Internal crisis gives Pakistan reason for hope

By Bronwen Maddox (THE TIMES, 16/08/07):

The crisis now rocking Pakistan springs directly from the disaster of Partition 60 years ago. The cards that it scooped up, in the rush to carve out a separate Muslim state, were not just inferior to India’s; they were inadequate to build any kind of stable nation.

In this week’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan from British rule, Pakistan’s desperate struggles have often been treated merely as a foil with which better to display the shining performance of its giant neighbour. India, revelling in its status as the world’s largest democracy, has arrived at the memorial date at the crest of a glittering boom, while Pakistan is a military dictatorship on the brink of emergency rule.

Yet the shard of light for Pakistan is that the heat is draining out of its obsessive dispute with India over Kashmir, and that its battles are now internal ones and concern its own identity – the 60-year-old question that it has failed to resolve.

To say that Partition left Pakistan in an almost untenable position is not to say that it could have been avoided. Reams of historical analyses point out that Muslims in British India had good reason to fear that rule by the huge Hindu majority would never protect their rights or even their lives.

There is a clear lesson for the US in Iraq today from the British delusion that the elections of 1937 and 1946, which Britain supervised, and were won overwhelmingly by the Hindu-led Congress party, would be all that was needed for stable democracy. Instead, they confirmed Muslims in their belief that they needed their own state.

The first curse of Partition was that it defined Pakistan by religion (even though many of its citizens had not, until then, defined themselves that way). But it left unclear whether the country would be a secular democracy, with equal rights for all, or an Islamic state with Islamic law. The death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, its founder, after a year, was a fatal blow to the first vision; Islamist rhetoric was a tempting tool for his successors.

The crude assignation of territory, after just a few weeks of study by British officials, may also have been too great a handicap to overcome. It left Pakistan with no sense of nationhood. It was never likely that East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, a thousand miles away, would hold together as one country. But West Pakistan, the base of the army, had the lion’s share of resources, while East Pakistan was shorn of Calcutta, the glittering regional hub.

Even Pakistan as it is now, four provinces plus part of Kashmir, struggles to have a sense of identity. Punjab, the richest province, was split with India; the separatist hopes of the Pashtuns in what is now North West Frontier Province and the Baluchis in Baluchistan were dismissed, but have now erupted.

The unresolved row with India over Kashmir was the trigger for the 1965 war, the first of three, which cut short an economic boom. That prevented Pakistan from tackling a profound handicap: the lack of a middle class between its feudal lords and the poor. The army and Civil Service were the only institutions capable of running the country, an early salvation and a later curse, blocking the emergence of a respected political class.

All these are still evident. The current turmoil is a contest over whether religion or the State should have the upper hand, and whether politicians or the army should represent the State.

But there are encouraging signs. The most extraordinary is that President Musharraf has pushed forward peace with India, even though, in his army career, he had helped to inflame the Kashmir row.

The example of India’s new wealth has helped, too, as the prosperity of the Republic of Ireland helped to jolt Northern Ireland towards peace. Pakistanis cannot pretend, as they could 30 years ago, that their country had simply taken a different course. The US aid injected since September 11, 2001, a terror dividend, if you like, has helped to save Pakistan from sour despair. This summer has shown that Pakistan has also got judges and media who are not afraid to challenge the generals. What it still lacks, most of all, are politicians.