state was to be prevented from reinventing itself. The reasons were obvious. In the first place, Pakistan’s people were not informed of the circumstances which had pushed Bengalis, their once-fellow citizens, into waging war against the state Mohammad Ali Jinnah had built. In the second, Pakistan’s rulers, back in 1971 as also down the years, have consistently misled their people through propagating the lie that the country’s break-up 50 years ago was the consequence of an Indian conspiracy in association with the intrigue resorted to by Bengali politicians. It remains a travesty of history that, although Pakistan was compelled to accord recognition to Bangladesh’s sovereignty in 1974, not one of its leaders has ever offered an apology to the people of Bangladesh for the genocide the Pakistan army wreaked between March and December 1971 in its erstwhile eastern province.

For all this, Pakistan has paid a grievous price over the last 50 years. While Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in a number of areas, Pakistan has systematically, as well as systemically, fallen behind. Fifty years ago, the population of former East Pakistan was 75 million to West Pakistan’s 65 million. Today, Bangladesh is home to approximately 170 million people, while Pakistan’s population has soared to more than 200 million. Bangladesh has surpassed Pakistan in improvements in all social indicators – maternal health, child mortality, women’s education and empowerment, elected democratic government, garments exports and remittances from abroad.

Pakistan as a state was to be prevented from reinventing itself

Internally, Pakistan has also paid a terrible political price. The army, badly mauled in 1971, returned to centre-stage when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s handpicked army chief, Gen. Zia-ul-Haque, overthrew his government in July 1977 and followed it up by executing Bhutto on controversial murder charges. Since then, the military has once more been the single most dominant force in national politics, engineering election results, installing such civilian governments as those led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and then sending them packing. General Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988 has remained, like so many other tragic incidents in Pakistan, unexplained and unaccounted for. Pakistan’s fourth military ruler Pervez Musharraf added to the decline of politics during his stint in power from 1999 to 2008. And, of course, there is the tale of how Musharraf, as army chief, nearly precipitated a new war with India by pushing his soldiers into Kargil months before seizing power in 1999.

Political violence, accentuated by a rise of fissiparous tendencies in Pakistan, has undermined the state. The Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz (MQM), a political body of Urdu-speaking descendants of refugees making their way to the country in the aftermath of the partition of 1947, was to become a violently dominant force in Sindh and especially in Karachi. In Baluchistan, the country’s largest province and ironically its poorest, despite its natural resources, a simmering war of independence waged by Baluch separatists has gone on for the last 50 years. The army has been accused of kidnapping young Baluch men, who were never to be seen again. Casualties among the military have also been a reason for worry in the country. In the Musharraf era, the army led military operations in the hills which caused the death of the prominent Baluch politician Nawab Akbar Bugti, a nationalist and former governor of Baluchistan, in a mountain hideout.

The grip of the Pakistan army on statecraft remains unbroken

Added to all these difficulties faced by the state, Pakistan has over the decades been a breeding ground for terrorism, which has continued to undermine every effort at ensuring political stability. It has become a nuclear state, with all the expected ramifications. Relations with India, never satisfactory, have only worsened over time. With the United States, Pakistan has had a love-hate relationship; but with China, a country which successive Pakistani leaders have regularly regarded as a friend, Pakistan has been getting embroiled in an economically difficult relationship. The development of a port at Gwadar in Baluchistan has led to fears that Islamabad has fallen into Beijing’s debt trap in much the same way that Sri Lanka has found it hard to repay China over the building of its Hambantota port. The IMF has been exerting pressure on Pakistan over unpaid loans, a situation which has compelled the Imran Khan government to seek economic assistance from Saudi Arabia, aid it promised to return within a year.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (l) and his handpicked army chief, Gen. Zia-ul-Haque

In essence, Pakistan remains stymied in its search for identity. Politics in Islamabad has been defined by an inability to reconcile relations with the federating units of the country. Moreover, feudalism is still a factor and so is the predominance of the land-owning classes. Beyond and above everything, the grip of the Pakistan army on statecraft remains unbroken. It is a spell that will not be broken anytime soon. Foreign visitors to Islamabad, aware of the supremacy of the military in national politics, do not fail to call on the army chief of staff even as they pay a courtesy call on the prime minister.

These 50 years since the surrender in Dhaka ought to have reshaped Pakistan to modern specifications. That, unfortunately, has not happened.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad